The Top Ten Mistakes Made by Meditation Practitioners
Based upon an extensive review of the research and classical literature, and based upon observations from our own research and practise of meditation, the following are what we consider to be the top ten mistakes made by meditation practitioners:
Tenth place – Not starting to meditate: Although not taking up the practice of meditation can’t really be said to be a mistake made by people who meditate (because such people cannot be classed as meditators), we decided to include this as a meditation pitfall because there seems to be a significant number of people who are interested in practicing meditation but who never actually get round to doing so. For example, a recent nationally representative survey by the Mental Health Foundation found that more than half of British adults would like to practice meditation, but only 26% currently do so.1 Obviously, despite our best intentions and no matter how many meditation books we might read, if we never actually get around to practising meditation, then the fruits of meditation practice will never develop.
Ninth place – Giving-up once started: Although data exists that reports on the year-by-year changes in the number of people following one particular religion or another, we haven’t been able to identify any reliable data that provides estimates on the number of people who adopt a routine of meditation and then give-up at some later point. However, based on the many 1000s of meditation practitioners with whom we have personally crossed paths, it is unfortunately very common for people to begin practising meditation enthusiastically, but then give-up as soon as they encounter a minor difficulty. A reason why many people don’t stick at their meditation practice is because they have unrealistic expectations about what meditation entails. Meditation is not a quick-fix solution. Lasting spiritual growth requires a life-time’s worth of continuous practise. Thinking that meditation can immediately solve all of one’s problems or change one’s life overnight is a mistake. However, just as all effects follow a cause, the day-in day-out infusing of all aspects of our life with meditative and spiritual awareness will gradually begin to soften the conditioned mind and cause rays of insight to slowly break through. When correctly practiced, meditation is extremely hard work and requires us to be patient and compassionate with ourselves. However, meditation also requires us to thoroughly enjoy life no matter what situation we find ourselves in. Meditation should be the hardest work we ever do, but it should also be a lot of fun!
Eighth place – Not finding a teacher: As discussed in our previous post entitled Authentic Spiritual Lineage, a realised spiritual guide appears to be an essential requirement for effective meditative and spiritual development. Many people underestimate the importance of this point, and misunderstand the role of the spiritual guide more generally. The role of the spiritual guide is not so much about transmitting extensive volumes of teachings, but more about removing obstacles that cloud the mind and prevent its true nature from shining through. In other words, the teacher’s role is about removing confusion from the mind rather than cluttering it up with more concepts and theories. The spiritual guide might be likened to a skilful surgeon who carefully cuts away infected or damaged tissue. This can sometimes be a painful process, but it is necessary if we want to make a full recovery. In a qualitative piece of research we conducted which was published in the Journal of Religion and Health,2 findings demonstrated that meditation practitioners made better progress where they felt they were guided by an experienced meditation teacher. Given that most people’s minds have had many years to become highly accomplished in the practices of non-awareness, self-centredness, and thought rumination, a skilful guide is required to help undo this deep-rooted conditioning.
Seventh place – Finding a teacher who is unsuitable: Worse than not finding a spiritual guide, is following one who is inappropriately qualified. The situation is exacerbated by the fact that followers of such teachers are (presumably) unaware that their guide is unsuitable. Thus, people can spend many years practising ineffective meditation techniques and in achieving nothing other than bolstering the ego (and bank account) of their chosen guide. Meditation teachers who offer palm readings in exchange for money or who (try to) predict lottery numbers (as per some Buddhist monks we met during our most recent visit to Thailand) are quite easy to identify as frauds. But things get a little trickier when, for example, a teacher without authentic spiritual realization happens to be a holder of an established lineage, has extensive scholarly training, or is a “recognised” reincarnate lama (known in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition as a ‘Tulku’). With such credentials, it becomes very difficult for people to discern whether or not they are being led astray. We wrote about the many problems caused by non-authentic spiritual teachers in a short spiritual poem that was published in a previous blog entitled: ‘Hearken to the Dharma’.
To perform the role effectively, the spiritual teacher must be highly skilled in understanding and guiding people’s minds. According to Tsong-kha-pa, a 15th century Tibetan Buddhist saint, a suitable spiritual guide is one who is “thoroughly pacified”, “serene” and “disciplined”.3 So as spiritual practitioners, we should ask lots of questions and take time to get to know our prospective meditation teacher. However, at the same time, we should avoid having too many preconceived ideas and should try not to listen to other people’s opinions. Realized spiritual guides can come in a variety of shapes and sizes and may not always fit what we deem to be the ‘perfect mould’. A good question to ask ourselves is: ‘Do I feel better physically, mentally, and spiritually when in this person’s presence’? Try to allow your intuitive mind to answer this question rather than taking an overly-analytical approach.
