Psychology & Meditation Questions

A lot of people have contacted me with questions about psychology from a Buddhist perspective, and a bunch more have contacted me about Buddhism from a psychological perspective. I have enjoyed these questions so much that I want to share them with everyone.

This page is for questions related to the intersection of psychology, Buddhism and meditation practice. Please leave a question in the comment field and I will return with an answer as soon as I can.

  1. this is what i think…am i right?

    you can have meditated in a past life and be in the dark night your whole life right now in this life until you resume meditation.

    my experience is this: i meditated when i was young, and years later i was still on the path of truth and even though i wasn’t meditating i was sincere in my seeking and i was hit with i an A+ P experience ( not directly from meditation but from my quest) i then got bored of the bliss and started doubting after 2 weeks of amazement i wont; bother with explaining now….

    i slipped back and back…i believe i went directly into dark night without realizing it for a good 5 years or so….as i was not meditating at the time…i went into a bad depression and things just went black….

    finally i resumed meditation again – regular practice not vipassana really- more like zazen–i felt equanimity…but then when i did vipassana- thanks to your guidance, it hit me like a hurricane and was thrown immediately into Dark Night…for me it was a nightmare beyond nightmares….thankfully i was prepared thanks to your website !!!!

    sounds like Ingram says the same thing…i just want to be sure that this is what you think also as it is not clear in your description of the path…

    also that mediation and life can very well intersect…unless you do it on a retreat and plow through it.. you may live in a dark night and invite people into your life that project it back to you…..
    so casual meditators beware without a teacher… you can land in dark night, roll up the mat and quit meditating and live the rest of your life there in a dark place with nasty projections etc… until you buckle up and get back to meditation.

    am i correct ? this is my experience but perhaps i am wrong ?

    also – what is also not said here is – i think it is entirely possible to have meditated in a past life and say you quit in your last life in dark night or before dark night…the next one you must go through it until you meditate again and pick up where you left off..

    likely this is why suicide is not a very smart option as you have to then pick up where you left off with your spiritual progress and then come back into life without a memory of meditation which is a huge disadvantage and you can wind up having another really hard life until you meditate..

    this is my speculation, just my perhaps half -baked- theory but i would love to hear your feedback 🙂 !

    yeshe ❤

    • Hello Yeshe,

      There are a few questions here but the two ones that stand out are: do past lives influence your meditation and does being in the dark night influence daily life?

      As far as the first one goes, I make no claims about knowing past lives and such, it is not really my area of expertise. Knowledge of past lives is not a requirement for enlightenment (and could even get in the way of liberation). I can say that regardless of past lives all meditation experiences happen at only one time: NOW. Stay focused on your experience in the present moment and zero in on how the phenomena of living are presenting themselves to you in this moment. Then, regardless of past lives you will make progress toward liberation in this lifetime.

      Your second question is a profound one. Whatever your cutting edge in meditation is (see “The Path”) will influence your thoughts and feelings in daily life. So if your cutting edge is somewhere in the Dark Night (or the “knowledges of suffering” in Buddhism) then you’ll feel that in daily life. Let’s say your cutting edge is at the insight knowledge of “Misery”, then you will actually feel miserable throughout your day, if your cutting edge is the insight knowledge of “Fear” then you will feel anxious throughout your day. If you don’t make the connection between your meditative experiences and your daily life, then you could end up believing that you are suffering depression or some other disorder, or that your life circumstances are to blame for how you are feeling. This could lead to some regrettable choices, so making this connection clear is very important.

      The reverse can be true as well – you could be suffering with depression, with anxiety, or have really awful life circumstances that require some changes, and blame the meditation for how you feel when it is not to blame. In these cases, it is always good to have a meditation teacher with experience in these matters to help you see clearly what is happening. The differences between the Dark Night and what we in psychology call “mood disorders” are pretty subtle and I do not recommend trying to tease them apart from meditation experiences on your own. Seek a teacher when things start to get difficult.

