Spiritual Fail: Avoiding the Top 8 Meditation Mistakes


Meditation is the single most important thing you can do to improve yourself on every conceivable level: physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. But meditation is pretty hard. Especially when you don’t really know what you’re doing.

Many people have tried meditation, and fallen into one of these 8 common mistakes I’m going to outline. Sadly, people often conclude that meditation is simply not suited to them. It’s a bit like having a meal that doesn’t agree with you and saying “well, no more eating food for me!”

After I explain what these mistakes are, I’ll share a 10-minute meditation with you that will ensure that you don’t make these mistakes.

Mistake #1: Lack of intent. You have no clear goal for the meditation.

I know, it seems like when you sit down to meditate, you shouldn’t be so goal-oriented, so driven, right? This is a time to just be.

Well, not quite.

Every moment, you are living, breathing, and being. The problem is that you don’t know who you are. Your inner self is fractured into many pieces, and the pieces make war on one another, the Rule-follower, the Rebel, the Explorer, the Learner, the Jester, the Problem-solver… all the different parts of you, of which I have perhaps only named a few, have different agendas. In pursuing these agendas, inner strain is created, which gets magnified by the various demands placed on you by your friends and family, the need to make a living, and the continual change of life itself, including the reality that your life is finite, and your resources of time, energy, and money, are limited.

The goal of meditation is unity.

The first stage is coming to a personal unity, by unifying yourself. So when you begin meditation, the goals flow from the need to understand and integrate the parts of yourself.

Later (perhaps years later) you will work on a more impersonal experience of unity, in which you experience the unlimited, perfect, eternal qualities of Beingness. Then (again, perhaps years later) you will work on integrating the timeless, infinite Beingness with your own limited, personal self.

If the ultimate goal of meditation is unity, then anything that happens which moves you toward greater unity is progress, and anything that moves you away from that unity, toward fragmentation and division, is stagnation.

This is why the basic foundation of meditation is to be mindful, to focus on what you are doing right now. But how do you focus on an activity that seems to have nothing in it? When you sit still, you are doing nothing, right?

In the meditation, you’ll see that you are actually doing something: you are breathing and focusing on various flows of energy within yourself. This will be the focus of your concentration.

How do you avoid this mistake?

So when you sit down to meditate, take a moment to write down a simple sentence that clarifies your goal and intent of that session. It’s also good to think more broadly about how your intent connects with the overall goal of meditation: unity. Here are some examples, along with an explanation of why this is helpful in the larger sense of unity:



Mistake #2: Seeking to have no thoughts.

It’s common to think of the goal of meditation as being primarily about having no conscious thoughts, but meditation isn’t really about what’s going on with your thoughts.

Again, the goal of meditation is unity. The way that the mind works is by thinking thoughts, much as the body works through the circulation of blood.

The problem is that your mind is so often out of control. Your thoughts race around willy-nilly, taking disturbing directions, torturing you with past mistakes and anxieties about the future.

What you want is unity between the layers of the self: body, mind, heart, soul and spirit. It is vital that your body be under the control of your mind. And it is even more important that your mind serve the wishes of your heart. Sadly, it is so often the case that your mind and heart are on entirely different tracks. Your heart says, in its language, the language of feeling, I long for beauty. Your mind says, “What? I don’t have time for that. I’ve got to get to work on time. Look at this traffic! I can’t believe she said that to me. I haven’t saved enough for retirement…” and so on. The voice of your heart grows fainter and fainter, and your mind takes over, leading you to structure your life in ways that simply will not lead to happiness and fulfillment.

You don’t want to have no thoughts. What you want are beautiful, inspired, creative thoughts. Thoughts of wisdom and profundity, thoughts of elegance, thoughts of insight — there can never be too many of these.

How do you avoid this mistake?

Recognize that you will have thoughts while you are meditating, but adopt a new attitude toward your thoughts. Consider: what is this thought teaching me about unity?

The way to unity is to deeply into your heart. Every thought has a feeling behind it and beneath it. Go into that feeling. Always seek to go deeper, until feeling becomes bigger, deeper, and richer than you would’ve thought possible. Eventually, feeling will open to become Feeling: infinite, unbounded emotion, impossible to categorize or limit to any particular feeling.

