- Striving for unusual or one-off experiences
- Misunderstanding non-judgemental awareness
- Thinking that trying to exert any kind of effort in meditation is a mistake
- Extremely vague or unstructured meditation instructions
“I’ve been practicing meditation for a few years, but I still can’t keep my attention on my breath for more than a few seconds at a time. I don’t know what I’m doing wrong and I’m starting to get really discouraged; I’m hoping you can give me some advice?”
I was attending a meditation day at a Buddhist centre, being run by a much-anticipated guest. He had decades of meditation teaching experience, and had written a number popular meditation manuals. More than one person at the centre had mentioned to me what a masterful teacher he was – somebody with a deep practice, they said, who radiated a powerful equanimity. So I was curious to hear how he’d respond to this question posed to him by one of the other attendants in the first Q&A session that morning.
Having spent a very long time making minimal progress in meditation myself, I felt for the questioner. A number of potential questions sprung immediately to my mind for her: how often and how long was she practicing for? What meditation technique was she using to keep attention on the breath? How did she react and what did she do when she noticed a distraction? How much sleep was she getting?
The old teacher sat in Yoda-like contemplation for a few seconds. “I’m not really sure what to say about that… I don’t really know,” he said at last. “If you just keep practicing, I think you’ll get there eventually.”
I left the event after that Q&A, but I was later told that those in attendance had been impressed with his ability to recite poetry by heart in a deep, warm voice.
Imagine a chess coach saying to a student who has been practicing chess for two years with no sign of improvement “Well, I don’t know what to say, just keep doing what you’ve been doing, I guess”. For that matter, imagine assessing the skill of a chess teacher by their ability to recite poetry about chess in a nice voice.
This story is symptomatic of a deep problem: many people, and often even esteemed teachers, have very little understanding of how to improve at meditation.
There are two reasons for this. The first is that there are a number of insidious myths about meditation which lead people to adopt highly ineffective practice methods.
The second is that the findings from the scientific study of skill acquisition are simply not well known, and ineffective training methods are relatively common amongst practitioners of any skill.
Both of these problems are easy to debug. This blog will deal with the first.
(Part 2 of this blog: The (Sort of) Complete Guide to Actually Getting Better at Meditation deals with the second.)
The Myths of Meditation
There are four main problems I’m aware of that get in the way of a skillful approach to meditation:
- Striving for unusual or one-off experiences
- Misunderstanding non-judgemental awareness
- Thinking that trying to exert any kind of effort in meditation is a mistake
- Vague or unstructured meditation instructions
Let’s look at these one by one.
1. Striving for unusual or one-off experiences
Meditation is a skill, and like any skill, the markers of development are enduring trait-level changes, not fleeting experiences.
One problem I hear a lot is meditators striving for unusual, one-off experiences, and trying to assess how well developed their practice is on the basis of them. Every now and again even a terrible chess player will make a great move, and every now and again even an unskilled meditator will experience unusual bodily sensations, a distorted sense of time, altered states of consciousness, upwellings of bliss, and the like.
If you can’t replicate it, and it doesn’t have any enduring effects, you haven’t developed a trait – you’ve just had an experience.
It is true that altered states of consciousness are more likely as one gets better at meditation, just as good moves are more likely as one gets better at chess. But these are the cart that follows after the horse of skill. Making good moves does not make one better at chess – practicing chess correctly makes one better at chess, and thereby increases the likelihood of making good moves. Similarly, having unusual experiences does not make one a better meditator; practicing meditation correctly makes one a better meditator, and MAY increase the likelihood of unusual experiences.
This analogy isn’t perfect because one assesses the skill of chess players by their ability to make good moves, but skill at meditation is certainly not measured by how often one has unusual experiences.
The only way to get better at meditation, and to maximally benefit from the many fruits meditation practice has to offer, is to practice meditation well. One-off unusual experiences may be encouraging and fun, but they are a symptom of progress, not the means. Trying to progress by generating unusual experiences is a dead end.
2. Misunderstanding non-judgemental awareness
Another myth is the idea that even trying to get better at meditation is a bad idea, or that it’s impossible to make progress at all. There is a sentiment I hear expressed all the damn time in Western secular mindfulness culture that any meditation session is just as good as any other, and that there’s no way to do meditation wrong.
Take a look at a typical quote I found in ten seconds on a popular blog about mindfulness practice:
“Mindfulness is not about trying to be mindful. We are already mindful right now – try not being mindful/aware right now – impossible.”
Then, later in the same blog:
“I cannot stay mindful all of the time, but I can notice what takes me away from being mindful“.
