Decades of Meditation Practice, Wasted?

By SortOfNatural, Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
by SortOfNatural, Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Should some devotees continue or stop wasting time in meditation practice? Or, is faith in meditation, in a guru, or in perseverance–despite insignificant results–a virtue?

This post examines long-time meditation practitioners who continue despite little or insignificant results.

Many gurus and their institutions claim that meditation is a science, that if practiced correctly meditation brings empirical results.

One such claim, that is extraordinary, can be found in a quote by Paramahansa Yogananda, guru of Self-Realization Fellowship (SRF):

“The yogic science is based on an empirical consideration of all forms of concentration and meditation exercises. Yoga enables the devotee to switch off or on, at will, life current to the five sense telephones of sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch. Attaining this power of sense disconnection, the yogi finds it simple to unite his mind at will with divine realms or with the world of matter”.1

Some devotees may practice meditation for decades and have little if anything to show for it, let alone “empirical” results to speak of. These meditation practitioners may often rationalize and justify away their lack of significant results.

For example, below are quotes from two long-term SRF meditators, Walter and Bryan, who were interviewed by Lola Williamson, which are excerpted from her book, Transcendent In America: Hindu-Inspired Meditation Movements As New Religion (New York University Press: 2010).

Walter, practiced meditation for forty-three years

“Although he [Walter, a disciple of Paramahansa Yogananda and SRF devotee] had been practicing meditation for forty-three years, he expressed uncertainty about how much progress he had made….I was curious why he had stuck with the practice for so many years if he was not seeing results. He replied…’If I don’t meditate, I miss it….It’s seeing the world as consciousness, not as physical reality.’” p. 9

“Seeing the world as consciousness” is a seemingly profound statement, but is vague and vacuous of comprehensive meaning. Is Walter merely justifying his decades of meditation practice as-is rather than examining the actual results from the time, energy, and money he invested into meditation?

Bryan, after decades of meditation, “It’s just not what I expected”

“Bryan’s dramatic mystical experience occurred continuously over a period of two to three months. They happened before he started meditating….He puts forth tremendous effort to follow the daily disciplines he has learned through Self-Realization Fellowship, yet he does not feel he has gained control over his experiences. I [Bryan] kept asking, ‘Where’s some dramatic stuff? Where’s the beef?’…’It’s hard. In hindsight I know what I’ve gotten back; it just hasn’t been what I thought it would be. Meditation has made me a much calmer person. It’s helped to be in the present moment. And this is a lot. It’s just not what I expected.’” p. 165

by JD, Wasted Time, Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0
by JD, Wasted Time, Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0

The meditation practice and particular worldview that is often taught with it, such as in SRF, may be difficult for many devotees to question or to not stay attached to. Psychologists call the tendency in people to be attached to their investments, despite heavy losses, the sunk-cost bias2. It may take a person years to give up on poor investments. The greater the loss of the investment often the longer it may take a person to let the investment losses go.

After thinking critically about my experiences with meditation practice and in SRF I realized that the results I got from meditation practice were insignificant compared with the great investment of my time, energy, and money.

Are long-time meditation practitioners too invested to quit or at least to question the value of continuing to meditate as-is? What other excuses or arguments might devotees have to try to convince themselves or others that they are not wasting precious time in meditation?

No True Meditator Argument

At this point, I’m guessing that some devoted meditators who read this will invoke the No True Scotsman3, or, what I will call the No True Meditator, argument to try to rationalize why they may not, nor anyone else may not, get significant results from meditation.

The fallacious No True Scotsman (No True Meditator) argument may go something like this:

Walt: Meditation practitioners will get tremendous results of concentration and realizations.
Tom: Then why are there so many meditators who don’t get results?
Walt: They were never true meditators.
Tom: What’s a true meditator?
Walt: Only those who get results.

Question for readers: What other reasons or arguments are there for why some long-time practitioners don’t quit meditating when results are insignificant?

