I’ve been meditating for a long time, but I’m still a schmuck. What’s the point?

In the November 2018 issue of Lion’s Roar magazine, 14 Buddhist teachers answer the most frequently asked questions about challenges on the spiritual path. Here, Sylvia Boorstein shares the simple way Buddhist practice has changed her.

Sylvia Boorstein
23 November 2018
Photo by Simon Migaj.

Question: I’ve been meditating for a long time, but I don’t seem to be a better person than when I started. And to be honest, my non-Buddhist friends seem to be just as good people as my Buddhist friends. If I’m not acting and treating people better, what’s the point of practice?

Sylvia Boorstein: His Holiness the Dalai Lama likes to say, “The point of life is to be happy.” Recently, I heard him emphasize that it does not matter to him whether a person is a Buddhist or not. “What matters,” he said, “is whether someone is an ethical person.” Here is the connection between ethicality, practice, and happiness, as I see it.

I was brought up to be fundamentally ethical. My parents were kind and moral, and nonharming behavior is what they admired. Since then, I’m sure that my mindfulness practice has strengthened my commitment to ethicality and kindness. It alerts me, sooner than it used to, to the arising of unwholesome states (greed and anger) in my mind so that they do not, for the most part, find expression in word or deed.

I feel bad when I do something motivated by greed or anger. Greed and anger are painful, just by themselves. So also are the guilt and shame I feel afterward when I realize I have behaved heedlessly and caused pain.

My husband asked me, many years into my practice and study of Buddhism, “How has all of this changed you?”

I replied, “I became kind.”

He said, “You were always kind.”

I said, “Then, I became kinder.”

I did not start my practice because I wanted to learn kindness. I wanted to be less anxious. I am less anxious. But I am also kinder. And happier.

photo of Sylvia Boorstein

Sylvia Boorstein

Sylvia Boorstein is a psychologist and leading teacher of Insight Meditation. Her many best-selling books include Pay Attention, for Goodness’ Sake and Happiness Is An Inside Job.