Are You Really Meditating?

Do you ever have moments when you wonder if you are actually meditating ‘properly’? It certainly isn’t uncommon for people to occasionally speculate about their own technique; after all there is no way for anyone else to give you a second opinion on what is going on inside your own head, being a meditator requires a certain level of trust in yourself. I assumed that I was usually doing the right thing when I was meditating, but I stumbled across something in my research last week that made me think again about that idea.

It all happened quite by chance; I was looking for some research on my hero Dipa Ma when I came across a paper co-written by Jack Engler. I knew Engler had used Dipa Ma as a participant in his doctoral thesis study, so I had a look for anything new about her. Even with her name not mentioned in the paper I knew the anonymous ‘master meditator’ was her, there were enough details about the research in Amy Schmidt’s book [1] that it was clearly her results. Dipa Ma’s responses are an interesting read, but this wasn’t what set my mind onto the trail of this week’s post. Instead it was a short section where Brown and Engler speculated about why so many in the beginners’ group in their study seemed to make no or little progress, even after practicing some 16 hours a day on an intensive 3-month meditation retreat.

It’s an interesting question, and it is one that has crossed my mind before: why do many Westerners seem to struggle to get past the basics? Drawing on other research, Brown and Engler suggested that everyone who starts any kind of internal work, such as meditation, self-hypnosis, or psychotherapy has to go through a process of learning to adapt to the new environment they encounter in their consciousness. So it occurred to them that their beginners may not actually be meditating at all, they might instead have spent the 3 months finding their way around their internal world. They asked the question: if the beginners aren’t meditating then what are they doing? They didn’t name the source of the quote but said simply that when an esteemed South Asian teacher was asked about this he cited the obvious differences in culture and belief, but then said succinctly:

“Many Western students do not meditate. They do therapy … they do not go deep with the mindfulness.” [2]

This really got me thinking, what if this is correct and many of us are doing therapy on ourselves instead of meditating? What kind of problems would that create? One really useful thing for me about reading this paper was that it reminded me of the basics of meditation and reiterated how important it is to treat everything that comes up in our experience as we meditate as just a passing object – treat everything impartially, simply notice that it is there and notice when it is gone. There are times when I forget that these aren’t just beginners’ practices to help you to develop your fledgling discernment, they are also developing the essential perception of seeing what is happening in an impersonal way. If you don’t do this, then you don’t learn how to create a space between you and what is coming up in your mind, and you will continue to experience it as something that is happening to ‘you’. Perhaps then, beginners could be slow to make progress if their meditation wasn’t helping them to develop a more impartial position and therefore the ‘realness’ of their internal experience wasn’t changing, they weren’t learning how to see things differently.

Brown and Engler explored the causes of why their beginners might be doing inner exploration and therapy instead of meditating by suggesting that perhaps there were two possible issues that Western students of meditation have to deal with that could impede learning meditation. Firstly, they may be so unfamiliar with the workings of their conscious mind that when they are exposed to it, they become fascinated with it. Brown and Engler suggest that perhaps exploring the fantasies, personal problems, emotional reactions, and thoughts that they find becomes a preoccupation for some Western students, and so they neglect the meditation instructions to follow this line of self-exploratory therapy.

Brown and Engler speculate that perhaps rather than being due to incorrect attention or some fundamental mental weakness, this might be because some of this ‘working out’ that helps with adjusting to working with the mind might usually happen during  preliminary practices like sila and dana that we so often skip over in the West to go directly to mindfulness and meditation practices. They seem to imply that the ‘working out’  inevitably needs to happen somewhere in the process, and that it is predictable that it would happen in meditation if no preliminary work was done prior to learning to sit.

The second issue that they suggest is that once the idea becomes established within a culture that meditation is a form of therapy then it makes it more likely that students from that culture will engage with the contents of their inner world in a therapeutic way – which is obviously going to happen at the expense of developing control over their attention, developing mindfulness, cultivating concentration, and so on. So they saw it as something of a double whammy – the Western beginners needed to work out issues in their inner world during meditation because they hadn’t done any preliminary practices, and the cultural expectation that meditation was therapeutic made them more likely to use it for that.