Mistake #3: Poor posture.

When you practice seated meditation, good posture is vital. You want to create a way of sitting that is upright yet relaxed, and doesn’t involve a great deal of strain, nor does your posture cut off circulation to any part of your body — your foot should not fall asleep, for example.

Without good posture, your meditation will not feel dynamic. There is a difference between meditation and just chilling out. Meditation involves a conscious effort to concentrate, and your ability to concentrate will be enhanced by upright posture.

How do you avoid this mistake?

Our culture is kind of against good posture. It seems as though if you sit up straight, everyone will think you’re rather uptight. Slouching and slumping seems to be the preferred mode. At every other time, you can slouch with the best of them, but during meditation, sit up straight and tall.

At the same time, use your breath and your intent to remove excess tension from your body. Over time, you will find that sitting up straight and tall can feel very relaxing.  

Mistake #4: Not breathing fully enough. Falling asleep during meditation.

One foundational set of skills in meditation involves the development of your breath. There are many different breathing exercises designed to help you become aware of the breath, the muscles that are involved in breathing, and how different ways of breathing create different effects.

When I am with a group of people practicing meditation, it is very common to see people who are breathing in a very slight way, as if they are sleeping. Breath is life. When your breath is small, you will receive a slight amount of life-force. This is ok during sleep, when your energetic output is also very low. But meditation isn’t sleep, and if you breathe like you’re sleeping, you will soon fall asleep. Falling asleep could be a signal to you that you need more sleep, but when you’re meditating, you should meditate.  

How do you avoid this mistake?

Meditation should be a highly-energized state. Remember, the goal of meditation is to uncover your true self — unlimited, eternal, and perfect. Having a strong breath, one that is deep, full, rhythmic, slow, and heart-centered, gives you tremendous energy, which builds up and ultimately leads to incredible inner experiences. (I teach this kind of breath development in detail here.)

Mistake #5: Getting scared of your strong emotions, avoiding your feelings, trying to feel only good feelings.

Probably what people truly mean when they say they want no thoughts is that they want no feelings.

Meditation is (or should be) much more about your feelings than about your thoughts, because feelings are a deeper level of being than thoughts; it is your emotional state that determines your mental state, not the other way around. When you love someone, you think about them all the time, but if you don’t care for someone, no amount of thinking will make you love them.

The reason you may want to not have thoughts or feelings is that your emotions feel so strong that it is overwhelming. You want to avoid your feelings, because your feelings are difficult, messy, complex, and inconvenient. If you really felt your emotions, respected them, and acted as though your feelings matter, you might have to make some changes to your life.

You may want to only feel good feelings. Sometimes meditation seems to promise this, that you’ll just experience blissful calm. But life isn’t like this, and neither should meditation be like this. Meditation should make you more yourself. Your perfect self.

How do you avoid this mistake?

Take an attitude that all your feelings are important, no matter what they may be. Consciously embrace all your emotions, positive or negative, light or dark. Allow your emotions to flow. Working to develop your breath also helps immensely.

Mistake #6: Spacing out or leaving your body.

Meditation involves concentration, also called mindfulness, as its foundation. Spacing out is the opposite of mindful concentration; it’s where your thoughts float freely from one thing to the next with no guidance or direction from your conscious self.

When you space out, you will stay on the surface, and if anything disturbs your thoughts, if your feelings emerge and take your thoughts in a less-pleasant direction, you will probably end your meditation in frustration. 

The purpose of meditation is to go to the depth of your being, the core of who you are. Floating around on the surface won’t take you there.

Leaving your body can be associated with spacing out. What it means to leave your body is that your physicality becomes so remote from your consciousness that it feels like you’re in another place entirely. What’s happening here is that your consciousness flies away; being in your human form doesn’t interest you. There is so much to discover in the unseen world.

Separating your consciousness from your body, emotions, personality, and all that is impermanent about the self (which is pretty much everything you think of as your self) is the goal of upward meditation methods such as TM, Kundalini, and advanced Buddhist practices that seek Anatta (non-self). But it can be dangerous to do without the guidance of a teacher (and even with a teacher these methods have dangers). I explore this at length in "The Promise and Peril of Meditation" ebook (coming soon).