Notes

1 Autobiography of a Yogi, Chap 26: The Science of Kriya Yoga, Paramahansa Yogananda (Self-Realization Fellowship)

2 The sunk-cost bias or fallacy is described as “reasoning that further investment is warranted on the fact that the resources already invested will be lost otherwise, not taking into consideration the overall losses involved in the further investment.”–Logically Fallacious,  http://www.logicallyfallacious.com/index.php/logical-fallacies/174-sunk-cost-fallacy 

No True Scotsman, also known as No True Christian, and what I’ve taken the liberty to call here the No True Meditator argument or fallacy that is described as “when a universal (“all”, “every”, etc.) claim is refuted, rather than conceding the point or meaningfully revising the claim, the claim is altered by going from universal to specific, and failing to give any objective criteria for the specificity.”–Logically Fallacious,
http://www.logicallyfallacious.com/index.php/logical-fallacies/136-no-true-scotsman

16 comments

  1. SkepticMeditations

    @Pete: That was my typo. I should’ve wrote ‘Most thoughts are not conscious but are pre-conscious’. I am writing a post to explain and will save that thought for later.

    You asked “why do I write this blog?”: I’ve always been clear about the purpose of this blog. It is to “explore the hidden side of meditation, mindfulness, and yoga”.

    There’s plenty of other blogs, videos, books (an overwhelming majority on these topics in fact) that comfort those people who want confirmation of their cherished beliefs about the sacred, unquestioned benefits of meditation techniques. My blog is not for those folks, unless they want to hear the “hidden side”–the dangers, tricks and traps of meditation peddlers. If you don’t feel you’ve fallen for the peddlers tricks, hats off to you. If you feel meditation techniques benefit you, I am happy for you.

    My research and personal experience during decades of serious, intense practice of meditation techniques (albeit not all of them–but the ideologies and psychology is often similar regardless of tradition–to change oneself somehow) the techniques themself don’t help. The ideology and belief systems that I had when I practiced is what gave the techniques the “promised” results — which by the way I can get those results doing many other activities, sleeping, bathing, sex, music, and random “mystical” moments that all humans apparently have from time to time.

    @Uwsboi14: I agree with your assessment of what the actual debate is about. For instance you wrote, “This change [from meditation practice] would naturally alter a person’s behavior and perceptions of the world. It would be this particular change which could be for some people more harmful than good”. Yes, disruption of self-concept, depersonalization or derealization, altered states of awareness may lead to neurosis and psychosis for some people. Others (like many gurus and disciples) these “changes” are often interpreted and equated as higher states of consciousness (self delusion, ego mania-I am god), or transcendence of maya or suffering (“I’m indifferent and above or beyond it all). How can these disciples of meditation techniques be so confident their experiences are not the result of fictions created in their minds (imaginations that when repeatedly projected onto reality are delusions)?

    The psychology of the trap is subtle. No person should be confident they are above self-delusion and self-deception. This is where the counter balance and safety mechanism is the practice of “techniques” of skeptical and critical thinking, which are not fool-proof either.

    Thanks

  2. Uwsboi14

    Pete, I know next to nothing about Zen, so forgive if I come off ignorant. In Zen, it sounds like there’s a fair amount of winnowing, meaning the act of choosing between what is real and what is unreal. Does Zen consider the human personality, including emotions and feelings, a part of reality or is it something that needs to be dealt with in some way, either in meditation or by some understanding? It’s a leading question, but meditation has always seemed to have a goal of creating change, even if that change is called accepting what is as opposed to being in conflict with what is. This change would naturally alter a person’s behavior and perceptions of the world. It would be this particular change which could be for some people more harmful than good. The scientific study around it seems to always be in favor of meditation without a single mention of any potentially harmful side effects. This couldn’t be accurate since most activities have their downside.

