In the last years many have started to meditate. It’s sold as the universal remedy to all problems. But: Can you meditate too much? And how do you know, if you do so? What are the problems and what could be the solution?
I am quite sure that never before in human history so many people are meditating totally unsupervised. That is somehow a very good development and I think it will change the way we all live our lives in the long run.
But it has its dangers, too. I already talked about the negative aspects of meditation in another episode, because I think it’s important to know about this possibilities. It’s important to know that if you experience negative things, you are not alone.
Because nowadays no one talks about possible pitfalls you can experience when you are regularly meditating. In fact there are almost no studies regarding bad effects of meditation. My estimation is that about 80% of all studies concentrate on the benefits. If you take part in one of these studies and you experience bad thing, you are simply excluded.
The problem today is that the positive aspects of meditation are the main focus in the media. The whole “awareness movement” as I call it and the use of apps like “Calm” or “Headspace” made meditation available to anyone without the traditional psychological barriers.
Before the Internet, before apps, you may have read a book about meditation. But when you started practising on your own, just by reading a book, you could never be sure you were not missing something very important. Sooner or later you would have had to find someone instructing you. And chances were quite good, that you would run into someone who had made lots of experiences with meditation already.
Today everyone emphasizes that meditation is very simple, that everyone can do it. Today apps guide you to the process step by step. It’s a huge difference whether you read an instruction, which is quite an abstract process, or if someone reads it to you, through an app, through your headphone, right into your ears and brain.
I am quite sure that millions of users of “Headspace” think of Mr. Puddycombe as their teacher, maybe even as their master. But he is not. If you run into problems, he will not answer them, he doesn’t know you, he can’t give you an individual instruction at all. And that applies to all apps and websites and podcasts and audio books. Anonymous instruction is not enough.
And the question “Do I Meditate Too Much” is just a typical one. It is not easy to answer to that question. The individual experiences are very different. There is no standard answer.
So let’s dive a little deeper into that question. Can you meditate too much?
The obvious answer is: Yes. You can. Everything can be exaggerated.
Fastening is a very old spiritual technique, practised around the world in almost every religion. And everyone understands that eating nothing for an extended period of time has dire consequences. You can fasten too much. And it happens a lot. It’s not a problem of monks in medieval times. It’s a much huger problem right now.
So when do you meditate too much?
The most common phenomenon is something I call the “smiling idiot”.
Some people start meditating because they want to be better human beings. It’s a part of their endless search of self optimization. The search and the struggle to be the most perfect version of themselves. I don’t like that point of view at all. I think that Tony Robbins is causing more people harm than empowering them. But that’s just my point of view.
When self optimizers made meditation a part of their lives, they try to signal their progression to a higher level of consciousness. So they look for role models and they find the blissfully smiling masters on YouTube. Then they copy these behaviours.
They move and speak slowly, they smile continuously, they are so very patient and content with everything that happens to them. In most cases an explosion will happen sooner or later, because they are only acting to a screenplay they made up for themselves.
The smiling idiots clearly meditate too much. Their environment and they would improve if they stopped.
Then there are the people I call “meditation junkies”. Because they use meditation as a drug. They develop an addiction to meditation. They start with half an hour daily, then they double that and sooner or later they are meditating as much as possible.
And since everyone tells them that you can’t meditate too much, they think they are on a speedway to enlightenment. The more intense the practice, the sooner they’ll arrive at the destination.
That’s just not the case. First: There is no destination. And secondly: If you begin to neglect your ordinary live, you are doing something wrong.
Junkies get distanced from normal human relationships. They are so much concentrated on themselves, that they neglect other human beings. Everything is just a distraction to them. Only the time sitting on the cushion counts.
If you are meditating without supervision all alone, don’t meditate much more than 40 minutes a day in the first year. You can split this into two sessions, one in the morning, one in the evening, but don’t meditate for hours. I meditate half an hour every morning after more than 30 years. Not more.
When you begin to believe you can’t live without meditation or that life without meditation is inferior to your way of doing things, then you are meditating too much.
Let’s think about meditation not as a technique to concentrate on something important that we neglect in our daily lives. Let’s think about meditation as a practice that, over the stretch of years, puts the thoughts we produce in their natural place. They are there, we hear them, but we don’t react to them automatically.
There are meditators, that I call “zombies”, who loose their ability to react to their thoughts completely. They think that thinking is the enemy. Any rationalization of their life and their circumstances is pointless to them.
The only arguments they accept comes from a source they call intuition. In fact this intuition often is just repressed emotions, but let’s just pretend it’s intuition – you can’t falsify this anyway.
This leads to disinterest in any planning at all. Why should I save money for paying my tax payments at all? There is no need to have a health insurance, health is karma! How can we plan a vacation that will take place in three months, if we don’t even know what will happen tomorrow?
Meditation should not make you incapable to survive in a modern society. Some insurance is fine, even enlightened masters pay taxes and a vacation can be planned, even relying only on some statistical probabilities.
And there is another phenomenon no one in the “awareness movement” likes to talk about.
In Christian meditation it is called “The Dark Night of the Soul”. And the mystic St. John of the Cross did not talk about Batman. So it is “night” as in no sun in the sky and not “knight” like the men sitting around tables in specific geometrical shapes.
In some Buddhist traditions this is called “Falling in the pit of the Void” and it describes the same thing.
Even if you may think religions and traditional spiritual systems are not applicable to modern life anymore, you should be aware that they collected the experience of centuries. Whereas meditation to the instructions of an app, alone, in your home, without supervision, is a thing that is ten years old.
Some people speak about the Dark Night as the evil twin of enlightenment. I don’t like this definition very much. Because I don’t like the idea that enlightenment should be the goal to anything you practice. But that’s another topic.
If you think of enlightenment in the manner that’s popular right now, it happens when you lose your ego completely. The ego is mostly decribed as the image you made about yourself in your thoughts. I don’t like that definition, either, but let’s stick with that.
If you meditate thoughts are not as important anymore then they once were. So the image you made about yourself is not important anymore. The idea that you exist separated and isolated from the universe suddenly is not working anymore for you.
This is enlightenment. And it is described as a liberating experience. Quite often the descriptions even have a sexual undertone. Bhagwan called it the super cosmos orgasm, just one example.
But: Even if it is the ego that dies, it’s a death. And this can be a very sad experience, too.
For some meditators it feels exactly like a depression. And I’m not sure, but I think it is at least a depressive episode.
If you are meditating too much, like many hours a day, you can fall into the pit of the void without having developed the right tools to handle that situation.
If meditation makes you sad or anxious or angry on a regular basis, stop it. If it makes you euphoric or elated or gives you feelings of superiority, it maybe the right thing to stop, too. But I guess you would not think of positive emotions as a problem.
In fact, the awareness movement and most apps are promising these things. And that’s another problem, too.
Let’s summarize that. Meditation alone regularly at home is the backbone of the practice. It’s not a bad thing, it’s a good thing. It’s not a bad thing to start using an app. Or an audio book or anything else.
What do you do, if you developed to a smiling idiot, a meditation junkie, a zombie or if you face the darker sides of meditation?
Find a teacher. And you’ll need a group in the long run.
In Buddhism there is the metaphor of the three jewels.
They are buddha, dharma, sangha.
You can translate this anyway you want, but the most fitting translation for our times would be:
Teacher, practise and a group. A community.
This applies to non Buddhist meditations, too. Because this wisdom was not formulated as a commandment. It is based on the experience of hundred, even thousands of years of people meditating.
It is based on the way our psychological processes work.
It based on life. It’s about life. About life itself.