by Tom Kenyon
A friend of mine who lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico attended a lecture at a local health food store on herbal and homeopathic treatments for depression a few years ago. At the time, he was depressed himself, but was amazed to see so many people in the audience. The place was packed. And by his estimation, about 90% of those present were practicing meditators following some kind of spiritual tradition. And of these, over half were practicing Buddhists!
Now I don’t know about you, but in my book something is wrong here. And since I am going to be lambasting some sacred cows, let me be very precise in what I am about to say.
For one, I am a meditator. In fact, I have been practicing various forms of meditation for over forty years. And I am also a Buddhist. Well, actually I am a Neo-pagan Tibetan Buddhist and part-time Taoist, but I won’t go into that here. Suffice it to say this—I believe that the fundamental insights of Buddhism are an accurate description of the mystery that we call consciousness.
So my discomfort is not with Buddhism or with meditation in general, but rather with how they are practiced. When they are used to penetrate the authentic nature of our minds, they can be of inestimable value. But when they are used to avoid emotional truth, they are self-destructive. And I don’t care how many prostrations you do, how much incense you burn, or how long you sit on your ass in contemplation—this type of meditation does not lead to enlightenment.
I think the reason the lecture hall was so full of practicing meditators is that they were using meditation as a drug.
They discovered that they could use meditative states as a way to avoid emotional pain. Now most meditators who fall into this trap do not realize that they are necessarily avoiding emotional pain. They just know that they feel shitty if they don’t take time to meditate. It’s one thing to enjoy the vistas of mind that meditation provides. It’s another to be dependent upon it for feeling good.
This type of quasi-meditation produces a sedative effect on the mind, which dulls or lessens (for awhile) one’s emotional pain. It does this by altering serotonin levels in the brain. In other words, you get stoned. The brain is the master pharmacist, leaving even the most advanced drug companies in the dust.
The brain is capable of producing a myriad of psychoactive substances, and getting yourself stoned is quite easy once you discover how to do it. A large number of people who meditate are actually just getting stoned. Now I have no trouble with getting high, mind you, especially when it is produced by one’s own nervous system. But this is not penetrating the mystery of one’s mind. It is simply floating on a self-created samsaric high.
For those unfamiliar with the term samsaric, it refers to a Sanskrit word—samsara, the world of illusion. That which is not real is called samsara in Buddhism. So what I mean by that statement is that the experience of being stoned in meditation is a samsaric or illusory bliss. It is not real; it is self-created.
Now this is where it gets tricky. The nature of consciousness is bliss (or annanda in Sanskrit). But this type of bliss is not the same as the opiate-like high that some meditators experience. The bliss of bodhicitta (Buddha-mind) has a quality of being both expansive and clearly present. There is no avoidance of anything. All aspects of the self are present, including the emotional.
In Avoidance Meditation, a term I made up, one is using the opiate of brain chemistry to avoid an experience of one’s own emotional pain. This meditation will not yield anything of true value. It will just help you to avoid an authentic experience of your self.
It is natural for us to avoid pain. All biological organisms have this innate tendency. But when we avoid an awareness of our emotional pain or discomfort, we dim the light of self-awareness. And for anyone on the spiritual path this is an anathema.
Avoidance Meditation is just one way to avoid emotional awareness, albeit it a clever one. Among “spiritual people”, another popular way to avoid emotional awareness is by serving others.
Serving Others to Avoid Self-awareness
I told you that I was going to lambast some sacred cows in this article, so let me, once again, be clear about what I am saying. I am not saying that service to others is wrong or bad. In fact, I think that it is crucial to the spiritual path. It is a form of divine love (agape) which expresses itself as human love (filios). According to many esoteric and mystical traditions, the source of all things (call it God if you wish) can only express his/her love to us through the actions of our fellow humans. Thus we are indispensable to the divine. Without us, it cannot express its infinite love in this world.
But for many on the spiritual path serving others is a way to avoid awareness of their own pain and/or needs. The strategy is usually unconsciously driven, with little or no awareness of one’s hidden agenda(s). But by focusing on the needs of other people, we can easily lose ourselves and avoid awareness of our own un-met needs.
It is said that a picture is worth a thousand words, so let me paint one for you. The central figure was a powerful healer referred to me by several of her concerned friends. She was a world famous healer and people came literally from all over the world to see her. Although she had healed many people, she herself was ill. She was experiencing many unexplained spells of exhaustion, but medical tests had revealed nothing physical.