Ron answers questions on a whole range of meditation and psychology related topics, from the online BG community.
“Jill” is 32 and works as a lawyer in the southwest. She wrote to me explaining that during her meditation she sometimes feels a panic attack coming on and has disturbing mental images. She cannot control it and does not know what she is doing wrong. When we talk for the first time I ask her when it began. “It started a few months after my therapist taught me mindfulness…”
Third wave Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is the marriage of modern psychology and ancient buddhist meditation. It has grown rapidly in the past decade, and many psychologists and meditation teachers are enthusiastic about the development, seeing it as a blend of the very best of eastern wisdom with western psychological science. Third wave CBT goes under a variety of names such as Mindfulness-Based CBT (MBCBT), Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) and Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). There are also less structured approaches and informal sitting groups springing up in clinics across the country. It is the rare hospital or clinic that does not have a meditation group these days. This has resulted in a historically unique situation. Psychologists, medical doctors, social workers and counselors are rapidly becoming the vanguard of meditation in the west, introducing people who may have never meditated to the practice.
All these approaches have the common elements of CBT (recognizing and challenging maladaptive thoughts) and a version of meditation that goes under the moniker “mindfulness meditation” or sometimes just “mindfulness.” A review of the treatment manuals for DBT, ACT, MBSR and MBCBT suggest that “mindfulness meditation” is something close to a “soft-vipassana.” The person doing meditation in these treatment protocols is instructed to watch thoughts and feelings come and go on their own without judgment. This leads to the insight that one does not need to believe in, or act on, thoughts or feelings. This is perfect for CBT, which emphasizes the importance of thoughts and beliefs as the drivers of mood disorders. I call mindfulness meditation a “soft” version of vipassana because it stops short of instructing the person to see that everything in awareness is coming and going and is not owned. It also does not emphasize the kind of intense or rapid momentary concentration that marks some vipassana techniques. Instead, clinical mindfulness focuses on relaxation and gentleness (but not samadhi) and points the person to watch thinking and emotional reactions. I would argue that these differences are a very good thing because, despite popular opinion, traditional vipassana would be terrible medicine for a person who is emotionally distraught, unstable, and unable to cope.
That last sentence may be a bit shocking to some. If you are like most people, you associate meditation, all types of meditation, with happiness, relaxation, and maybe even bliss. The idea that it could produce difficulty is not only counter intuitive, it is anathema to how meditation is presented in the west. If anything difficult does occur during the meditation the meditator is likely to feel that they are doing something wrong. If he or she goes to a meditation teacher the advice will likely be to just “let it go,” “drop it,” or my favorite, “thank your mind for it.” This is patronizing. It gives the false impression that if anything distressing does occur during meditation, the problem is one of technique or reactivity on behalf of the meditator. In reality difficult experiences in meditation, ones that are remarkably similar to the symptoms of many mood disorders, are so normal that the most ancient surviving meditation manuals in Buddhism go into great detail about them, categorizing them into six distinct types that occur in a specific order. Far from being a sign of poor meditation, they are actually described as a sign of deepening insight. In other words, the most ancient manuals not only affirm that difficult experiences occur during serious meditation, they posit that these experiences are supposed to happen. They are a definite sign of one’s movement along what the famous Burmese meditation master Mahasi Sayadaw coined The Progress of Insight, and are known as the “dukkha nanas” or “insights into suffering.” This might sound bad, but the good news is that these more distressing insights only occur when one is well on the way and down the path. Meditators usually have to go through a lot of sitting time, develop strong concentration, and become very equanimous before they can enter into the later insights. For this reason it is unlikely that a soft-vipassana approach can get one very far beyond the initial insights and into the dukkha nanas. So in a clinical setting if you stick to the instructions and don’t overdo it, nothing unsettling is likely to occur. I do not believe mindfulness meditation is intentionally designed for this, but if it was it would be a damn clever modification of traditional vipassana.