      Ron

  2. thankyou Ron,
    not sure if i was clear about what im trying to ask- i know you are definitly right not to get caught up in past lives and stories…

    but i am more just curious about how the path correlates to life experinece…
    for example i guess what i mean is do you think some of these people who are mentally troubled like schizophrenics or depressives etc…could they be lost in a dark night ?
    how does one determine whether they are in the dark night or not ?

    which made me wonder that then it could be possible- if there are past lives- that they “may” have quit meditating in a past life just as they entered a darknight ?

    so that some people who are messed up in this life are so because they have yet to resume the path where they left off in another life ..? this is what im just curious about.

    if this is true…it would mean looking at mental health in a whole different light…
    that maybe many of these people need to meditate as a way to resolve their dark night ?

    also this could mean that for those who take a casual approach to meditation…and then suddenly quit say after an A+ P experience + some taste of dark night, ….they could be stuck in a dark night for a long time- even years- without knowing their life issues are really just dark night stuff …and will only be sorted out once they resume meditation?

    im just curious to know your hypothesis on this – as meditation and life in my experience for me at any rate seem very interconnected.

    thankyou for your feedback,
    Yeshe

  3. oh and it seems daniel ingram seems to support my theory but not sure im just reading up on this now.. – but it is funny because before i even read this, i had a sense this was the way it worked…but im not clear on if everyone is on the same page or not ? or is this all speculation still ? love to hear your views…

    “Again, if the meditator stops practicing here, they can get stuck and haunted by this stage in the whole of their life until they complete this first progress of insight. Their lack of practice will deprive them of the primary benefits of this stage (i.e., the increased perceptual abilities that allowed them to get this much insight in the first place) and reduce their chances of getting beyond it, and yet the emotional consequences can remain long after the skills in meditation have faded”

    – Daniel Ingram

    yeshe

    • Yeshe,

      It is absolutely the case that one can experience the effects of their meditative practice (including the negative effects) in their daily life, and as Daniel Ingram points out, people can and do become stuck at certain points on the path.

      The way that this works is that whatever your “cutting edge” is when you sit to meditate will influence your mood. So let’s say that, for example, when you sit to meditate you can only go as far along the path as the stage of Dissolution. This means that when you sit you start out at Mind and Body, go up through A&P, and then get to Dissolution and stay there for a bit. Then, if you continue sitting, you would go back down the path to Mind and Body. That means that Dissolution is your cutting edge in meditation; it is as far as you can go. Now, Dissolution is marked by characteristics of feeling slowed down, chilled-out, and difficulty noticing things until they already happened. What will happen off the cushion is that you will cycle up the path to Dissolution throughout your day many times, and that cutting edge will influence your mood. You will notice that off the cushion you feel chill-out and have trouble keeping up with things. Conversations can sometimes be a real challenge when your cutting edge is Dissolution, and when I was going through it I became a real couch potato. It’s a bit of a lazy-feeling stage and this can carry over into daily life in some pretty obvious ways (at least it did for me…).

      The other stages have similar effects. So when your cutting edge is the insight knowledge of Fear you’ll feel keyed-up and on edge much more than usual, and when your cutting edge is Equanimity you’ll feel very “tuned in” and aware of things, but not overly influenced by them. Each insight stage has a particular set of experiences that go with it, and you’ll find that you will see them popping up in your daily life.

      Your question about mental health is a very important one. Unfortunately, there simply is not easy answer to this one, and in fact I am working with a researcher at Brown University on a project to study this very thing. Her name is Willoughby Britton and she was recently interviewed for the Buddhist Geeks Podcast. Check out the interview here: http://www.buddhistgeeks.com/

      Yogis who are going through the stages that are called “The Dark Night” often have experiences that mimic depression, anxiety, bipolar and other mental health disorders. People who do not understand that this is a normal part of the path can become very confused and go to mental health professionals who are unfamiliar with the negative effects of contemplative practice. On the other hand, there is a danger that someone who has depression or some other mental health problem could blame their meditation when they do in fact need psychological treatment, so caution is important and guidance from an experienced teacher is needed.

      Additionally, someone may legitimately have BOTH a mental health problem and be going through the Dark Night. In these cases (which are actually very common) the best approach is to get both mental health treatment and meditation instruction at the same time. Preferably from teachers and counselors who are in contact with one another and understand the methods of the other (though that it the ideal – it rarely happens).

      Excellent questions Yeshe! Thanks for sparking this conversation.

