Is Meditation Enough?

Judy Lief

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Is Meditation Enough?

We all have preconceptions, we all have points of view. Not only do we have ideas, but we have opinions and countless judgments, especially about other people. We may hope to free ourselves from such a tangle, but usually what we find is that we just exchange one set of preconceptions for another.

The practice of mindfulness-awareness meditation does not take place in a vacuum. It happens within a certain context and point of view. In the Buddhist tradition, meditation is often presented in the context of view, meditation, and action. Each of these three is essential, as a system of checks and balances.

© Robert BeerIf we do not understand the view, the practice of meditation can be more of a trap than means of freeing ourselves from deception. Without an understanding of nontheism and the motivation to benefit others, meditation practice can degenerate into self-absorption and escapism. Rather than loosening our ego-clinging, it could further perpetuate our ignorance and grasping. Rather than connecting us to our world, it could draw us away from it. Meditation practice could even be a tool of aggression, a way of clearing the mind before going out to commit our next murder. Meditation in and of itself is no magical cure-all. Proper understanding and proper motivation are important. The view informs the practice.

Likewise, meditation balances view. Meditation practice is a way of loosening our solidity. Without practice, even the most inspired view can become rigid ideology. The practice of meditation brings out the futility and limitations of holding any rigid view. We see the nature of our attachment to particular viewpoints, and the simplicity of letting such views dissolve. The irony is that the proper motivation and view are essential, and at the same time, it is also essential not to grasp any view.

Action, the third component, is a balance to both view and meditation. Meditation does not matter that much if it has no effect on the rest of our life. Likewise, we could be filled with empty words that do not lead to any change whatsoever in our life or our relationship with others. We need to act on our understanding and our awareness.

Action, like view and meditation, does not stand alone. Action without clarity of view is blundering and apt to cause more harm than good. And action without meditation tends to be speedy and complex, rather than spaciousness and simple. But if these three factors are in balance, clarity of view and meditative awareness permeate all our activities.

In the Buddhist path we are bringing together our actions, our view, and our practice. It is a balance of awareness, insight, and action, working harmoniously together. In that way our energy is no longer divided or scattered, but we are fully present in whatever we do. That is what it means to be a genuine human being.

In Buddhism, the point is not simply to be accomplished meditators but to change our whole approach to life. Meditation is not merely a useful technique or mental gymnastic, but part of a balanced system designed to change the way we go about things at the most fundamental level. In this context, it is a way of exposing and uprooting the core problems of grasping and ego-clinging that separate us from one another and cause endless pain.

There are many varieties of meditation and many different contexts in which it occurs. Even within the Buddhist tradition, there are many varieties of meditation and many differences of opinion as to what meditation is all about. Yet, wherever it turns up, it is colored by one set of preconceptions or another. Nowadays, people pluck techniques such as meditation from their traditional contexts, mix and match practices from very different traditions, and apply them in new settings. Meditation practice is increasingly presented in a secular way, free of religious trappings. In the United States, this tends to place it in the general category of self-help techniques. As a result, meditation has been de-mystified for many people, who see it as one aspect of a healthy lifestyle, like working out or eating healthy food.

Meditation is used as therapy, to calm people down, as healing (to lower blood pressure, for instance, or deal with pain), and even as a way to get ahead in business, or win at sports. It is gradually becoming part of the mainstream. This is not unlike what has happened to the practice of yoga, once viewed as a sophisticated system of spiritual training, and now offered regularly. The technique may be there, but there is no heart. There is a danger that the practice of meditation could be similarly reduced. The very technique designed to undermine the power of ego-fixation could become another feather in our ego-cap.

Judy Lief is a senior student of Chögyam Trungpa, Rinpoche, who authorized her as a teacher in the Buddhist and Shambhala traditions. She is the series editor of the Dharma Ocean Series of Shambhala Publications, and the Executive Editor of Vajradhatu Publications in Halifax.

Image: Robert Beer from Tibetan Thangka Painting: Methods and Madness by David and Janice Jackson, courtesy of Snow Lion Publications.

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Peter @ Dharma Spring's picture

A wonderful post and great conversation, but it leaves open a question. The Buddha did not yet realize the view or the path before attaining enlightment.

awd-s's picture

I started meditation because I needed to help myself. As a result, combined with reading about meditation practice, I find myself on the Buddhist path. For me, meditation was the gateway to Buddhist practice and a personal transformation. I recognize that it is important to remain vigilant in my personal practice to insure that it doesn't degenerate.

buddhajazz's picture

"The very technique designed to undermine the power of ego-fixation could become another feather in our ego-cap." -- I'm concerned that these healthy choices would be seen in such a way. Yoga/meditation techniques have become methods for our crazy American culture to learn to relax, reduce tension and increase physical health. The focus of eliminating the "ego cap" is idealistic nonsense. My judgment.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Buddhism befits the times, or should. And the times call for a powerful re-evaluation of what it means to be human. Mindful introspection based on that may just be meditation's saving grace.