Despite the limits of mindfulness meditation, there is a problem. A small number of people in clinical settings are unexpectedly good at meditation. With the barest instruction, some people are able to launch themselves deep into the rabbit hole of insights that vipassana is intended to produce. It is an experience that can be troubling and even destabilizing, particularly if one has no idea that it is coming. As third wave CBT has boomed in the past decade these people have become a significant minority in the meditation community. Introduced to meditation through therapy, they find themselves on an emotional ride to which they never agreed, encountering upheavals and difficult truths at the very moment in their lives when they are least able to handle them. That is bad enough, but much worse is that many of the well-intentioned clinicians who teach these techniques have no idea that anything troubling could occur.
Many of the developers of these approaches received their training in meditation through Zen, which eschews the more old fashioned stage-models of insight, and therefore does not formally recognize the predictable difficulties that arise (though every Zen teacher I’ve met is cognizant of them and is well-prepared to handle them). Additionally, for reasons too complex to go into here, traditional vipassana teachers in the west have elected to present the practice without much emphasis on the traditional stages of insight. And so, without intending to, they often leave the simplistic impression that there are no difficulties associated with insight, and that more meditation equals more happiness. The inspired psychologists who learn from these teachers come away greatly impressed with meditation, but with little to no knowledge of the dukkha nanas. They return to their clinics, offices and hospitals and find novel ways to integrate meditation into the treatments of unstable people. Most of these people get great benefit. Some have a different experience, one that is unsettling. And while many meditators may object to this characterization, pointing out that their own experience of dukkha nanas was not so difficult, I would argue that most people who go through it with little trouble are not in the midst of therapy or suicidal.
People who have had this unexpected experience are growing in numbers and are starting to share with each other and with more traditional meditators. They have come to call the dukkha nanas the “dark night” after the Christian experience (some teachers believe they may be in the same mystical family if not the same thing). They are sharing and seeking advice on internet forums and in settings such as the Cheetah House and Dark Night Project where they feel they will not be told to simply “drop it” but will be supported in gaining understanding. They are an unseen, and as yet unrecognized, growing minority of western meditators. Many have no sangha, no formal teacher, no texts or canon, no philosophy or anything resembling “faith.” They are frequently alone, searching the Internet for anyone like themselves, trying to sift through the overwhelmingly positive pitch for meditation for some nugget of information that can illuminate their experience. Like refugees with no home, they do not understand what is happening to them or why, and they often do not know what to do or where to go for help.
This issue is not abstract for me and perhaps my own experience will shed light on why I care so much. Two years ago I received the green light from my teacher to begin teaching insight meditation. I put up a website, told those who knew me what I was up to, and waited to see who would be interested. While I made an effort to write in my own voice, which can be irreverent, what I presented was right down the middle vipassana. However, I did do one thing that was unusual and for which I am very grateful. I went against the common practice of downplaying the insight stages and instead put them front-and-center on the site. I did this because my teacher was clear about them with me, so I followed suit and was candid about them in my teaching. I made sure to include a rich description of the dukkha nanas and cautions to those who may be about to plunge into them. Unbeknownst to me this one gesture of understanding came to define my experience of teaching for the next two years, as the great majority of people who contacted me, and continue to contact me, are in the dark night. Most got into it through formal practice (amazingly, it doesn’t seem to matter much which technique or tradition). But I was alarmed when it seemed that a significant number, perhaps a third, learned to meditate from their therapist or from a group in a clinical setting. Sometimes they were actively suicidal at the time they learned to meditate. Interestingly, the majority never discussed their negative experiences while they were in therapy. Like the therapists themselves, they wanted to believe that meditation was helping, and so they dismissed what was occurring or blamed it on the thing that brought them to therapy in the first place.
