The extensive benefits of meditation can give the impression that this practice is a panacea for all things. In a way it’s good, because it motivates people to practice it. But there are hidden dangers.
As someone who has practiced meditation for over 16 years (nearly 7,000 hours) and deeply integrated several teachings in my life, I can say that meditation is essential, but not enough.
A TOOL IN YOUR TOOLSET
Meditation is a powerful tool. Not only does it have many uses, but it also sharpens your other tools. Still, for some things it may not be the most useful tool. Some examples:
- For letting go of shadow parts of your personality, self-reflection and therapy might be needed.
- For opening your heart and connecting to God, prayer might be more suitable.
- For creating positive change in your life and habits, effort, reminders, goals and action are equally important.
Meditation is one of several practices of personal and spiritual growth. It can bring wonderful things into your life, but it’s not enough by itself. The best is to use meditation in connection with other practices and approaches.
This is not a new idea. In the traditions where it comes from, meditation is not practiced in isolation.
In Buddhism, for instance, meditation one of the three pillars of practice, the other two being morality and wisdom. In Yoga traditions, meditation is seen as an advanced practice, one that usually requires due preparation of body work (asanas), breath work (pranayama), and certain lifestyle changes (yama, niyama).
It’s OK to jump straight into meditation — you will find several benefits. But it’s only by integrating other tools, practices and knowledge that you will make the most out of it. Otherwise, meditation may end up being a simple stress-relief ball, or potentially can even be distorted to be an escape.
ESSENTIAL PRACTICES TO ACCOMPANY MEDITATION
Now let’s have a look at some core practices that complement meditation very well. You don’t need all of them. Use the practices that best match your personality and needs.
This is the ability to introspect. To look with discerning eyes upon one’s behavior, motivations, thoughts, emotional patterns, and actions. It doesn’t mean to bash or scold oneself, but to intelligently reflect on what’s working and what’s not.
Below are some powerful questions that can guide your self-reflection. Let’s suppose you are examining a particular feeling or thought pattern. You can ask yourself:
- Why am I feeling or thinking like this? What’s truly behind it?
- Is this based on facts or assumptions? Is it really true?
- Is this serving me in my higher goals and ideals, or is it creating stress?
The questions can take many forms. The essence, though, is to see clearly what’s happening inside of you, and question your assumptions. Then you can learn more deeply.
In this process, journaling can be helpful. In every case, the most important thing is radical honesty with oneself. Even if you know you are sabotaging your own life, and making silly decisions, and you secretly want to continue to do that, fine! That’s your choice. But at least recognize clearly that this is what’s going on. Don’t lie to yourself.
Without self-reflection, the personal and spiritual growth one can have is severely limited.
Spiritual study can take the form of reading the texts of your tradition, attending study groups, workshops, online courses, or having one-on-one time with a teacher. It can also mean reading texts on psychology and other related areas.
The goal is to expose yourself to other perspectives. To learn from the study and life lessons of another person, so you don’t need to go through the same pains.
In my path, I have benefited a lot from studying spiritual books. It allowed me to recycle my own ignorant points of view, by comparing them with more enlightened points of view. A good book will instruct you, motivate you to practice and make you feel like you are sitting in the presence of a master.
- Body Work and Breath Work
The limitations in our mind, the shadows, the ignorance and negative emotions, all have a corresponding expression in our bodies and in our breathing. Often, working on the level of body and breath is much easier, because they are more tangible and stable than the mind.
Let’s say you are struggling with anxiety. It manifests in the mind as restless thoughts. But it also manifests in your body as tension, and in your breathing as shallow and irregular patterns.
Meditation can help with that, by either allowing you to dive deep into the anxiety and “dissolve it,” or by focusing your attention on something else. However, working through your anxiety by doing specific breathing exercises, and even physical yoga, can be easier. Regulating your breathing to be deep and rhythmic, even for five minutes of pranayama (yogic breathing), can prepare the ground for the deeper work of meditation.
- Human Interaction
Deep human interaction is a rich laboratory for personal growth. It can take many forms, and here I’ll focus on three: therapy, social interaction and intimate relationships.
Therapy, counselling and coaching, in many of their modalities, can help deal with personality patterns and mindsets that limit you. It allows you to bring the shadows out to the light. To liberate certain emotional energies that are trapping you.
Social interaction also provides much opportunity for self-study. Many of our triggers are only pressed in interaction with other people. The presence of the other is a tool to challenge us, polish us, and be a mirror to our own patterns. The metaphor that was used in a Zen monastery where I trained is that we are like a raw diamond, and the grind of hardships and conflicts of community life slowly rounds our corners and make us shine.
Finally, intimate relationships offer a precious opportunity for self-knowledge and transformation. Of all people, our partner is in a position to see our shadow sizes, addictive behaviors, and biases, more than anyone else. They can then throw them at our face mercilessly, again and again, until we either change or give up.
That is why meeting the challenges of an intimate relationship with openness of heart and mind is a great practice in and of itself.
TOWARD A MORE HOLISTIC APPROACH
Meditation, even by itself, can bring many benefits and transformation. However, it is only by integrating other practices, and other aspects of your life, that you can make the most out of your meditation. It enables you to see things better, and gives you more options for action because you are less reactive. But you must still look at yourself with honesty and with the discipline to consistently make wiser choices, based on your best knowledge.
Therefore, whether you are seeking to grow as a person, or to achieve spiritual liberation, don’t look at meditation as your only tool. At the very least, integrating the habit of self-reflection and study should also be in your priority list.