But you just told us that it’s impossible not to be mindful.
From another mindfulness blog:
“Here’s the good news: it’s not possible to be bad at meditation. There’s doing it and not doing it. That’s all… “
“All experiences of meditation are good and valuable because they cultivate the skill of being present, of strengthening the mind. How many other skills would we expect to master without much practice?“
The thundering contradiction rings out here as well; to assert that it isn’t possible to be better or worse at meditation, and then immediately expound on how one can get better at it with practice like any other skill simply does not add up, yet I see this contradiction everywhere.
The grain of truth in this bizarre meme it is that a meditation session does not have to be full of peace and bliss to be an effective one – indeed it may be full of frustration and distraction. By the same token, one need not win a game of chess to learn from it – indeed it may be full of blunders and poor strategic judgement.
But the lesson to take away from this is not “It doesn’t matter whether or not I win at chess to get better at it – therefore any attempt to win is pointless and I can just sit at the board and move the pieces with a vague intention to attack the enemy king, and if I practice like this for long enough, I’ll become a master.” One may learn – eventually – to recognise and avoid some obvious traps, but one will not be developing a fine grasp of chess strategy any time soon.
Yet the idea seems to have latched in the collective brain of the Western meditation community that as long as one is sitting with a vague intention to keep attention on the meditation object (and perhaps not even that), one’s practice can admit of no improvement, and enough time will reliably bring forth the fruits of practice.
There is a great deal of confusion on this point. I think that much of it stems from a misunderstanding of the virtues of being ‘non-judgemental’.
The term “non-judgmental” can be read in two ways. The correct way is in the sense of equanimity – an absence, or at least a quieting, of desire and aversion. The second, misleading, way is in the sense of non-responsiveness. Let me make the difference clear and explain why a conflation of these two renderings has caused such confusion.
Equanimity is the ability to have positive and negative experiences without grasping at them or pushing them away. For example, one feels a wave of warmth from a pleasant memory that arises – and it can exist in awareness without pulling one into other memories or fantasies. Then the warmth is followed by contraction and shame as a negative thought arises, and that too is seen, and allowed to arise and pass away in awareness without causing either a spiral into rumination or a desperate attempt to get rid of it.
Equanimity is a wonderful thing, and the emphasis on it is not for nothing. The skills of meditation hang on a finely cultivated equanimity in a way that the skills of boxing, mountain biking, probably taxidermy, and so on, do not.
This is simply because there is more potential for negative feedback loops when you are using mental states to cultivate other mental states (e.g. concentration). Without equanimity, a brief distraction turns into a bit of frustration, which provokes more distractions, and so on.
Cultivating equanimity forestalls these vicious cycles that desire and craving can create. When one is equanimous, a brief distraction turns into… nothing. It just arises and passes, and causes no negative feedback loops.
So equanimity – a reduction in desire and aversion – is great.
On the other hand, “non-responsiveness” is the idea that a meditator is doing something wrong if they try to change any aspect of their state of mind whatsoever – an instruction which is obviously in conflict with cultivating the challenging skills of meditation. Much contemporary meditation teaching would lead you to believe that if you are trying to change anything, then you must be motivated by your judgement that your current experience – whether it be of distraction, or drowsiness, or anything else – is not good enough, and that this is clearly a failure in being non-judgemental.
But if you notice that you’re dozing off in meditation, trying to rouse your mind back to alertness is not necessarily a failure in equanimity – it is merely being responsive to feedback, and this is an essential part of the practice. Similarly, if you elect to withdraw your attention from a niggling distraction and engage more completely with the meditation object, this need not have been motivated by the workings of desire or aversion. In other words, certain kinds of discriminating judgement must be made to correct course, but these corrections may be carried out with perfect equanimity.
To be clear, it is of course true that somebody who is in a state of equanimity may choose not make such corrections, and also that the attempts to rouse one’s mind back to alertness or away from distractions may be made by somebody in the grip of much unhelpful craving. But the crucial insight is that neither of these two meditators will be acting optimally, because equanimity and responsiveness are orthogonal – becoming more equanimous does not mean that you must become less responsive, and becoming more responsive does not mean that you must become less equanimous.
This table should make things clearer with some examples:
|Non-responsivity to hindrances||Responsivity to hindrances|
(i.e. aversion or craving)
in response to hindrances
Example: strong craving towards a hindrance,
like an especially appealing fantasy, and then
going along with it, doing nothing to correct
for the mind wandering.
