What role does meditation play in Buddhism?
That may seem like a strange question. It plays an important role, certainly. It's one of the key pillows of the faith.
But what, exactly, does it do?
In Christianity, the purpose of prayer is to connect you with God. Some see it as literally talking to Him, while others see it as opening yourself up to receive what He has to offer.
There are elements of this in Buddhism, sure.
It's also completely different.
Meditation is nothing shorter than the pursuit of freedom. I'm writing this a couple of days before the United States celebrates the 4th of July, so maybe freedom is on my mind. I stand by it, though. The practice offers nothing short of total liberation.
Freedom and liberation from what, though?
The world holds many temptations, lures and distractions. These are not all bad things. For an altruist, helping people in need is deeply rewarding.
Virtue is a vice when it's something you can not ignore.
Then there are the real distractions – what most people think of as vices. People chase these things, even if getting them will not help them.
Think of someone desperate for a promotion so they can move from a suburban box to a larger suburban box. This goal may consume years of hard work and frustration. As soon as they get it, they feel unsatisfied. They start looking for the next larger box to acquire.
Ambition and commerce have their place. Things go awry when people believe that they'll be happy once they reach the next milestone.
They work for years to build themselves a prison.
Maybe you do not own a house. That does not make you free if your prison is made of other pursuits.
For some, they must keep up with the latest fashions.
Others buy gadgets that they do not want or need.
Still others drudge for 11.5 months of the year to afford a brief holiday.
If these are what give life meaning, they'll always feel less than fulfilled.
There's always something new to chase. So what would happen if they stopped chasing? What if, for a moment, they ripped their eyes away from the distant horizon and looked around them?
The moment they find themselves in the moment, they begin to feel free. This might be for the first time in their lives.
What happens next is up to them. Maybe they'll still pursue the promotion, only this time they do it with both eyes open. They do not defer satisfaction to some future event outside their control. They seize their attention and bring it to the present.
In a world where everyone looks forward or back, being present is true freedom.