  3. Pete

    1a) Your argument, that the humans are the problem is a bit strange. You could bring that argument about everything, for example sport – to name an activity and not a ‘thing’ (not that I think it would matter). Of course you can misuse it (do it too extensively, construct a weird philosophy around it…), but, again, there is no inherent ideology in the activity/thing itself.
    1b) Okay, so everything is ideological at the moment humans are involved in it. I´d agree. Nevertheless, one should try to be as free from preconceptions as possible. Even though it may be not COMPLETELY possible, you can make progress in the right direction.
    1c) You are making an epistemological statement here. That is to say, it is impossible to be FULLY consciouss. And than you start playing with words: ‘Most thoughts are not conscious or pre-conscious’. What do you mean by ‘thought’? I think you rather refer to the automation process involved in complex activities (such as every social activity, playing an instrument, sport activities, everday bodily activites etc.). These are ‘automated’ process we have learned through training, interaction patterns etc. but these are not really active in any way in Meditation. That´s what meditation is all about, isn´t it? And that is also why someone can start manipulating fromout that state.
    So when you say ‘Most thoughts are not conscious or pre-conscious’, than this is completely out of context. It is a rightly factual statement, but you can´t bring it as an argument in that context. Sometimes it seems as if you want to find arguments against Meditation and you force and bend pre-existing studies to fit your argument. I think you should be a bit more careful with these things. If you want to be skeptic, be skeptic and do not ornamte a pre-constructed position with scientific studies, that are completely out of context.
    If you mean something else by ‘thought’ and I completely misunderstood your argument, please explain it to me.

    2a) I do not think it makes any difference to be honest. If you need another example, take sports (I think the closest you get to meditation) – or, if that is still to ‘physical’, take thought itself. No thing in itself is either good or bad/harmless or dangerous – these labels are relative projections, nothing more than words if one tries to really understand them.
    2b) I think my main problem is, that you don´t write really differentiated here. You already have a position and find arguments for that. And I think that meditation – as everything in life – is ambigious in its function and how people experience it. Some people are athlets, some hate to run and some don´t even have the physical abitlity to do it. To simply say, everyone that doesn´t had the same experience as you, is deluded, seems to make life a bit too easy.

    Another question: Why do you do this blog? How can you be sure, it´s not just another waster of time?

  4. SkepticMeditations

    @Pete: Some profound thoughts you’ve shared here in your comments. Thanks

    I’ll briefly reply with my initial thoughts as I read your comments:

      1) You stated, “The techniques themself have no ideology.”
      a. Agreed. But people, humans always do. Can anyone escape from ideas?
      b. For one to say he is practicing techniques to have no ideology that is an ideology. With values attached to it.
      c. We humans are not always conscious of our ideas. In fact, it’s possible that the majority of our ideas are pre-conscious. Or, each human is an assembly of ideas (from individual history, society, and experiences) without awareness of them. Meditation may aim to bring awareness of the unconscious or superconscious. Maybe it does to some degree. But part of the delusion is that a meditation may be totally conscious or aware of their thoughts. Most thoughts are not conscious or pre-conscious. Perhaps, if anyone is interested, I can explain this more in a future post. In other words, a buddha is deluded if he thinks he is fully conscious. He thinks he is fully “awake”, enlightened, and therefore he fools, tricks and traps himself into the ultimate delusion, his own “awakeness”.
      d. Is not social framing inescapable in any human endeavor?

      2) Your analogy of the knife is interesting. Knife can cut butter or bread. But meditation?
      a. Trouble I see with your analogy is that a knife is a physical thing. Whereas meditation, as described in my post, is a mental technique.
      b. My post explores the psychological traps of meditation techniques. While my post may need some work to clarify my thesis further, I wonder if you are trying to argue a separate issue or defend a different concern you have.
      c. You seem to be trying to argue in defense of techniques of meditation as having no psychological traps. And, that there are no values in the techniques themselves. I’d agree.
      d. My argument, in my post, is that as soon as people (the disciples in the two categories I defined) practice meditation techniques, the psychology of the methods are a trap. If a person doesn’t fall into the two categories, then they may not be trapped.

      Yes, my past failures, mistakes have forged me into the person (read: personality with ideas and psychology) that I am today. I have come to understand that taking meditation too seriously (intensely piously, etc) (as I did) is a waste of time, energy, money and for some may be a psychological trap (as I was). My thesis in this post is open for debate, as we are doing here.

    The hype of the media and popular culture about benefits of the techniques seems overblown and often touts meditation as sacred elixir.

