Good Meditation, Bad Meditation

Some people don’t like the idea of having a “good meditation” or “bad meditation”. For some, having any kind of judgement is a bad idea (ironically). That judging your practice leads to negative attitudes. That finding your meditation lacking isn’t helpful. For others, having a rough time with your meditation just means that you’re burning off bad karma. All that physical pain is finding your way through the psychological stress that you’ve buried in your body. Any meditation is good meditation, because you’re working through self-identity view or playing out the Dark Night of the Soul or some such.

There is probably some wisdom to this approach. Anyone will have a rough time on any particular meditation or even any particular retreat. The body is sore from the previous day and it disrupts the mind. You had a fight with the spouse and are distracted. It’s good to have compassion for oneself and not judge the meditation too severely.

But most of the time I think it’s a bad idea. It’s better to be honest yet kind with ourselves and others. If your meditation is consistently going poorly, that’s an indication that there is an issue that needs to be dealt with. If you are constantly in pain, maybe it isn’t just past karma, maybe it’s your posture. I know a meditator that sit with an almost comical slump. He has tremendous pain in his meditation but refuses to simply acknowledge the problem with his posture and work with it. He’s so concerned with the mental landscape of his meditation, he won’t spend the modest amount of effort it would take to correct the source of his pain. It would undoubtedly improve his meditation. When I learned how to really sit correctly, to allow my shoulders to hang back in their groove, my meditation improved exponentially. When I learned to practice sitting with contentment, my concentration took a quantum leap. This was only possible because I took a cold hard look at my meditation and made changes. I judged my meditation and worked on what needed changing.

We shouldn’t ignore the quality of our meditation. Quite the contrary, it is one of the best indications of the strength and direction of practice.

If you are constantly drowsy or falling asleep in your meditation, you need to get more sleep. Your meditation will not improve unless you make that adjustment to your life. If you are constantly thinking about your job in your meditation, you need to make concrete changing to your life if you want your meditation to improve. Take on fewer projects. Work fewer hours. Earn less. Or be content with meditation that does not go as deep as you’d like. That’s just plain truth.

On the flip side, if you’re meditation is going well, look and see why. It might be something technical in the approach to meditation like taking longer to work with Right Effort before shifting to mindfulness practice. It might be something like taking time to be kinder ifn dealings with your coworkers. This joy that comes from your own actions will surely show up in your meditation. Seeing these results, judging these results, can be of tremendous benefit.

In my day job I am a professor, and I often have to work with students that turn in substandard work. In the beginning I did what most of my teachers did, which was to tell them directly that their work was a flaming pile of turds. For some students, this was just the kick in the pants they needed to do their best work. For others it was intimidating or even angering. They held their work so personal that any criticism was an affront. So then I swung the other direction. Everyone’s work was a beautiful rainbow that needed 10 paragraphs of praise before I could get to one little speck of criticism. Now the insecure students were warm and cozy in their cocoon of good feelings, but they weren’t getting the honest, direct feedback they needed.

Now I try a middle approach. I give praise when appropriate, but I also give plenty of feedback. But instead of dwelling on criticism, I try to phrase everything as “here are some ideas for how to do this better.”

Going back to meditation, take a little time after each sit to consider: how did it go? do you know why? what do you want to keep doing? what do you want to change? was it something in the environment? was it something I did? Don’t be afraid to deal with yourself honestly. Be kind, but be direct. It’s the best way to improve at school, at work, and in the practice. Refusing to evaluate your practice is usually much more of a hindrance than help.

Why do some teachers insist that judging is a bad idea? Again, this can sometimes be wise. Sometimes people are too negative and judgemental about themselves and others. This doesn’t mean to cease evaluating, though. It means to work on your compassion. Some teachers are still hung up on the 1980s view of self-worth and self-confidence.  This is outmoded and unhelpful. Self-confidence doesn’t come from comforting lies. It comes from truth, wisdom, and practice. And finally, some teachers don’t want you to judge your practice because you might just see that you are not making progress. And just maybe need a new teacher. Don’t judge yourself, and for heaven’s sake don’t judge the teacher!


27 thoughts on “Good Meditation, Bad Meditation

  1. I think meditation is not about good or bad. It is not about methods or technic. Meditation helps to make the unconscious conscious

    1. Like any skill, meditation requires skill and technique, but is ultimately not ABOUT those things. One must transcend technique but rarely can avoid it altogether. The most beautiful musician still plays their scales. And practice means honestly assessing that technique. Practice takes practice!

      1. In a word, Liberation. The path is a path of practice, and meditation is one tool that moves us in the direction of freedom.

      2. Yes, this difference is one of the key differences between Buddhism and most other wisdom traditions. The Buddha taught that when you look closely at the things that we take to be a self, they turn out to be empty of any such thing. It is a very challenging perspective!

  2. you let go of the fake self it is not who you are then what is left? Its not nothing there is something what is it?

      1. there is nothing but also something the something is your true self it is who you are.. After you let go of all your attachments your ego, arrogance, fears , unacceptance.. what is left is the ‘what is’ of yourself

      2. then when you are “free” what happens next is that you have to freedom to choose what you want to do .. how you want to live

      3. simply this we need to see everything for what it is not what we think it is and when you can see then you are free to choose what you want to do. you cannot let go completely but when you can see then you can also have self control to manage everything

    1. It is a very beautiful and moving story. I’m so glad to hear how much meditation has been of benefit to you. The only thing I would as is to suggest that you don’t stop there! Use the peace that you’ve found in your meditation to look deeper.

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