Why Meditate: Working with Thoughts and Emotions

Image of Why Meditate: Working with Thoughts and Emotions
Release Date: 
August 31, 2010
Hay House
Reviewed by: 

“Why Meditate? is recommended for people who want a meditation practice that is compatible with professional and family life. It’s for people who, as Mr. Ricard suggests, want to see life events within a larger perspective, experience greater serenity, and engage the future with altruism and confidence.”

“Meditation is a practice that makes it possible to cultivate and develop certain basic positive human qualities in the same way as other forms of training make it possible to play a musical instrument or acquire any other skill.”
—Matthieu Ricard

In Why Meditate? Working with Thoughts and Emotions, author Matthieu Ricard employs exercises from Buddhism, a tradition that is more than 2,000 years old, and results from neuroscience research in the last ten years to answer three questions: why meditate, what to meditate on, and how to meditate.

Author Ricard participates in several research programs that document the long-term effects of meditation practice on the brain and on behavior. The studies have shown that it is possible to make significant progress in developing qualities such as attention, emotional balance, altruism, and inner peace. Other benefits include a decrease in anxiety, in vulnerability to pain, and in the tendency toward depression and anger.

Why Mediate? is presented particularly for readers who want to practice meditation without necessarily becoming Buddhists. The Four Noble Truths are explained, but other essential practices specific to Buddhism are not included; readers who want to go into these practices more deeply can find references to more detailed works in the bibliography and notes which follow the text.

Why Meditate? is intended to provide basic instruction, which the author does in a down-to-earth style that has a broad appeal and overcomes objections easefully. The meditation methods are described simply so that the practices can be approached easily and build on each other gradually. The suggestion is to devote at least 30 minutes to meditation daily, and the importance of an experienced living guide is carefully emphasized.

Calm abiding and deep insight are two types of meditation practiced in all schools of Buddhism. Practicing inner calm prepares the mind for developing deeper insight. Many of the exercises in mindfulness, inner calm, deeper insight and altruistic love in Why Meditate? are common to all schools of Buddhism. Some exercises dealing with emotions come from the teachings of Tibetan Buddhism.

The Buddhist idea of altruism—transforming the world by helping others through lovingkindness and unselfish devotion to others’ welfare—rings throughout the book and the accompanying one-hour CD, a high-quality recording that the author narrates. The idea that loving-kindness and compassion are the foundations of genuine happiness is not intended to be moralistic; in fact, Why Meditate? offers a pleasant, practical approach to meditation in modern language.

According to Mr. Ricard, a fulfilled life comes from transforming the way we understand and work through our challenges in life. Meditation is neither an attempt to block or feed thoughts, nor a simple process of relaxation that temporarily suspends inner conflicts.

That’s why working with thoughts and emotions is vital and beneficial. Mr. Ricard says, “We have become accustomed to thinking that our shortcomings are inevitable and that we have to put up with the setbacks they have brought us throughout our lives.” But we don’t have to take the dysfunctional aspects of ourselves for granted—we can break out of the cycle of exhausting behavior patterns by using meditation.

The various meditations in Why Meditate? are concise and practical. They include examples that are easy to relate to. After each meditation, “Sources of Inspiration” offer clarifications and enhancements from the teachings of masters, amongst them the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh. These inspirations are luscious gems to contemplate and to experience.

Why Meditate? contains much more:
Five conditions that are conducive to meditation practice;
Three key concepts to meditate upon;
Four points for strengthening the determination to meditate;
Three benefits of developing deeper insight;
The four foundations of mindfulness meditation;
Six variations of breath-mindfulness for improving concentration;
Nine methods for cultivating attention;
The five stages of pacification of turbulent thoughts;
Four methods for managing physical pain with dignity and confidence;
Two ways of dealing with afflictive emotions;
Antidotes for six common obstacles to meditation.

Why Meditate? includes a very helpful discussion of the philosophy of pain and how to soothe physical pain. The book also includes instructions for various visualizations. One visualization practice of “sublime exchange” makes certain assumptions about one’s upbringing and could be significantly uncomfortable for some practitioners. Such a circumstance is when a living teacher’s explanation is most valuable.

Eventually, with practice, meditation feels more simple and easy. As author Ricard says, “Everyone knows that it takes time and perseverance to master an art, a sport, a language, or any other discipline. Why should it not be the same with training the mind?” All the stages of progress are beneficial, so we should practice patiently and appreciate the changes that gradually occur.

Why Meditate? is recommended for people who want a meditation practice that is compatible with professional and family life. It’s for people who, as Mr. Ricard suggests, want to see life events within a larger perspective, experience greater serenity, and engage the future with altruism and confidence.