  5. Pete

    I agree with you that Meditation for me is something purely pragmatic and that it serves a function in that sense. I do not think it has value by itself. It has only value by the thing it does good, which is observing the wandering mind. I have no attachement to the technique or the social constructions around that technique. In fact I feel an inner rejection towards group meditations. For me it is something completely personal.
    The idea of the trap is therefore something that has to have a social framing (a guru or another hierachy). The techniques themself have no ideology. You can kill someone with a knife, but you can also butter your bread with it or carve beautiful ornamentations. The thing itself is not the problem, its how you use it. Your critique of the technique seems highly existential, that is to say, you take your own experience in a certain social framing for the thing itself. I think meditation in its use is as ambigious as a knife and of course it can be misused, but it can also just be used.

    I think I agree with you in the main points of the secon part. One thing I am interested in though:
    When you say ‘I could’ve spent thousands of hours instead of meditating, in learning practical skills, how to think critically, or in building a practical life, career, relationships.’ Well my immediate reaction to that would be, what for? If life has no inherent meaning, how can you waste any of it? How can you make any judgements of what is important or not, other than in the moment you are living it?
    I highly respect your efforts of trying to warn people from the dangers of Guru, Sects etc., but Iife is slippery and you wouldn´t be the same person as you are now without going through the experiences you made.

  6. SkepticMeditations

    @Pete

    In response to your first paragraph:

      Yes, many of my posts and comments are biased towards the language and terms of Hindu-yoga tradition. That’s the tradition that I’m most familiar, practiced for decades, and, is in some ways, easier to see through the bullshit myths of yoga system of beliefs.

      The traditions (Hindu, Buddhist, Zen, whatever) though are the surface: the myths, terms, and names of methods and characters are the outer, superficial ideas and practices.

      Is not the underlying psychology of meditation as a mental technique similar, regardless of the tradition or terms used?

      Let me try a quick explanation: Practitioners of any technique are seeking or striving for something. Practitioners use techniques to try to accomplish or attain something, at least psychologically. Even if that something is the feelings or cognition of “nothing” (emptiness, void, or nirvana) is that not something? Nothing is something, else how do we know it.

      If rejecting anything and everything other than “what is” is as you say the goal of your Zen, then the goal or aim is what is being sought in techniques. I don’t see a valid argument that you seem to be trying to make for Zen being fundamentally and psychologically different from seeking or striving towards something, even if that something is nothing or accepting “what is”. BTW: I don’t think accepting “what is” is bad of itself. Seems like a good idea to approach many experiences with an objective, observing, unbiased (as much as possible) mindset. But here we are talking about the subjective experiences obtained using techniques of meditation to get to “what is”. Tool or trap?


    Replying to your second paragraph:

    How you valuate your own personal experience?
    I value my own experience. Especially over what other people try to tell me what my experience is or is not. Hence my skepticism towards gurus, masters, or anyone who claims to have special access to knowledge based on unquestionable experience or personal revelations or mystical insights.

    Do you think you wasted a part of your life? What is a wasted life anyway?
    Yes.
    Time is precious. We can’t go back and rewind time and our individual life may end anytime. The waste for me was that instead of sitting navel gazing and fantasizing about speculative, unverifiable altered states of consciousness I wished I had learned my lesson sooner: that meditation techiques when taken too seriously are a load of crap and when one takes them too seriously one is psychologically bound, trapped in the system of beliefs and meditation techniques. I could’ve spent thousands of hours instead of meditating, in learning practical skills, how to think critically, or in building a practical life, career, relationships. Better late than never.

    Is there a goal in life? Isn´t that belief highly unscientific?
    No inherent goal to life. (Well, maybe to reproduce, pass on genes, to survive). I don’t see evidence of any objective, existential goal to life. So, what’s “highly unscientific” about no inherent goal to life?

    I’m curious to get your feedback to my replies above.
    Thanks.

  7. Pete

    Again, you seem really to concentrate only on a Hindu-tradition. In Zen (and I do not want to making any advertising here, just pointing out another tradition) the idea of meditation for a specific goal, transcendence, enlightment etc. is completely rejected. Basically everything that pretends to be more, than accepting what is, is rejected.