Sixth place – Trying too hard: Trying too hard to make progress spiritually and/or meditatively can often lead to extreme behaviours. Extreme behaviours cause things to become unbalanced and invariably give rise to unhealthy consequences. For example, there is evidence to suggest that over-intensive meditation practise can actually induce psychotic episodes – including in people who do not have a history of psychiatric illness.4,5 There are numerous volumes of Buddhist writings that advocate a ‘middle-way philosophy’ (i.e., the middle-way between extremes). We can apply a middle-way philosophy not only to our meditation practice, but to how we live our lives more generally. We’re not going to write much more about this here as we will be exploring the middle-way approach more thoroughly in a forthcoming blog.
Fifth place – Not trying hard enough: A bigger mistake than trying too hard to make progress spiritually, is not trying hard enough. This mistake relates closely to the earlier pitfall about giving-up our meditation practice as soon as we encounter difficulties. Just as conditions such as the sun, rain, and nutrients are required for a seed to grow into a blossoming flower, meditative development requires us to make ‘right effort’ at all times. An excuse people often make is that they don’t have time to practise meditation. They try to cram in and find time for their practice amongst all of the other activities of their lives. This creates a certain stressful attitude towards meditation and practise can easily start to become a chore. Therefore, the trick is to not create a separation between your meditation practise and the rest of your life. When you sit and write at the computer at work, tidy-up at home, play with your children, and even when you go to the toilet, do so in meditative awareness. Try to take what you experience now as the path. Real meditators are those who can practise ‘on the job’. Stop battling with yourself – let go and allow your mind to encompass the entire present moment. Cultivate a mind that is open and accepting – as vast as space. Wherever you find yourself, each time you make the effort to become aware for a brief moment, know that we’re doing the same and are practising with you. Meditate now, my dear.
Fourth place – Forgetting about death: A primary reason why many people’s spiritual practice goes astray is because they forget about death. Death is the spiritual practitioner’s best friend. From the moment you are born, every single second of your life brings you closer to death. You can’t hide from death and you can’t predict when you will die. At any time, you are only separated from death by a single breath in or out. Most people are complacent about death and continue immersing themselves in totally meaningless activities. But believe us – you won’t be complacent about death when it’s happening to you. At this time, if you haven’t made your human rebirth into a precious one (i.e., by infusing your life with spiritual development), then at the time of death you will be totally confused and tormented by regret and fear. Your family, friends, possessions, and reputation will count for absolutely nothing at this time. Your life will have been wasted and you will be leaving an island of jewels (i.e., the human rebirth) empty handed. So there really isn’t any time to delay your spiritual practice because all you can take with you when you die is that which you have accomplished spiritually – everyone and everything else must stay behind. A good practitioner is one who, in every single breath and every single heartbeat, is deeply aware of the uncertainty of the time of death as well as its inevitability. One of our favourite Buddhist quotes about this subject was written by Shantideva – an eighth-century Indian Buddhist Saint:
“By depending upon this boat-like human being, you can cross the great ocean of suffering. In the future such a vessel will be hard to find – this is no time to sleep, you fools!”
Third place – Doubt: Doubt is one of the main reasons why people do not make progress in their spiritual and/or meditative practice. If death can be said to be the meditation practitioner’s best friend, then doubt is probably their worst enemy. Having met a suitable spiritual guide, doubt is what causes people to begin to “find” faults in their teacher’s character and break the sacred bond that supports them. Unfortunately, just as a branch withers and dries up when it falls from the tree, the same happens when the connection with the spiritual teachings is severed.
It’s not that doubt should be feared or run away from, because it is a necessary part of spiritual growth. The real challenge is how we respond to and deal with doubt when it arises. In our recent blog entitled ‘Forgive them Father’, we discussed how doubt is not really about people becoming suspicious of the teachings or the teacher, but is more to do with people becoming suspicious of themselves and their own experiences. Rather than a blind conviction in the teachings, the antidote to doubt is logical reasoning and reflection from a centred and stable mind-state.
The thing to do when doubts arise is to make the practise that we advise for people who receive training as part of their participation in an intervention we developed called Meditation Awareness Training.6 In Meditation Awareness Training, at the point when difficult or destructive emotions arise, course participants are taught to send out an SOS: 1. Stop, 2. Observe the breath, 3. Step back and watch the mind. A technique such as this allows us to examine situations clearly and without the influence of emotion. Give yourself plenty of time to examine your doubts. There is no need to do it all at once. Take a few deep breaths and centre yourself in the present moment – make good use of your doubts and use them as a means of becoming a stronger practitioner. Reason things through but most importantly, rely on your own experiences. In short, if you are confused then enjoy being confused!
