The Seduction of Asia
When you sit and meditate, it is as if you are watching your inner television, and you will also be exposed to innumerable commercials, devised by some of the most psychologically clever people who have ever lived, the meditation masters of Asia over the last 2500 years or so. You will to some extent be exposed to the thinking and energy patterns of these meditators and meditation teachers of the past. These were almost exclusively males who existed within the feudal systems and caste structure of ancient Asia. So you will be seeing and feeling powerful suggestions that you worship and adore these meditation masters, and imitate their path, bow down to them, and give them all your money. The general propaganda they are espousing is that if you want to get enlightened, you should become like them – a celibate male who lives within a religious organization of a Buddhist or Hindu persuasion. Buddha abandoned his wife and newborn son to go off into the forest and meditate. Shouldn't you?
In general, it seems, if you want to give meditation a chance, stay in your own country and your own culture and your own beliefs. If you are Christian, stay a Christian. If you are Jewish, stay Jewish. If you are a Muslim and want to meditate, stay a Muslim. If you are a Native American, stay a Native American. If you are an atheist or agnostic, stay that way. Get into your religion, whatever it is, if that is your calling. But above all – don't buy into the advertising that you have to adopt any aspect of Asian religion in order to meditate. This is simply not true and it will only confuse you on deep levels.
By far the most common "hazard" is that you waste your time – you spend time studying and practicing meditation and you don't find a technique that works for you, so you give up, feeling defeated. This happens to probably 90% or more of the people who go to a meditation class, buy a CD, or read a book. Almost every day, I talk to people who have had this experience.
These kinds of numbers are not specific to meditation – in almost any program, where daily practice is the aim, the follow-through rate – the percentage of people staying with it for a year – is often 5 to 10%.
One American Buddhist nun, observing people who come for introductory teachings and then noticing who was still coming a year later, estimated that the dropout rate in her meditation center is more than 95%. But such observations are rare – it is hardly even discussed in the meditation community.
It would be taboo to even consider the idea that the meditation teachers are inept in their methods of instruction. Instead, the emphasis is on tradition – transmitting the "purity" of whatever lineage is being represented. Purity demands that you not adapt your teaching to the students you have – you try to get them to adapt to you.
So, in the name of a sacred lineage, conditions are set up that attract students and then guarantee that 95% or more of them will fail, meaning, a year after taking a course, less than one in twenty of the students will still be meditating.
When I was a TM teacher in the early 1970's, the dropout rate after a year was about 50%, meaning that after a year, half of the students would still be meditating every day. I thought this was was a failure on my part, that the dropout rate was so high. Then one day in 1973, an educational consultant who had learned meditation from me several years earlier came to a group meditation and recognized half a dozen of the people he had started meditating with. He went around and spoke with them and was astonished to discover that most of them were still meditating daily and were happy with it. Then he came over to me and said, "It looks like a bit more than half of the people I started with are still meditating." I hung my head and said, "Yeah, I know." He said, "You don't understand. This is extraordinary. In general with a program where people have to do something every day, the follow-through rate is more likely 5, 10, maybe in exceptional cases, 15%. 50% is unheard of."
A Depressing Sense of Failure
What is the effect on a person of sincerely wanting to meditate, and investing time in learning, but failing? It's like a failed relationship – it hurts. There is loss, grief, and maybe some lasting damage. You do learn something – you learn you are "undisciplined" and that your self is defective.
A corollary hazard to simply wasting time is that your sense of yourself is somewhat lowered. You have added some judgments against yourself. I have spent years interviewing both those who continue and those who quit, and they tend to feel bad about themselves. Almost universally, they feel that there is something wrong with them, that they can't meditate. Most feel bad that they can't make their minds blank.
I think this is like feeling bad that your feet can't fit into size 4 shoes, or that your eyes are not blue. It's a kind of shame that you have learned, and it was unintentionally taught you. Meditation teachers, to the extent that they have been influenced by orthodox religion, whether it be Buddhism, Hinduism or Christianity, tend to be disease carriers of bad attitudes toward life.
