People never talk about the downsides of meditation. Really. But meditation isn’t sugar pills with placebo – it has side effects. Whenever meditation is discussed though, what’s talked about are its innumerable benefits, many of which have since been proven by research.
Again, it’s not all roses.
For starters, meditating daily is hard work, and it can be painful. Like the moment in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, when the main character asks his doctor if the memory scrubbing procedure “has any risk of brain damage?”
The doctor responds: “Technically speaking, the procedure is brain damage.”
Similarly, meditation is inherently destabilizing. It implicitly reorients how you think and feel (without the brain damage!) – that’s the point. In confronting yourself, you alter how you feel through continuous deep exploration of your relationship to the objects and people around you, beginning first with how you think and feel about yourself (not easy to deal with).
Yes, this causes problems. I have seen relationships end, marriages fall apart, and I have seen families hurt when one person starts to change.
Now, I’ve seen this happen in the positive: where an individual uses meditation, active reflection, and community support to empower themselves out of a bad situation, and grow from it to find lasting change.
But, I have also seen several people loose their way, all in the name of “meditation” or “spirituality” with tremendous collateral in tow (children and spouses, especially).
I believe this is true of any meditation group, and just about any meditation practice.
Thus we need to be more honest. Meditators can and should speak more openly about the pains of meditation.
I came across a series of essays on meditation by Lorin Roche last year that really opened my eyes to the benefits of greater honesty in the meditation community.
Needless to say, I find his perspective on meditation insightful and refreshing. Even though I disagree – fundamentally – with many of his views (such as those on a Guru & vegetarianism), his experience in the field is vast (Phd in psychology, 40+ years meditating/teaching), which is basically meaningless except for the fact that time and again while reading his writing I thought to myself, “Oh yea. That’s me/was how I felt before/now.”
Therefore, in the spirit of Roche’s brutally honest approach, I wanted to write my own piece about some of the negative aspects of meditation in my life.Hence I’ve identified The Top Four Regrets of My Meditation Journey So Far.
Meditation Regret #1: Didn’t Express My Anger
In college, I was picked on for a whole year in 2009/10 by five guys I lived with. These gents spread pretty vicious rumors about me, they made fun of me to my face, were super passive aggressive, actively intellectually intimidated me, etc. It was a bad situation for the whole group of 25, but my scholarship dictated that we lived together, and since I couldn’t afford to live anywhere else I stayed.
Now, I knew the root of it all was their own insecurity (this was clear to everyone), so I decided from day one to “take the high road” and keep my own actions in line with my values, not theirs. And, I had a few “champions” in the house who stood up for me.
I also used the constant criticism as a way to check myself and explore how and why others were treating me this way, and some huge jumps in my own maturity came as a result – something I’m grateful to them for.
But, I suffered tremendously. I wasn’t okay with what was happening, and there were several times when – in retrospect – I should have spoken up, not only to protect myself but others getting caught in the maelstrom.
But I didn’t. I kept it in.
I prioritized equanimity over honesty. This is the fancy way of saying I thought it was more spiritual to not express my anger or hurt, than express it.
I mean, saints don’t get angry, right?
That’s bullshit. It’s spiritual when you do not actually hold the same malice or hurt as others inside your heart; that’s what evolved is. It’s also equally evolved to protect yourself – not suppress yourself – and share how you feel, while not loosing your inner–equanimity in doing so.
So many times over the last 9 years from school to work I’ve found myself situations where I avoided being honest to preserve a veneer of spiritual cool, when in truth I was stewing inside.
Thus, I wish I would have taken the same approach to “self honesty” that I do with eyes closed in confronting myself and translated it to “other honesty” with my eyes open. For there’s nothing wrong with confrontation, so long as it’s honest and you aim to protect your integrity and the integrity of those you disagree with.
I regret this so much, and have been actively practicing greater honesty in all my current relationships. (90% of this I attribute to my wife – her natural straightforwardness has encouraged & helped me grow so much in this direction).
Meditation Regret #2: Walked a Grihastha Path, But Held Monastic Values
This could be the subject of a whole book, but here it is in short-form.
Most of what’s been written about meditation over the last 3,000 years was penned by monks, nuns, or mendicant teachers. These monastic men and women have renounced the social and economic worlds of their times in order to pursue their spirituality full-time.
On the other hand, they preach to lay-audiences still active in normal social life.
