When so many people are facing real problems, why should we spend time in spiritual practices like meditation instead of doing something practical to help?
Genuine spirituality, as outlined in the Bhagavad-gita, doesn’t restrict us from helping others practically. But it encourages us to not restrict ourselves to doing only what is conventionally considered “practical” for helping others. By spiritual practices, we cleanse ourselves of selfish thoughts and inspire others to similarly cleanse themselves, thereby addressing the root cause of suffering.
Most problems are caused by selfishness. It is selfishness that makes the haves crave and scheme for more and more even when the have-nots keep suffering, or more precisely, even when they cause suffering to the have-nots. For example, the selfish greed of the industrial barons who don’t treat the effluents that pollute the rivers causes numerous water-borne diseases among the poor.
Helping the have-nots victimized by the selfishness of the haves is important. And helping to remove the selfishness of the haves is also important. The first alleviates the symptoms; the second addresses the causes. We need both. For providing immediate relief, offering free medicine to those afflicted by the water-borne diseases is important. For promoting a lasting cure, removing or reducing the greed of those barons is important.
Someone may dismiss this, “Changing the greedy is impractical.” Actually, it’s just as impractical as curing the plague was for those who didn’t know the cure. In other words, it’s possible once the process is known and applied.
Gita wisdom explains that all of us are spiritual beings who find real happiness in spiritual love. When we are cut off from spiritual happiness, we seek substitutes in material pleasures and treasures. But as these are all temporary, none of them satisfy us. So we end up seeking material things feverishly, often pushing ethics to the background through a process of gradual desensitization. Among some people, this selfishness-induced desensitization becomes so extreme that they inflict sufferings on others just for their own pleasure.
Even among those of us who are not so desensitized, still selfishness hampers us in our service to even our loved ones, what to speak of others. We all can probably recollect times when, instead of solving a relationship problem constructively, we went into a selfish fit of rage and spoke things that made things worse.
Meditation offers us time-tested means to cleanse our thoughts, to flush out selfish negative thoughts and to flood in noble positive thoughts. Through meditation, we connect with our spiritual core – the real me, the soul – that is always pure, being a part of the all-pure Supreme. And devotional meditation goes much further. Prayerful meditation on the holy names of God connects us with him, thereby allowing his healing grace to cure our thoughts. The more we relish non-material enrichment through meditation, the more we become free from the grip of selfish desires that force us to see everything with the spectacles of “What’s in it for me?” When we are thus freed, we can contribute constructively and effectively to help others.
Seen in this light, the time we spend purifying our heart is like the time medicine students spend learning the cure for a widespread disease. To the uninformed, it seems unproductive; to the well-informed, it is immensely, indispensably productive. Every moment spent in meditation is subtly but surely making us better, one thought per moment.
What is true for us is true for others too. And practice is better than precept. Seeing our positive transformation towards selflessness, many other people can become inspired to pursue similar transformation, thus contributing towards shaping a better world.
To summarize, by improving the quality of the thought-energy that activates the world, spiritual practices like meditation practical strengthen the foundations of individual and social well-being.