Shadow Side Of Meditation

Getting Stuck in the Present Moment

Magazine Issue
September/October 2011
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Having spent nearly two decades in monasteries and temples training as a student of Zen, in addition to more than 35 years working as a clinical psychologist, I come to the practice of mindfulness differently from many psychotherapists. It was during the years I spent working full time with cancer patients, most of whom were facing disabling treatments or the threat of death, that I first recognized the full power of mindfulness practice. At one point, frustrated and pained by the inability of traditional psychotherapy to address my patients’ deepest concerns, I sat listening to Jane, a middle-aged woman with metastatic breast cancer, who’d just returned from a prolonged hospital stay. She described how, after her daily treatment, a well-intentioned chaplain or counselor would regularly come to her room, but, in her exhausted state, she often felt herself more annoyed than comforted by these visits.

“I know they were always trying to help,” she said, “but I was still uncomfortable with them. Then one day a new chaplain came in, sat down by my bed, and, instead of asking the usual questions, said nothing. He just looked at me with kindness and without expectation. He was clearly open to whatever was present for me. For a long time, we sat together in a warm and spacious silence that was so different from what I’d become used to. Then something shifted. I could feel myself coming alive for the first time in a long while. It was the most powerful spiritual experience I’ve ever had.”

Jane’s story underscored for me what it meant to go beyond an ordinary “helping” relationship and how I could apply to my psychotherapy work what I was learning as a beginning Zen student about awareness, presence, and a willingness to tolerate not-knowing and non-doing.

Detached Mindfulness

Full of enthusiasm for what I was discovering, I found a meditation center where many teachers and other students who had deep insight into the Buddha’s teachings were cultivating a capacity to note, in precise detail, all that was arising in our hearts and minds as we sat in meditation. All too often, however, aside from continuing to witness our thoughts, feelings, memories, and bodily sensations, we weren’t shown ways to work with what arose in meditation. The traditional instruction to “just sit with it” didn’t seem to be enough to undo trauma or to relieve the painful imprint of abusive histories. Although we could occasionally achieve periods of emotional relief through meditation practice, we often continued to suffer in our mindfully cultivated silence and stillness. As a therapist, I knew that more was possible, and I was saddened to see so many lovely, wounded people unable to achieve the liberation they sought through spiritual practice.

One day, a fellow Zen student named Jim tearfully confided in me that he was struggling with feelings of terror and resentment as he sat in the meditation hall. The silence and cool detachment of the spiritual community’s life reminded him of his abusive father’s silent disdain at his not being the son he wanted. Having never been able to please his father, Jim now felt that he was reliving the sense of failure and humiliation from his childhood. His relationship with his teacher, a formal man who adhered to the traditional constructs of the monastic setting, did little to help matters. While mindfulness practice had given Jim the capacity to witness his thoughts and feelings, no one was there to help him with what he was uncovering. In fact, his desire to satisfy the training demands of his teacher deepened his pattern of suffocating compliance to authority. He’d achieved a good deal of insight through dedicated mindful practice, but had no experience of healing intimacy.

As Jim and I talked, he indicated that he felt truly heard for the first time. As a result, his sense of shame and rigid isolation began to soften. With my encouragement, he learned to sit in meditation and turn toward the terrorized and angry parts of himself. By experiencing this new relational practice, Jim learned to extend mindful awareness to include self-care and self-acceptance, discovering how loving-kindness and compassion can become the natural fruit of mindfulness practice.

I’ve also often encountered teachers and students of meditation who misused their practices and the teachings on “non-attachment” to achieve what psychotherapist John Welwood aptly terms “spiritual bypassing.” By turning inward during mindfulness meditation and cultivating a sense of apparent peace, practitioners can get the mistaken sense that they’re free from the emotional conditioning of the past. As Welwood has written, “I have often been struck by the huge gap between the sophistication of [certain students’] spiritual practice and the level of their personal development. Some of them have spent years doing what they considered the most advanced, esoteric practices, reserved for only the select few in traditional Asia, without developing the rudimentary forms of self-love or interpersonal sensitivity.” By simply taking on the roles and rituals of the tradition, some students whom I knew were trying to avoid the places of pain and suffering that had brought them to spiritual practice in the first place. This is the shadow side of meditation practice that I was experiencing.

Mindfulness and Intimacy

Although the path of transformation laid out by the Buddha is a complete path to awakening, it’s too often taught by meditation teachers in ways that strip it of its original capacity to transform suffering. As Zen teacher Norman Fischer, puts it, “Robes, chanting, ceremony, tradition, text study, and all the rest may be valuable in their own right, but their real purpose lies in the service of the path toward maturity. In spiritual practice, we use these traditional techniques and practices as vehicles to warmly connect us so that we can help each other to find the true, lasting, and ongoing maturity that each of our lives requires.” It’s a capacity for warm connection that supports our fuller development and helps us find our way through the tangles of everyday suffering. Just as relying on insight alone in the consulting room isn’t enough, neither is simply witnessing our inner conditioning on the meditation cushion enough.

As a Zen teacher and psychotherapist, I’ve seen again and again the power of combining both a keen awareness of the present moment with a warm heart for all that’s encountered. When this happens, especially when rooted in a relationship with a skilled teacher or a seasoned therapist, mindfulness goes beyond just being a technique for focusing nonjudgmental attention to become a pathway toward true spiritual maturity.

Flint Sparks

Flint Sparks, PhD, is an Austin-based Zen teacher and psychotherapist who’s dedicated to assisting individuals wake up and grow up. He’s the author of the dharma talk audio “Caught in the Self-Centered Dream,” the video series Soul in the Garden, and articles such as “Calling the Mind Home” and “Just as I Am.”