    Anyway, I would be interested how you valuate your own personal experience? Do you think you wasted a part of your life?
    What is a wasted life anyway? Is there a goal in life? Isn´t that belief highly unscientific?

  8. david

    Yes, I think it is an interesting question. The “self” is the topic here I think, because clearly there are abnormal mental states and also a possible universal state of the brain outside of the mental ideas and constructs. I don’t know where some abnormal mental state that is compared to a state of enlightenment, and some phenomena that is considered beyond natural (that is, supernatural) has a dividing line.

    Cheers. Oh, happy belated new year to you and yours too. 😉

  9. SkepticMeditations

    @David: Yes, I am in the process of writing a new post to explore the idea that meditation practice and the inner “mystical” experiences may be created by mental manipulation. Stay tuned for that conversation, post.

    I understood your reference to the notion of possession within a broader framework, such as:

    The meditation practitioner seeks to allow god, guru, or spirit (whatever energy or agent they imagine) to enter or take “possession” of their body or their mind.

    Funny that you bring “possession” up.
    This morning I got an email, outside this message board, from a blog reader who wrote out some of his ideas to this question:

    “How are we to understand, though, not only the ‘saint/guru’, but also the spiritual aspirant who claims, ‘I’m am nothing, it is all God. I make myself empty so that He can flow through me’?”

    Perhaps we will explore this question and topic of god/guru “possession” further and/or generate a blog post about it.

    Thanks

  10. david

    yo Scott, thanks for replying. I think you are right that it is both mind control and meditation hand in hand. They reinforce each other.

    By the way, if I write on your blog and I mention things like possession or anything supernatural related, I don’t want to come across as some kind of nutjob throwing around unproved phenomena or sounding preachy. I know you are probably a kind of atheist agnostic type but I prefer them to bigoted religious fanatics and new age spookers 🙂

  11. SkepticMeditations

    @uwsboi14: My reply to your comments below–
    1) Agree. Meditation/medication can be beneficial. Too much and we get dopey, numbs and dumbs us.
    2) Depersonalization. Yes. Objectivity and throw in a huge dash of superiority complex that is “spiritual” arrogance. Been there, know that too.
    3) Religions are great at creating the disease (sin, punishment) and then offering a cure (purification, techniques).
    4) Related to #3. Implanting fears (and we who fall for them) are powerful motivators for sticking with a system of beliefs.

    Thanks for your comments and personal experiences. I appreciate your feedback.

  12. SkepticMeditations

    @Sabio: Responding to your comments–
    You ask: “What other reasons or arguments are there for why some long-time practitioners don’t quit meditating when results are insignificant?”

    So, let me see if I understand you.

    (1) Do you feel there are indeed meditators who get significant results?

    Yes, but the results are constructed by the imagination. They seem very real, but the inner experiences match the suggestions from the guru teacher. Or do you think these people are self-deceptive? To the meditator these experiences or results seem real. It is actually the guru or belief system that is decieving the practitioner. For the guru teacher and his disciples reinforce the self-deception. So both self-deception and group-think manipulation is occurring. For those who DO get significant results, we can see why they would continue, right? Yes, I am working on a new post in response to this and other comments.

    (2) The reasons for those who do NOT get significant results continuing could be:
    (a) Tenacious Faith or Hope that they will one day. Yes.
    (b) No amazing results but “miss it” and “see world as consciousness” — your quote from one guy. But how would you translate this? Why do you think he is REALLY continuing — instead of his claim.
    Writing a response that I plan to post this week. Good questions.
    (c) satisfied with little results, though no big ones (your second quote)

    So Scott, tell us the reasons you think people continue even though there is no significant results?

    Are they just better meditators than you, or do they have less magical expectations or do they have more faith than you or …..
    I’m writing a post to more fully address these excellent questions. I hope to post asap this week.

    Thanks Sabio for your comments and thought-provoking questions.

  13. SkepticMeditations

    @David,
    Yes, habits too.

