The Unconscious Motivations for Meditation Practice

Jack Engler

These remarks are excerpted from a day-long program given by Jack Engler at the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies (BCBS) on November 1, l997. Jack has had a long association with Dharma study and practice. He studied Pali language and Abhidhamma at the Post-Graduate Institute of Buddhist Studies in Nalanda, Bihar, and practiced meditation for several years in India with Anagarika Munindraji and Dipa Ma. He also studied with the Ven. Mahasi Sayadaw in Burma. He is co-author of Transformations of Consciousness (Shambhala, l986), and has been a clinical psychologist for more than twenty years. Jack is on the BCBS board of directors, and teaches in Barre from time to time.

The Unconscious Motivations for Meditation Practice

Jack Engler

I think there was a tendency in the first generation of vipassana practitioners in America to look upon meditation in the same way as a traditional Catholic would look upon the sacrament. There is a principle in sacramental theology, called ex opere operato, according to which the sacraments are efficacious in and of themselves, independent of the person administrating them or the person receiving them. In the early days of vipassana practice at IMS, we tended to adopt the same attitude towards meditation practice: “Here are the instructions—you understand them, you do it, and it works.”

My experience over the years is much more complicated than that. I find that meditation practice, like any other kind of behavior, can be used for good or for ill. It can be liberating—or we can yoke it into the service of our own neuroses. Buddhaghosa called practice a “path of purification.” It’s like refining the alloys out of ore until what you’re left with is the pure metal. As a process of refinement, practice is often loaded with trial and error. We make mistakes and discover how we’ve lost our balance again and again; but gradually we learn what’s right effort and what’s compulsion, what’s straining, what’s avoidance. A lot of practice is just the process of discovering what is not the path.

From a certain perspective of course it is all path—the process itself is the path. But in asking the same kinds of questions of a spiritual practice that a therapist, for example, might ask of any experience, one might discover a dozen unconscious motivations towards practice. And it’s worth looking at these for a moment, because meditation practice—like any other behavior—is multiply determined. It may have a lot of different meanings and be driven by a host of different motives. This is of course very much the Buddhist teaching of conditionality: there is no one simple cause and effect, but many ways in which even a single sitting is conditioned by many factors.

For example, at certain stages of the life cycle the major developmental task is the task of identity formation, of finding out who I am as a person, what values I am going to live by, who I am going to be. And if one is having trouble with that, or is ambivalent or conflicted about it, you can adopt the view of selflessness and egolessness and use it as a way of not really tackling this task.

Or practice can take the form of a narcissistic wish: through practice I am going to become self-sufficient and invulnerable, I am not going to hurt any more, I won’t feel pain or disappointment. I think for most of us this is buried somewhere in our psyche, though it would usually be subtle. It may be a lingering kind of narcissistic ideal around the notion of perfection. Practice can be fueled by the hidden thought , “I’ll be rid of all these yucky things about myself that I don’t like.” It’s important to be aware of this impulse or motive to the extent to which it is there.

You see how these things can skew even how you pay attention and what you pay attention to. Attention itself is very conditioned. The day that you can sit down and be mindful is probably the day you don’t need to practice anymore. It’s like the old principle in psychoanalysis: the day you can come in and just free associate on the couch is the day you don’t need analysis anymore. In other words, mindfulness and free association have to be learned and sorted out from all of the potential distortions. But that’s the wonderful part of practice, discovering all this and sorting it out, refining it.

Another unconscious motivation is often a fear of individuation, a fear of becoming independent and asserting oneself. This may show up as a certain passivity which could be rooted in avoidance of commitment and accountability. My experience with western practitioners is that we’re too detached—we need to learn how to become attached, in a healthy way. When people talk about detachment and renunciation, it often means there is some phobic avoidance. True detachment or true non-attachment is really plunging in and doing something with your whole heart, giving yourself totally to the act, totally to the person or totally to the situation and not holding anything back, doing whatever you are doing completely and then letting go.

Sometimes practice can be driven by devaluation of reason and intellect, especially for people for whom thinking is painful or who don’t like to think. It’s the converse of people who find feeling painful. Or it can, even in the act of looking into the inner world, be an escape from the inner world. So I can say to myself, “Well, it’s all just sensation, or it’s just thinking, or it’s just feeling.” That’s the classic instruction right? The classic way of noting, just noting; don’t get all caught up in the content. But that in itself can sometimes be an avoidance, not really wanting to know what I’m thinking, not seeing my thought very clearly and not seeing what I’m feeling very clearly.

There may be other hidden motives in practice, like the fear of intimacy or the fear of social involvement. Practice can sometimes be a substitute for grief and mourning. Dharma asks the same question as a therapist would ask: How do we let go of the things that bind us? How do we let go of unhealthy attachments? They have to be grieved, they can’t just be observed or watched or dismissed by the kind of noting we use for mindfulness practice. There’s no way to avoid the process of mourning.

Insight by itself is not enough, in therapy or in meditation, because insight doesn’t necessarily lead to change. We all know that we can have a very good conceptual grasp of something, or insight into ourselves, and still do the same damn thing we’ve always done. It’s the inner resistance that has to be dealt with before change occurs. So there really is no way around grieving in this transient world.

But sometimes we use practice to immunize ourselves from the feeling and the pain—practice can be used to avoid feeling. It can be done in an intellectual way through obsessive observation or by splitting off affect and feeling from insight and understanding, so the observation stays very cool and dry. But this detached coolness has a certain lifelessness about it. Of course you can use practice to wallow in feeling too.

Then there are motives of passivity and dependence. Practice can become self-punishing, out of some kind of guilt or bad feeling about yourself. The stubborn refusal not to move until the end of the sitting, for instance: “I’m in a lot of pain but the bell hasn’t rung yet and the instructions are not to move until the end of the sitting.” Now, this can be an opportunity to work with pain and that can be a very powerful form of practice in that moment. It can also have other roots though; there can be a self-punishing quality in staying with pain when it’s not really productive or when we’re doing it in a masochistic way.

The art of practice is gradually teasing out that difference and gradually being able to distinguish the healthy and skillful motivations from the unhealthy and unskillful. That is why practice can be so creative, because it requires these constant discriminations all the time. You can’t do it in a mechanical way. There’s so much to learn and so many wonderful choices all the time in practice—and this is one of them.

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About Steven Goodheart

"I have made a ceaseless effort not to ridicule, not to bewail, not to scorn human actions, but to understand them." Spinoza

2 Responses to “The Unconscious Motivations for Meditation Practice”

  1. wow, after reading this is almost seems like the world is ‘stacked against us’ which is something we, mostly unknowingly, do to ourselves. Practice is the secret.

    • Hey Julie! Don’t be discouraged — but, yes, I know what you mean! 🙂 This sort of article is a good “check in” or “symptom checker” but isn’t the focus of practice….and as you say, the main thing is practice! If we really pay attention, and look into the stuff that arises in concentration and insight practices, these “hidden” things tend to expose themselves, but, being alert to ways we can deceive ourselves can be helpful — so long as we don’t get stuck there, in the looking for stuff!

      Thanks for your comment and for stopping by,

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