I’m reading David Treleaven’s book, Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness right now – a great resource in learning about the possible adverse effects of particular kinds of contemplative practices. David’s book includes a reference to a 25-minute video of Willoughby Britton, a researcher I had the privilege of working with while I was the manager at the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies a few years ago, talking with His Holiness The Dalai Lama about adverse effects of intense meditation practice.
It felt so enlightening and empowering to hear Willoughby talk about some of the somatic, perceptual and existential challenges some meditators experience. I thought my involuntary “somatic spark” movements, sense of unrealness, and loss of meaning in my everyday surroundings during and after intense meditation experiences were my experiences alone, but Willoughby talked about these as being some of the kinds of experiences other meditators, including prominent meditation teachers, had reported. There is great power in the common humanity that helps us to feel that we are not alone and that there is, in fact, nothing wrong with us or our experiences.
You can watch the video embedded below:
I found the results of Willoughby’s research fascinating, and I also found His Holiness’s responses really helpful. His response was to ask, “Who made these people meditate?” in his usual good-natured, humorous style. The idea that someone would meditate when they are not ready, or when they are having difficult experiences, seemed unusual to him. He went on to outline that, initially, practice needs to have a good foundation of ethics. In the Buddha’s time, meditation practice was exclusively the work of monks and nuns, people who had dedicated their lives to a cloistered existence that supported such deep work. Meanwhile, householders who had the tasks of tending to home, finances and family, were encouraged to cultivate ethics and generosity as their practices.
I would extrapolate on his suggestion by offering a work-in-progress modern adaptation of the Noble Eightfold Path from Buddhist study and practice. The Noble Eightfold Path instructs us to cultivate, sequentially, or if one has the capacity, simultaneously:
- right speech (speaking skillfully, thoughtfully and kindly),
- right conduct (bringing mindfulness to our behavior and the way we carry ourselves through our daily life),
- right livelihood (making sure that our work is aligned with our values), then
- right effort (putting our energy into things that nourish us, including choosing the right contemplative practice),
- right mindfulness (being aware of what we are doing when we are doing it and also understanding the cultural, religious, gendered, etc lenses through which we see our actions and those of others), then
- right view (getting a clear perspective on cause and effect in our life, releasing a sense of blame or shame),
- right intention (aligning ourselves with our values and allowing ourselves to be motivated from this deep soul place whilst understanding that everything is impermanent, not ours to keep, and a source of suffering if we cling to it).
- right concentration (an advanced meditation practice also known as cultivating the Jhanas).
His Holiness was basically pointing out that we need to walk the path in a way that allows us to build our training and skills on what we have already learned. And that trying to go straight to meditation practices when we have not cultivated all of the groundwork to support those practices, is a recipe for difficulty. In this conversation, he did not really entertain how to support folks who have difficult experiences in response to meditation – rather he suggested more wisdom and patience around our practice path trajectory.
I so appreciate these kinds of conversations, partly because I have felt some shame over my “inability” to “practice” especially while in management positions in a meditation community. I have also felt a little sheepish about suggesting to folks that they stop meditating and direct their study and practice toward something like a body-based, creativity-based, community-based, relationally-based contemplative practice if they are having difficulty with meditation. If we are aiming for more wellbeing and self-awareness, meditation is not the only way to get there, and I find it enormously liberating to know that there are options to meditation. Meditation is one way to cultivate mindfulness and awareness, but not the only way.
And, my understanding is that it’s really hard to cultivate right speech, conduct and livelihood if we haven’t dealt with the wounds from our past. Hurt people hurt people. We steal, cheat and lie (from/to ourselves and others) because we don’t feel able to be authentic and we don’t feel safe. We need to tend to old hurts before we can really set our foot on the beginning of the Noble Eightfold Path. How do we tend to old hurts? Through practices like self-compassion. And through therapy, support groups, being in community with other healers (people in the process of healing themselves and others), reading, journaling, doing self-awareness courses – generally investing our energy in learning about ourselves and how we can become embodied, authentic and feel safe.
I feel it’s a great act of self-compassion to learn self-compassion before trying out any intense mindfulness meditation practices. This may be what the Dalai Lama was referring to – don’t start before you are ready and don’t force yourself to meditate if you haven’t done your inner work yet. And I think, as contemplative teachers, many of us have the responsibility to offer folks in our communities creative options to meditation. There are so many doorways in to self-awareness and wellbeing. The Center for Contemplative Mind in Society offers us a great graphic representation of a bunch of options. May we all feel empowered to choose our practice path and to recruit our strengths and values to motivate us toward our wellbeing goals for ourselves and those around us. If you’re interested in some HeartWorks offerings, check out Thriving Woman Toolkit and Finding Your Self-Compassion Practice Path – two online courses designed to tool you up to respond skillfully to your practice needs. I hope I see you there!
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