Shadow Side Of Meditation


Getting Stuck in the Present Moment

September/October 2011


Getting Stuck in the Present Moment

A Zen teacher describes the benefits and limitations of traditional meditation practice.

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…

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6 Comments

Sunday, September 4, 2011 1:14:44 AM | posted by Adam Szmerling
Well articulated and critical points about the shadow aspects of meditation. I would be interested to hear your views of the experience of 'desire' in Buddhism, meditation and psychotherapy. Desire as is meant in the Freudian and Lacanian sense, as part of the 'life drive' rather than the 'death drive' (being different to Demand, of compulsions, cravings etc).

Thanks,

Adam

Tuesday, September 6, 2011 3:06:12 PM | posted by Flint Sparks
Thank you for your comment Adam. In brief, my sense is that the "desire" that is at the root of unnecessary suffering addressed in the Buddha's teachings focuses on the pervasive sense of "lack" that most of us live with.

We tend to think we are a problem to be solved. Consciously or unconsciously we have this uneasy feeling that something is missing. Something is not quite right.

From a psychological point of view we think the problem is our conditioning — our story and history. If we could only identify and work effectively with our conditioning, then we hope to find relief from our shaky identity and establish a strong sense of self that is robust and healthy.

From a spiritual point of view, we have two broad options: We can either affirm a belief system we hope to be able to rely on forever or we dedicate ourselves to a set of practices that will eventually end our suffering and assuage this existential sense of lack. Most often, the result is that we either work endlessly towards psychological self-improvement or become a perpetual spiritual “seeker” searching for nirvana.

Both paths to salvation are flawed because they both miss the shadow aspect of this pervasive “sense of lack.” Our deepest fears are not that we will never be good enough or that we will eventually die. The shadow fear, the one we least want to face, is that the sense of self we rely on for our identity is, in truth, groundless and without substance. We are not who we think we are and we sense this at some deep level.

Nothing is missing. We are always perfectly ourselves. The thing we cling to the most — our "sense of self" — is not worthy of our faith and trust. We cling to our conditioning and forsake our True Nature.

Thursday, September 8, 2011 6:43:25 PM | posted by Psychotherapy Networker
Thank you so much for your intruiging comments!

Friday, September 23, 2011 7:22:11 PM | posted by Linda Graham
It seems the need for mindfulness to go beyond “just sitting” brings us directly to the Wise Effort of the noble 8-fold path to enlightenment. The skillful discernment of unwholesome from wholesome, diligently removing the unwholesome and cultivating the wholesome, is organic to psychotherapy; wise mindfulness becomes a great support to wise discernment and wise action.

Saturday, June 30, 2012 9:34:17 AM | posted by Adam
To clarify the above comment, I wanted to hear from some versed Buddhists concerning the experience of desire in Meditation practice. Desire is usually considered 'negative' in buddhist psychology but without it who would ever meditate, contemplate, or help anyone?

Thursday, February 21, 2013 3:04:56 PM | posted by Erik
The same principles described above can be found in the Bible and the teachings of Jesus as well. Mindfulness is no foreign "Eastern" concept. It is a concept of wellness and health and appreciating what is and how God made it.

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