This brought up lots of questions for me, but the obvious first question to answer was whether I was doing this or not, so I sat in meditation with the deliberate intention of watching what I was doing very carefully for  any signs of self-therapizing, and for interacting with the content of my thoughts. I wasn’t sure what I was going to find, but I would have said that I generally didn’t get caught up in thoughts very much, and that normally my sits are fairly peaceful and pretty quiet. Based on that I assumed that my meditation was ok,  even pretty good at times. I didn’t think I was therapizing, but I was open to finding out if I was.

When I watched I immediately saw that I was engaging with the contents of my thoughts, briefly but perceptibly, and almost every time they came up. I continued to watch this in mild horror, but after a while I understood what it was that I was doing. I was checking each thought and resolving it,  then I was letting it go. It all happened pretty quickly, a  thought would pop into my mind, and I would either come up with a reason why it was there (you’re thinking that because of that noise, this thing reminded you of that, etc.), dismissing what it was about because it wasn’t true, or deciding to not deal with it right now. These very short responses to each thought were just enough to unseat any uncertainty or discomfort the thought created, which then allowed me to drop the thought because it was dealt with.

This explained why I wasn’t getting stuck in long trains of thought – I was resolving each thought and ditching it in the space of a few seconds. On one hand I seemed to be doing something right, i.e. not getting lost in thoughts, but on the other hand I was still doing something wrong too. By looking at what was in each thought, and engaging with it, I wasn’t treating them as just mind objects, as being just phenomenon that arise and pass away on their own. I was interfering with them instead, treating them as thoughts that ‘I’ had, as ‘my’ thoughts that had content that ‘I’ had to deal with, and that wouldn’t go away unless ‘I’ sorted it out. This was wrong on so many levels.

The trouble is that interacting with the content of my thoughts like this allows a sense of self view to persist, because I treat them as ‘my thoughts’, and this habit of self-view gets reinforced by paying attention to what is in the thoughts too because they are so often about ‘me’. Every time I do this I miss an opportunity to train myself  to see thoughts as just the output of the brain, in the same way that breath is the output of the lungs, to treat them as just something else that pops into experience and pops back out again. Everything that comes up in our field of attention requires no more than  to be noticed, and then allowed to pass. Getting involved any more than that with any sensation, be it a thought, sound, feeling, or emotion, is losing the focus of the meditation and maintaining bad habits.

When I do this I am also missing out on an opportunity to cultivate a feeling of distance between me and the thoughts that come up in my mind, on lessening my belief in what the mind is saying to me, and on developing better control of my attention and concentration because I keep, however briefly, engaging with the contents of my thoughts. I know meditation is used therapeutically but I don’t consider that to be its primary role, and yet still I found that I was analysing the contents of my mind, working on them, and working through them. This did come as something of a surprise to me, but I was grateful to have noticed it.

I had a quick look at Google Scholar to get a measure of what extent the association of meditation and therapy was established in this culture, and after getting some 370,000 results I deduced that the answer was ‘pretty firmly’. I was amazed that it seems at first glance as if every possible type of meditation and/or mindfulness practice has been investigated to see if it has any kind of therapeutic benefit on almost every physical and mental issue that you can think of. Medical and psychological researchers naturally have an interest in looking for anything of therapeutic value, and perhaps this has perhaps skewed the way that we have come to understand meditation in the West.

If having an expectation of meditation having a therapeutic value makes it more likely that we are going to use it that way, and therefore find it harder to make progress then Westerners are definitely going to struggle. Have we in the West had the idea of meditation as being a tool to improve mental wellbeing so thoroughly integrated into our understanding of meditation that we can’t help but fall into the habit of examining the contents of our thoughts and trying to understand what they mean? I literally hadn’t noticed that I was doing anything wrong until I sat in meditation to deliberately investigate whether I was looking at the contents of my thoughts or not, so it is clearly something that can stay off the radar quite easily.

But something else caught my eye as I was scanning the titles of the search results on Google Scholar; I quickly noticed that a significant proportion of the papers were investigating the negative impacts of meditation on mental health. It seemed that the pendulum had swung away from the idea that meditation was a panacea for all of our ills, and I personally welcome that. As someone who practices within a the framework of a particular tradition and its set of supporting practices, I know that meditation has no inherent qualities of its own that make it therapeutic, it is merely a tool that will do what it is used for, and it is only one of several factors that needs to be developed in tandem. To strip it out of its wider context as just one part of a path of development runs the risk of leaving behind whatever it was that made it work within that context.

