The Top Ten Mistakes made by Buddhist Meditation Practitioners

This week’s post is an article that we recently published in The Buddhist Voice: The Top Ten Mistakes made by Buddhist Meditation Practitioners. We wrote this paper with our friend and colleague Prof Mark Griffiths and the full citation is as follows: Shonin, E., Van Gordon, W., & Griffiths, M. D. (2014). The top ten mistakes made by Buddhist meditation practitioners. Buddhist Voice, 1(5), 22-24.

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The Top Ten Mistakes made by Buddhist Meditation Practitioners

There are many excellent Buddhist texts that focus on how we should practice meditation – but it’s not always easy to come across material that specifically points out where meditation can go wrong. Based on a review of both the scientific and Buddhist literature, and on observations from our own research and practice of meditation, this article considers what we believe to be the top ten mistakes made by Buddhist meditation practitioners:

1. Not starting to meditate: Although not taking up the practice of meditation can’t really be said to be a mistake made by people who meditate, we decided to include this because there are clearly people that are interested in practicing meditation but never actually get round to doing so. For example, a recent survey by the UK’s Mental Health Foundation found that more than half of British adults would like to practice meditation, but only a quarter actually do so. Despite our best intentions and no matter how many meditation books we might read, if we never actually get around to practicing meditation, then the fruits of meditation practice will never develop.

2. Giving-up once started: As with many things in life, it is not uncommon for people to begin practicing meditation enthusiastically, but then give up as soon as they encounter a minor difficulty. One reason why many Buddhists don’t keep up their meditation practice is because they have unrealistic expectations as to what meditation entails. Meditation is not a quick-fix solution. Long-lasting spiritual growth requires perseverance and a great deal of practice. Thinking that meditation can immediately solve all of our problems or change our life overnight is a mistake. However, just as all effects follow a cause, the day-in day-out infusing of all aspects of our life with meditative awareness gradually begins to soften the conditioned mind and – over time – allows rays of tranquillity and insight to slowly break through. When correctly practiced, meditation can be extremely hard work and requires us to be patient and compassionate with ourselves. However, meditation also requires us to thoroughly enjoy life, no matter what situation we find ourselves in. Meditation isn’t easy, but it can – and should – be fun!

3. Not finding a teacher: An accomplished spiritual guide is necessary for effective meditative and spiritual development. Many people underestimate  the importance of this point, and misunderstand the role of the spiritual guide more generally. From the Buddhist perspective, the role of the spiritual guide is not so much about transmitting extensive volumes of teachings, but more about removing obstacles that cloud the mind and prevent its true nature from shining through. In other words, the teacher’s role is about removing confusion from the mind rather than cluttering it up with more concepts and theories. The spiritual guide has been likened to a skilful surgeon that carefully cuts away infected or damaged tissue. This can be a painful process, but it is necessary to make a full recovery. In a research paper that we recently published in the Journal of Religion and Health, we showed that meditation practitioners made better progress where they felt they were guided by an experienced meditation teacher. Given that most people’s minds have had many years to become highly accomplished in the practices of mindlessness and self-centredness, a skilful guide is required to help undo this deep-rooted conditioning.

4. Finding an unsuitable teacher: Worse than not finding a spiritual guide, is following one who is inappropriately skilled and qualified. People can spend many years practicing ineffective meditation techniques and achieve little more than bolstering the ego (and bank account) of their chosen guide. Meditation teachers who offer palm readings in exchange for money and/or that (try to) predict lottery numbers are quite easy to identify as frauds. But things can get a little trickier when, for example, a teacher without authentic spiritual realization happens to be a holder of an established lineage, has extensive scholarly training, and/or is a ‘recognised’ reincarnate lama. With such credentials, it can be very difficult for people to discern whether or not they are being led astray. To perform the role effectively, the spiritual teacher must be highly skilled in understanding and guiding people’s minds. According to the 15th century Tibetan Buddhist saint Tsong-kha-pa, a suitable spiritual guide is one who is “thoroughly pacified”, “serene” and “disciplined”. So as Buddhist practitioners, we should ask lots of questions and take time to get to know our prospective meditation teacher. However, at the same time, we should avoid having too many preconceived ideas and should try not to listen to other people’s opinions. Realized spiritual guides can take various guises and may not always fit what we deem to be the ‘perfect mould’. A good question to ask ourselves is:  ‘Do I feel enriched physically, mentally, and spiritually when in this person’s presence’? Try to allow your intuitive mind to answer this question rather than taking an overly-analytical approach.

