Sitting on my meditation cushion this morning, I was met with pain in the back, and aches in the knees, and a general feeling of unpleasantness. And the automatic thought, "What's the point?" Of course, I knew better than to get up and leave. I sat and stayed with the discomfort, remembering that meditation is not so much about feeling good necessarily, as it is about being present to one's whole experience, moment to moment.
"What's the point?" is a question that comes up a lot amongst meditators, particularly when faced with difficult emotions, physical pain, or obsessive, agitating thoughts. It is also one of the main reasons cited for quitting meditation. Given the many benefits of meditation, it is therefore a question well worth answering.
There are actually not just one, but many good reasons to practice mindfulness meditation, including through difficult states:
First reason is that meditation works, and leads to feelings of greater well-being, balance, happiness, and peace, at least in the long run. Increasing evidence from laboratory studies of meditators has shown that the repetitive practices at the heart of the meditative disciplines can drive positive neuroplastic changes that also reflect mental and physical well-being, such as greater emotional balance, compassion, and genuine happiness, as well as potential buffering of stressful and traumatic experience when it does occur.-Jon Kabat-Zinn
Second, the mere practice of sitting through unpleasant moments, teaches us to befriend ourselves. People often spoke about feeling that the nonjudging, nonstriving, generosity-oriented aspects of mindfulness practice were helping them become "friends" with themselves . . . The feeling of slowly being able to welcome - beyond liking or disliking - whatever entered the field of awareness gave people such relief, hope, and quiet embrace. -Saki Santorelli
Third, mindfulness meditation gives us insight into habitual and often dysfunctional ways of thinking that we would not otherwise notice. We may find that part of the reason we are not feeling so good, is we are believing some negative thoughts passing through our mind. The good news is thoughts are just thoughts, not facts, and it is in our power to drop unhealthy thoughts and to cultivate healthy ones. Giving ourselves a chance to turn around our thinking, will in turn influence our emotions and behaviors in a positive manner.
Fourth, mindfulness meditation gives us a chance to work firsthand with the inevitable physical pain we are bound to experience from time to time. Meditation help us sense where we hold tension and pain in our body. It also puts us in touch with our emotional reactions to the pain and tension. And last, it teaches to live in the here and now, and to deal with pain one moment at a time. Although it may seem counterintuitive, turning towards our pain, in such a systematic, mindful way, can result in a drastic reduction of our suffering.
Fifth, formal mindfulness practice sets us free from the tyranny of our emotions, thoughts, and sensations, as we stop identifying with them. I may be having a lot of pain right now, but instead of being the pain, I can choose to observe the pain, and sit with it as one would with a guest. Same way with thoughts, and emotions. That extra space between ourselves and our internal states, gives us a powerful feeling of inner freedom. Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom. Viktor Frankl
Sixth, through our dedicated practice, we get to observe the constantly changing nature of our experiences, happy one moment, unhappy the next, because that is just the way life is. From that intimate knowledge, we start to understand the long known Buddhist truth regarding the cause of mental suffering. We learn to not cling to happy or pleasurable experiences, knowing that those are transients, and hence programmed to disappoint us if we become too attached to them. Similarly, we can gain some ease in the way we experience difficult situations, from knowing that these too will pass.
It is my hope that you will keep these answers stored in your mind, ready to be accessed next time you meditate, and things don't go so well.