I have been in the position a couple of times to answer "why meditate?" or "what does the practice accomplish?" and I don't think I've been very good at answering it...ever. I think it may be because the answer is so simple: I meditate because I need to foster a discipline of mindfulness; the practice accomplishes the essential qualities of loving kindness, forgiveness, and present-time awareness.
It's no coincidence that all the Buddha's teachings inter-relate. The Buddha only taught two things: 1. suffering and 2. how to end it. Everything else is a means to that end.
I come to most logical realizations through talking to myself. Tonight it was on my drive home. I have been focusing on death here lately; it's something I've never really grasped fully, and it shouldn't be the elephant in the room. I have been really investigating my fear of death and what it really is. Here is what I've found:
I'm going to die.
Here's the first step. It's a sudden realization that we aren't invincible, and it often happens as a result of losing someone close to us. While in high school three guys lost control of their car and drove into a tree, killing two on impact and the other not too long afterward. These weren't extremely close friends of mine, but they were guys I had grown up with and spent a lot of time with throughout the years. It devastated the entire school. We all realized very quickly that it could have been any of us. It forced us to reconsider our lives and the impermanence of it all. I think this is the moment I first really considered myself as impermanent and was forced to examine it at any level.
I have a natural aversion to thinking and examining my death.
It's one thing to know that we'll die one day; it's a completely different affair to consider the moment of our deaths. I have been through many incarnations of this step. You will care once you're dead just as much as you cared before you were alive....the brain that is nervous or scared will not exist...your body will be tired; you will be in a different stage where death isn't as scary....I've contemplated hundreds of angles. It's a slippery slope. We can rationalize and ease our minds as much as we'd like, but it doesn't take away the fact that we are all going to die. It's a consequence of living.
There was a reason why the Buddha started with dukkha.
These avenues I go down in considering the time of my own death are many, and they all result in one thing: suffering. Why? Because at some point it goes beyond contemplating impermanence and transcends into attachment. It's one thing to contemplate one's own death, but it's another to allow yourself to be consumed by it. We must understand the causes of suffering and how we can avoid attachment to these notions.
This is why we practice. There is only being with what is; the rest is suffering.
I've contemplated my death. I know I will die. The conditions that arise with these thoughts are beyond my control, but the attachments to them are not, and they have caused much suffering within me. But the truth is this: I practice mindfulness because one day I will say "I love you" to my daughter for the last time. One of these goodbye kisses will be my last. One day I will set down my guitar never to pick it up again. Is that scary? No; it's exactly what makes this moment the most important moment in existence.
I don't know when I will finish my time here on Earth, but I want to be present for as much of it as possible. That's why I practice how the Buddha taught. I know the most important thing in the world right now are these words I type, and when I finish, the most important thing in the world will be getting up, getting ready for bed, and ensuring that my wife understands through my attention and action that I love her and love our life together. Tomorrow morning it will be the most important moment of my life when I see my daughter for the first time that I truly am present for every moment with her, because one of these moments will be the last one.
Do I practice because I'm going to die? No. I practice because I'm alive. Right here. Right in this moment. That's all there is. That's enough, and it's the most important thing in the world.