As a psychologist this is more than a bit embarrassing, it is troubling. It is one of the ethical principles of psychology that no intervention is done without fully explaining the risks and benefits of the treatment. If an intervention could possibly cause distress, even mild distress, psychologists are ethically obligated to inform the person of this possibility and gain their informed consent before proceeding. Psychologists are not doing this when it comes to mindfulness meditation, chiefly because they do not know there are risks. But more and more people who have participated in it know that there are. This is not a situation created by malice, but by ignorance. Psychologists simply were not told this could ever happen, and were given the impression that the results of meditation were exclusively happiness, calm, and increased wellbeing. They are not to be blamed for this situation, as they have merely borrowed a problem that already existed in the way meditation was being taught to students in the west. It is a problem that continues and in some ways defines what “mainstream” meditation teaching is in the west.
While this is not psychology’s fault, it is only a matter of time before the consequences lay squarely on the shoulders of psychologists who teach mindfulness meditation. Sooner or later, those who teach it will learn about the progress of insight and the dark night. Either from writings like this or from patients themselves. When they do they will face an ethical dilemma about whether to continue teaching meditation in clinical settings. While meditation teachers can essentially “get away” with not telling people about the dark night, psychologists do not have this luxury. Ethically, we are obligated to acknowledge the risks and be cautious. This is not happening yet, but it is my sincere hope that those enamored of third wave CBT will examine not only the manuals and the studies, but look deeply into the descriptions of insight in the pali cannon. Even better, talk with meditators who have experienced a dark night, researchers who study it, or best of all dive into it and see what it is like. Psychologists might benefit most from going beyond mindfulness meditation, breaking loose of the manual, and seeing how far this practice can go. Then there might be more respect for the powerful, and sometimes life-shaking, changes that vipassana can create in the heart and mind. It is my hope that psychology will soon lose its infatuation with meditation, and begin to evaluate it as a tool for change in a more mature light, seeing both the promise and the dilemmas. Until this happens I expect the community of mindfulness meditation refugees to grow.
Metta meditation is a core practice for many people, and if you meditate or participate in a contemplative tradition, the concept of “self-compassion” is probably very familiar to you. Most versions of metta begin with one’s self as the object of compassion. As the well-known meditation teacher Jack Kornfield explained, “If your compassion does not include yourself, it is incomplete.” The logic of self-compassion is very sound. If you want to be compassionate to others, you must be compassionate to yourself first. You simply cannot give what you do not already have. As Pema Chodron has explained “in order to have compassion for others, we have to have compassion for ourselves.” Strong metta always includes the meditator in some sense.
While self-compassion has ancient roots in Buddhism, modern psychologists are only now discovering its importance for one’s psychological health. Researchers like Dr. Kristin Neff are finding that self-compassion can have a dramatic effect on one’s well-being, and the findings of her research are entering into mainstream publications. What psychologists like Neff are discovering is that the concept of self-compassion may not be just a warm-and-fuzzy idea, but a critical ingredient for living a whole and healthy life. Additionally, while psychology has traditionally viewed compassion or empathy as something akin to a stable trait, research is showing that it can be taught and learned (no big surprise to meditators). Dr. Neff proposes that self-compassion is actually a compound of three key processes: self-kindness rather than self-judgement, feelings of common humanity rather than isolation and mindfulness rather than over-identification with one’s feelings and experiences. Any meditator will recognize these immediately as core competencies in Buddhism. Whether they are parts of self-compassion can be debated, but a factor analysis of her scale shows that she may be on to something.
The single biggest objection to learning self-compassion is that it seems self-indulgent. Stopping to give yourself a break when you are tired, telling yourself that you’re only human when you make a mistake, or liking yourself despite your flaws may seem self indulgent at first glance – especially to someone that is unfamiliar with self-compassion. However, the research on self-compassion shows that it is associated with more personal initiative, not less. What might look like mild indulgence is actually a set of effective coping skills that lead people to be calmer, happier and more productive. People who practice self-compassion deal with failure with less anxiety, are more understanding, and have greater energy to work on the problems they face. Self-compassion means acknowledging failure and facing challenges honestly, while caring for oneself throughout. It is only indulgent when viewed from the perspective that what motivates us to succeed is fear of failure or punishment.