5. Trying too hard: Trying too hard to make progress meditatively and/or spiritually can often lead to extreme behaviors. Extreme behaviors can cause life to become unbalanced and invariably give rise to unhealthy consequences. We discussed this in a recent issue of the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry in which we highlighted the scientific evidence showing that over-intensive meditation practice can actually induce psychotic episodes. Therefore, what we should really be aiming to do is to implement the Buddhist teachings of adopting a ‘middle-way philosophy’ towards our meditation practice (i.e., between too-little and too-much meditation). An approach of ‘short sessions, many times’ is generally preferred by Buddhist teachers – but the most important thing is to adopt a meditation routine that works for the individual.

6. Not trying hard enough: Meditative development requires us to make the ‘right effort’ at all times. Sometimes people try to cram in their meditation practice with all of the other activities of their lives and then make the excuse that they don’t have time to practice. However, this approach often leads to a stressful attitude towards meditation and for some people the practice may quickly start to become a chore. Therefore, the trick is to not create a separation between your meditation practice and the rest of your life. In fact, it’s when you blow out your candles and stand up from your meditation cushion (or chair) that the practice really begins. While sitting at the computer, cooking the dinner, doing the weekly food shop, or even when going to the toilet, do your best to do so meditatively. Real meditators are those that can practice ‘on the job’. Try not to battle with yourself – make the present moment your home and simply bring your awareness to whatever you are doing.

7. Forgetting about death: One of the main reasons why people’s meditative practice goes astray is because they forget about death. We only have to look in the mirror to be reminded that from the moment we are born, every single day of our lives that goes by brings us closer to our death. We can’t hide from death nor can we predict when we will die. In fact, at any one time, the only thing that separates us from death is a single breath in or out. In general, people are complacent about death and continue to immerse themselves in totally meaningless activities. However, such complacency quickly disappears when people find themselves at death’s door. The Buddhist teachings explain that if  we haven’t made our human rebirth into a precious one (i.e., by infusing our life with spiritual awareness), then at the time of death we will be totally confused and tormented by regret and fear. At this time, family, friends, possessions, and reputation count for absolutely nothing. Our life will have been wasted and we will be leaving an island of jewels (i.e., the human rebirth) empty handed. So there really isn’t any time to delay our spiritual practice because all we can take with us when we die is that which we have accomplished spiritually – everyone and everything else must stay behind. So a good Buddhist practitioner is someone who, in every single breath and every single heartbeat, is deeply aware of the uncertainty of the time of death as well as its inevitability. From this perspective, perhaps death might even be thought of as the meditation practitioner’s best friend.

8. Letting doubt overrun the mind: If death is arguably the meditation practitioner’s best friend, then doubt is probably their worst enemy. Having met a suitable spiritual guide, doubt is what causes people to begin to find ‘faults’ in their teacher’s character and break their sacred connection to the Buddha-Dhamma. Unfortunately, just as a branch withers and dries up when it falls from the tree, the same happens when the connection with the spiritual teachings is severed. It’s not that doubt should be feared or run away from because it is a necessary part of spiritual growth. However, what we need to do is to know how to deal with doubt when it arises. In general, the reason why doubt arises has less to do with people becoming suspicious of the teachings or teacher, and more to do with them becoming suspicious of themselves and their own experiences. So when doubts arise, take a few deep breaths and centre yourself in the present moment. Give yourself plenty of time to examine your doubts and use them as a means of becoming a stronger practitioner. Rather than a blind conviction in the teachings or teacher, the best antidote to doubt is logical reasoning and reflection from a centred and stable mind-state. Actively reason things through but most importantly, rely on your own experiences. In short, if you are confused, then enjoy being confused!

