The Limits of Meditation

by Greg Mackie

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The practice of meditation has become immensely popular in recent years. I think that on balance this is a good thing. Meditation offers numerous benefits, and it is one of the many practices given to us in A Course in Miracles. Yet a recent article in the Vancouver (Canada) Sun makes a point I think is worthy of serious reflection: there are limits to the benefits meditation can bring; in fact, an excessive focus on meditation may have detrimental effects on our overall development. The punch line is not that meditation is bad, but that ideally it should be one component of a more comprehensive spiritual program—a stance that I believe is reflected in the program of the Course.

The article is entitled "Meditation: the dark side," by Douglas Todd. In a nutshell, Todd says that the problem with focusing too exclusively on meditation is that it can cause spiritual seekers to inappropriately "detach" from life. Todd mentions three forms of detachment in particular. One is a detachment from holding definite views, even on important issues. The desire to "empty" the mind leads to a viewpoint that says we should have no viewpoints; paraphrasing well-known transpersonal philosopher Ken Wilber, Todd says that "many meditators don't believe in anything."

Another inappropriate form of detachment fostered by an overemphasis on meditation is the denial of our dark side—our shadow, outwardly reflected in negative and unpleasant personality traits. Here, Todd draws on the work of psychotherapist Michael Eigen, author of a book entitled The Psychoanalytic Mystic. Eigen reports case studies of some of his clients, including "Owen," an accomplished meditation teacher who nonetheless complained of anxiety and depression, and "Jesse," another proficient meditator who was struggling with chronic fatigue and nausea.

In Eigen's view, both men were using meditation to deny negative aspects of themselves: in Owen's case a sense of superiority to others that caused him to look down upon them, and in Jesse's case a pattern of controlling and insensitive behavior toward others, especially women. For both of them, meditation had become a form of escapism, a way of avoiding confrontation with their shadows, the darker aspects of their personalities.

A third form of inappropriate detachment exacerbated by too much meditation is detachment from other people. In Owen's case, you can see this reflected in his looking down on others from his lofty, superior perch; in Jesse's case, it manifested in his insensitivity toward others. Todd says that meditation simply fed Jesse's self-absorption: "What Jesse needed, in the end, was less meditation and more connection." Or as Eigen put it, "Jesse needed simple human contact, not Enlightenment." Both he and Owen were using meditation not only to escape from their own shadows, but to escape from other people.

All three types of detachment end up feeding the narcissism that is characteristic of what Wilber calls "boomeritis": an attitude common among middle-aged baby boomers (though of course not limited to them) that says, basically, it's all about me, don't tell me what to do, "You do your thing and I'll do mine." Detachment from views "frees" people from the constriction of standards that transcend their own comfort and pleasure; detachment from their dark side "frees" them from having to admit that their behavior may be less than wonderful; detachment from other people "frees" them from the messy business of having to care about how they impact someone beyond themselves. In short, it "frees" them from anything that would make life about something other than "me."

This is an extreme description, of course. Many devoted meditators don't fit it, and even those who do to some extent are not necessarily this extreme. The point is simply that this kind of narcissism is on the rise today (as described in recent books like Jean M. Twenge and W. Keith Campbell's The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement), and that an overemphasis on the practice of meditation can contribute to it. The good news, however, is that meditation in its proper place can help to overcome narcissism. Todd sums it up:

I appreciate the way both Eigen and Wilber conclude that meditation can be beneficial, but that it's only part of what's necessary to reach maturity.

The true goal of meditation, and any spiritual discipline, is not only to "empty" oneself of negative feelings and thoughts, but to face one's own inner demons. That leads, in a sense, to feeling "full"—in connection with yourself, others and transcendent values.

Meditation should lead to the development of wise beliefs, which Wilber says require a commitment to "compassion for all sentient things." In turn, that requires developing a self…that is skilful enough to put compassion into practical action.

Amen to that. One of the reasons I find A Course in Miracles so appealing is that it offers us a multifaceted path to spiritual maturity. Meditation is most certainly part of that path; the Course presents three different types of meditation in the Workbook, and becoming proficient in them is essential to our progress. But it also gives us a wide variety of other practices. Moreover, in both its theory and practical application, the Course skillfully addresses all of the concerns Todd brings up.

First, the Course stresses "the development of wise beliefs" and connection with "transcendent values." It gives us thousands of pages of both theory and practices aimed at turning our minds to those wise beliefs and transcendent values. Its forms of meditation, in fact, help us to deepen those beliefs and values, for these forms are designed to give us experiences that are rooted in the Course's new thought system. Course students tend to minimize the importance of beliefs, but the Course itself does not, for it is our deeply held beliefs that either bind the world or set it free:

What keeps the world in chains but your beliefs? And what can save the world except your Self? Belief is powerful indeed. The thoughts you hold are mighty, and illusions are as strong in their effects as is the truth. (W-pI.132.1:1-4)

Central to the Course's thought system is the idea that truth is absolute. It exists independently of what we want to believe, and the only way to happiness is to commit to the truth that utterly transcends our petty and false assessment of what would bring us comfort and pleasure. Here is just one passage that speaks of the necessity of firmly committing our minds to the viewpoint that alone will set us free—the viewpoint of truth, of light, of everything that is real:

I have stated that the basic concepts referred to in this course are not matters of degree. Certain fundamental concepts cannot be understood in terms of opposites. It is impossible to conceive of light and darkness or everything and nothing as joint possibilities. They are all true or all false. It is essential that you realize your thinking will be erratic until a firm commitment to one or the other is made. A firm commitment to darkness or nothingness, however, is impossible. No one has ever lived who has not experienced some light and some thing. No one, therefore, is able to deny truth totally, even if he thinks he can. (T-3.II.1:1-8)

Certainly, we are to empty our minds of false viewpoints; after all, the Course tells us many times that it is a course in "undoing." But we empty our minds in order that they may be filled with the truth that is already there and cannot ultimately be denied. And in this world, that truth takes the form of a new viewpoint that is meant to determine everything we think, say, and do.

