Meditation alone is not enough

My last post ended with: meditation alone is not enough to free individuals from suffering. One must recognize self-delusion and then use the skillful means of wisdom, compassion and ethical conduct to actively free oneself and one’s world of the suffering of self-delusion. Here are three examples from the past week to help us begin exploring this statement.

1) I just returned from six glorious days of retreat with Tsoknyi Rinpoche, a highly regarded and deeply treasured Dzogchen teacher. Tsoknyi Rinpoche is unique in his mind-body methodology for awakening. His approach begins with settling cognitive-affective and somatic systemic agitation, and then opening the mind-heart to essence love. (My book features instructions in one of these basic techniques called, Gentle Vase Breathing.) Once the psychophysical system has settled and a sense of innate well-being is present, one-pointed attentional clarity naturally arises. With continued meditative practice, this effortless stability of mind becomes the platform from which one recognizes dbyings (ying) the basic space of awareness/emptiness.

One might conclude from the above description that Tsoknyi Rinpoche spent most of his teaching time instructing us in meditative methods. Since these techniques are fairly straightforward once taught, Rinpoche moved from a “goody-goody message of healing” to the tougher truth of liberating the deluded narratives of self-suffering, which impede our innate capacity to recognize rigpa, unbounded, empty awareness. At one point he expressed some discomfort with Western psychology’s embrace of compassion practices for symptom-relief. Rinpoche insisted that genuine compassion is not about “feeling blissful or generating well-being”. It is instead serious training in selflessness.

2) Upon my return, I had an interesting exchange with a colleague about the recent equating of Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR) with the buddhadharma (read Buddhist teachings). It seems there is a movement afoot to view MBSR as a “universal dharma”. For those of you who are unfamiliar with this 8-week intervention, MBSR is a palliative method for symptom relief that delivers a small menu of mindfulness meditation techniques in a group setting. In the fourth week there is some discussion of stress. Participants are asked to meditate 30-40 minutes 6 days a week. Studies show varied amounts of participant home practice during the class and those studies that follow post-class outcomes show continued diminished rates of meditation practice over time.

The buddhadharma is a path of liberation from delusion about the nature of reality. It teaches emptiness (wisdom), selflessness (compassion), the inherent suffering of subject/object dualism and stresses the importance of ethical conduct. Meditation is just another tool in the Buddhist toolbox for awakening. MBSR has cherry-picked a few meditation techniques and offers them without teaching the essential, difficult liberative dharmic truths. Therefore, in my mind, MBSR cannot be considered dharma of any kind.

3) Yesterday, another colleague and I were discussing referrals for good couples work. She told me, “Oh you would love (clinician’s name) who has MBSR classes in their office and forces all couples they work with to take an MBSR class for self-regulation.” I was aghast. There is no discussion of emotion regulation in MBSR classes. Teaching self-regulation skills is a part of effective couples counseling. Meditation is not a panacea. Just because one meditates does not mean self-regulation will arise in a difficult interaction or stressful situation. I think this is a prime example of the over-promised benefits of meditation for alleviating mental, emotional and physical distress.

When I teach Mindfulness-based Relapse Prevention (MBRP) groups for those suffering with addiction, we spend much of our class time discussing the deeper ramifications of craving and aversion, the difference between suffering and pain, and the tyranny of self-grasping. Hands down the most popular meditative intervention is the informal “pause practice” which participants can use in any moment of distress, not any of the formal MBSR meditation practices we so diligently deliver and ask them to practice at home.

The same could be said of my work with individual patients. Meditation is not my go-to intervention. I rely upon inquiry into the causes of suffering and helping patients cultivate wisdom, compassion and the conduct of non-suffering. This is what ultimately leads to lasting transformation and of course meditation can be a part of that tool set. If ending suffering is our goal, clinicians must be willing to offer more than symptom relief. We have to do the hard task of asking patients to recognize the underlying causes of suffering—self-cherishing and the misapprehension of the way things truly are. This requires much more than just regular meditation practice.


7 thoughts on “Meditation alone is not enough

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  3. The original term Buddha used for mindful-awareness practice is not dhyana or meditation. It is ‘Sati’ as in Satpatthana (also called four ways or foundations for establishing awareness). Sati means ‘remembering’ or ‘recollecting’ four dimensions of mindfulness/consciousness from moment to moment. Body on (breath-body), body sensations/feeling/vedana generated by contact of object and senses (pleasant/unpleasant/neutral), state of mind and mental objects/contents.


  4. Yes you are correct. But the Satipathana Sutta is one of the many suttas in the Pali texts where the Buddha delivers comprehensive instructions in a variety of meditative practices to accomplish one-pointed concentration (samatha) and insight (vipassana). My book includes in-depth discussion of these forms of meditation practice and authentic instructions with a specific focus on clincial application.


  5. I would agree with some of this – I am developing work on mindfulness in a variety of contexts connected with young people e.g. schools, families, parents, fostering and adoption and my increasing interest is in looking at how mindfulness plays out in terms of everyday encounters, in which the core attitude of being with what is with curiosity and kindness provides the crucial transformation. A wide range of practices can help this along, especially the short pause. I do however encourage people to at least try to engage in a longer everyday practice of meditation to help rewire the brain to support this effort as it in my experience of teaching mindfulness, including MBSR, doing this work is so helpful in strengthing the ability to practice in real life, especially when things get tough.

    I am intrigued as to why your book is called ‘effortless mindfulness’. I find mindfulness many things but not effortless – it requires intention, discipline, commitment etc – and indeed those are the mental muscles which get strengthened and which help in everyday life. Which is why just doing an 8 week course and believing you have cracked it is not sufficient, and I agree with you about the overselling that. But are you not overselling the idea that mindfulness is easy with your title? I have not read your book yet and may be misunderstanding what happens inside the covers, but the title worries me as it strikes me as another sop to appeal to western readers ( bit like the use of the word ‘fast’ in relation to everything to do lifestyle at the moment – diet, exercise etc).


  6. Thank you for your comments, and yes this is a misunderstanding, which of course is also part and parcel of what has been lost by separating out of clinical mindfulness practices from their source in Buddhist philosophy/psychology. The primary aim of my book is to remedy that problem. Effortless mindfulness refers to a specific set of practices derived from Dzogchen and Mahamudra, but it is also a natural outcome of long-term Buddhist meditation practice in any tradition. Ease and easy are not the same thing. I think one look at the book’s table of contents will give you a sense of its depth and purpose in offering clinicians the actual knowledge and practice of Buddhist psychology and mindfulness meditation from all three main schools of Buddhism. If I had cared about selling books, I should have written yet another mindless book about mindfulness. But that is not me…. listen to the intro on the author page for more on title tweaking by the publisher.


  7. I like how you think. :>}
    Meditation, other than the discipline required to actually practice, should be easy in the Samatha stage.
    I believe that without “calming the waters” we are unable to view clearly the causes of the opacity.
    This requires little effort as the “monkey” does most of the work for us.
    Once we become more aware of the causes and their ability to affect us, as well as their impermanence, a little bit of “space” can start to open up between stimulation and our reactions.
    This generally prompts questions from a student as they “suspect” that something is going on and are quite curious about it. This also tells you they are actually practicing.
    While I do agree that Vipassana and beyond are required to move further, without this space or “gap” if you prefer, the rest can only be intellectually understood and this is where many, even 30 year practitioners, get stuck
    IOW, the guns need to be dropped at the Samatha door or one may not be served at the Vipassana bar.


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