In line with growing interest into meditation amongst scientists, medical professionals and the general public, more and more publications are explaining how we should practice meditation. However, few resources focus on how meditation can go wrong.
Based on a review of both the scientific and traditional meditation literature, and on observations from my own research and practice of meditation, here are the top ten mistakes made by meditation practitioners:
10. Not starting to meditate
Although not taking up meditation can’t really be said to be a mistake made by people who meditate, there appears to be a significant number of people who are interested in practicing meditation but never get around to doing so. A 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. Obviously, if we don’t get around to practising meditation, we won’t experience its benefits.
9. Giving-up once started
It is not uncommon for people to begin practising meditation enthusiastically, but give-up as soon as they encounter a minor difficulty. A reason why some people don’t persevere is because they have unrealistic expectations about what meditation entails. Meditation is not a quick-fix solution and believing that it can solve all of life’s problems 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 awareness will gradually soften the conditioned mind and allow rays of insight to break through. Meditation is hard work and requires us to be patient and compassionate with ourselves. But it should also be fun and help us enjoy each moment of our lives.
8. Not finding a teacher
Findings from my research demonstrated that meditation practitioners made better progress where they were guided by an experienced meditation teacher. The role of the meditation teacher is not so much about cluttering up our minds with concepts and theories, but more about helping us remove obstacles that cloud the mind and prevent its true nature from shining through.
7. Finding an unsuitable teacher
Worse than not finding a meditation teacher is following one that is inappropriately qualified. People can spend many years practicing ineffective meditation techniques and achieving nothing other than bolstering the ego (and possibly the bank account) of their chosen teacher. To perform the role effectively, the meditation teacher must have an in-depth and experiential understanding of the mind.
According to Tsong-kha-pa, a renowned 15th century Tibetan meditation expert, a suitable meditation guide is one who is “thoroughly pacified”, “serene” and “disciplined”. Meditation practitioners should ask lots of questions and take time to get to know their prospective teacher.
However, it is advisable to avoid having too many preconceived ideas about how a meditation teacher should be. Accomplished teachers come from a variety of backgrounds 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, psychologically, 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.
6. Trying too hard
Trying too hard to progress in meditation can result in inner-conflict and unhealthy consequences. For example, there is evidence suggesting that over-intensive meditation practice can induce psychotic episodes – including in people who do not have a history of psychiatric illness.
5. Not trying hard enough
An excuse people often use for not making effort in meditation is that they are busy and don’t have enough time. This can trigger a stressful attitude towards the practise that can easily become a chore. Therefore, the trick is to not create a separation between life and meditation. When we sit at the computer at work, tidy-up at home, play with our children, and even when we go to the toilet, we should aim to do so in meditative awareness. Good meditators can practise ‘on the job’ and don’t need to take time out to meditate.
4. Forgetting about impermanence
Impermanence refers to the fact that nothing lasts for ever. All phenomena, including ourselves, are born, live, and die. This is a fact of life (or if you prefer, a fact of death). Both others’ and my own research has demonstrated that there are health benefits associated with becoming aware of the impermanent nature of life. Remembering impermanence can remove complacency by prompting us to reflect upon what is important in life and that at any time, we are separated from death only by a single breath in or out.
3. Forgetting to be human
When some people start practicing meditation, due to being overly concerned with appearing to be a ‘meditator’ or believing they are becoming ‘spiritual’, they stop being themselves. They become too serious and forget to laugh or be spontaneous. Their tension and superficiality becomes palpable which isn’t helpful for themselves or those they encounter. Meditation requires us to be down to earth and embrace all that it means to be human.
2. Becoming dependant on meditation
Research I have conducted has identified a small number of individuals that appear to have become addicted to meditation. In fact, in several clinical case studies I have successfully used meditation as a ‘substitution technique’ for people recovering from behavioural addictions such as problem gambling, work addiction, and sex addiction. In these cases, becoming dependant on meditation would probably constitute what is known as a positive form of addiction. However, the traditional meditation literature cautions against becoming addicted to the blissful states associated with meditation and on subsequently spending long periods of time sat in meditation. The idea is not to use meditation to escape from the world, but as a tool for developing and engaging a compassionate heart.
1.Suffering from ontological addiction
First place on my list of meditation mistakes goes to ontological addiction. Ontological addiction is a new psychological theory that I have been developing and asserts that much of the stress and mental health issues we experience arise due to us being addicted to ourselves.
Ontological addiction is based on the principle that human-beings are very ego-driven and 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”.
While people tend to live out their lives through the lens of ‘I’, ‘me’ or ‘self’, the truth is that what we deem to be the self is only a concept, label, or fabrication of the mind. Irrespective of how hard we search, something called the ‘self’ that exists inherently or independently cannot be found. This can be exemplified using the body that, amongst other things, manifests in reliance upon – and is comprised of – (i) wind (i.e., that we inhale), (ii) rivers, clouds and oceans (i.e., that we drink), and (iii) animals and plants (i.e., consumed during eating). The body is empty of an independently-existing self but is full of all things. In emptiness there is fullness and in one thing exists all things.
Ontological addiction relates to meditation because the ultimate goal of meditation is to try to eradicate the ego. Some meditators eventually reach a point where due to undermining the ego, they can easily enter into profound meditative states. However, there is a danger at this stage of becoming attached to the idea of being an ‘advanced meditator’. If this happens, it is a sign that although the individual has made progress, their ego is still active and holding them back.