When I went on my first silent meditation retreat I had to fill out a form. It included questions about whether I had ever been suicidal, if I was on any medication for mental health issues, and asked for the phone number of my psychiatrist, if I had one, or for the phone number of a mental health crisis contact.
I thought it was funny at first, but after about 36 hours in the desert I got it. This was one of the big breakthroughs in my meditation practice – it’s not always going to be pleasant. And it’s not supposed to be.
There’s this modern cultural vision of meditation as natural Xanax, but it isn’t. And it shouldn’t be approached as such. Meditation can lead to calmer, less aggressive states of mind, but to get there requires digging through lots of unpleasant and ugly bullshit that could make you upset, could trigger old traumas, and could make you deeply uncomfortable and unhappy.
So a caveat: I am not a meditation teacher. I don’t write about meditation here that much because I do not feel qualified to speak about it with any sort of authority, and because my own meditation practice could probably be improved these days. But I read an article in The New Scientist that made me want to chime in with some thoughts. It’s titled “A Quarter of People Who Meditate Experience Negative Mental States,“ and I have a real problem with this headline. This headline, I think, is misleading and incorrect. Here’s the headline I would have gone with:
“Pretty Much Everybody Who Meditates Experiences Negative Mental States”
The article points out that people who do Vipassana meditation – the kind of meditation I do – seem to experience negative mental states related to their meditation more often. That makes perfect sense. Vipassana asks us to be aware of what we’re experiencing in the moment and to look at it – not to avoid it, not to put it aside, but to sit with it. If you’re sitting a Vipassana meditation and your leg cramps the advice is to explore the cramping feeling, to get familiar with the unpleasant nature of the experience. Obviously don’t sit in a way that will injure you, but being uncomfortable is expected in this meditation style. Not just expected, it’s part of the deal.
This is why I find myself so suspicious of many meditation evangelists – they seem to be selling a panacea that doesn’t exist. Meditation isn’t an instant cure, it’s part of a larger process that is hard and sometimes scary and sometimes exhausting. The benefits are real – I know they’re real because I’ve experienced them, and I’ve experienced the backsliding when I’ve fallen off my practice – but they’re not instant. And they’re not as easy as popping a pill or implementing one simple lifehack.
I’m not trying to turn anyone off from meditation – I think literally everyone should be doing it – but I’m also not trying to pretend that it’s this immediately super chill experience. You will have lots of bad thoughts when you meditate, because your mind will begin generating bad thoughts in an effort to get you to stop meditating. Your mind will probably hate that you meditate – we’ve trained our minds to become these ADD dervishes, and meditating require the mind to slow down and focus. We have become distracted dervishes in order to not think about all the anxiety and fear we have, and meditating opens the door for those anxieties and fears to make themselves known.
But the argument of meditation is that once they’re known, they’re harmless. It’s the equivalent of a hulking figure standing in the shadows, but once it steps into the light you realize it’s three kids on each other’s shoulders in a trench coat. It’s not easy to face these things, but once faced they lose their power over us. Once we see that they’re illusions, confusions and that they’re temporary, they begin to fade away. That’s how meditation works.
The story of the Buddha’s enlightenment explains this to us in a delightfully mythological way. Spiritual seeker Siddhartha Gautama decided to sit under a tree until he had finally achieved enlightenment, and as the days turned into weeks the trickster god Mara got wind of this. Mara really did not want Siddhartha to get enlightened, so he took steps to stop him.
First Mara sent his daughters to tempt Sid. If you’ve ever meditated you may have experienced something similar – your mind wanders all by itself to some steamy thoughts. Lust happens. The daughters – sometimes three, sometimes five depending on who is telling the story – represent the desires and discontenments of sensual life, and by that I mean more than just sexual. They represented desire for any sensual pleasure, including food and drink, as well as aversion to unpleasant sensual experiences and the greed we feel for these pleasures. If you’ve ever wanted to look at your phone while meditating or check the clock to see if meditation is almost over, you’ve experienced a visit from one of Mara’s daughters.
When that didn’t work, Mara sent an army of demons to scare the shit out of Sid. The army, led by Mara himself on a war elephant, marched up to the meditating Sid and launched a volley of arrows at him. As the arrows entered the area where Sid was in contemplative meditation they turned into flower blossoms and gently fell to the ground. Fear is defeated.
Finally Mara tried to mindfuck Sid, and asked him who the fuck he thought he was, that he could sit here and try to get enlightened. Who died and made him Buddha anyway? Sid reached down and touched the ground, and the Earth herself offered witness to him, and doubt was defeated because Sid had become the Buddha, and no longer had an ego for Mara to attack.
These are all symbolic versions of the difficulties one might experience on the cushion, and it’s vital that the story has the Buddha confronting them all. He also had to work at it (and just to make this even more relevant, the story of the Buddha is that he spent a lot of time trying self help fad after self help fad, from extreme diets to total lifehacks, before figuring out the Middle Way to true enlightenment. It’s a journey a lot of us have been on), so why should we expect it to be any different for us?
What’s funny is that the research team behind the report that New Scientist is covering seem to get the point.
The team did not study the triggers for these unpleasant experiences, but Schlosser says a possible explanation may be that deconstructive meditation practices encourage meditators to reflect on the impermanent nature of thoughts and feelings.
“If one notices this impermanence, one might have a sense of or get a fear of annihilation,” says Schlosser.
“We should ask when and whether these unpleasant meditation-related experiences can be an important aspect of meditative training that can result in a positive transformation, [or if] these meditation experiences are non-essential and can lead to unnecessary suffering,” he says.
That’s totally correct! Facing the impermanent nature of things – including yourself – can be destabilizing at first because we live in a society that is built on denying impermanence. But once you get past your conditioning it’s incredibly freeing. Truly knowing impermanence has improved my life immensely; whenever I have a bad experience or a bad thought I immediately know that this is passing. Not WILL pass, but IS passing, is in the action of passing. I know this from experience gained on the cushion, applied to my daily life.
But you have to walk through the scary stuff to get there. It’s not easy, and I know everybody wants an easy answer. They want a cure-all that requires minimal work; they want a magical shortcut they can get from an email newsletter sent by a celebrity wellness expert.
Terrible news: those things don’t exist. There are no shortcuts.
Great news: if you put in the work and if you are brave, you can achieve a level of peace and calm that is not dependent on anything outside of yourself – not on other people, not on situations being perfect, not on pills*. But it takes work to get there, and it’ll sometimes be unpleasant work.
*this is not to be read as a dismissal of people who legitimately need pills to maintain.