In every group meditation instructional session I have ever attended someone will inevitably ask the question, “What is the point of meditation?” The instructors I have observed are usually reluctant to answer this question. Clearly meditation is practiced for a reason but the relation between the practice of meditation and the reason it is performed is subtle and not easily articulated to someone who is new to meditation. The instructors usually fumble a little and say something along the lines of meditation will make one calmer, or more peaceful or will make one better able to handle stress in everyday life. There seems to be a tendency to shy away from assigning a goal to meditation because goals are not rooted in the present moment.
Personally, I find meditation to be relaxing and a sort of mental reset. If I am stressed or angry, if I can find a place of meditation I do become relaxed and calm. However, I see this more as a by-product of meditation rather than its primary purpose.
The “Transcendental Meditation” advertizing describes their method as “effortless.” I do not know if this is true because I am unwilling to pay $2,000 to learn their method. To me, meditation takes some effort because it is a mental and spiritual exercise in that it strengthens these aspects of the self. It takes effort to be aware that the mind is wandering and then to return it to center. This is not the same kind of effort as lifting weights or running a marathon but it is an effort and making the effort strengthens these “muscles.”
I have heard some meditation techniques describe meditation as observing the thoughts. If a thought appears (they say) don’t engage it but simply observe it go by. This is difficult for me because I often find myself getting lost in the thoughts I am trying to observe and then I have to pull myself out of them when I become aware that I am lost.
Other techniques (I believe TM is one) talk about repeating a mantra or focusing on breathing to anchor awareness in the present moment. Similarly, when I employ this technique I find myself becoming lost in the mantra or the breath. When I am lost in any of these objects of concentration I become that object of concentration.
However, when I am able to observe a thought I realize that I as observer am not the same thing as the thought I observe. It is like I inhabit a “reality spacesuit” that allows me to function in reality the same way a spacesuit allows an astronaut to function in space. This “reality spacesuit” consists of both my body and my mind. Because the spacesuit has a mind, the spacesuit thinks for itself. In everyday life I make no distinction between the thoughts of the spacesuit and my own identity. When I meditate I become aware of this distinction and in a sense I come home to my true self. This (I think) more than relaxation is more to the point of meditation.