Example: a distraction arsies, and frustration
with it follows. Fuelled by this frustration, one
tries to correct for the tendency to distraction
with skillful antidotes. Yet, the aversion to the
initial hindrance becomes its own form of
hindrance, and reduces the effectiveness of
any corrective measures.
|Equanimity to hindrances||Better
Example: One is frequently mind-wandering,
and when one notices that one is mind-wandering,
such distractions are each noted calmly and
objectively, but one does not do anything to
correct for the arising of mind wandering itself.
Equanimity itself will do little to correct for this,
and so the root of the tendency for distraction
is left unaffected.
Example: when distractions arise, they are noted
calmly and objectively. One identifies the cause of
such distractions, and corrects for it with skillful
Getting frustrated certainly is not an effective way to address – for instance- distractions, but, by itself, neither is just accepting their presence.
Overcoming obstacles in meditation such as distractions, dullness, aversion, craving, agitation, impatience, and so on, requires the application of the right kinds of intentions. To apply the right kinds of intentions as an antidote to the corresponding kind of problem, one must be responsive to what arises, without being derailed by vicious cycles of, for example, frustration. Equanimity and responsivity are not opposites therefore; they are in fact highly complementary, and one can and should train both simultaneously.
Meditation teachers seem to love sharing paradoxes like these with an enigmatic smile: “Ah, to get better, one must let go of trying to get better.” “To get from point A to point B, you need to just really BE at point A.” And so on.
These are half-true, but can seem to conflate being non-judgemental with being non-responsive in a way that is needlessly confusing.
I’m sure that anybody halfway through an introductory 8-week mindfulness course will object that distractions and the like truly don’t matter to them because the brand of meditation they have learned does not require the development of concentration, or any other kind of mental state, but only for one to note whatever arises in the mind – whether that’s a distraction or anything else.
Here, however, we must still differentiate between mental activity that is indeed noted as a meditation object as soon as it arises, and true distractions that capture one’s attention so fully that one temporarily forgets that they are trying to meditate upon such mental events at all. Accomplishing the former and obviating the latter is a skill which must be practiced, and there simply are better and worse ways of doing so.
Meditation and mindfulness are complex mental skills – like any other complex skill, they require a huge amount of dedication and practice time to perform well. The idea that there’s no way to do them better or worse may be useful as a provisional model of practice, for some people, some of the time, but I’m skeptical of even that much, and it seems to be doing more harm than good.
3. Thinking that trying to exert any kind of effort at all in meditation is a mistake
There are some schools of thought which imply or outright insist that trying to do anything at all in meditation is a mistake. One such argument goes that the feeling of being a separate self, and the feeling of wishing to impose control over the world—that is, to resolve one’s desires and aversions—are the same feeling. Therefore, since effortful meditation is itself a manner of trying to impose control, it is nothing but an exercise of the ego, and has no effect other than to strengthen the attendant tendencies for desire and aversion.
“Dogen said that you can’t sit and meditate unless you are already a Buddha. In which case, why meditate? All meditation is just a way of how Buddha sits. And he called this sitting just to sit; not to attain enlightenment. The minute you do that, you see, you’re not meditating. So you only become a good meditator if you’re not looking for anything.
So when you can sit without… creating problems all the time… by trying to control your mind… you then just simply discover that there is no way of controlling what you’re experiencing because what you are experiencing is you. And to try and really fundamentally control that is just going around in a circle.”
– Alan Watts
There is certainly value to these sort of ‘no-effort’ practices. I’m uncertain how much and in what contexts (and that’s a whole other discussion), but I am confident that for the vast majority of people, they will only be useful alongside a well-guided meditation practice, with a clear rationale and clear instructions.
Such practices are ultimately inadvisable as one’s sole practice, simply because they fall desperately short of the principles of effective skill acquisition that I cover in the second part of this blog.
Also worth mentioning here is “awareness of awareness” practice, and its many variations. In this practice one observes (for example) how awareness can feel like the open sky, in which experiences can arise and pass, leaving the ‘space’ of awareness itself unaffected.
The model underlying these forms of practice asserts that awareness has equanimity as an intrinsic characteristic. Equanimity thus requires no practice or cultivation, but needs only to be “realised” or “tapped into”.
Proponents of these models of practice often proclaim that any effort to cultivate a mental state of any kind is misguided, since mental states, like everything else, only arise and pass away in the innately flawless space of awareness. All one needs to do is to rest back into the all-inclusive space of awareness, which is already present and perfect in every moment.
One can certainly have experiences that seem to meet this description, and it can be an extremely valuable and liberating practice to cultivate and make such a perspective readily available.
