Meditation 15: What if I’m doing it wrong?

Image of a sitting frogHave you ever thought ‘What if I’m doing it wrong?’ We’ve all had that feeling when learning something new. This is no less true when the new activity is meditation. We may have reached a point where externally everything is polished – we’ve ‘found our seat’ and can meditate comfortably for as long as we would like to – but then another level of difficulty opens up because we are more sensitive to what’s happening ‘inside’.

If that new practice is one of the more open styles of meditation, such as ‘just sitting’ or recollective awareness meditation, there are not the usual meditation instructions to fall back on. It is much more likely that a novice will be worrying, ‘What if I’m doing it wrong?’ when there is a fundamental lack of specific guidance on what it means to be doing it right. When I think I’m doing it wrong, then I’ve assumed that there are certain desirable results (meditative attainments) that are supposed to come from doing it right. By doing it wrong, I worry that I will be denied these results. Is it at all helpful for me to be concerned about this? Have I completely missed the point? Or maybe there is no point – in which case, why am I even doing this?

As I understand it, in the traditional schools of Buddhist meditation one’s progress along the path is marked by meditative attainment, which is typically a matter that is kept between you and your teacher, someone more accomplished and better integrated than yourself. However, Jason Siff writes (in Thoughts are Not the Enemy, Shambhala 2014, p179), ‘I believe attainments are unnecessary concepts. They can easily derail a well-functioning spiritual path and turn it into a dysfunctional nightmare. … Some attainments may be real. Now, when that is the case, there is no advantage to making it known. Someone who really has succeeded in diminishing the force of her desires and ill will, and has substantially reduced her self-importance and pride, would be content being a nobody’.

People, myself included, first come to meditation with the expectation that their hard work will be rewarded. It’s part of our culture in the Western world, where the Protestant work ethic is alive and well despite increasing secularism. New meditators will also expect their time to be productive – even their leisure time: ‘work hard and play hard’. We can’t help but bring our cultural conditioning to new activities, meditation too, and probably without even consciously thinking about it we believe that doing it right will ensure a more efficient path to being productive. But productive of what?

The recent presence of mindfulness in the media, coming mainly from the growth of mindfulness based stress reduction programmes, means that it would be easy for those running meditation groups to sell meditation to newcomers as simply a method for solving problems – to cure whatever ails you. Stephen Batchelor (in After Buddhism, Yale University Press, 2016) points out that ‘…treating meditation as a technique for solving the problem of human suffering, however, is nothing new. Buddhism itself has frequently lapsed into this way of thinking and, in some schools, uncritically endorses such an approach. … This is no different from a sales pitch for an effective diet: if you follow this regime for X amount of time, it is certain that you will lose X amount of weight.’

The beginning meditator will look to veterans for reassurance that they’re doing it right, and that doing it right does have some positive benefits. We are, like it or not, driven by goals. However, there is the possibility that a well-practiced meditator has completely missed the point. Despite their accomplishments in certain meditative techniques they may have failed to have become a more integrated person, or, more generously, their integration may be radically asymmetrical with their desires well integrated, but their beliefs are poorly integrated as they are still operating under the assumptions of ideological dogma.

What light can recent developments in psychology shed on this topic? Conceptualising meditation in our minds as a task to be done correctly is a very heavily left hemisphere dominated approach: understandable in our current culture, but not a sign of good integration between the narrowly-focussed task-oriented language-producing aspects of our minds and the complementary widely aware integrating nonverbal aspects. Iain McGilchrist’s thesis (in The Master and His Emissary, Yale University Press, 2012) is that our current Western culture is the product of our left hemispheres pretty much going it alone (in his analogy, the Emissary has usurped the Master), and, if there is any hope of saving our sick society, it will involve a reintegration of the left and right hemisphere modes of being in the world, where the task-oriented narrow-focus modes of our left hemispheres are integrated by the wider awareness and more fluid modes of our right hemispheres.

I appreciate this from personal experience as much as anyone. I’ve read enough books, listened to enough podcasts, watched enough videos and conversed with enough people. Which of these authorities am I hoping will be able to reassure me that I’m doing it right? As is often the case, there are about as many different opinions as there are people expressing them, and without some kind of absolute conviction that one of them is The Truth there’s a danger of flipping to the other extreme (of relativism) and assuming that all of these different methods are equally useful to me.