Second, the Course places great emphasis on facing our "inner demons," which in its system are the servants of the ego. Indeed, in the Course the ego is metaphorically regarded as the devil himself (see, for instance, T-3.VII.5 and M-25.6:5). The Course tells us that we have a dark side within us that is far darker than we can even imagine, a murderous urge to attack that is at the root of all the ways, apparently large and apparently small, that we seek to selfishly gain at the expense of others in this world. This dark side, the Course tells us, "is completely savage and completely insane" (T-16.VII.3:2).

The good news is that this savage and insane ego is ultimately unreal. We can and should deny its reality — what the Course calls "true denial." But paradoxically, we cannot truly deny its reality until we look at it squarely: "No one can escape from illusions unless he looks at them, for not looking is the way they are protected" (T-11.V.1:1). We are so reluctant to look; Course students themselves tend to minimize the degree to which the ego's "demons" run their lives. But we must face our demons in order to learn that they aren't really there; only then will discover the angels we truly are underneath. The Course offers countless practices to help us do this, including its forms of meditation.

Finally, absolutely central to the Course is "connection with—others," "compassion for all sentient things," and developing the skills "to put compassion into practical action." The Course places so much emphasis on relationships: holy relationships, holy encounters, love and forgiveness for our brothers. It gives us so many practices for deepening our relationships. We may think that salvation from the human condition lies in finding oneness with God through meditation, but the Course actually de-emphasizes (without denying the value of) direct contact with God. Instead, in the Psychotherapy supplement, which is all about the relationship between two people—in this case, a psychotherapist and her patient – we are told that "it is only in relationships that salvation can be found" (P-2.In.4:3).

In fact, the Course material depicts meditation itself, properly understood, as inextricably linked with the importance of interpersonal relationships. The well-known line "Salvation is a collaborative venture" was originally "Meditation is a collaborative venture." The original context was Bill Thetford's decision to begin meditating. In the original passage, Jesus linked Bill's meditating with his crucial decision to join with Helen in finding a "better way" to get along with other people. Addressing Bill, he said:

Your giant step forward was to insist on a collaborative venture. This does not go against the true spirit of meditation at all. It is inherent in it. Meditation is a collaborative venture with God. It cannot be undertaken successfully by those who disengage themselves from the Sonship, because they are disengaging themselves from me. God will come to you only as you will give Him to your brothers. Learn first of them, and you will be ready to hear God as you hear them.

So, meditation is a collaborative venture with God, and it can only be done successfully by those who connect with their brothers and sisters in the Sonship. It is through those brothers and sisters that the Voice for God will be heard. This certainly contrasts with the traditional image of the solitary meditator in his cave, doesn't it? I can imagine how much more fruitful Owen's and Jesse's meditations would be if they meditated in this spirit.

There is one type of relationship in particular that the Course material depicts as the most potent vehicle for salvation. It is the type of relationship that Helen and Bill had. It is a relationship in which a brother helps another brother in need, a relationship with the goal of healing:

There is one way alone by which we come to where all dreams began. And it is there that we will lay them down, to come away in peace forever. Hear a brother call for help and answer him. It will be God to Whom you answer, for you called on Him. There is no other way to hear His Voice. There is no other way to seek His Son. There is no other way to find your Self. Holy is healing, for the Son of God returns to Heaven through its kind embrace. (P-2.V.8:2-9)

This is what all of the Course's teachings and practices, including meditation, are means for accomplishing. In Todd's words, they are intended to help us develop the skills "to put compassion into practical action." In Course parlance, the entire program is designed to train us to become miracle workers, extenders of true helpfulness in thought, word, and deed to our brothers, as the Holy Spirit directs. This is what the Course itself says it is a course "in." The mature Course student is not simply one who has become an accomplished meditator, though that is a valuable skill. Rather, the mature Course student is one who has used all that the Course has to offer to become a true miracle worker, an extender of the Love of God to all of his or her brothers in need.

I find this picture of spiritual maturity so refreshing, and so much healthier than what I often see in the spiritual marketplace. There is a great emphasis in alternative spirituality on achieving high mystical states through the practice of meditation. But people can achieve such states while leaving their dark sides almost totally intact, as we have unfortunately seen with many Eastern teachers who have come to the West. I have come to believe more than ever that the focus of the spiritual life should not be primarily on achieving mystical states, but on developing the character traits (as Section 4 of the Manual puts it) of truly good, kind, and mature human beings who are capable of engaging in loving relationships with others. How much more would the world be transformed if each of us aspired to a life in which we were committed to finding the truths that transcend our limited perspectives, facing our darkness without blinders, and relating to our fellow travelers in the spirit of love and service?

This is the only spiritual life worth living for me. Meditation is a crucially important part of developing that life; I have had some truly amazing experiences with it. But it has its limits; "it's only part of what's necessary to reach maturity." It is simply one means to the end of becoming an uncommonly good person who is a blessing to the world.

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