Is it better to be a purist but in a tiny minority, or is it better to have a more open system, "mix and match" as the author says? I'd say the latter. To use Judy's own example, yoga was a sophisticated system of spiritual training, but probably because of that, because it was at that level but most people have to live in the real world, yoga was not accessible to ordinary people, and at some level Hindu philosophy was not as accessible to everyone as it well as it should have been, and that led to stratification [I'm Indian, and Hindu, and the irony strikes me clearly].

Its far better to have more access, even though that has its own consequences. Its unfair to say that yoga has no heart because it is "offered regularly" - I feel its better that more people can appreciate its benefits, at whatever level they can fit into their lives. Its no different for meditation. I was attracted to meditation for its own sake, without the Buddhist aspects, and ironically once that door opened, I found myself appreciating the rest too. We need to move away from any appearance of snobbery or elitism and accept participation at whatever level is possible for a person (and I do not intend any disrespect in that statement).

khickey's picture

I totally agree..I believe the Buddha said there are many doors into the same room. If a more secular approach welcomes a greater variety of people into the way of being that the Buddha taught, shouldn't we be open to and embrace them as long as they are based in the fundamental teachings?

Dominic Gomez's picture

Participation at any level is also the heart of the democratic process. Unless Buddhism evolves along with the rest of the world, it risks becoming a dead religion.

etoro's picture

In my own experience with the study of the history of the transmission of Buddhist wisdom, teachings and practices, first eastward and then to the western world of late, there has been much that has evolved in the world of Buddhism itself. It is just that the people of the western world have only begun to learn about the world of Buddhism within the last 150 years or so. What hampers the flow of greater understanding of how Buddhism has evolved is the fact that in the western mindset we have taken to Buddhist teachings mostly within the framework and mindset of cultural and economic dominance or colonialism. From this standpoint Indian Buddhism is simply respected on the basis of a manifested sympathy for the colonized and the oppressed rather than understand the developments which unfolded in highly advanced and competitive nations life China and Japan. These factors have acted as filters of various kinds whereby the debates and their outcomes among the various schools of Buddhist thought throughout Asian history have yet to be properly understood within the western milieu which treasures freedom of religious expression.

Dominic Gomez's picture

>we have taken to Buddhist teachings...within the framework...of cultural...dominance< But Buddhism impressed early Western seekers with its comparatively more advanced philosophy of life.

Peyoynd's picture

I don't think that Judy is passing judgment on the use of meditation for health or therapy. I believe that she is describing the way in which it functions in the Buddhist religion. She says "In Buddhism, the point is not simply to be accomplished meditators but to change our whole approach to life. Meditation is not merely a useful technique or mental gymnastic, but part of a balanced system designed to change they way we go about things at the most fundamental level. In this context, it is a way of exposing and uprooting the core problems of grasping and ego-clinging that separate us from one another and cause endless pain."
Perhaps a phrase like "merely a useful technique" is offensive to someone that is not on the Buddhist path. But I think she's addressing people who are on that path in this article. She explains that using meditation only as a useful technique would be failing to integrate view into your practice. View is a central concept in Buddhism. There's nothing wrong with using meditation in another context where you may have a different view. But if you are on the Buddhist path, you strive to integrate meditation, action and view in your life.
And speaking of action, I can't think of a person who embodies compassionate action more than Judy Lief, whose work has helped many people at the end of their lives.

Dominic Gomez's picture

"to change they way we go about things at the most fundamental level": Josei Toda, second president of the Soka Gakkai, termed this "the human revolution".

bija's picture

This is the way I took the reading as well.

Mike Nielsen's picture

It is a tricky subject, isn't it? I remember the first time I heard Shambala teacher Pema Chodron say something like "Meditation is not a self-improvement project." I was forced to think of just what "self" is--how self-improvement might be a form of ego-enhancement. I came back to meditation after a long hiatus at a point of mental meltdown. I had to decide whether to really examine the workings of my mind or to just blame everyone around me for my problems. But in choosing to meditate and to inevitably confront my own attachments, I was also forced to alter my behaviors to the extent that I could in reaction to what I was observing in my own habit energy. So what began as a therapy to recover from depression has since evolved into a commitment to wake up. Whatever the path might be that leads us to meditation, Judith's three part approach of view-meditation-action seems to make good sense. I view the end of the article as a kind of warning about the first step of the eightfold path. Right view involves sorting out one's motivation to engage in meditation. If we view meditation as a kind of pill that we take to cure our mental illness or discomfort, we are not going to make much progress. It is a fine point but one worth noting in such a commodity obsessed culture.

