When Meditation Makes Things Worse

“One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.” ― C. G. Jung

Some practitioners of meditation appear to be holding on to assumptions which, while possibly beneficial in the proper context, can in fact end up being actually harmful when misunderstood. I speak from personal experience here, and also often see others struggling with this. You may well recognise it from your own practice. One of these is ‘the more I meditate, the closer I get to being enlightened’.

The problem with this is, it does not take into account that one may actually be trying to meditate away pain and suffering, with enlightenment being imagined as a ‘pure’ state in which pain and suffering are no longer experienced. So the practitioner, upon feeling any emotional discomfort which has been produced from a situation in their everyday life, starts trying to push away the pain by using some sort of concentration-based technique.

What can end up happening is that the person is sitting there trying to meditate, trying to concentrate on the breath or the sensations in the body, but is becoming constantly distracted by thoughts which are being triggered by the underlying emotional disturbance in their life. They double down and try to concentrate even harder, which makes them tense, which then increases the frequency of the troublesome thoughts, which makes them try to concentrate more, but fail to, which makes them feel like a failure, which increases the suffering, and so on in a downward spiral.

This sets up a sort of addictive cycle in which they try harder and harder to meditate, spending more and more hours on the mat, with severely diminishing returns, or they just give up altogether and decide that meditation is not for them. An example might be that the person is feeling emotional disturbance in their life, apparently due to another person who refuses to do as they wish, or appears to be causing some other kind of conflict.

What is actually happening is that shadow material is being triggered by the other person, and then rather than going towards this material and investigating it, entering the darkness and then bringing it into the light - which can be a painful process, to be sure, as the shadow is everything we have avoided looking at, probably for many years - the practitioner tries to ‘run to the light’, using concentration or other ways of avoiding thought, or alternatively using visualisation to imagine positive figures such as angels, buddhas, gods and goddesses and so on, in their effort to block out the darkness.

The underlying assumption is ultimately dualistic - that ‘enlightenment’ is the victory of the Light over the Dark, and is a final state after whose achievement there will be no more pain and suffering, and only bliss and happiness.

This assumption also plays into the potentially toxic situation of someone idolising a supposedly ‘enlightened’ guru, which is of course a projection in the other direction, of all the good qualities the person feels are lacking in themself. The supposition that the guru is perfect and incapable of making a mistake or acting from anything other than a desire for the student’s highest good opens the door wide for abuses of all kinds; and history shows us that a great many gurus don’t waste too much time in taking advantage of these opportunities for abuse, especially in the sexual or financial domains.

In this way, ‘enlightenment’ is the carrot constantly being dangled in front of the student, either by themselves via an ideology they have bought into, or by a proponent of this ideology such as a guru. It is always, as with the technological singularity (another ultimate salvation mythology), just around the next corner.

The solution is to accept that we are imperfect and learn that suffering is in fact not something to be got rid of or meditated away, but is in fact the way to finding compassion for ourselves and for all beings. We can then enter the shadow material with love and gentleness for ourselves, and investigate it without need of a final ‘goal’ where everything will be fixed once and for all.

Meditations based on concentration, and visualisations, do surely have their place in the armoury of the meditator, but we must be extremely wary of misusing them in order to escape from our pain.

May all beings have the courage to ‘make the darkness conscious’!

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