science of us

The Approach to Meditation That Guarantees Failure

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I’m not usually one to get publicly excited about my calendar, but as we went around the room on the first day of a weeklong meditation retreat in Northern California, I found myself explaining my obsession with controlling every aspect of my day. I held out my iPhone and opened my iCal app: a slew of perfectly organized, multi-colored cells, stretching on for months. I should have been embarrassed, but when someone gasped, I was quietly satisfied.

Not long ago, I decided to get into the meditation game. I went into my calendar and blocked off a chunk of time for it each morning. The further into the future I scrolled, the more time I scheduled for it, confident that by a year out, I’d be meditating for an hour every day. I downloaded a few meditation apps, settling on one called Headspace, and got to work improving my happiness. But while I didn’t know it, the experts would say I’d run into a problem before I’d even started.

I approached meditation with concrete goals for myself: I hoped that it would make me happier and, ironically, less control-focused. But meditation, as psychiatrist Mark Epstein argues in his new book Advice Not Given: A Guide to Getting Over Yourself, is not like other goal-oriented tasks. Rather, it is about getting away from the self — about “opening oneself to the ceaseless flow we are made of.” This act of “developing” the mind to disconnect from the self, he writes, runs counter to our modern obsession with turning every action toward productive use. I could meditate for hours every day, but if I did it with the intention of accomplishing some form of self-improvement, I’d have already failed.

Therein lies a central paradox of meditation, and of Advice Not Given. Why meditate in the first place if you didn’t want to improve something about your life? Throughout the book, Epstein, a practicing Buddhist, attempts to answer this by invoking Buddhism’s eight-fold path, which provides techniques to keep the ego at bay. In order to not become defined by our feelings, which constantly sweep us this way and that, we must find a way to access and objectively assess our deepest, often subconscious, emotions, he explains. By meditating, you learn to watch your thoughts (sometimes even watching yourself watch your thoughts). And, in mentally stepping outside of yourself, you can step away from the emotions that can too easily take over.

A feeling is not an intrinsic part of who you are, Epstein writes; it’s something you allow yourself to experience. And meditation promises an out-of-body understanding that allows you freedom from those feelings. It’s an interesting idea — who wouldn’t like to be more in control of their emotions? — but sometimes, the emotional dispassion necessary for this escape can border on the cruel. Midway through the book, Epstein recounts inviting one of his Buddhist teachers to his home after a close friend of his wife is diagnosed with terminal cancer. She’s understandably torn up about her friend’s illness, but the teacher will tolerate none of her sadness, giving her one piece of advice: “Don’t make such a big deal of it.” Epstein applauds his teacher’s level of detachment. He says his wife understood the advice and was changed by it: She would treat her friend the same she always had, and not make her friend’s impending death about herself.

In a way, this kind of radical objectivity about death is admirable, especially considering how much we struggle with the fear of it. But it’s also at least a little bit psychopathic. Imagine if you were dying and your closest friend, leaning over your hospital bed, said something to the effect of, “Hey, don’t worry about it. Your death won’t really matter.” The rare person might laugh — or, even more rarely, find comfort in such a bold reminder of their insignificance — but I’d imagine most would call for the nurse and ask for their tactless friend to be taken from the room.

The crux of Epstein’s argument, then, may be that we’re all doing meditation wrong, but what’s left unsaid is that we don’t really have much of an alternative. In popular culture, meditation has become a panacea for everything from stress at work to creative block. Maybe what most practice now is a warped, diluted version of what meditation is really supposed to be, but the kind of dispassion necessary to the deep meditation Epstein describes just isn’t compatible with day-to-day life or healthy social interaction. The reason that serious meditaters head to monasteries and mountaintops seems to be two-fold: They want to separate themselves, of course, but also, no else could possibly put up with them.

Identifying the difference between the popular idea of “self-improvement” and the book’s more specific concept of “development” might feel like splitting hairs, but there’s one important distinction: “Developmental meditation” is a constant part of one’s life, while “self-improvement meditation” is a ten-minute block in the calendar. It’s a question not only of time commitment but also of a more existential commitment: the decision to work toward stepping outside yourself at all times. “If temporary dissolution of self were all that was needed,” Epstein writes, “problems would not be so tenacious. Even watching television would be therapeutic.”

Ultimately, Epstein recognizes the impossibility of the pure meditation he describes. It may provide a way to escape the illusion of the self, he writes, but there is no escaping the relentlessness of, in every moment, trying to escape. “To look death in the face and respond truthfully may be the best we can do,” he concludes. But in the book, when a friend recounts to Epstein the story of his Buddhist teacher dying of colon cancer, the teacher isn’t ready to go. “No, no, no,” the man whispers on his deathbed. “Help, help.” Dark as it may be, even dispassion can only get you so far.

The Approach to Meditation That Guarantees Failure