More Misuses of Mindfulness

In my interactions with other practitioners and in the classes I teach, I occasionally come across someone who is rigidly attached to their particular form of practice. They become irritable or agitated when, for whatever reason, they encounter something new or are pressed to experiment.

To some extent I understand this feeling, because I am a person who thrives on routine and can become a bit scattered when navigating the unexpected or unfamiliar. Although I am pretty insistent on having some sort of practice each day, I am willing to experiment with the form practice takes when circumstances demand it.

I realize that its not the ashtanga yoga or the vipassana style meditation that brings lasting happiness – these are just vehicles – they are the finger pointing at the moon. I have come to understand that encountering the unexpected and feeling a bit off balance is just more fodder for practice. How can we truly know our minds – our habits and biases – if we rarely traverse outside the comfort zone?

When we lose our equanimity because we can’t have things the way we want them, it is much like an addict who doesn’t get their fix. Addicts are caught in the illusion that they need their drug of choice to feel OK. In the short-term, a fix seems to help. In the long-term, the fundamental problem is just accumulating under the proverbial rug its being swept under. What is needed is already inside of us, it isn’t injected into us by something from the outside.

Chogyam Trungpa coined the term “spiritual materialism”, which is the belief that certain temporary states of mind can end suffering. He wrote, “The Lord of Mind rules when we use spiritual and psychological disciplines as the means of maintaining our self-consciousness, of holding onto our sense of self. Drugs, yoga, prayer, meditation, trances, various psychotherapies – all can be used in this way… If we become successful at maintaining our self-consciousness through spiritual techniques, then genuine spiritual development is highly unlikely. Our mental habits become so strong as to be hard to penetrate.”

A common example of spiritual materialism is when we use meditation purely as a means of relaxation. The temporary relief feels good in the moment, but results in disillusionment when it fails or eventually ceases. Another example is when we use self-compassion practices as a way of avoiding difficulty rather than as a way of helping ourselves to face difficulty. We may feel soothed in the moment, but become ruffled anew when we inevitably revisit the experience. If we use practice exclusively to build ourselves up or make ourselves comfortable, this is a misuse because practice is meant to help us see things as they truly are, not as we wish them to be. A skillful practitioner experiments to find a balance between prudent self-care and letting go of defenses, so that we can open to what is, even when it is unwanted.

…In the garden of gentle sanity,
May you be bombarded by coconuts of wakefulness.
– Chogyam Trungpa, excerpted from Timely Rain

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