Yet, the perception of awareness as a ‘space’-like thing, and all similar perspectives fostered by such practices are themselves species of mental state which must be cultivated to endure, and to be available in emotionally charged situations where they are most needed.
This cultivation is a skill which must be practiced, and, again, there are better and worse ways of doing so.
4. Extremely vague or unstructured meditation instructions
There are many styles of meditation or spiritual practices more generally, for which the practice instructions are notoriously vague. One example is Rinzai Zen koans – those bizarre questions that demand a spontaneous non-intellectual answer, such as the famous “what is the sound of one hand clapping?” and “Show me your original face before your parents were born.” One is given very little by way of instruction other than to just “sit with” the question. Also prominent is Soto Zen Shikantaza – “just sitting” – practice, which is pretty much what it says on the tin; one gets few to no actual sitting instructions, and is instructed to simply sit in the meditation posture. There are many other examples.
Without clear instructions, one may practice for a long time (indefinitely, depending on how vague the practice instructions are) without understanding what one is supposed to be doing at all. This is simply wasted time, and may even be worse than wasted time, since there are many bad habits that one must be vigilant not to pick up in meditation – which take a long time to unlearn.
I know of one man who had been a Zen monk for decades. After leaving the monastery and taking up practice with a highly skilled meditation teacher, it quickly became clear to him that he had spent his years in the zendo accidentally training himself to remain in a state of ‘stable subtle dullness’. This is a state which is very pleasant, and which can masquerade as deep concentration, because few thoughts arise, but these qualities are due to a drop in mental energy – like dozing in a sunbed – rather than a powerful and clear concentration. As a result of this bad habit being so deeply ingrained by years of daily practice, he found it almost impossible to develop his concentration any further, and many of the fruits of advanced meditation practice remained out of reach. Such stories are not uncommon – and most people never get clear enough meditation instructions to even realise where they have gone wrong. Unclear or vague instructions are a surefire way to cultivate a number of bad habits.
Perhaps such unstructured practices are the equivalent of musical improvisation: a trained musician can do a beautiful job improvising on an instrument, and this may be a useful way to tap into some spontaneous creativity and new ideas or insights. But such skilled spontaneity is the result of years of intentional, directed, repetitive practice. Ad-libbing on an instrument is not the way to learn to play it from scratch, and a beginner can spend an indefinite amount of time making a terrible racket, learning some bad habits, and making no progress whatsoever if they tried to learn to play this way. Undirected styles of meditation have their place, perhaps especially as insight practices, but they are probably only useful for those who have already trained their mind to a very high degree.
I sometimes think that meditation teaching today is sort of where medicine was in the 19th century. It was generally accepted that medicine could be a kind of science, but nobody had any goddamn clue what they were doing. They wouldn’t even have randomised control trials for another hundred years, so any oversized moustache with an idiot attached could say “I have a great new technique for treating mental illness – let’s strap people to a chair and just spin it around at high speeds for a few minutes.” And people said “Why would that work?” and the moustache would say “Well, it could reduce, you know… brain congestion,” and if the moustache was oversized enough, people would nod thoughtfully and then it would become standard medical practice for a few decades until a bigger moustache with a stupider theory sauntered along.
And look, I didn’t go balls to the wall with the historical research on this one, but you get my point. Until only a few generations ago, the history of medicine is the history of the placebo. People occasionally hit upon medicines that really did work, but until medical science really got its shit together, doctors were so unreliable at telling which were working and which were actively harmful that you were probably safer just waiting your illness out.
Science has barely begun testing which components of the profusion of available meditation practices are effective (and in what respects), and I think that we should expect to look back after a hundred years of better science and see many elements of these practices as we now see bizarre old medical practices like strapping schizophrenic patients to a chair to spin the crazy out.
Time will tell, but the best we can do for the time being is to draw on established psychology to inform which meditation practices to trust. There is every reason to believe that the mental faculties one cultivates in meditation answer to the same psychological principles as all other types of skill; which is to say that there are better and worse ways to cultivate them. The study of how to learn skills effectively has been well underway for decades, and has some very detailed advice to give. As we would expect, it runs counter to a lot of meditation teachings, which have percolated down to us without any particularly rigorous filters – and certainly nothing even approaching randomised control trials. My hope is that this blog has highlighted the major clashes between such teachings and what’s reasonable to expect based on the current psychology.
For more on the details of the science of skill acquisition and how to apply it to meditation, please read part 2 of this blog: The (Almost) Complete Guide to Actually Getting Better at Meditation.