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February 21st, 2023
Every so often a cautionary tale will pop up about meditation. Someone with years of experience, or perhaps someone with just a few months of practice will report a tremendous and negative experience. These accounts can be harrowing. Does this mean meditation has a secret dark side? Does this discredit meditation as a practice? Does it mean you shouldn’t try to develop a practice in the art of concentration?
Any exercise, be it a physical exercise or a mental exercise is a type of tool. The exercise of that tool accomplishes some kind of result. Meditation is one such tool, and it can be a powerful one. But a tool’s use does not necessarily default to a good nor positive effect, even if that’s the intent. Anyone who has used a hammer knows that it’s quite possible to swing and miss the nail only to hit your own finger instead. What does that say about the hammer? Does that mean there’s something wrong or bad about the existence and use of hammers? No, of course not. The effect of a tool’s use is dictated by how the tool is used.
For those with impressive credentials in meditation who suddenly one day have a horrible experience, the question arises as to what was actually going on during the accruement of such impressive credentials prior to the unexpected and uneasy event. Many people spend an awful lot of time “meditating” while doing very little that is productive, and much of this effort might be safely regarded as a waste of time. Or it’s entirely possible to develop a strong concentration practice while still missing the mark. It’s quite possible to increase powers of concentration and focus while still remaining completely oblivious to the present moment - the object often touted as the aim of a meditation practice. And then maybe one day things click. The present moment suddenly comes into stark focus.
Now what would this experience be like for someone who has racked up an impressive number of years meditating and developing a strong ability to concentrate? What is a person’s first legitimate moment of mindfulness - their first real contact with the present moment, comes after they are well accustomed to a much different experience?
We naturally think of “meditators” as calm and focused people, but it doesn’t take much imagination to see that the above scenario could be quite shocking.
This conundrum is a reason why psychedelics can provide incredible utility and context for a meditation practice. There’s talk of “good” and “bad” trips. Having had both very good and very bad psychedelic experiences personally, I eventually came to the realization that there really isn’t a difference between the two. The mind is simply capable of intensity. Whether you embrace it or not determines the retrospect of it being “good” or “bad”. The demon turns into an angel if you hug it. The danger comes only because we can refuse the call to adventure. (Think of Joseph Campbell’s Hero of a Thousand Faces)
This is similar to how some people (many people) are legitimately afraid to even try meditation. Often with the provisional statement “oh I can’t do that, I have too many thoughts as is!” It’s a bit quaint how such reasoning misses the point, but on the whole it’s another refusal to accept the call to adventure.
Meditation is really just an attempt to be here. To be present now. But what happens when you are present but you don’t want to be where you find yourself? This is very similar to depression. In many ways a depressed person is someone who has meditated deeply on how much they don’t want to be where they are. It is a kind of mindfulness, only because it is a constant exercise of concentration on the present, albeit with a very unfortunate tint, veil or flavor. It’s a concentration exercise in “this is what my present is and I don’t like it!”
The opposite is also quite possible and common: there are a lot of people who use “meditation” as a concentration exercise to just bliss themselves out to a euphoric degree. You can get really really good at the skill of “being happy”. It’s a sort of reverse-depression if you see the mental activity of depression as a type of concentration exercise.
There exists a kind of sweet spot between those two extremes that can be hard to hit, let alone notice. It’s a kind of neutral intensity centered on an immersion in the present moment that immersive to the point that it loses all potential valence. Think of walking a tightrope with the future on one side and the past on the other side. Or good intensity on one side and bad intensity on the other. You need to stay very focused and concentrated in order to stay balanced on the rope. But it’s a neutral intensity, and concentration is used not as a magnification of how we feel about the present moment, but as a tool to immerse deeply into that present moment regardless of whether it is good or bad.
Small children exemplify how difficult it is to walk this balance. They are so engrossed in the moment that when something “bad” happens they are completely consumed by it. A kid falls down and loses it’s mind because it thinks something bad has happened, despite being completely fine physically.Or they can be so happy and excited they don’t realize they are embarrassing their parents or being inappropriate in some way. Again, the mind is capable of incredible intensity, and it’s often at the expense of the present moment.
Practicing a concentration exercise can of course deepen the capability of this intensity. Does “meditating” mean this capability for intensity is always going to be neutrally or positively focused? Well no. And when a deep ability for concentration suddenly comes into contact with the present moment in a moment of legitimate mindfulness, the effect can be startling. Because life is startling. It’s rather insane that we’re here, that we exist, on a planet, after millions of years of evolution, now spinning through space in this endless abyss that seems simultaneously filled with galaxies and empty. Most people, most of the time simply ignore the magnitude of this reality. Getting a clear view of the abyss can be shocking because a clear view reveals you are not separate from the abyss, you were conjured from it and you exist as a wrinkle in the abyss of existence, and to gaze into it means the abyss gazes back at you. The two are the same, and the abyss gazes into itself. Do you see emptyness? Do you suddenly feel a terror as though your very existence dissolves? Or are you flooded with a sense of what it means to be here? To be this.
Is it good? Is it bad? This is the default questionnaire the thinking mind applies to every new experience.
The present moment can very easily be a tremendous and overwhelming experience. Some call it the beauty of God’s creation. Depressed people interpret it as no less intense, but they might see a hellscape. And to come suddenly come into close contact with the present moment and resist it? To refuse the call to adventure when the door to now finally opens? This is the mind trying to resist itself. What would be more terrifying than being bound to the thing you can never escape? This is at the heart of bad psychedelic trips and why we occasionally hear about people experiencing something awful while meditating. In both instances, an acutely aware mind is posed with the opportunity to embrace the experience and resists.
A meditation practice, well developed, is simply an exercise in focus in order to develop concentration and direct attention toward the present moment to make sure you don’t miss out on your life as it happens.
But always remember Milton:
The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.