9. Becoming dependent on meditation: In papers that we recently published in the British Journal of General Practice and the Journal of Behavioural Addictions, we referred to the risk of people actually becoming addicted to meditation. This is consistent with the Buddhist classical literature that contains cautionary notes regarding practitioners becoming overly attached to meditative bliss. Indeed, it seems that some people can even confuse meditative bliss (Sanskrit: prīti) with the state of enlightenment. Getting ‘stuck’ in states of meditative bliss (e.g., by exclusively practicing shamatha meditation) is a bit like taking painkillers when what’s really needed is an appendicitis. In other words, meditative bliss helps to calm the mind but it dosn’t remove mental afflictions at their roots – that’s why a combined approach of shamatha with vipashyana meditation is generally preferred. Also, the idea is not to use meditation to escape from the world and its problems, but as a tool for developing and engaging a compassionate heart.

10. Being a ‘meditation practitioner’: When, after many years of meditation practice, we eventually begin to experience some of the fruits of meditation that we have worked so hard for, it’s easy to start to think we have become a highly-accomplished meditation practitioner. We might think that there is no longer any clinging to a sense of self, and that we have finally conquered the ego. Indeed, it’s unfortunately not uncommon for meditation practitioners to do a good job in uprooting large portions of their ego-clinging, only to become attached to the idea that they are somebody that has defeated the ego. Of course, this situation is simply another example of the ego reclaiming its territory and of us deceiving ourselves once again. Therefore, from the outset, what we should be aiming to do is to completely let go of the concept of ‘being a meditator’ and even of ‘being a good Buddhist’. In fact, if a person is in any way caught up in regarding themselves as a ‘meditation practitioner’, then they’ve’ve totally missed the point!

The Challenges and Rewards of Learning to Meditate at 83 Years of Age

The Challenges and Rewards of Learning to Meditate at 83 Years of Age

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Today we have a guest blog written by Jacqi Sein who is a close friend of ours. Jacqi is 83 years of age and started to learn meditation a few years ago following the death of her husband. The theme of Jacqi’s post is the challenges and rewards of learning to meditate at 83 years of age.

I was born in 1931 in Victoria, Australia, on newly-settled land. One of my earliest memories is of sitting on top of a farm-gate, accompanied by some older children. The gate led into a paddock or enclosed patch of land that was used for holding cows and their new-born calves. In the paddock was a man driving an old T-model Ford truck – he was trying to catch his cow. She evaded him again and again, running in circles around the paddock. When he failed to catch her he started to lose his temper and he began to drive the truck faster. She ran until exhausted, but he kept on, driving her along by crashing into her backside when she slowed. Eventually she staggered and fell, covered in blood, foam, froth and dirt, and died an agonizing death. I watched.

Everyone went home to tea, but I sat on the gate in a misery of pity until someone came to find me. I never forgot the experience and a few years later, when I could read properly, I found a book in the school-library called The Youngest Disciple by Edward Thompson (published in 1938). It told the story of the Lord Buddha walking through the countryside with his disciples, practising compassion and kindness to man and beast alike, and teaching the Four Noble Truths of Suffering.

The First Truth stated that all life is suffering. Birth, sickness, pain, grief, loss, and death – these are all forms of suffering. To have what one does not want is suffering and not to have what one wants is suffering. The Second Truth refers to the causes of suffering. Craving, desire, attachment, the never-ending clutching after riches and pleasure – these are all the roots of suffering. The Third Truth refers to the end or cessation of suffering. If greed, craving and desire are annihilated, then the mind can finally find peace and stillness. Lastly, the Fourth Noble Truth teaches the path that leads to the end of suffering – the Noble Eightfold Path – which includes Right View, Right Thinking, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Diligence, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration. The Buddha’s teaching on the Four Noble Truths made a great impression on me.

I took to heart the teachings that this book revealed to me, and as I grew up I developed an interest in Buddhist practice and also in Buddhist art and architecture. When I was twenty years of age I came to live in London, England. Here I met and married a young Burmese diplomat who was a practising Theravadan Buddhist. We had a daughter together and lived happily in England for the next 60 years.

It wasn’t until my husband died a few years ago (following many years’ illness) that I was in need of a Buddhist monk to officiate at my husband’s funeral. After making some enquiries, I was fortunate enough to find not one but two Buddhist monks living and teaching in the area. They could not only take care of the deceased but could also tend to the living. In addition to fulfilling an inconceivable number of roles and touching, on a daily basis, countless peoples’ lives with a never-ending torrent of compassionate and selfless acts, the two monks were giving bi-weekly meditation classes and lectures on Mahayana Buddhism, to which they invited me.

