Meditation is Not Enough

by | Meditation

Many meditators think that meditation is capable of handling all your issues. People often swing the pendulum too far back in the other direction, from an initially dismissive attitude towards meditation, to one that views it as a panacea. They swing from one extreme to the other. The reality is that meditation is not enough.

Meditation Has Its Limitations

The trick is to find the middle way, a balancing point that honors the strengths of meditation, but also admits its limitations. Not doing so leads to issues like escapism and spiritual bypassing, which we can easily translate as meditative bypassing.[1] The bypassing occurs when meditation is used as a conscious or unconscious exit strategy from everyday emotional and psychological issues. On my own path, as well as working with countless students over four decades, it’s not a matter of if you will be afflicted by this disorder, but rather when.

The psychiatrist and meditation teacher Roger Walsh says that eighty percent of the issues he sees in his personal sessions with students are more the work of a therapist than a meditation instructor. If meditation really is a laxative this should come as no surprise. The question then becomes: what do we do with this crap? Do we bear down and try to meditate it out of our lives, or do we open up to other skillful means?

When you relax in meditation, all kinds of repressed material comes up, and witnessing it isn’t enough to resolve what comes up. If that’s all you do, as meditation often exhorts, the material won’t be properly digested. It will recycle back into the unconscious mind and continue to express itself symptomatically. You have to go into these shadowy elements to feel them fully, relate to them properly, and process them completely.

The contemplative psychotherapist Rob Preece writes, “While traditional teachings speak of insights and realizations experienced on the path, it is seldom made clear that these often come through pain and turmoil.”[2] We often have to breakdown before we can breakthrough. No pressure, no diamond.

What About Anger?

Let’s take anger, for example. In many spiritual and meditative communities, anger is “anti-meditative” or anti-spiritual. There is much traffic with being “politically correct” or PC these days, but not much time is spent on the silliness of being “spiritually correct.” Being SC express itself in the folly of being “Zen” instead of being mad, when getting mad is sometimes the proper response, and getting “Zen” is classic spiritual bypassing. The psychologist Robert Masters writes,

To tell students that directly expressing anger, regardless of how it is expressed, is not a good thing, as some teachers (ranging from Buddhist elders like Thich Nhat Hanh to New Age positivity pushers) are inclined to do, is a disservice to their students, who may then muzzle and mute their anger in the name of spiritual correctness . . . believing they are sitting with their anger when in fact they are just sitting on it. The relationship between spiritual teacher and student can easily fall into codependency, unacknowledged parent/child transference issues, or even cultism.[3]


So an honest part of the meditators journey should often include therapy. I have engaged in psychotherapy without reservation for decades. As powerful as mindfulness and meditation truly are, they have limits. There are even times when meditation is contraindicated. When the practices are not understood, or done improperly, they can lead one astray. What the witty Yogi Berra said of baseball applies to any endeavor, “Practice doesn’t make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect.” We don’t need to be perfectionists, but we do need to know what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, and the limitations of what we’re doing.

[1] See Toward a Psychology of Awakening; Buddhism, Psychotherapy, and the Path of Personal and Spiritual Transformation, by John Welwood; see also Spiritual Bypassing; When Spirituality Disconnects us from What Really Matters, by Robert Augustus Masters; and Already Free; Buddhism Meets Psychotherapy on the Path of Liberation, by Bruce Tift.

[2] See The Psychology of Buddhist Tantra: Stuff and More Old Stuff, and The Wisdom of Imperfection: The Challenge of Individuation in Buddhist Life, by Rob Preece.

[3] Spiritual Bypassing: When Spirituality Disconnects us From What Really Matters, by Robert Augustus Masters, PhD., p 70.