Meditation can be powerfully and very directly helpful in ameliorating, even fixing, many of the critical life problems faced by all of us, at least temporarily. However, what frequently seems to happen is that the meditator runs out of puff: the practice becomes boring, tedious, lonely, even scary, or the practitioner feels that they are not "getting it" any more (if they ever did "get it"). All the obstacles and failing so commonly experienced by meditators come back to the failure to keep grappling with this essential question: Why meditate?..
Because meditation is such a profoundly quiescent, solitary, inner state, it is bound to fail if it is being done to fix a problem. This is even more likely to happen if the practice is being used to escape from pain, sorrow or confusion, or to put a spiritual bandage over it. But, you might interject, isn't that why we come to practice, because the pain of life has pushed us there? That too is true. A fundamental truth about meditation is that if you do it diligently and with a good heart it will open you even more to your own pain, sorrow and confusion, and then it will open you to the pain, sorrow and confusion of the whole world.
And, let's face it, if you come to meditation to fix yourself, you probably feel that you have got enough problems without having to take on a whole lot more. So, why meditate? The answer is bigger and more challenging but also more delightful than we could ever contemplate at the beginning. You must bring all the parts of yourself to the practice of meditation; but you don't have to "fix" yourself. It is enough to find the patience and perseverance to sit with all these parts of you. The Eastern view suggests that we are okay just as we are - we already have "Buddha nature". It might be obscured but it is there: it is the ground of our being. Our problem is that we don't know it, or at best we known it as a theory but it is not real to us. Don't meditate to fix yourself, to heal yourself, to improve yourself, to redeem yourself; rather, do it as an act of love, of deep warm friendship toward you. In this view there is no longer any need for the endless guilt of not doing enough. It offers the possibility of an end to the ceaseless round of trying so hard that wraps so many people's lives in a knot. Instead there is now meditation as an act of love. How do endlessly, delightful and encouraging.
Meditation as an act of love, as a way of befriending oneself, is such a radical departure from the array of self-improvement projects that are presented in the media and in the life stories of the famous, the successful and those who have prevailed over an affliction or crisis. This being said, the question of utility still hangs in the mind: now can this act of befriending oneself help us to heal; to feel more relaxed of body and mind; to become calmer; to deal with anger, panic and depression; to address our spiritual hunger? The answer to these questions is beguilingly smiled: everything is softened by this commitment to friendship; it is only when we can be a friend to ourselves that we can be a friend to the world. On his constant travels the Dalai Lama reiterates like a mantra, "My religion is kindness." Perhaps it really is that simple. In the Jewish wisdom traditions they have a tree-line saying that beautifully echoes this idea of befriending yourself: "If I am not myself, who will be? But if I am for myself alone, what sort of person am I? If not now, when?"
From a Buddhist perspective, the highest possible motivation one can have, from the very first moment of practice, is the motivation of universal altruism - a wish to attain the fully awakened state because that is the best way to help others. The difficulty with universal altruism is that it can become a Buddhist "motherhood statement"; it can be an entrapment instead into a feeling of universal paralysis.
All the great meditation traditions have as a fundamental premise the understanding that the mind determines the quality of our life. This view is succinctly expressed in the understanding that it is not what happens that is important, but what we do with what happens. Reflect for a moment on a common experience: when we are happy we tend to see the world as bright and full of possibilities, but when we are down most things look grey and colorless. Shakespeare understood this well when he had Hamlet exclaims: "There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so."
Meditation is essentially a practice for training the mind. There are two implications of this. Firstly, it assumes that the mind is poorly trained, if it is trained at all. Secondly, it asserts that the mind can be trained in a positive and helpful way. This is something you will need to check up on for yourself. Having a mind in need of training does not mean that you are unintelligent or witless or stupid: it is not about your intellectual abilities. The old meditation traditions say that the mind is poorly trained because it is dominated by ignorance and delusions, which arise from our incorrect understanding of the nature of things.