Here’s Why You’re Better Off Forgetting About Meditation.
The art of taking a fresh look.
About 7 years ago, Karl Greenfeld noticed something strange about his daughter Esmee. Every day between the hours of 8 pm and midnight, she could be found at home doing her homework.
This practically unheard of teenage behaviour led Karl to worry that his daughter was being so overwhelmed by her schoolwork that she wasn’t getting the time to be an actual teenager. So, he did what any responsible parent would do; he spent a week doing his daughter’s homework.
After he got home from work, Karl would sit with Esme and do whatever she’d been set for that day (don’t worry, she still had to do it too). The plan was to figure out for himself whether her workload was unreasonable *spoiler: it was* and whether it was beneficial *spoiler: it kind of was.
It’s a great read overall, but I mention the story here because I was especially struck by what his daughter said to him as he struggled with some Spanish verb conjugations on the second day:
Esmee shows me that we have to memorize the conjugations of the future tense of regular and irregular verbs, and she slides me a sheet with tener, tendré, tendrás, tendrá, tendremos, etc., multiplied by dozens of verbs. My daughter has done a commendable job memorizing the conjugations. But when I ask her what the verb tener means (“to have,” if I recall), she repeats, “Memorization, not rationalization.”
She doesn’t know what the words mean.”
In an education system which prioritises the ability to regurgitate information over its absorption, Esmee found that memorisation was a workable substitute for real learning. In fact, given the way that testing is carried out in many schools, she probably didn’t know the difference.
This attitude to education carries over into adulthood too. The ability to parrot the right answer is often more useful than understanding why (or whether) that answer is correct. Understanding will rarely be tested after all, especially if the opinions are expressed with enough conviction.
And while this “strategy” allows many people to coast through life, there is (thankfully) at least one pursuit where it fails catastrophically; namely meditation. With meditation, relying on the memory of sensation, or a nugget of wisdom bestowed by a guru, will only take you further from your goal. There are a few reasons for this.
The first is that meditation is inextricably linked with experiencing the present moment and not the past. Memory, therefore, serves no purpose. Each session of meditation, and each moment within it, is a new beginning. Trying to remember a prior experience, no matter how profound, only distracts from what’s going on right now.
Secondly, memories are unreliable. In fact, from the point of view of the present moment, memories are nothing more than illusions. The only way to understand the nature of the mind is to examine it, not as it seemed to be in the past, but as it is now.
Lastly, there’s an important difference between memorisation and understanding, which is that understanding can’t be forgotten. Nobody needs to remember that 2 + 2 = 4, a basic understanding of addition is all that’s required to arrive at the answer whenever we need it.
This difference between learning in an academic sense, and learning about one’s self, is why it’s so tempting (and so misguided) for a student to waste their energies trying to recreate a moment of insight. Their instincts tell them that if they could just remember what their teacher said, or how they were sitting, or how they were feeling, everything would fall into place. But this doesn’t ever work. Unlike almost everything else that we learn in our lives, meditation is something that should be approached with new eyes every time.
It’s like somebody who has been blindfolded their entire life catching a brief glimpse of the world, and then trying to use that memory to navigate all future terrains. The memory is irrelevant because the landscape continually changes. The only answer is to take the blindfold off and look again! We are all, as we are, ready to experience our true nature. There’s nothing to remember, just a few old ways of thinking to forget.