We’ve all been there. We hit the cushion, close our eyes, tap into the sensation of our breath flowing in and out, and let the outside world melt away until the bell rings. But is this comfortable meditation helpful, or a barrier to further developing our mindfulness practice?

In the excerpt below from his new book, Why Can’t I Meditate?, psychotherapist and mindfulness teacher Nigel Wellings draws on wise words from Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, Stephen Batchelor, and other teachers who caution against using meditation as an escape from the things we do not want to feel:

Several weeks after she has completed the eight-week [mindfulness meditation] course, Jane tells me about going to the beach, when on holiday, with the intention to practice mindfulness. She says she imagined that the beautiful beach, quite empty and going on for miles with huge breakers, would be a perfect place to have a fantastic mindfulness experience. However, what happened was quite the opposite: she could not concentrate, and she felt her practice was rubbish—she considered it a “failure.” While this is a sad tale, that this should happen ought not be a surprise. Jane’s intention was not to be present with whatever she was experiencing but to have a certain type of predetermined fantastic meditative event: calm, chilled, serene—a bit like the consumerist expectations we build around buying an ice cream or going to a movie or, indeed, going to a beach on holiday.

As such, she was practicing the opposite of mindfulness, not just being present with no particular expectations, but picking and choosing and being disappointed when she did not have the pleasurable experience she wanted. Jane demonstrates for us the desire to use our meditation to make ourselves feel good and not feel bad. While it is necessary to be attracted to our practice if we are to develop a strong motivation to do it, it is entirely destructive if that attraction is based on achieving, during the practice, a desired state of mind while excluding others. Treated in this way our mindfulness becomes a mere commodity that we use for distraction; it has become a defense.

Over 40 years ago in his seminal book Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism, the Buddhist teacher Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche put his finger on how we can misuse our meditation—in fact, our whole spirituality—as a defense against what we do not want to feel. Using the word “ego” to mean that part of us that partitions experience, keeping what we do not like under control and out of awareness, he says:

Ego is constantly attempting to acquire and apply the teachings of spirituality for its own benefit. . . . We go through the motions, make the appropriate gestures, but we really do not want to sacrifice any part of our way of life. We become skillful actors, and while playing deaf and dumb to the real meaning of the teachings, we find some comfort in pretending to follow the path.

Trungpa was not pointing the finger at just a few of his students. Rather, he identified this as a tendency in all of us. This shows in many ways. In meditation we may believe we are present with our breath, with physical sensations, emotions, and thoughts, but in reality we are only superficially applying the method. We have an occasional awareness of our breath, or whatever our object of mindfulness is, but most of the time we are content to drift in a diffuse state of consciousness that is not aware of being carried away in the stream of barely conscious thinking. When this becomes a partial trancelike state that is extremely pleasurable, without stress, rather like snoozing in a warm bath, but lacking any clarity and awareness, it is what Tsoknyi Rinpoche calls “stupid meditation.” This is particularly seductive, because while giving the illusion to ourselves that we are practicing, we are entirely absent. Barry Magid, psychoanalyst and Zen teacher, comes close to the same idea. In his Ending the Pursuit of Happiness he calls this, as mentioned above, our “secret practice”; that is, we use our practice to get rid of parts of ourselves that we do not like or want. Like Trungpa, he is convinced this is something we all do:

Whatever method of meditation we adopt, we are inevitably going to try to enlist that practice in the service of one or more of our curative fantasies. A curative fantasy is a personal myth that we use to explain what we think is wrong with us and our lives and what we imagine is going to make it all better.

When we approach our meditation in this way, our secret practice is not to be present but to be better. Feeling that we are deficient in some way, our practice becomes both a means for self-improvement and a defense against the emotions deficiency engenders—guilt, shame, anxiety, depression. Barry Magid says, “Whatever we are, we feel that we want or need something else. . . . Almost always we conclude that there is something wrong with us as we are.” Our meditation becomes an exercise more in self-hatred than in presence and kindness:

Over and over again, I see students whose secret goal in practice is the extirpation of some hated part of themselves. Sometimes it is their anger, sometimes their sexuality, their emotional vulnerability, their bodies, or sometimes their minds that are blamed as the source of suffering. “If only I could get rid of . . .”

Stephen Batchelor talks about meeting this in a student and his advice that we must embrace ourselves fully, our unwanted experiences and also our not wanting unwanted experiences. All of our experiences are included.

Someone who was very sincerely and almost desperately trying to be a good meditator was convinced that if they could just quiet their minds, then they’d be happy. And so they basically subverted their own process. They pushed themselves way too hard. They’re impatient, they’re frustrated. I think there is a deep inability to accept themselves as they are, and meditation, Buddhism, can easily be used as a form of self-avoidance, by positing some kind of higher or better or wiser or happier sense of who they are. There is a conviction that by mastering the nuts and bolts of meditation, they’ll get to this state. And I have to point that out to them, “Look, you won’t get anywhere unless you can actually say yes to what it is that’s going on, right now, on the cushion. It’s not your business to fantasize or expect some result down the road. You’ll get nowhere unless you can really embrace your experience with all of its angst and its pain and its frustration right now. And that’s the practice you should be doing.

Finally, a third way we can use our meditation defensively is to use it to defend against life. Many of us who are attracted to meditation, and perhaps more so Buddhism, may be afraid of entering the world of emotional and material complexity. John Welwood, a psychologist and exponent of mindfulness-based psychotherapy, speaks of this in his essay “Between Heaven and Earth.” He says those of us “who are having difficulty navigating life’s developmental challenges . . . earning a living through dignified work, raising a family, keeping a marriage together, belonging to a meaningful community” may try to resolve the anxieties these tasks create by simply “transcending” them:

There is often a tendency to use spiritual practice to try to rise above our emotional and personal issues—all those messy, unresolved matters that weigh us down. I call this tendency to avoid or prematurely transcend basic human needs, feelings, and developmental tasks spiritual bypassing.

Martin Wells confirms this, speaking of the demands of life:

There’s no bypass to what is being asked here; many people, me included, have been looking for a way for transcendence on the bypass of life, rather than facing head on what we need to face and relinquish, including some dark material from the

Spiritual bypassing superficially mimics practicing our meditation, but it has the hidden intention to create a spiritual self-identity that is immune to pain. As such, it is both a secret practice and an expression of spiritual materialism. It is about resisting (which only continues our old dysfunctional behaviors) thoughts and emotions, all our unresolved psychological issues, rather than mindfully befriending them with kindness and acceptance. With this defense we cheat ourselves.

From Why Can’t I Meditate?: How to Get Your Mindfulness Practice on Track, Nigel Wellings. Tarcher Perigree, 2016. Reprinted with permission from the publisher. 

[This post was originally published on July 21, 2016]

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