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Why Meditate? by Matthieu Ricard: Preliminary Instructions

Posted on Apr 20, 2014 by


My copy of Why Meditate? has arrived and I am reading it slowly, trying to become at least a beginning student of meditation, and at the same time think about what writing and meditation might have to do with each other. After a chapter on the why of meditation—with much of the material similar to his video on the art of meditation that I’ve been writing about—Ricard begins the much longer “How to Meditate” section with preliminary instructions and offers six pieces of advice. I’m going to write about the first one briefly here:

Establishing motivation. He argues that we must become very clear about our motivation before we begin to meditate: “For it is our motivation—altruistic or self-centered, vast or limited—that will give the journey we are about to take a positive or negative direction and thus determine its results.”

I think this is something that I haven’t thought about enough when it comes to writing and healing. When I was first working as a doctor, the motivation for people coming to see me seemed obvious and assumed—they want to get better. They want to feel better and be more healthy and live longer if possible. They want to be able to work and be with their families and pursue the things they love and get a good night’s sleep and get up the next morning ready to face the next day and to contribute to the world in whatever way they can. This seemed like plenty. And in a sense it is a lot.

But Matthieu Ricard is suggesting we can think much bigger from the beginning:

. . . just getting rid of our own suffering is not enough. Each of us is only one person, while there is an infinite number of other beings—human and non-human who want to avoid suffering as much as we do. Moreover, all beings are interdependent, so we are intimately connected with every other living thing. So the ultimate goal of meditation is to acquire the ability to liberate all beings from suffering and contribute to their well-being.

This is so vast. So huge. To even consider this is huge: that the ultimate goal might be to train and train (no matter how long it takes) and acquire this kind of ability. Not just for our own well-being; not just for that of our families or our friends or our co-workers, but so incredibly far beyond this—for all beings.

It reminds me of a quote I came across a while back by the Dalai Lama:

I decided that my being should be dedicated to something useful for others. One of my favorite prayers says, ‘So long as space remains. . . So long as sentient beings remain. . . I will remain in order to serve.’ This gives me a lot of comfort. This is the meaning of my life.

I love this idea that such a vast motivation could bring comfort—and meaning. And I love this idea that setting this kind of motivation at the beginning of one’s work could make a difference. It’s so outrageously far beyond where we are now–at least beyond where I am now. But I do kind of love the notion that just setting our sights on this—heading in this direction—could make a difference.


The book, Why Meditate?, can be found here.

You can learn more about Matthieu Ricard and his work at and at

I went looking for a source for the Dalai Lama quote—which was originally at and now harder to find than I expected. But I did find myself following various fruitful trails.

I found a recent video of the Dalai Lama reciting this same prayer to the U.S. Senate. He begins in Tibetan but then moves into English at about 1:50 and concludes with the prayer about remaining in order to serve.

I also found a recent Slate article in which Douglas Preston describes a visit to a ski resort in Santa Fe with the Dalai Lama in the 1980s during which a waitress asked him, “What is the meaning of life?”

The Dalai Lama answered immediately. ‘The meaning of life is happiness.’ He raised his finger, leaning forward, focusing on her as if she were the only person in the world. ‘Hard question is not, “What is meaning of life?” That is easy question to answer! No, hard question is what make happiness. Money? Big house? Accomplishment? Friends? Or …’ He paused. ‘Compassion and good heart? This is question all human beings must try to answer: What make true happiness?’ He gave this last question a peculiar emphasis and then fell silent, gazing at her with a smile.