    You wrote: “As for people clinging to the SRF teachings, that has more to do with brainwashing and conditioning than with meditation, right?” I’m not sure. I think it’s probably more complex. Though manipulation and controls are built in to these kinds of “closed systems”. That’s what makes them “closed”.

    I’m writing a longer response to your comments and to the other commenters that I think I will post a blog post soon.

    Thanks for sharing your thought-provoking comments. Like that.

  14. uwsboi14

    I meditated for as long as I did, total of 19 years, for several reasons. There probably many more than this list, but it’s a busy day today:

    1) It seemed to calm me down and erase memories of bad feelings from painful experiences. Not sure this is entirely a good thing.
    2) It gave me a quick sense of being above things, including others, so there was always a sense of superiority that came with that experience
    3) I was taught in subtle ways that if I stopped meditating all my good qualities which I had supposedly gained through meditation would be immediately lost. What I’ve come to realize is that my good qualities were present and active within me before, during, and after I took on the daily practice of meditation. Basically, the religious organization stole my wallet and sold it back to me for a very high price. I don’t need meditation to be a good person. In fact, meditation made me slightly callous and indifferent to other people’s suffering.
    4) Fear that I would be lost in delusion for many incarnations if I stopped practicing what the guru taught. This fear tactice was clearly communicated to me by the religious organization to which I belonged. This was the strongest reasons why I stayed as long as I did.

  15. Sabio Lantz

    @ Scott,

    (1) Typo?
    Last line in the “No True Meditator Argument” should read:
    “Walt: Only those who GET results.”

    Right?

    (2) Arguments

    You ask: “What other reasons or arguments are there for why some long-time practitioners don’t quit meditating when results are insignificant?”

    So, let me see if I understand you.

    (1) Do you feel there are indeed meditators who get significant results? Or do you think these people are self-deceptive? For those who DO get significant results, we can see why they would continue, right?

    (2) The reasons for those who do NOT get significant results continuing could be:
    (a) Tenacious Faith or Hope that they will one day.
    (b) No amazing results but “miss it” and “see world as consciousness” — your quote from one guy. But how would you translate this? Why do you think he is REALLY continuing — instead of his claim.
    (c) satisfied with little results, though no big ones (your second quote)

    So Scott, tell us the reasons you think people continue even though there is no significant results?

    Are they just better meditators than you, or do they have less magical expectations or do they have more faith than you or …..

  16. david

    Perhaps habit is another reason why some don’t give up meditating. Perhaps very occasional “spiritual” experiences, while not particularly dramatic, that occur in meditation are a reason to keep it up.

    Personally, I believe that lack of results could be due to concentrating on techniques that the guru gave and not entering an actual state of trance. It isn’t even very hard to enter trance – hypnotists do it to people quite a lot. Also, some people may be on the lower end of the scale in terms of susceptibility to enter trance, which is why they may see little if any results.

    A lot depends upon what a person is concentrating on and whether a person invokes a deity, which is the normal action to take if you want to be “possessed”. Regardless of what people around here might think of possession (whether it is true or not), the results seem to be the same for most persons that do this: they enter an altered state of consciousness and can act as a medium for whatever “spirit” or god they have invoked. (Don’t try this at home, kids :))

    As for people clinging to the SRF teachings, that has more to do with brainwashing and conditioning than with meditation, right?

    Remember, Paramahansa Yogananda used hypnosis when he was yet a boy or young teenager. All the SRF meditation techniques, and the caveats that go along with it (obey the guru’s specific instructions/if you stop practising you will be lost for more future lives etc.) serve as a kind of block on a person’s actual progress to being at the same state as the guru was (i.e. enlightened). Yogananda also designated himself the last of the gurus of SRF. All of these things combined are a form of control over disciples. Instead of using the meditation techniques to enter a trance and so on, a person spends inordinate amounts of time on the techniques themselves!!!

    I remember that in the Kriya yoga lessons people are told to entertain no doubts about the techniques and to continue to practice. That is an example of a form of control and brainwashing that has potentially decades of wasted time.

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