The result? People living modern lives feeling torn between monastic values from 800 years ago and practical realities of life in 2017.
Personally, I follow a non-monastic, “Grihastha Path,” or “way of the householder.” Here, the thinking is not to run to the forest to find peace, rather bring the forest to your heart and take it wherever you go. Thus, having a family and job are seen as essential boons to personal growth and evolution, not barriers.
When I was younger, I was so happy to find that such teachings existed! I was fully prepared to spend a few or many years living monastically in an ashram or temple, if I thought that such a way would be best for my personal evolution.
Thankfully, that didn’t happen; I found a path that encourages being a husband and father, and a whole school of philosophy to support it.
However, culturally, our literature on meditation and spirituality has been heavily influenced by monastic thought. Even my degree in Eastern Philosophy was basically all theology and poetry written by Zen Masters and monks living alone in mountain caves.
It affected me profoundly. So, even though I was walking a Grihastha path, I was consuming too much literature written by monastics.
The result was confusion. When I look back, I can see how much more I modeled my lifestyle on that of a monk, than that of a 21-24 year old living in the world.
This has nothing to do with not drinking alcohol or partying; meditation or not, that scene isn’t for me (and many of the Zen Masters drank like fish, mind you).
Instead, at the values and worldview levels, I harbored ideas like “detachment,” “non-judgement,” and a pervasive passivity towards much of my experience that is simply incongruent with the level of engagement demanded by modern life.
I regret this. I wish instead I would have greater awareness over what I was “feeding my head,” and read with more balance. For it’s much more in my caring nature to turn towards the world in positivity, than away. I should have been reading how to engage more impactfully in today’s society, be it through business or leadership or general self-development – all areas I’m deeply passionate about, and have been forever – understanding that investing in them comes at no conflict with cultivating a richer inner life.
Meditation Regret #3: Too Judgmental
Without realizing it, I spent a lot of time in my early 20s judging other people for “not being spiritual” or “not being spiritual enough.”
What a waste of time, and how hypocritical!
Isn’t it all about unity, oneness, and acceptance?
Well, it’s supposed to be about unity, oneness and acceptance, anyway.
In 2014, I was traveling with one of my best friends when the woman in her 60s driving us said: “You know, you young people don’t think you can learn from anyone, or that there’s only a small group of people who can teach you. At my age, I realize that everyone can teach me something, that I can learn from anyone!”
No need to elaborate. I spent too much time sitting in judgment when I should have been more open to learning from those around me. Lesson learned.
Meditation Regret #4: It’s actually me, not you.
I ended a relationship in 2011 with a girl that I loved and who loved me deeply. However, when I did it, I made it much more about conflicting spiritual paths than it actually was.
Truth is, we had conflicting values. Meditation was a difference in how we spent our time. This was not insignificant; I was teaching most nights of the week, and spending most weekends traveling to facilitate or attend seminars.
But, the real root of it was I was trying to dedicate myself to constant improvement and a higher reason for being alive, while I felt she had too strong of a passive, deterministic approach to her own life and life in general. I was busting my ass pushing for more meaning and feeling, and she…felt she’d never change and watched a lot of sitcoms on her computer to deal with stress.
There was nothing profound about this. Such are lifestyle “red flags” common to any relationship that splits.
But I didn’t express this. I hid behind the meditation and ended the relationship. The same thing happened again a few years later with a different girl whom I felt strongly about, but instead of ending that relationship I didn’t let it get off the ground.
Obviously, I don’t regret ending/not starting either of those relationships. In light of where I’m at today, married to an amazing women, father to a precious daughter, and cultivating what I believe to be a super exciting life, I see them as necessary to my journey.
However, I regret not being honest with the two previous women. It was way more about me and my shit and my desire for more, than either of them. Again, honesty. Had I been more honest and aware, I would have hurt them less and also maybe helped them reflect and grow more as a result.
Of course, meditation has brought more meaning and love to my life than anything else. But, in addition to what is already not easy (i.e., growing up and finding one’s place in the world), meditation and the surrounding philosophies of spirituality brought a more complicated dimension to my growth, both naturally as consequence of meditating, and also due to my own errors misinterpreting my path and what it means to live a beautiful life.
In the above, I’ve aimed for maximum honesty, for I hope to save others from some of the great pain I have felt. Please feel free to share your experiences, or similar regrets, in the comments below.