      Ron

  4. thankyou for that reply even better to have some of this in writing to read again when i need it as i love how you put it – regarding the cutting edge especially.

    but still this one point remains unanswered it seems:

    as much as i agree that past life is just a diversion in general, it makes sense to me to know if past lives are involved in this IF you are a map writer and dharma diagnostician lol.
    this is why:

    if past lives do exist then this path has to take into account that it is possible someone did have meditation experience ( possibly) in a previous life, which changes things in a big way :
    means being open to that anyone could be at any stage regardless of if or not they meditated much in this life.

    for example a depressed or even schizophrenic etc..person could be in even final stages of dark night. for all we know, .and possess more awareness than the doctor treating them.

    first my example : say this person passed away in past life in dark night stage, then it is possible they may be reborn in dark night – ?

    first this is tragic- f you think about it because now they have to find the path all over again and pick up where they left off- this adds a whole lot more weight to the path then ! like i fyou found it you better get your act together lol because you don’t want to die before/ or during dark night stage…lest you be reborn in that stage and lose your way in next life…

    also this would mean that meditation path and real life are way more interconnected than separate…even if one is not meditating, they may be lost in a stage somewhere on a map that stretches lifetimes..

    also this may mean that a depressed or schizophrenic patient do not maybe need therapy as a first line of treatment- maybe they are learning insights into suffering and losing foundations/ dark night stuff…..but need meditation not therapy to find their way out…
    so for some -regular therapy- this would only push them further into ego bound victim roles. ” you are bipolar, you are this or that..” you get defined, you tell your family and friends you are this new role now, gets reaffirmed…any time you have a bad day- your sick ! a perpetual victim role is set up by those in power to those who already feel powerless…they become more lost in their role as sick person/ ego.
    does not sound helpful !

    so just maybe although say they aren’t meditating…they may be well on the brink of breaking out of these roles – into “wave land” or at least well on their way through DN once they resume the meditation thread ( left off say in past life)

    of course i suppose it is hard to know where the person is at until the meditate in the present moment to find out. and im not saying medication is not useful, might help to level out the playing field after too much trauma, in order to meditate…

    the idea of past lives will put alot more weight on the importance of meditating through dark night especially to those in it in this very lifetime..god forbid we are going in cycles of this over lifetimes !

    if past lives don’t exist, maybe we can be more lax about our practice and do it as needed… so i think it might matter ?
    what do you think ?

    • Your perceptive questions about mental health are really important and I’m so glad you are asking them. This is an issue that very few psychologists (or patients) know about and so the more we can discuss it openly the better. Unfortunately there is no clear rubric for dharma diagnosis in cases of mental illness, and often they do happen together. Working out whether one is in the DN, going through a depression, or both, takes a lot of time and earnest practice. This is one of the reasons that researchers like Dr. Britton and I are working to better understand this stuff. We need more study and clear knowledge about the differences between the insight stages and mental health problems before we can say with any certainty that someone is experiencing one or the other.

      I would also state that if someone is in such a serious and heavy DN that they are experiencing psychotic symptoms, and that this is happening at a young age and goes on for years, then meditation alone might not be enough to heal. Psychotherapy might be needed to repair damaged social skills, family problems and relationship issues, and to uproot unhelpful beliefs about the self and world that can become deeply embedded when a person suffers for a long time. Enlightenment cures one kind of suffering, but we are still human and plenty of enlightened people have gone to therapy to work on issues (I won’t name names, but it is fairly common).

      Let me reiterate that I am not an expert on metaphysical questions like past lives. I cannot answer them because I have no direct experience of them – to do so would be the dharma version of “malpractice.” There are plenty of teachers who do have direct experience of past lives and will discuss them with people if asked, however, my experience is that even if a teacher has experience of past lives they rarely talk about it (Adyashanti comes to mind) because they are concerned that students could get too fascinated with them and lose sight of liberation here and now.

      Again, thank you for your questions.

  5. Hi Ron,

    How viable do you think it is to treat very harsh Dark Night problems (involving both suffering and decrease in daily functioning) as an Adjustment Disorder, where the Dark Night is a clearly identifiable stressor?