Second place – Meditative dependency: In certain circumstances, it seems that meditation might actually be addictive. Professor Mark Griffiths (one of the world’s leading experts in the study of addictive behaviours) recently wrote about this on his addictive/extreme behaviours blog. According to Dr. Griffiths, the concept of meditation being addictive “is theoretically feasible but we need to carry out the empirical research”. Thus, although there are some accounts in the scientific literature of people feeling that they have become addicted to meditation,7 considerably more research is required to explore this possibility further. In a paper we recently published in the Journal of Behavioural Addiction,8 we hypothesised that meditation could actually be used as a ‘substitution technique’ for people in recovery from maladaptive behavioural addictions such as problem gambling. In the example we gave, becoming dependant on meditation would probably constitute what is known as a ‘positive’ form of addiction.
In the Buddhist classical literature, there are cautionary notes regarding becoming overly attached to meditative bliss. In fact, people can confuse meditative bliss (Sanskrit: prīti) with being enlightened and it can become a major obstacle to further spiritual progress. We personally know of one or two individuals who, after many years of practice, have become proficient at cultivating profound blissful meditative states (by exclusively practising a technique known as shamatha meditation). However, these same individuals appear to dwell in such states with a total disregard for the countless number of people who are deeply in need of their support. The idea is not to use meditation as a means of escaping from the world and its problems, but as a tool for developing and engaging a compassionate heart.
First place – Ontological addiction: First place on our list of the top ten mistakes made by meditation practitioners goes to ontological addiction. Ontological addiction is defined as “the unwillingness to relinquish an erroneous and deep-rooted belief in an inherently existing ‘self’ or ‘I’ as well as the ‘impaired functionality’ that arises from such a belief”.8 According to ontological addiction theory (a theory that we have been working on for over 12 months as part of our work with Prof Mark Griffiths), the root cause that underlies all forms of suffering and psychological distress is the harbouring of an erroneous view regarding the true mode of existence of the ‘self’. In general, people see themselves as an inherently existent and separate entity. This view acts as a lens through which they live the whole of their lives. Every single thought, word, and action has the self as its referent and serves to reify the belief in an independently existing ‘I’.
However, under analysis (whether scientific or meditative), a self (or for that matter any other phenomenon) that intrinsically exists cannot be found. Thus, we have the concept of non-self. If we look deeply, we will see that we are empty of a self, but are full of all things. The dualistic outlook that separates self from other is a fabrication of the deluded mind. Being addicted to ourselves causes us to act in ways that not only harm others, but that also harm ourselves. This is much like a piece of fruit on a branch of the tree that begins to see itself as separate from the tree. The same piece of fruit might decide that the trunk of the tree is blocking its view of the countryside, and therefore ask for the trunk to be cut down. Obviously, this is not in the fruit’s long term interests. The truth is that even when in the fruit bowl on our kitchen table, the fruit and the tree are never separate. When you take a bite and taste the fruit, looking deeply, you will see that you are tasting the whole tree, and for that matter, the whole universe.
Ontological addiction is another way of saying that we are ego junkies. When, after many years of meditation practice, we eventually begin to experience some of the fruits of meditation that we have read or heard so much about, it is easy to start to think we are becoming proficient in meditation. In fact, many advanced meditators do a good job in uprooting large portions of their ego-clinging, only to become attached to the idea that they are somebody who has defeated the ego. However, this is unfortunately just another example of ontological addiction and represents the ego deceiving us once again. What we should be aiming to do is to completely let go of the notion of ‘being a meditator’ until there no longer remains any separation between meditation sessions and daily life. If a person is in any way caught up in regarding themselves as a ‘meditation practitioner’, then we’re sorry to say this, but they’ve totally missed the point.
Ven Edo Shonin and Ven William Van Gordon
- Mental Health Foundation. (2010). Mindfulness Report. London: Author.
- Shonin, E., Van Gordon W., & Griffiths M. D. (2013). Meditation Awareness Training (MAT) for improved psychological wellbeing: A qualitative examination of participant experiences. Journal of Religion and Health. DOI: 10.1007/s10943-013-9679-0.
- Tsong-kha-pa. (2000). The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment, Volume I. (J. Cutler, G. Newland, Eds., & T. L. Committee, Trans.) Canada: Snow Lion.
- Sethi, S, Subhash, C. (2003). Relationship of meditation and psychosis: case studies. The Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 37, 382.
- Yorston, G. (2001). Mania precipitated by meditation: A case report and literature review. Mental Health. Religion and Culture, 4, 209-213.
- Van Gordon, W., Shonin, E., Sumich, A., Sundin, E., & Griffiths, M.D. (2013). Meditation Awareness Training (MAT) for psychological wellbeing in a sub-clinical sample of university students: A controlled pilot study. Mindfulness. DOI: 10.1007/s12671-012-0191-5.
- Shapiro, D. H. (1992). Adverse effects of meditation: a preliminary investigation of long-term meditators. International Journal of Psychosomatics, 32, 62-67.
- Shonin, E., Van Gordon W., Slade, K., & Griffiths M. D. (2013). Mindfulness and other Buddhist-derived interventions in correctional settings: A systematic review. Aggression and Violent Behavior. DOI: 10.1016/j.avb.2013.01.002.