Although I had read numerous books on Buddhism and had been exposed to Buddhist culture through my husband, I decided to start at the very beginning. I was amazed at just how many books on Buddhism there are these days. This is very different from when I was young where there was only a handful of authors to choose from. However, something I have learned recently is that although books are useful, there is nothing as beneficial as having resident teachers, such as the two monks I met, who are always on hand to help explain things from their own experience.

A New Family

Over the course of the last few years I have gradually immersed myself in Sangha living. The Sangha is a group of people who live together, in order to practise the Buddha’s teachings. Spending time with the Sangha very quickly exposes one’s bad habits that have been acquired over a long, fully-lived life. These may need to be modified or even eliminated for the sake of the other Sangha members who are moving quietly and mindfully through their day. Noise can be distracting for others, as can slamming doors, clattering plates in the sink, humming a tune, or whistling mindlessly. Therefore, for people like me that are a bit hard-of-hearing, having an understanding Sangha is helpful, but one also needs to constantly remind oneself (and be reminded) to slow down and go gently.

The Sangha is a new spiritual family, a source of strength and calmness in a new and very fast-paced world. One needs to be able to graciously accept admonishment, which should not be seen as a personal criticism. Gentle censure of one’s actions can be a joy, especially if it is accepted in the right spirit – it helps not to argue back or make excuses (something that I am particularly good at). It also shows that others have confidence in one’s efforts to become a useful, acceptable member of the community. Thus, one must not allow failure in any task to affect one’s determination, and self-discouragement should be avoided.

If we consider the Sangha as a microcosm, and society in general as a macrocosm, then we can see that everything we think and do affects everything around us. A small number of practitioners living gently and in awareness creates an epicenter of peace and insight that begins to spread out into the community. There are lots of old-age people living in the wider community and it is important that they are also introduced to and nourished by this practice of happiness. In fact, one of the central messages of Sangha living is that everybody has something to offer. Age is not seen as a problem or a handicap. One does one’s best with the abilities and experience at one’s disposal. Everyone is able to offer something to somebody else. Everybody is everybody else’s teacher and everybody has a role.

Putting Up with Aches and Pains

When it comes to learning to meditate at eighty-three years of age, the first challenge is putting up with physical discomforts. One attempts to sit cross-legged on a cushion on the floor but very soon, amidst creaks of protesting joints, the dreaded cramp sets in. The next thing that happens is that the back begins to ache and before long concentration is completely lost. Therefore, unlike myself who can be as stubborn as a mule, the best thing to do is to take on-board the teacher’s advice and sit in a chair. I find that if I make an effort to sit in a chair and keep a straight-back, relaxed but poised, then things work just fine. One sits calmly, mindfully breathing, and enters the world of stillness and inner reflection.

The dimming of faculties with age may make the task more difficult, but for me, time no longer holds any limit or threat. With compliance and a growing understanding, and love of one’s chosen path, it is not too difficult to acquire a sense of absolute freedom of the mind and spirit. This clarity of mind and purpose helps to intensify things that previously went unnoticed. For example, in the shopping-centre, one becomes aware of people endlessly rushing and pushing, frantic to get on with the business of acquiring more and more ‘things’. I must have done it myself in the not-too-distant past, but now I try to refrain from rushing and from buying things I don’t really need. I try to proceed through the day mindfully and gently. It isn’t easy, old habits die slowly, but we maintain vision and dedication to the task. At the close of the day, one should feel that it has passed profitably, with structure and purpose. Seeing one’s improvements clearly as well as areas still to be improved can bring joy, comfort and calm.

Thinking about the Future

I would say that choosing to commit to a spiritual and meditative way of life whilst in one’s eighties is not an easy thing to do. It causes all kinds of challenges – physical, mental, spiritual, and domestic. I suspect that some people think I’m losing my marbles and have difficulties in understanding why I am so passionate about learning to live and breathe the Buddha’s teachings when I am already well into old age. However, to even make a small amount of progress with meditation or have any chance of developing spiritual awareness, one needs absolute dedication to the task at hand. One also needs the support of a Sangha of like-minded people who are able to help and give comfort to each other on the path to ultimate spiritual freedom. To those who say that I am too old, that I haven’t time left for all this, I say yes I have, and I also say that I “hold infinity in the palm of my hand”.

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