What I’ve found so far in my practice of meditation (which most commonly involves sitting quietly, with the intention to meditate) is that however much I want do it right, in fact I can’t do it wrong. Whatever progress occurs, it is arrived at indirectly, and if I assume I know what my so-called correct technique is aiming to achieve then I’m fundamentally limited by those assumptions. By sitting quietly and treating my thoughts kindly – not cutting them off or drowning them out – the noisy, narrowly focussed left hemisphere has a chance to settle of its own accord, and then the right hemisphere’s openness to new experience can make itself known. It isn’t a battle to subjugate the left hemisphere (that’s the sort of plan-driven technique that the solo left hemisphere would derive) but a space in which the right hemisphere can integrate with the left within its wider awareness.

To conclude, a quote and more questions. In After Buddhism, Stephen Batchelor suggests that ‘…meditation is more usefully compared to the ongoing practice of an art than the development of a technical ability.’ Still, when cultivating an artistic meditative practice, people can also worry about doing it wrong, however cultivating a sensibility is a very different thing to drilling the correct practice of a technique. Is there some way of adapting the reassuring but dangerous phrase ‘you can’t do it wrong’ so that it reflects this view of it being the cultivation of an art rather than the execution of a technique?


Link to a list of previous blogs on meditation

About Jim Champion

As a student Jim specialised in theoretical physics, up to PhD level, and then trained as a secondary school teacher in Birmingham. In 2004 he returned to Hampshire to teach physics. He first encountered the Middle Way Society in 2015, and has been practicing The Middle Way ever since.

7 thoughts on “Meditation 15: What if I’m doing it wrong?

  1. Great post Jim. My practice of meditation is similar to yours in that it most commonly involves sitting quietly, with the intention to meditate. As long as the intention is there, then I agree that in some sense I can’t do it wrong. However, this depends to an extent what ‘meditation’ actually means. If I sit there and just daydream or alternatively allow excitement or worry to proliferate I don’t think I’m really meditating. I don’t think I’m doing it wrong as long as the intention is there to focus, be non-judgemental creatively engage with whatever’s going in my experience etc even if for most of the session I’m away with the fairies most of the session. I go to an art class and in a similar way my teacher encourages us to not worry about ‘getting it right’ but to engage, explore, to focus on what we see rather than what we think we see and be forgiving about mistakes etc However she does want us to make an effort.

    1. Hi Barry, thanks for taking the time to read and respond. There’s another excellent book on the same general theme, by Barry Magid, called ‘Ending the pursuit of happiness’ (Wisdom Publications, 2008) which I didn’t quote from in the above blog post. Here’s a representative insight:

      “We may say a lot of different things about what we hope to get from meditation, but in the back of our minds there usually lurks the fantasy that something will fix us once and for all. … It takes a long time to give up on our secret practice, and to accept that we’re not sitting here to get away from anything, but that we’re here precisely to face all the things we want to avoid. A regular sitting practice makes all those aspects of life, of our body and mind, all the things that we keep ordinarily at arm’s length, increasingly unavoidable. It’s not what we might have had in mind when we first signed up, but it’s what we get.”

      1. Hi Jim
        I’m not sure about me wanting to be fixed once and for all. I find meditation a helpful balancing activity but I don’t see it as any kind of panacea. Perhaps the closest thing I can relate it to is cleaning my teeth.

      2. Barry – sounds like you have a very healthy attitude towards it! Barry Magid is a psychoanalyst, as well as a lay Zen teacher, so I guess that’s his typical experience with his clients (and perhaps himself?). In the book he argues that zazen and psychotherapy need each other, something like the psychotherapy needs the Zen to keep give a sense of wholeness, and the Zen needs the psychotherapy to keep it from delusions that it has somehow taken you beyond all suffering.

        I’m alert to the possibility that lurking somewhere in my mind is the idea of meditation as a ‘curative fantasy’, since I first came to it from the direction of MBSR (mindfulness-based stress reduction) after bereavements and other work-based stress overwhelmed me.

        As I associate with Theravadan Buddhists too, there’s also the ‘curative fantasy’ of Englightenment, of becoming an arhat and being ‘free from all defilements’. It’s worth reading the two books by Jason Siff to read about his personal experience (going off and being a Theravadan monk for many years, and then becoming disillusioned with that path) where he talks about moving from seeing meditation as a way of suppressing your inner and outer experience (with the idea of becoming ‘awakened’ as a result) to seeing meditation as a cultivation of higher values such as tolerance of ambiguity, gentleness with one’s self and interest in one’s own experience.