Meditation teachers who are also psychologists, like myself, are also taking notice of the emerging research and are beginning to recommend self-compassion as a valuable practice for virtually everyone. And in my psychology practice, once they have experienced the results of self-compassion for themselves, many parents are interested in fostering it in their children. In particular, parents and those who work with children are beginning to see self-compassion as a more skillful alternative to the intense focus on self-esteem that has dominated parenting guides in recent years.
While many parents want to teach self-compassion to their children the most traditional forms of generating self-compassion, like metta meditation, recitations and visualizations don’t fit well into most children’s lives. Can you imagine your child sitting still for 20 minutes and reciting a compassionate wish over and over? I didn’t think so. So the question becomes how do we teach what appears to be such an abstract concept to children? What follows are some concrete tips based on what I have learned from working with parents and children:
1. Label emotions, good and bad
Before children can skillfully work with difficult emotions and be kind to themselves they need to recognize what they are experiencing clearly, and having a word for the emotion goes a long way toward healthy coping. This is the childhood version of the skill adults call “mindfulness,” or clearly seeing one’s own experience in the moment. When a child is angry, sad, irritable, happy, surprised, jealous, etc. simply say “You’re feeling…” and label the emotion without judgment. Children will learn to do this for themselves and that is the first step toward doing something positive about feeling bad. Self-compassion is a natural outcome of self-understanding, so encourage your child to know him or her self well.
2. Show, don’t tell.
As Jim Henson once said, children “…don’t remember what you try to teach them. They remember what you are.” Children learn to be a good friend to themselves when they see adults do it right in front of their eyes, so don’t hold back. When you’ve had a bad day, explain that you are going to do something nice for yourself to feel better. When you make a mistake tell yourself out loud that it is OK to make mistakes and that is how we learn. Most of all, don’t hide your frustrations and difficulties from your child, share them, but always share them with a strong dose of being good to yourself.
3. Acknowledge failure and difficulty
An important part of self-compassion is an honest acknowledgement of failure and difficulty. Simply noting aloud that the science project did not work out or that it was difficult to get through that dentist visit is the first step toward recognizing that problems and failure are a part of our common humanity. When a child is comfortable owning failure as well as success, and continues to like herself despite the failure, then compassion is encouraged. As with the argument of self-indulgence, some may see accepting failure as a way to encourage more failure, but nothing could be further from the truth. Seeing failure or difficulty as an anomaly in what should be an endless chain of perfection is the source of much frustration and needless suffering.
4. Point out and praise
When you catch your child being kind to himself, let him know that you like it. Praising your child increases the likelihood that he will repeat what he was doing when you praised him, and specifically tying the praise to self-compassion is even more effective. Simply saying “I like it when you are nice to yourself” when you notice self-compassionate behavior will go long way toward making your child more kind to himself in the future.
5. Make a meme of self-compassion
While children never remember lectures, they do remember sayings and aphorisms. A simple turn of phrase, capturing the meaning in a memorable way, will stay with a child for years. When it comes to self-compassion, here are a few: “kindness begins with yourself”, “be nice to everybody, and don’t forget you’re part of everybody” and “we take care of each other and ourselves too.”
Teaching children skills like these can be hard work and don’t forget that parenting is sometimes the perfect place for you as a parent to practice self-compassion. Society teaches us to judge ourselves harshly for the mistakes we inevitably make as parents, and to focus on our failings and worry about our shortcomings. Ironically, parents do a much better job when they are not preoccupied with how well they are doing and instead focused on enjoying their time with their child. When the judging thoughts come, practice some self-compassion for yourself. This will be a great model for your child and a great way of looking after the both of you.