But as I was thinking about the risks of meditation, I remembered something that my partner had said when I mentioned  Brown and Engler’s paper – that Westerners can’t help but ‘make ourselves the subject’ of our meditation. This made me think of papañca. One way that papañca often gets described is as when the mind stops being the object of the meditation and becomes its subject instead. Maybe that contributes to the negative effects of meditation, and so perhaps indulging in examining the contents of our thoughts could be thoroughly untherapeutic. When we get caught up in papañca we lose our detached viewpoint where we watch the thoughts coming and going in the mind, and instead we see only the mind. This is the point that the mind is out of control because it is stuck in a loop of looking at itself and thinking about itself and will do so endlessly until some external force can intervene or we simply run out of energy. Papañca also feels pretty horrible, not only is your mind a mess, but your body activates all kinds of stress responses too. You can’t think your way out of papañca either, thinking just sends you deeper into the vortex.

I’ve already written about papañca, and personally I consider it to be a serious state to get into: once you are in papañca you have lost it and that requires immediate remedial action. Papañca means obsession, and it happens because you think about something so much that you become fixated with it. Whenever I get the sense that I am over thinking something then I stop everything until the mind has settled down, because I know that more thinking is exactly what will make it worse. If some of the negative impacts from meditation on mental health come from us accidently triggering a state of papañca by making our minds the subjects of our meditation instead of the objects, then by paying attention to what is inside our thoughts we might be skating closer to the edge of our mental wellbeing than we realise. If this is the case then self-therapizing in meditation is a lot more than a case of bad technique, I can see that it is potentially very risky.

Obviously just noticing what we are thinking about in any given moment isn’t dangerous, and clearly it is possible to analyse our thoughts without triggering papañca every time, but an important factor to bear in mind is that in our normal life off the cushion we have a lot of distractions and unavoidable obligations that will naturally interrupt a train of thought, whereas when we meditate we have deliberately cultivated the conditions to make sure that we will be undisturbed. Being able to break out of your meditation mindstate is one of the most important skills to learn to keep you safe; when I’ve taught meditation in the past, I’ve always advised that if the feelings or thoughts become too intense just open your eyes and come back into the room, touch the floor and ground yourself, make contact with the physical world again. You always need to know how to get back out of whatever you get into. But of course if you have gotten into the habit of delving into your thoughts instead of just treating them as mind objects then it is harder for you to notice that you are caught up in thinking, and you might not spot it until a train of thought has worked you up into a tizzy.  

But rather than being a negative discovery, I think this suggestion that we might be self-therapizing instead of meditating can be a positive one, because it can help us to understand what it is that we are actually doing during meditation. If you know what to look out for in terms noticing if you are treating thoughts as just passing sensations or if you are delving into your thoughts and working through them then you will know what the right response will be to keep your meditation moving in the right direction. If the ‘working through’ stage really is inevitable, then perhaps we can also set aside some time to do more of the preliminary practices that Brown and Engler thought might support that.  

When you believe that you are meditating properly then you think that you need to sit through whatever is coming up for you otherwise you will never change it, and perhaps this is a trap that we unwittingly fall into and put ourselves through a lot of difficult experiences that didn’t necessarily need to happen. But instead of trying to endure everything come what may, if you realise that you are paying attention to the content of your thoughts, then you can understand on that occasion the better thing to do is to stop and regroup. The awareness that you might be self-therapizing at times has the potential to be a protective factor then, because if you notice that you are engaging with the contents of your thoughts then you can understand that you are not meditating and stop doing it, saving yourself from potential papañca and all the discomfort and upset that comes with it – and maybe you can get more of the good effects from meditation instead.

Photo by Finn on Unsplash


1.     Schmidt A (2005) Dipa Ma: The life and legacy of a Buddhist master. Windhorse, Birmingham

2.     Daniel P. Brown, Jack Engler (1980) The Stages of Mindfulness Meditation: A Validation Study. The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology 12:143–192

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