Some people go into meditation wanting to develop inner peace and perspective, and instead, get involved in the cult mentality that pervades most meditations schools. Years later, they realize that they learned a lot about the kinds of abuse gurus perpetuate, and how toxic a feudal system can be, but they didn't really get anywhere with their meditation.
A War on the Self
Let's do a thought-journey, what physicists call a gedanken experiment. Let's pretend you are a 18-year old male, whose parents have donated him to a Hindu or Buddhist monastery. The oldest son inherited the farm, and there is nowhere for you to live. So there you are. And there is no escape at all, ever. You are part of the Feudal system. If you leave the monastery, you will simply discredit yourself and your parents and will forever be known as a renegade or fallen monk. So really, there is no escape. There you are, a healthy 20-year old male, whose testicles produce five hundred million sperm each and every day, and who gets an erection at the slightest thought of sex, gets aroused just from the brushing of the cloth of the robe against his penis. Around you in the monastery is a range of males, aged 16 to 60, half of whom are sizing you up as a sexual partner or slave.
Your situation as a monk is probably that you are not there by choice. It is as if you have been drafted into the army. And even if you are there by choice, what is the choice? What would be going on in the mind of an 18-year old if he says, "I forever renounce sex. I renounce ever finding a mate. I renounce all personal relationship, forever. I swear to be in poverty for the rest of my life. I swear to completely and unquestioningly obey every monk who is senior to me, for the rest of my life, no matter what they say. I swear total and unquestioning obedience to my lineage." You may have just wanted to get out of town, get out of the house, and to do that, you entered a monastery.
So there you are, and guess what? All your life energies, that could go to doing work, starting a family, developing a craft, having friends, building a life for yourself, all these energies have to be redirected. You actually have to kill them off. Any impulse you might have, when given an insane order to comply with, to say, "Shove it," has to be broken utterly. And any desire you have for women has to be killed out, entirely. Say you are driven wild by lust and seduce a village girl, either taking her virginity or making her pregnant. She will be ruined – there is no possibilty of marrying her. She may commit suicide, her family will be totally dishonored, and her father and brothers will come and burn down the monastery, even though it has been there for hundreds of years. So you have to, at all costs, kill your sexual desire.
Meditation in such circumstances is part of a war on the self. The need is almost medical, in which amputation is called for. You need to amputate your desires, ambition, individuality.
The next most common hazard is that you do meditate for awhile, and what you do inside is conduct a war on yourself. Meditation books are full of negative judgments that monks and nuns have against householders: "You are too materialistic, you move too fast, you think too many thoughts, you have passions, you are independent, you are rebellious, you are sexual, you have an identity, you love yourself and love your life."
If you want some examples, you might read A Tale of Two Paths.
Monks and nuns are called renunciates, because they take vows of poverty, celibacy and obedience: I renounce the desire to own anything, I renounce sex, I renounce my ego and independence and vow to obey whoever my superior is. These vows can be very liberating to someone whose destiny it is to be a monk or nun. The individual can even glow with an inner luminosity. But they also become radioactive in a way, and if you study with them you may get radiation poisoning, as if you got too many x-rays.
Monks and nuns tend to see everyday life as a disease. They suggest you internalize toxic attitudes toward yourself as medicine. Slow down, kill out your passion, become submissive, cultivate disgust instead of attraction, and dissolve your identity. These are medicinal attitudes that monks and nuns cultivate in themselves. However, if you are not a monk, these attitudes are simply toxic, like taking antibiotics if you do not have an infection, or drinking radioactive iodine to kill your thyroid gland. If you do not have a disease, they just weaken you. This weakening takes four forms, which are all by design:
- Weakening of ambition and passion and healthy desire
- Weakening of the ability to form close relationships and attachments
- Weakening of the individual ego or sense of self
- Weakening of the ability to tolerate the uncertainty of following your individual path.
Most long-term meditators have been damaged to some extent by these monastic attitudes, because they permeate the atmosphere of meditation. To a certain extent, this cancels out the benefits of meditation. Say a person has been meditating for 10 years. When they look back, they often see that for a year or two they were actually devolving, as they hacked away with their mental knifes at their "attachments," before realizing, "Hey, wait a minute, I am a householder, I work with attachments.