Anyone who has meditated, even for a minute, is familiar with at least one of the five hindrances. While they are still the best overview of the issues that come up during meditation, some meditators are facing modern versions of these that can be confusing. Here is a list of some of the most common.
The meditation intellectual. You’ve met this person. You might be this person (I’ve been this guy on a few occasions). He or she can quote from the suttas and knows the original Pali, Chinese and Sanskrit for lots of obscure Buddhist, Taoist and non-dual concepts. While this might be an advantage when debating on internet forums, it can be a hinderance when one sits down to settle the mind and meditate. Nothing gets in the way of meditation more than thinking about meditation so much that one thinks about meditation during meditation.
Being a technique-o-phile or a technique-o-phobe
I once worked as a mechanic. In the shop we loved to argue about which tools were the best. One group loved Snap-on, another loved Mac, and still others swore by Matco and so on. The debates were heated and endless. Meditative techniques, like noting, breath concentration or visualizations, are also tools. They are employed to support a process of change in the mind and heart, and are valuable only for that reason. However, just like the mechanics in my old shop, meditators often divide themselves up into camps and swear by one technique or another. Some refuse to use any technique at all. Being too wedded to any technique or to no technique is missing the point. The tool is not important. It is the work the tool is intended to accomplish that matters.
Internal debate (lack of confidence)
External debates are a big distraction for some, but internal debates plague most meditators. Am I doing it right? Is this the right technique? Maybe I could let go more. Could this be the wrong time to meditate? Although it is normal for beginning meditators to debate with themselves and try new things in starts and fits, the speculation over how to improve one’s meditation could literally go on forever. For some people it feels as though it does, and they find themselves struggling with this years into a regular sitting practice. The internal debate is the wicked little child of the hindrances of doubt and restlessness, so it is best to target those. The solution to this hinderance will be a little different for everyone, but generally it will be a combination of calming the mind through concentration and setting clear resolutions or goals at the start of each sit that clarify what one will do. Having someone you are checking in with, whether it is a teacher or a friend, can help as well.
We have all been there. You are sitting in meditation, watching the breath, when the memory of something painful comes up and… you realize that you’ve been afraid of the pain of that awful event that happened when you were four and which eventually led to your defensiveness in so many relationships and your fear of your own success, and because of that fear you have never been comfortable with your own body and compensated by all sorts of behaviors that eventually led to difficulty in your family which then led to…
Meditation can bring up a lot of things in the mind but few are as “sticky” as self-psychotherapy. Examining and rehashing our own personal story is extremely tempting when meditating, but it rarely leads to insight into the nature of reality. Instead it leads to insight into the nature of this ego and its problems. Aim higher. Go bigger. Don’t settle for putting yourself on the couch when you could be seeing through all of that and getting in touch with something much more profound.
Some Western meditators just can’t shake their puritan roots no matter how hard they try. Pursuing awakening is not always fun (it can be very difficult and harsh), but the pursuit should not kill one’s sense of fun in life. The meditator suffering from too much seriousness has a mind that is too rigid, too hard, unable to be flexible and meet the challenge of the moment. Eventually, the major challenge of meditation is to completely surrender, and this only happens when the tight fist of rigidity unclenches. When you see any “fun” with meditation as unskillful, then you are in trouble. One useful antidote to this is to ask yourself how things got so serious in the first place. Often you’ll find that the rigidity is tied to a sense of identification around the meditation itself. For example, folks who want to be a “good Buddhist,” or a “real yogi” sometimes end up in this trap. Question your vision of “good” practice.
As is pretty clear from this website, I’m a fan of mapping out the path. But knowing that map, while empowering when you are getting up and started, can become a hinderance. Most students who know the insight path well know that they can become obsessive about where they are and what is going on. Am I in the dark night or equanimity? Is this dissolution or the arising and passing? Was that stream entry or something else? Knowing the map can lead to a lot of thinking about the map – during meditation. The problem is that this can feed the sense of self that thinks it is making its way along the path. In the larger scheme of things this is a self-correcting problem (pardon the pun) because when one gets to a certain point on the map dropping the self is the only way left. The key is to be an informed meditator. Knowing the map is fine and using it is skillful. But when you are in the midst of meditation, set it aside. A good driver wouldn’t try to read a map while driving, so don’t try to use the map while meditating.