Sareen's picture

The emotional energy that powers spiritual practice comes with opening of our hearts. I agree that there is a challenge in presenting meditation practice in a health or secular setting where there may be some reluctance to engage students at the emotional level. Without this emotional energy there will be limited results from meditation practice. Secular or health settings for learning meditation are often a first step. For those who have an interest, there is an opportunity to seek a tradition that meets them at a deeper level.

Because psychotherapy is being found to be more effective when patients are met at the emotional level, I am curious to hear from therapists who have taught meditation as an adjunct to psychotherapy. How did you present it? What were some of the challenges and what was the impact on progress your patients made during therapy?

I am also curious to hear more from people who teach meditation in a health or secular setting and also have experience in buddhist communities. What do you think about Judith's article?

lsmithdog's picture

"The technique may be there, but there is no heart." This feels so heartless to me, Judy. I have always resisted those who judge others and their intentions, something we can't really know. So this is the first bit of Wisdom I cannot take in with breath. all who practice.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Ironically, Shakyamuni faced similar conditions when he set out to free humankind of suffering. The technique (of Brahmanist ritualism) may have been there but there was no heart with regard to people's suffering.

Jakela's picture

As the creator and author of the highly popular 8 Minute Meditation book and program, I make every effort to bring meditation to the secular, non-sectarian community in a manner that is true to the dharma. This is the west. Whatever works to bring people to meditaton should be embraced by the Buddhist community, not decried as "self-help" by purists like this author who ironically pontificate about the "view", which hinders their own advancement toward self-liberation.

bija's picture

I came to Zen somewhat through a wellness program promoting meditation as a way to reduce stress. It did not promote Buddhism in any way. Just the practice of meditation. So when I was invited to a Zen sitting years later, it made it seem less foreign and I was more open to what was going on.

I understand what you are saying about meditation being reduced to a therapy with no heart. There was no heart in my wellness practice, but I liked the health results nevertheless. As a female reared in a Catholic family in the US with almost no understanding of Buddhism, I wonder if I would have continued with Zen had I not had the wellness introduction.

View, meditation, and action. Thank you for discussing the importance of heart and balance in meditation.

LOLA's picture

Although I appreciate this piece, and I am most grateful for Ms Lief for her opinions, I sense a bit of duality in the writing which as I read it (and interpret it), it is suggesting that unless I practice "Buddhist" mediation as a religious system then I am off the path and not meditating correctly perhaps even engaging in ego enhancement or simply "self improvement". For example, meditation used as therapy, regardless of theism or nontheism can be a powerful healing practice. Is it Buddhist? Yes, for those (like me) who engage in meditation as a Buddhist, but no for others of different faiths. I believe that the concept of "view" or "right view" is to accept others for their beliefs and if those other beliefs incorporate meditation and its healing properties into the lives of their followers, then more power to them! Thank you for the article, it was most provocative for me this morning and truly written from the heart.

etoro's picture

In the final analysis the question of healing and therapy is the main point. In this respect one must ask the question, what is being healed, is it simply the individual, another, or both self and other. What is the goal of meditative practice? Unless the poison and its antidote are made known e are left to our own speculation about the objects of meditation being contemplated.

The objects of awareness contemplated during the practice of meditation / contemplation are directly related to the outcome. Junk in / Junk out. The objects of meditation in the Buddhist philosophy are simply the most advanced forms of self cognition known to mankind. One can just as easily contemplate the depth of any matter. But there are also hierarchies of values within life which have been contemplated and organized within the various traditions of life philosophy itself. Those life philosophies which yield the most significant and meaningful of actions are the highest. This is all in keeping with the law of causality. In Buddhism these are known as the various paths of practice. Buddhism divides all perceptions of reality between Buddhist and non-Buddhist paths. This is because during the time of the Buddha and the first millennium afterwards all the various functions and modes of cognition where observed and subjected to critical analysis. These principle of wisdom and their debates have all been recorded in both oral and written traditions. In the Mahayana tradition there are distinctions between the various spiritual paths. Collectively they are known as the four noble paths; the path of voice hearers, the path of self recognizers, the path of Bodhisattvas and the path of all Buddhas.These last two, the path of Bodhisattvas and the path of Buddhas are distinguished by the efficacy of the respective practices and teachings which are embraced such as the respective paths of sutra and mantra practice and the oneness of the two. The Tien Tai / Nichiren tradition embraces a principle on the basis of the Lotus Sutra known as the mutual possession of all ten states of life from hell to Buddhahood. Objects or phenomena of contemplation in Buddhism plunge into the very depth of life and reality itself such as the law of birth and death, arising and cessation, karmic retribution, the cause and nature of existence and non-existence.

Danny's picture

excellent article for me, given where I am on the path.