      3. I too have had periods in my life when I’ve been overwhelmed by personal experiences such as bereavement etc. However, I became interested in meditation in a more stable frame of mind and then came across and gravitated towards practitioners who tended to avoid metaphysics and final goals etc. Presumably, that’s played a part in my more pragmatic attitude. That’s not to say that I haven’t occasionally experienced highly, integrative states whilst meditating (especially on retreat) but I don’t attach any special significance to them nor am I surprised when they subside. My regular practice at home is rarely profound, I often struggle to make the effort, but I bit like going for a run, I’m always glad I’ve done it afterwards and my partner says I’m less grumpy when I’m meditating regularly. That’ll do for me! Thanks for the tip about Jason Siff. I’ll look him up.

  2. Thanks for the further thoughts Barry. Interesting that you make the analogy with running. Since last summer I’ve (very gradually and infrequently) started running again, but its quite revealing how differently I approach it now compared to 15 years ago (!). I realised last week that whilst running I’d got into a flow, if you like – my body was running itself, and that previously I’d usually been making too much unnecessary effort with my mind whilst running. Doesn’t mean that running isn’t a physical effort, but the mental effort isn’t as necessary as I thought it was… like David Foster Wallace says in that ‘This is water’ commencement speech, I have a choice about how I’m going to think about the effort of running/meditating, but that choice isn’t easy to make or maintain (and the first thing is even realising that you have a choice).

    With regards to practitioners of meditation with a non-metaphysical inclination, I know we’ve discussed it previously, but I’m always impressed with Stephen Batchelor’s non-metaphysical/ agnostic/ sceptical approach to Buddhism (or ‘the dharma’ as he increasingly refers to it). In his ‘After Buddhism’ book, where he’s outlining his latest thinking on his approach he says:

    “As a sensibility, meditation enables us to cultivate an understanding of moment-to-moment experience much as we develop an appreciation of art or poetry or nature. Grounded in the body and the senses, we value an open-mindedness to what is unfamiliar, probe our sensorium with relentless curiosity, listen attentively to what others have to say, are willing to suspend habitual attitudes and opinions, and question what is going on instead of simply taking things for granted. The disengagement of meditation is not an aloof regard (or disregard) but a perspective that engenders another kind of response to what is happening.”

    Some fine words, but – like you say – if you think meditating makes you less grumpy then that alone makes it worth it.

  3. Greetings Jim Champion,

    That is a question that i ask myself frequently regarding meditation.
    Especially when i see a lot of people meditating and after years of it, you look at the end result and are terrible disappointed.
    Here follows a short description of my journey into meditation that might come as harsh.

    For myself i don’t really believe in goalless meditation now but i had a long period of practicing it (zazen) goalless.
    There must be a change, even as you imply, that is subtle and indirect.
    But what if it isn’t?
    And if it isn’t why continue.
    My take on it is that it is supposed to at least make you aware of your thinking patterns and predispositions, desires, psychological luggage and then to avoid them.
    To help you make a decision that is less based on your personal frustrations and more based on the morals of the system that you follow.
    To be less attached.
    I can say that for me it is true, to a certain degree, that meditation could do these things.
    But only because i arrived at these conclusions. The zen tradition that i follow did not specify this and has an attitude similar to what you said, by setting goals you become limited to them.
    It was like forcing a blind neurosurgeon perform brain surgery.
    I also think that a psychologist can do more. And i don’t believe in this panacea that zen tries to sell, “the answer to all your psychological problems lies in more sitting”.
    I said in the beginning that i was terrible disappointed, i wish to elaborate a bit.
    From my point of view a human is not what he says but what he does and should be judged accordingly.
    What happens when you see a lot of zen teachers that talk a lot about how zazen is wonderful and this is enough to transform you and make you wiser but you are none the wiser in deeds, remained the same bigoted fellow you were when you started practicing, actually not changed but enjoying your old but now disguised as “wise” self.

    Last thoughts:
    Meditation is a decent method but it is not a silver bullet and that there are many other types of meditation and many other methods out there certainly worth looking into.

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