How do you avoid this mistake?

Having a clear object of concentration during your meditation practice (like your breath and heartbeat) will really help you avoid spacing out. Taking the intention of exploring your infinite self while living in the miraculous vessel that is your body, will help you to stay embodied as you practice meditation. Focusing on your emotions will also help, as emotions tend to have a strong physical component.

Mistake #7: Being too passive. Saying your desires don’t really matter.

A lot of confusing stuff has been said about meditation, and much of it has emphasized being passive, not doing anything, just being. It’s been said that there is no place to get to in meditation, and it’s about not trying so hard.

“Zazen [seated meditation] never becomes anything special, no matter how much you practice,” said one well-known zen teacher.

Perhaps these things were necessary for the hyper-competitive, highly-focused Western mind to hear at a certain time. But the problem is that you do have to try. Meditation begins with concentrating your mind, and if you don’t concentrate, you space out and stay on the surface.

Another issue arises when you say that your desires don’t matter. This comes from a philosophy that emerges from upward meditation methods designed to free you from your narrow ego constraints. It’s an important idea in the history of meditation, for in the past, meditators left the material world behind in order to pursue the world of spirit, in an effort to reach spiritual liberation. However, it’s dangerous to say that your desires don’t matter in the modern age, because so much of what gave us purpose is gone.

Desire and purpose go together. The purpose of your life is like the current of the sea, and desires are like the waves and eddies. The current is the main direction of waters’ flow.

You need a strong sense of purpose to create a satisfying, meaningful life. For most of human history, purpose was less important, because in the past, the struggle was to simply survive. Purpose flowed from that. Defending the group, having children, and later, defending the laws and rules of society and fulfilling your expected function gave people purpose, but also limited people in rigid rules and social constructs.

We live in a world now that runs on desire, and your desires are continually fanned into a white-hot flame. Yet the challenge of today is to take your desires and forge them into a sense of purpose. Your purpose will organize all your desires. You will see that some desires are vital for you to accomplish, while other desires take you in such a different direction that it would be better if you didn’t achieve them.

Meditation is the single greatest tool I know of to bring you in touch with your purpose. But it won’t work if you disparage your desires. You’ll never understand the water’s current if you refuse to get wet.

How do you avoid this mistake?

In meditation, adopt an intention that is both active and passive. Resolve to be active in that you will concentrate, and passive in that you will appreciate everything that happens.

Embrace your desires, but when you practice meditation, always seek to go deeper. Consider that every desire has something important to teach you about your purpose. Not that every desire should be attained, but every desire can bring you some insight. Every desire is emotion, and emotions are energy. You can breathe your desire into your heart, giving your heart a powerful flow of energy. Your heart knows whether this desire will lead you toward your purpose or away from it. 

 

Mistake #8: Your practice lacks structure.

If your practice of meditation doesn’t have some kind of structure, it’s likely that it will be short and infrequent, which will make it hard to get much benefit. Here’s some examples of lack of structure:

having no particular time of day that you practice meditation, just when you feel like it

having no particular amount of time that you’ll spend practicing meditation

having no particular place that you meditate

having no meditation technique to use

Without structure, you will find yourself meditating less, and you probably won’t be meditating at stressful times, which is when you really need it.

How do you avoid this mistake?

 

Create a time of day when you practice. I recommend first thing in the morning, or last thing before you go to sleep. Create a place somewhere in your home where you meditate. It can also be helpful to have a few objects which connect you to your emotions, objects that are sacred to you, things that you feel connect you to your higher self. 

When you sit down to meditate, create a certain intention for the meditation. Decide how much time you’ll spend in meditation. (I recommend using a timer, so you don’t have to look at a clock.) 

Learn about meditation techniques, so you are clear about what you’re doing. (I teach a beginner’s course that you may find helpful.)

Here is a 10-minute recording with guided meditation instruction that will help you meditate with no spiritual fail.

Write a comment and let me know how it goes for you!