On Sitting Intensive Meditation Retreats (Part 5) – Not Therapy, Not Self Improvement

This is the 5th installment in a six part series about what it means to go on intensive meditation retreats, something I’ve been doing for a number of years. This the last of four posts in the series that explore what an intensive meditation retreat isn’t. Tomorrow’s final post in the series will delve into what, in my opinion, doing these retreats is actually about.

The fourth and final misconception is probably the most complex given how many grains of truth there are in it, but I’ll aim to keep things simple.  It’s this: meditation and meditation retreats are not psychotherapy or self improvement.  I repeat: meditation is not psychotherapy, intensive meditation retreats are not some form of intensive psychotherapy, and the whole project of meditation is not one of self improvement.

If I wanted intensive psychotherapy, I’d find myself a good therapist and book multiple sessions per week (though I have no idea where I’d find the money to do such a thing). If I wanted self improvement (something I’d say a qualified yes too, more on that later), I’d engage in practices in my daily life resulted in more considerate, more organized, healthier, more skilled, more compassionate, and a dozen other “better” behaviors (and I do, or, at least, try to).  But that’s not what my meditation practice is about and it’s definitely not why I go on retreat. I think this is a really important point to hammer home because there are so many people within my tradition and others that do actually treat their meditation practice in these ways. I’ll try to explain why.

Especially when doing insight meditation, a practice of watching the mind in action, it’s quite common and admittedly very exciting to start to see big patterns of mind that previously went unnoticed. The way we react to certain people, what comes up when we get into conflict, the relationship we have to our blackberry, these and literally thousands of other ways that we relate to the world become much more clear. For many though, there can then follow a tendency to “figure out” how those patterns came to be, where they originated and why, and through analyzing these things come to better understand the chain of conditionality and history that led to these behaviors and perhaps puts them in context.

This “figuring out” part is not what insight practice is about, it’s what various forms of therapy are about.  Engaging in a “figuring out” process while “on the cushion” (ie – in meditation) detracts from actually being present and aware of what’s happening in the moment. While it might seem like a good and useful thing to do, from the perspective of the practice, it’s basically discursive thought that if you’re anything like me is quite easy to get lost in. Thus, not the practice.

The self improvement part is where things get somewhat trickier. These patterns of mind that we begin to notice are often followed by one of two common reactions. The first, discussed above, is to engage in “figuring out” with regards to the pattern.  The second is to decide to either drop or continue the pattern.

Let’s say I notice a pattern in which I’m beating myself up for looking at my watch in impatience while waiting in line, judging the pattern of being impatient as “Bad”, then identifying as a ” Bad Person”, which the mind certainly thinks is a “Bad Thing”. I might want to drop that whole process. It’s not particularly productive, there’s implicit self deprecation in the pattern, I don’t particularly need it in my life if I want to be a happy person, and it could likely result in me being a jerk to someone else in line. In contrast, if I notice a pattern of helping old women cross the street (to use a trite example), I might decide that that’s a pretty good thing to do for both them and for me, and I’d want to continue to engage with that pattern.

This whole process is both generally good from a human standpoint, and also completely in line with the practice.  It’s actually referred to as “Right Effort“, defined as letting go of or “abandoning” thoughts, speech and action harmful to oneself or others and cultivating ones that benefit oneself and others. Generally, this lines up fairly well with broadly accepted notions of self improvement. Where it diverges though is again in intention.

Buddhist practice on the whole is oriented towards less self obsession, narcissism and solipsism, and more selflessness, both figuratively and literally. The process described in Right Effort of dropping bad habits and cultivating good ones is not about improving some self, but rather about promoting a selflessness that is a natural response to the suffering in the world and that will allow, again, for the clear seeing of experience in the moment. This may seem like a small semantic detail, but read through the self help section of a bookstore and I imagine you’ll find a lot of orientation towards “gaining” or “having” better habits, a premise which is subtly though clearly not about selflessness but rather about narcissism.

Tomorrow, I’ll finish off the series picking up with this idea of watching experience clearly as it unfolds, and do my best to describe what I think retreat is actually all about.

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Hi there.

Rafi in thailand, smiling

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