    I ask this question because Adjustment Disorder seems like a good way to start explaining the Dark Night to mental health professionals. While many take issue with the use of the diagnosis, it still communicates the idea of “this stressor is overwhelming the person’s coping abilities.”

    Just to clarify, I’m not implying that the Dark Night is itself an AD. But an implosion on the cushion can spread fallout off the cushion, and AD might be a valuable way to explain that phenomenon to psychologists who haven’t experienced the DN. (Perhaps it would also be a good way to broach the subject with a professional who IS in the dark night, but doesn’t know why their “stress-reduction” has become so stressful lately, or their mood and limbs so heavy.)

    • This is a fascinating idea – and one that I’ve never heard of before. For those who don’t know, here is the diagnositic criteria for an Adjustment Disorder:
      A. The development of emotional or behavioral symptoms in response to an identifiable stressor occuring withing 3 months of the stressor.
      B. The symptoms are clinically significant because they result in either: 1. marked distress that is in excess of what would be expected or (2) significant impairment in social, academic and occupational functioning.
      There are a few other criteria primary to making sure it isn’t depression or some other Axis I disorder and making sure it isn’t bereavement.

      There are pros and cons to this that are worth exploring. In some respects this idea is sensible in that it helps people to understand what is going on from a diagnositic perspective and could help people to work through DN in a more skillful way. After all, if you already buy into AD as a problem adjusting to a significant event, and then you realize it is happening to you, then you might stress out less about what is happening and get on with the business of making the changes needed to adjust. But this pre-supposes that the person is mature about psychological diagnoses. The problem is that a lot of people have some pretty wacky ideas about psychological problems and this could trigger all sorts of problems for them. Things like this make me wonder whether this could trigger unhelpful thinking about the Dark Night among people who have unhelpful ideas about psychology. Namely, people might think that the DN is itself a mental illness, which would be a very problematic way of thinking about it for the practicioner and others. I know that you are clearly not implying that it is, but people can be very unclear about these things, even if you are.

      I think there is no clear answer to this, but the idea is intriguing. It may be useful to introduce the issue of an AD to another mental health professional, but for laypeople I would approach it with a lot of caution. Sorry I cannot give you a more definitive answer, as these are things we are just starting to really grapple with in the research.

  6. Many times I close my eyes, I see inscriptions in English, Hindi and Telugu. But I cannot figure out words clearly, though the inscription is clear

    • Hi,

      I know what you are describing. It has happened to me many times as well. It is funny what the mind will produce when you calm it and loosen it up. The most important thing about these kinds of visions is to note them and let them go right away. Trying to read the inscriptions or figure out what they mean in any sense is likely to lead one away from insight and more into a story about the vision. Enjoy the vision and let it go. Don’t work to understand simply trust that the process will unfold and carry you along as long as you are engaging in the technique.

  7. Hi Ron,

    I have been meditating for about three years on and off but more recently have kept up a good practise. This has led to a lot of benefits in my daily life, such as increased focus and calmness. At the moment I have very little time to devote to mediation but have thought that once I finish my studies I will devote a lot more time to my practise. For a long time I have been keen to practise Vipassana meditation, recently however, after reading about this path of insight, my enthusiasm for diving into a serious meditation practise has waned a little. I still feel somewhat enthusiastic about meditating but feel slightly wary that if I practise too much I might enter into a dark night period. I feel I can deal with negative emotions surfacing in meditation if I know they are more of less temporary, but the idea that i could be stuck disabling dark night feelings for an extended period makes me a little cautious, especially as depression is something I have experienced in the past. Do you think I am getting ahead of myself and that dark night periods are not so easy to get into? Or can I some how put on the brakes in my practise if I feel like I am approaching the A+P unprepared or is it less predictable than that.

    Thanks

    • It is a question worth asking – and it is nice to hear someone thinking rationally about this. It comes down to the question “what am I meditating for?” If you are meditating mostly for relaxation, or to feel good, happy and peaceful in the short term (which are totally legitimate reasons), then vipassana may not be the right way to go. Concentration or metta practice may be a better option. Cultivate the jhanas. However, if wisdom and insight, leading to long term peace and happiness, is your goal, then go with vipassana. You will go through some rough patches, but it will be worth it in the long run.

