Meditation/mindfulness is not an all-curing antidote

Yesterday I saw a post for an article on meditation and anger with a title so unfortunate, it moved me to click on the link. Turned out the article was composed in 1997 by psychiatrist Mark Epstein, a renowned author on Buddhist psychology. It began, “If you are angry and you meditate to get rid of your anger, you will only frustrate yourself. Meditate because you are angry, not to eliminate it.” I was immediately struck by Mark’s accurate understanding of the purpose of meditation. And then I felt a wave of sadness—for we live in a time where meditation/mindfulness is now widely misconstrued as an all-curing antidote.

Some of you may think that because Buddhist philosophy/psychology considers liberative insight the ultimate cure for all forms of suffering, the vehicle for achieving liberative insight (meditation) must be, by association, a cure-all. This is a common, yet incorrect inference. Four weeks after the Buddha’s awakening, he delivered his first discourse, which included an explication of suffering, its causes, cessation and an Eightfold method to achieve non-suffering. Only one quarter of that methodology involved meditative practice. So the Buddha deliberately chose in his first and most celebrated discourse to establish wise understanding of the causes of suffering and non-suffering—not teach meditation.

The truth is meditation alone will not liberate the mind from conditioned suffering. The ultimate liberator is the acquisition of the unconventional knowledge of impermanence, suffering and not-self—what is known in Buddhist philosophy as the Three Marks of Existence. This knowledge leads to wise understanding of the insights that arise from liberative meditative and non-meditative experiences. Yet, the vast majority of clinical and non-clinical applications of mindfulness teach meditation devoid of the unconventional teachings on suffering, impermanence, and not-self.

Let me be absolutely clear on this point. Noticing how thoughts come and go and/or how much time we mentally spend in the past and future, cultivating self-love/forgiveness/compassion, recognizing that basic physical pain is worsened by mental anguish about painful stimuli—all these insights are healing and will decrease symptomatic suffering.

However, Buddhist psychology is ultimately disinterested in relief of symptomatic suffering because non-suffering is an outcome of the fearless pursuit of non-delusion. That pursuit includes the recognition of and liberation from the root causes of human suffering—our deluded belief in a substantive, separate self and our deluded belief that happiness is conditioned upon comfort, certainty and security (all of which are ultimately unachievable because all phenomena are impermanent, entropic and uncertain.)

If you think meditation alone will ‘cure’ the deleterious characteristics of humanness, like anger, violence, greed, hatred, fear and bias—think again. These qualities arise from our collective belief in subject/object dualism. The reality that all phenomena (including the illusory separate self) interdependently co-arise must be taught; for wise understanding is not a predetermined outcome of meditative practice. This is why ‘Buddhist-derived’ mindfulness meditation practices when taught for greater happiness and/or symptomatic healing produce meditators who remain unaware of the root causes of harming and non-harming, executives/CEO’s/politicians who continue to exploit and cheat, and military professionals who remain capable of following or giving orders to harm other human beings.

So what am I suggesting is missing in the delivery of clinical mindfulness? Well, let’s return to anger. Anger is a phenomenon that can be experienced directly. No matter how powerful and uncontrollable it may seem, anger is just a fleeting emotion with the capacity to awaken us to difficult truths about self and world. One can shrink from this kind of engagement with anger and be overtaken by harmful expression of anger. Or one can embrace wise, compassionate inquiry into angry feelings and learn to navigate them skillfully. Clinical mindfulness and compassion interventions are designed to elicit this kind of inquiry, especially when delivered in psychotherapeutic contexts. However, most clinicians who use mindfulness interventions don’t deepen the dialogue to include examination of the fundamental causes of angry states of mind, primarily because they do not possess the requisite knowledge to enable such inquiries.

To those who say it is unwieldy or impractical to impart the unconventional truths of suffering and non-suffering in clinical contexts, I say, I do it every day with my patients and they appreciate it tremendously. When they have moments of relief from internal distress, I jump at the chance to help them inquire beyond momentary relief into impermanence, not-self and the fundamental causes of human suffering. And I don’t do this by asking them to close their eyes and meditate. We dialogue and use specific exercises to experience negative and positive self-fixation, to know the palpable difference between mentation about experience (delusion) and embodied presence in experience (non-delusion).

Meditation is undoubtedly a vehicle for insights about mind and its contents. But without a context of unconventional truth, how can a meditator know the profound ramifications of such insights? I invite you to contemplate this question for yourself, especially if you are involved in delivering mindfulness interventions in psychotherapeutic contexts. It may lead you to expand your current knowledge of Buddhist psychology beyond mindfulness.

Here is the link to Mark Epstein’s article.

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