When It’s NOT a Good Idea to Meditate

Sometimes it’s counterproductive to try to do mindfulness meditation when you’re in the wrong state of mind. I know that flies in the face of a lot of “Buddhist” received wisdom, but there it is. Mindfulness cures everything from depression to the common cold, right? Well, sort of. I’m not saying that Right Mindfulness is ever a bad thing but rather that there are sometimes things that need to be done to prepare yourself for mindfulness before you can get the full benefits.

Of course, the most important things you can do to help your meditation happen long before you sit on the cushion:

  • study the Buddha’s teachings
  • commit yourself deeply to practice
  • live a life of virtue
  • live peacefully without too much stuff

None of that means that you can’t meditate or gain the fruits of meditation without living a perfect blameless life. Your meditation might be a little better if you hadn’t, say, swatted a mosquito just before, but you aren’t barred from meditation either.

So what about on the cushion? What can you do if you find that your state of mind is not conducive to mindfulness?

Now, one thing you can do is just gut it out. Just do your best to hang on to your mindfulness despite a raging torrent of thoughts in the mind. Try it out!

But that’s not the only technique. Buddhist meditation is a tool, but it’s less like a hammer and more like a Swiss Army knife. Don’t try to whittle with the bottle opener. Don’t try to open a can with the nail file.

Sometimes I’ve sat down with an agitated mind, and had 30 minutes or an hour meditation with very little peace. Sometimes it can be beneficial to do 10 minutes of reflection followed by 20 minutes or whatever of more concentrated meditation. Even 55 minute of wise reflection and 10 minutes of mindfulness can be more skillful than all mindfulness (or should I say “attempted mindfulness”.)

What do I mean by “reflection”. I DON’T mean just thinking about whatever. Or staring at your toes. There are different kinds of reflection. Here is a possibility. Consider: “What am I really doing here? Why am I meditating to begin with? What is my real goal?

That kind of Right Effort is beneficial for everyone, and is a very positive aspect of meditation.


2 thoughts on “When It’s NOT a Good Idea to Meditate

  1. I’m not sure that any state of mind I’ve had is conducive to mindfulness. But I think I know that the effective parts of sitting are sitting with the states I find difficult. Whatever I feel about how well I do.

    1. Jonathan, Thanks for the comment. If you find that simply sitting with difficult states of mind is both bearable and beneficial, then by all means continue! There is no rule about this sort of thing. My most important message here is that for people that are struggling with their meditation, having a very solid base in Right Effort is often the best medicine.

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