      One thing to keep in mind is that many of the descriptions of the DN can make it seem pretty awful, but my experience was pretty typical in that it was no more difficult than many other things you go through in life. Frankly, finishing my dissertation was harder, raising a toddler was harder, and lots of other things were harder. The wisdom gained from going through the DN is totally worth it if that is what you are going for.

      On another note, I’ve worked with many students who have had depression and go through the DN. With guidance and support it was no problem. As long as you know what to expect and don’t allow it to become personal, it can be managed. I don’t want to sway you either way, but rather, I want to encourage you to continue thinking it through just the way you are. Making an informed choice is always a good thing.

  8. Thanks for the reply. I guess it is something I will continue to think about, and perhaps begin when i feel ready. It’s reassuring that you say the typical experience of DN is tolerable. It’s easy to get the impression after reading forums (e.g dharma overground) that the usual experience is one that leads to dissociation, harmful behaviour, general disruption in life etc. I guess many people who post on forums don’t really have a context for there experience and also by the very fact that they are posting on forums they are not going through the easiest experiences.

  9. Hi, Ron – I’ve got a question for you . . .

    In your “Refugees From Mindfulness” post, you express your concern about how patients taught various mindfulness practices in clinical settings will sometimes progress sufficiently far along the path of insight that they find themselves grappling with the dukkha nanas without any forewarning.

    I’ve begun to wonder if perhaps the most radical hypothesis in Daniel Ingram’s dharma book, “Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha”, is that many people may progress all the way through an Arising and Passing experience–and thus into the dukkha nanas–WITHOUT engaging in formal vipassana practice. While such folks don’t raise the ethical issues for psychologists that you discuss, it seems likely that many might end up seeking psychological help, at which point, well, I’m not sure what would (or does) happen. Would you have any thoughts to share on this (possible) issue?

    (Thanks for all the great stuff on your site!)

    • I agree with Daniel Ingram on this one: it can happen. But where I tend to disagree is that I do not see it very often. From my experience it is a pretty rare occurrance. There are certain activities that seem to tap the very same factors as vipassana, and can therefore lead to similar results. I have spoken directly with people who have passed the A&P without ever having meditated, simply because they were doing something that was intensely concentrated in the present moment while watching that thing change instant by instant. They did it with great interest for long stretches of time. Add in some relaxation, joy, and a sense of equanimity and you’ve got the factors of enlightenment. It can, and does, happen.
      If such a person goes into therapy they may end up getting diverted by it if the treatment is a more traditional one where the focus is on one’s personal narrative and unconscious drives. However, if a person goes into a present-focused treatment, where the goal is to watch thoughts and sensations as they arise and investigate them, then it could keep the person headed in the right direction. Such treatments do exist.
      The biggest issue of all though is this: the person deserves to know what is happening and why. Sadly, psychology is ill-prepared to help such a person get a handle on the stages of insight and the difficulties that arise with them. It is very unlikely that the person will leave treatment with a true understanding of what is causing the ups and downs they keep experiencing. Until they find an insight meditation teacher who lays it out for them, things are likely to keep cycling and the process will be mysterious, and likely frustrating.

  10. Hi Ron,

    I’m fairly new to meditation and vipassana practice. Over the years I’ve tried mainly concentration mediation to varying results. At the urging of a friend who regular practices vipassana I’ve been doing noting practice with more and more reguarity for about a month now.

    This morning I had a pretty intense experience that my friend suggested you could possibly provide insight on. First, let me state that I’m bipolar, and take lithium daily. Just about four years ago I experienced a full psychotic episode, but since then haven’t really dealt with anything related to that happening.

    This morning, during meditation, I got very relaxed, and experienced a type of disassociation from my body. As I attempted to pull myself out of the meditation, I was distinctly aware that “my arm” was not my arm but rather “an arm.”

    While my friend explained this is part of vipassana practice, this was also an almost identical experience as to when I was psychotic, and am now pretty worried if I continue practice I could push myself back into psychosis.

    I’m hoping you could provide some insight. In the meantime I’ll probably just focus on concentration meditations.

    Thank you,

    Rid D.