Anything you do in meditation that interferes with the simple joys of living, or with the flow of desire into action, is going to have vast and far-reaching implications for your life. If you spend a year practicing detachment in meditation, it may take you five years to recover your sense of zest and spontaneity in life. You may find yourself feeling detached emotionally and get divorced as a consequence, and this may be good or bad, who knows? In general, if you practice meditation as a war on the self, you will tend toward becoming broke, lonely, and weak. This is actually good from the point of view of the cult-like meditation schools: it means you are ready to take vows as a monk or nun.
The meditation traditions are very old and very well preserved. They have preserved tens of thousands of ancient texts, plus the oral traditions that go with them. In practice this means that you can talk to a Tibetan monk and come into contact with the energy and attitudes of the monasteries of 13th Century Tibet, and going back further, the dynamic and wild 8th Century founders of Tibetan Buddhism, and earlier still, the brilliant 6th and 3rd Century Hindu and Buddhist scholars of India and Nepal, and then on back to Buddha, who was a reformer of Hinduism.
This is a fantastic wealth of information, and the monks and nuns in the traditions are like walking museums. There is a dark side, though, because of this sheer brilliance of the ancient scholars and yogis. They make their way of life extremely appealing. Even the ancient, oppressive system of Masters and Slaves seem beautiful, necessary and inevitable. All of the meditative traditions over the millennia, until recently, lived in the open-air prison of the Feudal System, where people had very little choice in life. You couldn't move, change jobs, choose who to marry, or exercise much control over your life at all. Everything was karma, and everything that happened was karma. An attitude of total resignation and surrender was adaptive.
When meditation is conducted in the spirit of the feudal system, it is about killing individuality, killing out the creative impulse, and creating a submissive, dependent, pliant individual who always obeys. This is very good for nuns and monks, to help them adapt to life in a nunnery or monastery. But if you do not live in a religous order, cultivating surrender and resignation is about as beneficial as cutting off your hands.
Over the last 30 years that I have been doing in-depth interviews with meditators, I have met many who meditate regularly and have become depressed. When I ask them about their practice, they often reveal that they have interpreted the Buddhist or Hindu teachings they are studying in such a way as to detach themselves from their desires, their ego, their loves, and their passion. In other words, they have cut themselves off from everything interesting and thrilling in life.
Depression is a natural result of loss, and if you internalize teachings that poison you against the world, then you will of course become depressed. Detachment techniques were intended only for monks and nuns. Detachment is the DEFINITION of what defines a monk or nun: they take vows of poverty, celibacy and obedience. In other words, they cut themselves off from the desire to make or acquire money, they cut themselves off from their sexual desire, and they cut themselves off from any rebelliousness and independence. This amputation can be a blessing for a soul who really is a monk or a nun, and needs to just go join an ashram. But if you are not a monk or nun, cutting yourself off from life is as depressing as cutting off your foot. It's a loss, and you will suffer grief over the loss.
Another aspect of the damage resulting from the War on the Self and Learned Helplessness is as cultural poisoning. In your outer life you are living one way – you are a citizen of the United States or France or England or Slovakia – and in your inner life, as part of your meditation, you are a low-caste serf in an 15th Century Hindu ashram, struggling to get a little bit of attention from the Master, and begging for permission to exist. It is a very different thing to be living in Tibet in 1120 A.D. and be practicing Tibetan Buddhism, or Japan in 1425 and practicing Zen, than to be living in New York in 2004 and practicing Tibetan Buddhism. There is a different process for fitting your personality and daily life into the teachings.
Consider medicine: almost all medications have a bit of a poisoning effect, no matter how needed they are. What the doctor decides, and perhaps discusses with you, is if the negative side effects of the medication are going to be worth it. This is what good medicine is.
Since you are mostly on your own when you do standardized meditation practices – teachers rarely spend the time to work out individual practices – you have to be your own "doctor," and carefully assess the costs and benefits of your approach to meditation. And one of the costs is to notice how much your meditation tradition alienates you from the society you are in. How insular do you get? How much contempt do you develop for your own culture, your family, your ancestors, and your job?