Seeking the mystical, ignoring the mundane
Mystical states, strange powers, psychic intimations, bliss and peak experiences – these are obstacles to insight when they become the goal of practice. Chasing a grand experience leads to a dead end because seeing the truth of matters is often mundane. This is not to say that mystical and strange things do not occur, they often do. It is when one seeks these experiences that problems arise. One of the characteristics of awakening is that while it is consciously recognized as something extraordinary, it also feels very mundane. This paradox is always so unexpected that it often feels like a cosmic joke. Don’t worry about rarified experiences. Aim to have the cosmic joke played on you.
Putting too much or too little effort into the practice is a common obstacle, and it’s tricky to recognize in the beginning. When a person puts too much effort into their meditation, it stalls out under their attempts at control. The first instinct is often to try harder, and the problem gets worse. And for those who have come to believe that any effort is the wrong way to go, when they start spacing out or getting lost in daydreams the first impulse is to “just be” even more. The key is to find that balance in effort that allows you to stay present with whatever arises without trying to control the experience. The antidote to this is to see that it is happening and run a few experiments when you meditate. Try a little less effort or a little more. What happens?
The self-improvement project
The path of insight is one in which the self becomes less important, not more. As one sees more deeply into moment-to-moment experience, the very creation of the sense of self in each instant becomes observable, and this dramatically changes one’s view of the self. However, this process can get derailed if the meditator is trying to become something from the meditation. Any attempt to create a better version of yourself will stall out the process. This doesn’t mean you can’t have a sincere wish to become a better person. Serious meditators often start off with this kind of self-improvement project when they take their first steps toward meditation. I started off by wanting to be a more relaxed version of myself. However, as the path unfolds, you need to abandon the self-focused motivation in favor of the motivation to see reality clearly. If you can’t abandon the self-improvement project, you can’t abandon the self.
Abandoning all goals
To put it simply, it is a mistake to do this too early in your practice. There are excellent reasons to meditate with no goals and to abandon all goals entirely, however this approach fits best into an advanced practice. Too many novice meditators (pre stream-entry) read about goal-lessness and end up with no real way to start. Some can get stuck in a relaxing spaciness that leads nowhere and end up doing this as their practice for years. It is absolutely reasonable to set goals for your meditation early on. In the beginning it could be as simple as sitting for a certain length of time. Then it could be to count a certain number of breaths. And as the practice matures and one starts to see the path unfold you can aim your efforts at stream entry. Goals are important. Especially before the first taste of awakening. Once practice has matured to a certain point the logic of setting goals for your meditation will seem foolish and silly. Then you will know that you have outgrown them and the time for abandoning goals in practice has arrived.
Great expectations or no expectations (believing the biased sample)
The internet has been one of the biggest turnings of the wheel of the Dhamma ever. More people have more access to information on meditation than ever before. This is literally true and a bit amazing to ponder. However, those who post their experiences with meditation on the internet often have something unique or compelling to share. When so many people share their compelling experiences, it can seem as if everyone is having unusual and mind-blowing experiences. The average meditator can sometimes feel as if their perfectly normal experience is anything but. The reports found on the internet can sometimes be what social scientists call a “biased sample” in that those meditators who share on the internet have a bias, or an unusual experience, compared to the general population. For meditators who are starting out, it is important not to expect unusual experiences. And for those who have some sitting time behind them it is important not to discount it.
This list of modern hindrances is in no way exhaustive. There are others not included, but my hope is that by bringing up some of the most common ones, others will be easier to work on as well. As with everything, the key to overcoming the hindrances is to first see them for what they are, and having a name for them helps.