    • Yes – step gingerly into vipassana if you have a history of psychosis. There are many things that occur in vipassana that look a lot like psychosis, and if you are not stable those experiences could be very triggering.

      I would recommend that if you plan to move forward with vipassana, that you check in regularly (more than once a week) with a teacher that specializes in vipassana while also notifying your psychiatrist about what you are doing. In other words, you want to create a top-notch support team to handle both aspects of what is going on and can help you put on the brakes if needed.

      I also recommend a strong concentration practice as a compliment to vipassana, as it seems to take the roughness out of the experience, or make it “wet” as the suttas say. That can help a lot if strange things start to arise.

      If you would like to talk about it in more detail, go to the link on the welcome page to book an appointment with me. I’d be more than happy to volunteer an hour to chat with you and help you figure this out. It is a complex issue. Thanks for bringing it to the site.

  11. Hi Ron,
    First of all, I’m not a native English speaker so sorry if I sound like a 5yr old 🙂

    I’ve been diagnosed with general anxiety disorder and obsessive thoughts 3 years ago. I was in therapy for one year, went to a psychiatrist who just gave me Zoloft, after that went to a psychologist but things didn’t get better. After I stopped using meds I started to meditate, and been doing that for 2 straight years. I’m doing mainly samatha (concentration) and a little bit of vipassana. Few months ago I noticed that vipassana is emerging slowly in my samatha practice and that there’s no telling which is which. I kinda like it that, some say it’s a sign of progress. I’ve got rid off 80% of my anxiety problems, became a more socially ongoing person and down to earth.

    Here is the problem – recently I’ve found out that I traded the rest of my life for a cushion. I have been meditating 3x40min daily and started to have trouble integrating the insights in my daily life. The symptom was that all that matter before started to have no significance. Emotions, relationships, concepts etc. So, I listened to an advice of random reddit user from r/Meditation to slow down my practice to just 2 sessions daily so I can integrate the new findings from my practice. Is this the right step?

    And secondly, after switching to just 2 sessions a day I stagnated with my anxiety healing process. It’s seems there is this one step I have to make to get totally rid of my anxiety but I don’t know how to do it. I’m aware of thoughts that are making me anxious, I’ve learned their mechanism but they are still here making my days anxious.

    P.S. sadly, there is no qualified teachers where I live to help me with this problem and I’m a broke student to travel abroad for guidance.

    Thank you for your help,

    Kristijan

    • Hi Kristijan,

      Thank you for sharing your story and reaching out. It sounds like there are two questions here:
      1. Should I be meditating for so long, and is cutting back on the time a good move?
      2. How do I effectively use meditation to reduce anxiety?

      I’ll start with the first question. How long you meditate will vary a lot depending on where you are on the progress of insight and what kind of meditation you are doing. Since you are doing concentration meditation you will actually need much more time than if you were doing insight meditation. A good amount of time for a single concentration sit is about one hour. This is because it can take anywhere between 5 to 30 minutes just to quiet down enough to get started. Most of the sit is spent getting the mind to calm down and stay on one thing. Once it can do this, then the real fun begins and you begin to get that amazing samadhi bliss and sometimes strange experiences. Alternatively, with insight meditation, the busyness of the mind is great for investigation and insight, so it can dive in and get going right away. So vipassana sits are usually much shorter than concentration sits (outside of a retreat).
      I agree that cutting back is a good idea if you find that the sitting is actually interfering with your life. If you are losing friends, late for work, neglecting study, and not fulfilling your obligations in daily life, then backing off makes sense, otherwise you risk creating a situation where you have new problems and stresses created by the meditation – which is the opposite of what you wanted when you started out.
      Alternatively, now might be a good time to consider going on a retreat. If you feel called to meditate all the time, have a sense that good things are happening in the meditation, and are curious to find out how much deeper it can go, then a retreat is the best thing. Ideally you would find a retreat center close by where you could participate in a formal guided retreat, but barring that, some centers allow you to stay and check in with teachers. Since you are focusing on concentration meditation, it would be good to find a retreat that is about developing concentration. I know you are unable to travel far, so you may also do a self-guided retreat. However, it’s best to do this with the guidance of a teacher via daily check-ins by phone or skype.

