What if I’m doing it wrong?

Have 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 sit comfortably for as long as we would like to – but then the real difficulty begins because we are sensitive to what’s happening ‘inside’.

If that new practice is one of the more open styles of meditation, such as 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 practitioners of a secular approach to the dharma 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. Stephen Batchelor (again in After Buddhism) makes the following pertinent observation: ‘…from a dharmic perspective the value of these [traditional meditative] attainments lies not in their being humanly possible, but in their contributions to the practice of the fourfold task. It is not hard to imagine being highly accomplished in certain meditative techniques, yet still failing to embrace wholeheartedly the condition of dukkha that pervades the life of oneself and others, still failing to let go of self-centred reactions to dukkha, still failing to behold the stopping of such reactivity, and still failing to cultivate a radically different way of being in this world.’

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, in the morning and the evening) 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?

• Jim Champion has been investigating a secular approach to the dharma for around two years; he lives in Southampton, UK and has recently become a member of the international online community Re~Collective.

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  1. Tony Reardon
    Posted February 27, 2017 at 11:29 am | Permalink

    I find the general thrust of the article, ‘relax, you really can’t do it wrong’ very good, it seems to be part of a growing new emphasis on meditation being more relaxed, less attainment and over-efforting oriented.

    probably a minor niggle, but I think Jim’s saying ‘meditation’ when he really means ‘sitting meditation’ goes against what the rest of the article says. There are many ways to meditate, sitting meditation doesn’t work for everyone, as I’ve personally found out.

  2. Posted March 2, 2017 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

    Jim’s article coincides with my limited experience. I started out concerned that I was “doing it right” or that I needed to work toward some goal.

    Having read Batchelor, and Siff and oddly enough having just finished a year long poetry practice. I came to the conclusion that it was more of a task to be explored than a task to be completed and ticked off.

  3. Posted March 2, 2017 at 6:14 pm | Permalink

    Jim, I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. Thinking back to the dozens, possibly hundreds, of people I’ve seen go through introductory courses and then given up the practice, I’d suggest that most did so because they believed they were unable to follow the instructions, such as to watch or count the breath, or complete a body scan, or maintain an awareness of lifting, moving and placing the foot. Not following instructions meant, they believed, that they were unable to meditate.

    Also, the popular notion that one of the immediate goals of meditation is to silence the mind by stopping all thoughts leads people away from following these kinds of instructions towards developing ways to drown thoughts in the mind by smothering them with repeated phrases, chants and songs, such as hare krishna and nam myoho renge kyo. (I do sometimes wonder what’s going on in the minds of the builders I see [and hear] around Wellington who have loud radios on constantly.)

    Speaking with newcomers, I make it clear they are not trying to ban the brain, rather to train the mind by fully knowing their thoughts, feelings, sensations and emotions, letting go of them, and stopping to savour the moments of clarity that may arise, however brief. It is in these moments that we have the ability to decide how to act wisely, how to make changes to our lives. So when they do sit down to meditate, or walk, whatever happens in their mind they are meditating, and with practice the mind will, eventually, settle down. I also tell them, by the way, not to believe a word I say and to try it so they can see for themselves.

  4. Jim Champion
    Posted March 4, 2017 at 9:03 pm | Permalink

    Hi Tony, Sean and Ramsey. Thank you for taking the time to read my blog and writing your comments.

    I’ve posted a modified version of this blog on the Middle Way Society website (link) and here follows some extra thinking that I wrote in the comments there:

    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.”

    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 enlightenment, 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.

  5. Posted March 5, 2017 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

    Hi Jim,

    I saw the other blog pop up in my rss feed.

    On a tangential point I spent most of last year studying, writing and publishing poetry (some 500 odd hours). And that engendered a very similar unfolding and changing of perspective i.e. from wanting to do “it” right, to learn the right technique, to become a “poet”, to become a “good” poet.

    In the end though, the most important realisation was that it wasn’t the poem at the end that really mattered but the practice. I wrote good poetry, I wrote bad poetry, some of it was published -whether good or bad I don’t know 😉 . I think I learnt more about myself though.

    So I approach meditation similarly, as a practice, I suspect it might change my perspective, but I don’t expect that I will get “good at it” other than perhaps knowing what to do.

    Some days it works others it doesn’t, much like the poetry.

    It does allow me to stop and see (more frequently than I used to) and I think that I have moments when I am awake and moments when I doze (metaphorically).

    I don’t expect that I can ever be fully awake but rather be awake more often. I tend to follow at this stage Batchelor’s suggestion that the point of it all is to live a full life through cultivating the path.

  6. Joan Cunningham
    Posted March 15, 2017 at 9:26 am | Permalink

    Thanks for the article with the theme of what is right meditation, it was very thought provoking. Could you explain a bit more for me why the instruction, “you can’t do it wrong” is a ‘dangerous’ one? Thanks Joanie

  7. Jim Champion
    Posted March 15, 2017 at 11:43 am | Permalink

    Hi Joanie, thanks for your comments and question. You might consider the statement “you can’t do it wrong” as dangerous because it can give the impression that anything goes, which puts you into the realm of relativism where any one approach to meditation is considered to be equally appropriate as another… And relativism itself is based on the sort of nihilism which the middle way carefully avoids.

    It seems that there is some benefit to going through the struggle with the idea that one is doing it “wrong”. So another way in which it could be dangerous to be told that you can’t do it wrong is that one could then go through the motions without ever facing up to the complex tangle involved in the concepts of doing things right/wrong.

    On the other hand, perhaps it would be more dangerous to follow a path in meditation where thoughts are considered the enemy, to be squashed (however gently). Or where your thoughtless states of mind are seen as a sign that you’ve transcended suffering. As Barry Magid wisely wrote in the book I mentioned above, “There is no surer way to remain unconscious of our personal and cultural blinders than to imagine we have hit upon a technique that has removed them once and for all.”

    What do you think? Is it surprising to you that the ‘you can’t do it wrong’ idea has the potential to be harmful?

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