Five Mistakes to Avoid When Meditating
Are you meditating correctly?
Posted Mar 31, 2020
As noted in my recent blog post on how catastrophizing can distort our perception of the coronavirus, in addition to heightened global levels of psychological stress, the recent implementation of social distancing measures means that more people are spending time alone.
Under such circumstances, meditation can be a useful technique for remaining calm as well as understanding more about the workings of the mind. However, while there is no shortage of information on how to practice meditation, few resources focus on how meditation can go wrong. Based on both the traditional and contemporary meditation literature, as well as insights from my own research and practice of meditation, the following describes five mistakes to avoid when practicing meditation:
1. Adopting the Wrong Body Posture
Body posture is important during seated meditation practice because while being too relaxed can cause the mind to become lethargic, being too tense can cause it to become over-active. An important aspect of meditation posture is stability, which can be achieved whether sitting upright on a chair or on a meditation cushion. A useful way to think about the most appropriate posture for meditation is to try and sit “like a mountain.” A mountain has a definite presence and is upright and stable, yet it is also without tension and does not have to strain to maintain its posture—it is relaxed, content, and deeply-rooted in the earth.
2. Forcing the Breath
Breath awareness is an important meditation technique, as well as a tried and tested means of anchoring the mind in the present moment. By gently resting our awareness on our breathing, we give the mind a reference point so that it becomes difficult for us to be distracted or carried away by thoughts and feelings. The breath becomes a place where the mind can return to each time it wanders off or becomes anxious. However, a key point to remember is that using the breath to help steady the mind doesn’t mean that we have to force or modify our breathing. In other words, the breath should be allowed to follow its natural course and to calm and deepen of its own accord.
Forced breathing runs contrary to a core principle of meditation, which is that tranquility and wisdom are naturally present in the mind and will arise of their own accord when the correct conditions come about. One of these correct conditions is observing and accepting, rather than seeking to control the breath, body, or mind. Therefore, during meditation, we should avoid changing our normal breathing pattern by breathing heavily or loudly (which could also be irritating for anyone else who happens to be meditating with us!).
3. Becoming Addicted to Meditation
Some of my own research has identified a small number of individuals that appear to have become addicted to meditation. In fact, in several clinical case studies I have published, meditation has been successfully used as a substitution technique for people recovering from behavioral addictions, such as problem gambling, work addiction, and sex addiction. In these cases, becoming dependent on meditation would probably constitute a more positive form of addiction.
However, the traditional meditation literature cautions against becoming addicted to the blissful states associated with meditation and subsequently spending long periods of time sitting in meditation. The idea is not to use meditation to escape from the world but as a tool for developing and engaging a compassionate heart.
4. Forgetting About Impermanence
Impermanence refers to the fact that nothing lasts forever. All phenomena, including ourselves, are born, live, and die. This is a fact of life (or, if you prefer, a fact of death). Both others’ and my own research has demonstrated that there are health benefits associated with becoming aware of the impermanent nature of life.
Contemplating impermanence during meditation can reduce complacency by prompting us to reflect on what is important in life, and that at any time, we are separated from death by only a single breath in or out. Conversely, as I’ve written about previously, seeing meditation simply as a stress-busting technique can result in a superficial approach to this ancient contemplative practice, causing us to miss out on important meditative insights regarding the nature of life, death, and how we exist more generally.
5. Being a “Meditator”
Meditation isn’t a quick-fix solution and believing it can solve all of life’s problems is a mistake. Lasting progress requires sustained effort, as well as relating to meditation as a “way of life” rather than something to occasionally dip into when feeling particularly stressed or confused. However, trying too hard in meditation is also a mistake that can result in inner-conflict and unhealthy consequences. For example, research indicates that over-intensive meditation practice can induce psychotic episodes—including in people who do not have a history of psychiatric illness.
As noted in my recent blog on “How to Find Your Non-Self,” a key goal of meditation is to become less self-addicted and limit the extent to which the ego governs our thoughts and behaviors. Therefore, trying too hard in meditation or seeing oneself as an experienced “meditator” could imply that a person is allowing their ego to interfere with their meditation practice, which will ultimately impair their meditative development.
Note: This post reflects an updated, adapted, and abridged version of an article that I originally wrote for the University of Derby.
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