Question: I’ve been meditating every day for years, and now if I skip a day, I notice that I start to feel crazy and inhuman. It’s hard to believe that I spent so much of my life in this state before I took up my practice. Is it possible that meditation can become addictive, with withdrawal symptoms that make life harder than it would be for someone who doesn’t meditate at all?
Zenkei Blanche Hartman: Since you don’t say what sort of meditation you have been doing daily for years, it’s a little hard to respond, but if you are feeling “crazy and inhuman” when you miss a day, something is amiss.
If you are practicing shamatha only, I can see how that could have some addictive qualities. The calming and concentration of shamatha can become like an opiate if not balanced by vipashyana, which brings insight, clear seeing, and intuitive cognition of the three marks of existence—namely the impermanence, suffering, and egolessness of all physical and mental phenomena. The Buddha tried shamatha alone and found it did not really effect change, because when you get up, perhaps rested and at peace for a while, the unwholesome mental and physical states inevitably come back. This may be happening with you.
Is your practice balanced, with attention given both to calming and insight? Are you studying the precepts to clarify your ethical path? Do you have a relationship with a meditation teacher? Are you working with the contents of your mind or are you trying to suppress them? Are you open to experiencing painful cognitive and emotional states that may arise and dealing with them? Could it be that you are seeking solace more than awakening? And, most important (from a Mahayana view, at least): Is your practice first and foremost for the benefit, or liberation, of all beings?
Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche: Through meditation we can become more acutely aware of our own suffering and the suffering of others. Often we go through life lacking awareness about the state of confusion we are in, and when we become aware of this, we experience discomfort and pain. Things do not fit together in the way we expect; we may feel disconnected and awkward. The increased awareness that comes with meditation doesn’t produce pain but instead removes the anesthesia of our habitual patterns, or the false comfort that protected us from experiencing our disconnection directly. We may not feel this during meditation because we are present and connected to being present, and this connection is warm and lively; it is our true nature and the antidote for suffering. But as we move about in our life and in our relationships, we disconnect from being present more easily. This disconnection is our fundamental pain.
It is possible to find more support from your meditation practice. If you are willing, bring this feeling of being “crazy and inhuman” into your practice. When you are sitting on your cushion, first settle and feel connected to being present. I instruct my students to become aware of the stillness of the body. As you settle with this awareness, a sense of openness or spaciousness will naturally come. Trust this openness. Simply be. As you continue, become aware of the inner silence. If you are talking to yourself, draw your attention to the silence within. As you do, gradually you will cease to struggle and simply allow whatever you are experiencing. This will help you settle even more deeply. As you settle, a natural sense of presence emerges, a wakefulness that is the connection with simply being. There will be warmth. This is a very natural experience.
As you experience the genuine warmth of being present, allow the experience from the day before to come into your practice. Welcome this experience as if you were a good host opening the door to your home. Simply connect with what happens in your body, your breath, your emotions, and your mind. Don’t analyze or think about what you experienced yesterday; simply allow the experience to come alive and notice what shifts and changes. As you “host” this experience, feel the support of the stillness, silence, and spaciousness. You may become aware of a dullness or contraction in your body, or some inner dialogue or painful story that you have been telling yourself may emerge. Do not argue or analyze or change anything. Simply allow the inner voices and thoughts to be there, and continue listening to the silence in your meditation. This experience that felt so vivid the day before—this “you” or pain identity— will dissolve in the open space of your meditation and the sense of alienation will heal. Once again you can experience being at home in yourself, at home in this moment. Instead of our everyday experiences disconnecting us from ourselves, they can become opportunities to reconnect us with the benefit of being present in each moment.
As you go about your day, you can view these three points of practice—connecting with stillness of the body, silence of inner speech, and spaciousness of mind—as three pills that you can take whenever you begin to feel disconnected or challenged. Any one of these pills can support you in discovering that each experience in your life, instead of disconnecting you, can be a doorway back into the richness of your natural mind, or true nature. And when you are fully present in your life, you will naturally be in relationship with others and bring benefit to them.
Narayan Helen Liebenson: Hmm. I don’t know about sitting meditation becoming addictive. I guess I’d say that there are many unwholesome things one can become addicted to, but that meditation, whatever the posture, is always a wholesome activity. For some people, particularly those who experience a lot of anxiety, meditation may become a kind of self-medication, a way of calming the nervous system. I don’t have any objection to using sitting this way. I know how difficult life can be. However, this isn’t enough to bring about inner freedom. You need to also cultivate wisdom.
How do you define meditation? Do you define it as just sitting quietly? Have you developed a habit of running to your cushion as a way to avoid pain in your life? If you see meditation as confined to just sitting, then you may be turning away from your life rather than toward it and using meditation in an addictive way. If so, your relationship to meditation needs to change for true transformation to occur.
It can be hard to remember just how crazy the mind can be, once it’s calmed down a bit. That is the power of sitting practice. When we practice regularly in the sitting posture, our standards do rise. What we have tolerated and survived in the past becomes not good enough. When we’ve had a taste of how clear and open the mind can be, we know that it can always be that way.
I would say you need to pay attention to that crazy and inhuman feeling in the moment it arises, without panic, and without plotting the next time you’ll be able to sit again. You may be granting these feelings more power than they intrinsically have; this is worth investigating.
Dedicate yourself to becoming more conscious in the here and now. You have a beautiful invitation right in front of you. You have many years of dedication to the sitting posture, a foundation of collectedness and steadiness. How about liberating yourself in all postures, lovingly attending to each moment as the only moment there is?
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Zenkei Blanche Hartman is former abbot of the San Francisco Zen Center.
Geshe Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche is a lineage holder of the Bön Dzogchen tradition of Tibet
Narayan Helen Liebenson is a guiding teacher at Cambridge Insight Meditation Center