Meditation has a deep history in all spiritual traditions as a path toward compassion and insight. It has also been practiced in many as a means to get to the root of suffering, and, possibly, overcome suffering’s wounds and causes. Today, however, the often simplified practice of mindfulness sets stress relief and individual happiness as goals of meditative practice. The move toward a practice that is a panacea to all that ills and a path toward self-actualization has led many critics to point out the flaws in this thinking (or non-thinking, as it were), especially in light of meditation’s long history. So much personal benefit is promised by mindfulness acolytes that I’m finding the practice described as snake oil with increasing frequency. Happiness, while a noble goal, is a luxury in a world filled with so much suffering. It’s also a state that many who meditate deeply never experience. Pain is just as likely to surface during meditative practice as pleasure is. Yet the way mindfulness is sold today leaves one who is not achieving less stress and more bliss feeling like they’re doing it all wrong. They may be, in fact, closer to meditation’s true purpose than any who promise happiness.
I’ve trained to teach in two nationally esteemed Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction Programs. The eight week program that has become the industry standard left many students better off and less stressed. But I witnessed a few who fell deeply into issues of despair and remembered abuse. Yet, when the course ended, they were offered little if any follow-up care or guidance on what to do with the uncovered suffering. The teacher I worked most closely with assured me that these individuals would find help on their own. I objected strongly, but the MBSR course offered had been delivered and was over. Lately, I have been hearing stories from doctors of patients who required intense psychiatric care as a result of negative experiences with MBSR programs. And yet the promise of stress relief and happiness remains as the mindfulness industry’s standard.
One facet of the happiness set that is being stressed more today, and one long taught by all spiritual traditions that incorporate meditation into their practice, is that most happiness is found not by going inward but by helping others. The ultimate goal of any spiritual practice should be compassion. Self-compassion, yes. But more deeply compassion for others. The Buddha set the fact that all beings suffer as his first noble truth, and Mahayana practitioners quickly added the Bodhisattva Vow to the Buddha’s prescription to overcome suffering. In taking the vow one promises to delay his or her own enlightenment until all beings are enlightened. The traditions in my own Catholic faith are also outwardly directed. No one says the rosary for self-actualization. And when the Zen and Christian traditions were merged by people like Elaine MacInnes and Thomas Merton, compassion and the amelioration of others’ suffering stood as the focus. Perhaps compassion rather than happiness should be the goal of our modern meditative practices as well.
I certainly don’t want to discourage anyone from meditating or even underestimate the potential of practice. Many benefits can accrue to one who practices. I just don’t want anyone who finds practice difficult to think they’re doing it wrong. I also want those considering meditation to be cautious of the mindfulness salespeople promoting all good with little unpleasant effort. Meditation can be a tremendous, challenging journey. As St John of the Cross found, the darkest periods can yield the most light. But be prepared and cautioned that there may be darkness. This is a possible result of any contemplative exercise. A good teacher, not a Pollyanna, can help one through tough times. Some knowledge of the spiritual underpinnings of practice can help. And the goal of meditating selflessly, not selfishly, should be established early. Also, occasional practice with a group can be energizing and edifying.
A legitimate goal of practice is an improved ability to notice things within and outside of oneself. Perhaps just noticing without judgment, rather than hoping for some positive experience, is being more truly mindful. Meditation is hard work, and well worth it. But it is work, and it isn’t always nice. So practice, foster compassion, and be gentle with yourself. A deeper understanding of all that influences you is possible. If it gets too hard stop. Other methods of focused attention (exercise, playing a musical instrument, chess, study, math) may be more helpful. Help is always available. Just be careful of those who make it all sound too good and too easy.