      The second question is about how to reduce anxiety with meditation. There are two parts to this: reducing the symptoms of the anxiety in the here and now, and reducing the occurrence of anxiety in the future. For reducing the symptoms, concentration meditation and metta meditation are very good. Concentration meditation essentially replaces negative mind states, like anxiety, with light blissful states. So it is effective. The problem is that it is only effective for a short time (which may be why you are meditating so often). To reduce anxiety in the future, you will need to do insight meditation, which eventually helps you to get at the root of stress and de-identify with it. A STRONG word of caution though – insight meditation may make your anxiety much worse before it makes it better. Please read about the Dark Night on the website to find out more.
      There is the possibility that you may have great concentration, deep insight, go far in your meditation, and still find that anxiety keeps coming back. This is a very real possibility, and one you should be realistic about. There are many highly realized meditators who experience things like anxiety and even depression (though they struggle with them less). Sometimes these conditions are so biologically rooted in us that even with profound meditation we still have the condition. Anxiety can sometimes be as fixed in the body as diabetes or asthma. In such cases meditation will not change the condition, but it will help you be more accepting and gentle with yourself.

      There is one last thing you should know about. It is worthwhile to do a lot of self reflection on whether you may be engaging in something called “spiritual bypassing.” This is when people avoid working on psychological problems by turing them into spiritual problems. I am not saying that you are doing this – how could I know? But it is worth being watchful that this does not occur for you. There is no reason why you cannot both meditate, and get treatment for your anxiety from a medical professional. As someone who is in both roles, I can tell you that both approaches are extremely valuable and offer different, and complementary, things.

      I hope that helps. Don’t hesitate to contact me if you would like to chat. I’m available via skype, and for folks with no money (like broke students) I offer to donate an hour of teaching in return for the student donating an hour of volunteer work in their community. Keep it in mind if you want further guidance.

      Ron

  12. Ron,

    I am interested in your any thoughts you may have on “flow”/optimal experience states and the Jhanas. Particularly, some of the descriptions of flow feel reminiscent of the descriptions of the 3rd or possibly 4th Jhana. Unfortunately, I have not even begun to come near the 1st Jhana in my own practice, so cannot compare the experiences for myself. For that matter, I do not even know if the Jhanas are states that can be maintained while performing more complex motor behaviors, such as those often associated with flow states. Is it possible to attain/sustain the Jhanas while performing complex activities like writing, dancing, athletics or painting? If so, can they be sustained in pretty much any circumstance? Do you have any thoughts about this subject that you are willing to share?

    • Hi Owen,
      Flow was identified by the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi as a state of absorbed concentration on a single activity. In a state of flow, time goes by quickly while the person’s attention is fixed, and one thing can be said about flow by anyone who has experienced it: it feels good. A state of flow is a state of happiness. While this idea is a new one in the west, it was discovered millennia ago in Asia. The idea that keeping your attention locked onto an activity will lead to a happy state is central to most enlightenment traditions.
      Jhana is a little tricky, because different people define it differently. Some teachers of jhana, like Ajhan Brahm or Pa Auk Sayadaw define jhana by the loss of sense contact with the body. In other words, if you can still hear sounds, have thoughts, or feel your body in any way, it’s not jhana. Other teachers, like Leigh Braisington, define it more by the factors involved and less by the level of absorption. So identifying when a person has actually experienced a jhana is not clear cut – it depends on who is defining jhana. What many westerners do now is distinguish between “hard” (fully absorbed) or “soft” (non-absorbed) jhana. That allows for a wider range of experiences to qualify as jhana.
      By the hard criteria, flow as defined by Csikszentmihalyi could never really be part of jhana, because people in flow have contact with their body and senses. But it could be part of soft jhana. My personal take on it is that most flow states are actually not jhana, but states the precede jhana, even soft jhana. Flow is a state when attention is becoming stable on the object, the qualities of happiness and even joy are arising, and the mind is becoming settled, clear, and somewhat equanimous. So in that respect the seed of jhana is there. My feeling is that if someone can experience a flow state while meditating, they are getting close to jhana. If you can get into flow states off the cushion, then you know what they feel like and should aim to cultivate that feeling during meditation. That will scaffold you up toward jhana, soft jhana at least.

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