Everyone Comes to Meditation Practice for the Wrong Reason: A Conversation with Psychoanalyst Barry Magid

July 14, 2014

Barry Magid is a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst practicing in New York City, and the founding teacher of the Ordinary Mind Zendo, also in New York. He is the author of Ordinary Mind and Ending the Pursuit of Happiness. His newest book is entitled Nothing is Hidden: The Psychology of Zen Koans.

Matt Bieber: Buddhism is easy to caricature. On the one hand, it is sometimes portrayed as an ascetic set of practices rooted in a hatred for life (linked, perhaps, to a superficial reading of the First Noble Truth). On the other hand, Buddhism is frequently represented as a tradition that offers quick and easy routes to happiness. (The Dalai Lama’s books are bestsellers, images of smiling monks are everywhere, and Matthieu Ricard is often described as “the world’s happiest man”.)

In your book Ending the Pursuit of Happiness, you seem to be taking aim at the latter view. You warn non-Buddhists away from the idea that Buddhism is a quick fix for anything. But you also speak to Buddhists themselves; in particular, you talk about the “secret practices” and “curative fantasies” that underlie our meditation practice.

To me, this calls to mind Chögyam Trungpa’s teachings about spiritual materialism – that while we may sign up for all the talk about letting go and impermanence and being in the moment, we’re actually secretly holding out hope that practice will get us something or help us arrive at some improved spiritual plane.

Barry Magid: That’s right. One of the things I’ve emphasized is the idea of “no gain,” which I’ve translated as uselessness in recent articles and in this new book. I believe meditation can be a paradigm of something that isn’t means-to-end oriented. All too often, we are get stuck in a way of practicing and living that is all about “How am I doing? or “Am I there yet?” ” It’s easy to co-opt meditation into a project of that sort, to turn it into a form of mind science or therapeutics that is designed to fix us in some way – rather than staying with the aspect of it that I think of as religious, which means reverencing each moment’s experience as an end in itself, not as a means to an end or a problem that needs to be solved.

Dogen talked about how the very first time we sit, we are fully realizing our true nature, that we should not think of zazen as a technique but much more as an expression or a manifestation of who we are. The idea is that when we sit down, we are really practicing simply leaving ourselves alone, through a willingness to embody this moment’s experience in its own right, so that from the very beginning we’re off the grid of progress or any kind of means-to-an-end thinking.

That I think is what’s hardest for most people to really grasp or experience about meditation practice. They all almost always inevitably turn it into something that they want to master. They want to think in terms of how they are doing, what the result is, and so forth and so on.

The whole model in the West now of researching the benefits of meditation in a certain way colludes with that. It’s funny to me because I think it would be very peculiar if anyone researched the psychological benefits of being Jewish versus being Catholic. [Laughter] But we want to hook all these Buddhist monks up to EEG machines and see what’s happening in their brains. Imagine if they were to do the same thing to people in a synagogue on Yom Kippur! For some reason we’ve gotten into this strange ‘mind science paradigm’ thinking about meditation and Buddhism. We lose track of that sense of “what does it mean that it’s a religion?”

MB: It’s funny you should say that, because when I think of the few people I’ve met who seem very realized, it’s obvious that their minds are different than those of most people. In other words, the ‘benefits’ of meditation speak for themselves. Even as a novice, I don’t feel like I need any additional proof – be it brain scans or anything else – to show me that something is going on.

BM: The proof ought to be in the whole life, not in some brain scan. That ‘proof’ – the sense of meaning or fulfillment or groundedness in a life – isn’t measurable. It may not even be correlated to what we usually think of as happiness. My old teacher said the purpose of meditation was to learn to suffer intelligently. Our life may include inescapable suffering or difficulty, and the byproduct of a life of meditation may be to simply allow us to experience that and go through it, but not in any way that’s going to look happy or calm. We may be more willing to live our suffering without compounding it through avoidant, addictive strategies of one kind or another.

MB: For me, that calls to mind what feels like a paradoxical set of questions surrounding why we practice in the first place. When I try to share a bit about meditation with people who don’t practice, they tend to want to compare it to other things that help them relax or provide some sort of tangible mental benefit – gardening, cooking, music, and so.

It seems like most people need some reason to sit down for the first time – even if it’s just, “I’m suffering so much and nothing else has worked.” What’s been so striking to me, though, is that once I got going, the ‘value’ of practice spoke for itself – it didn’t need to cash out in anything beyond helping me connect with my moment-to-moment experience. Though I suppose you could think of that as a ‘gain.’

BM: I think that’s a fairly optimistic view. In a sense, you might say that everybody comes to practice for the wrong reason – that everybody comes with a certain kind of self-centered curative fantasy. Practice is a double-edged sword because for a while it can give you the sense that you are going to be able to fulfill that fantasy (which may have to do with calmness or equanimity or blissful states or the specialness of enlightenment). But real practice is subversive and deconstructive of all the reasons that initially brought us to it. In that second and third decade of practice, people really have to pass through the question, “What is this?” They get to the point of wearing down and working through all of the self-centered reasons that brought them to meditation the first place.

Joko [Beck] used to say that it takes people many, many years to find out what practice really is, and when they get to that point, most of them quit, because that’s when they really find out that it’s not about fulfilling my curative fantasy but of really giving up that fantasy. That’s the point where most people go across town to the some other guru in order to revive the pursuit of whatever kind of permanent inner state that they’re trying to create for themselves. So for Joko, there was always this sense that we’re not so much cultivating a particular state, as constantly subtracting, constantly moving away from the desire to claim control or hold on to any particular thing, including any inner states.

MB: Thank you – that’s really helpful. I do want to clarify a bit, though: I didn’t mean to suggest that practice speaks for itself in so far as it provides a particularly good feeling, or even a sustainable self-narrative. Rather, I meant that even if practice doesn’t help you arrive at your heaven or escape your hell, it can help you to see yourself being tossed around in the samsaric spin cycle. And as you begin to see that, as you recognize some of what’s happening, you start to get a bit of distance from it, to not take your thoughts so seriously. And for me, that’s a source of relief. But perhaps you’d characterize all of that as relatively novice way of thinking about practice.

BM: Well, there is a certain level of practice in which we do feel like we’re gaining this distance or even mastery over our mind or our habits. Traditionally there’s a whole character-building function to formal meditation or monastic practice – you could say it’s the side of practice that’s about just showing up. What does it mean to become the kind of person who has the discipline to be on the cushion every day for this many hours, rain or shine, whether you feel like it or not? What does it mean to have to interact with other practitioners who are all there, working out their own particular neurotic personality disorders, or having to bump up against formality, discipline, or forms of authority that rub you the wrong way?

There’s a way in which being required to let go of your own sense of how it should be, what you like and what you dislike, and just show up for that experience over and over and over again has a character-building quality that in some sense is taken for granted in traditional settings. It’s a complicated question, something I write about in this new book, because it brings in the whole dilemma of submission versus surrender – and there’s a lot of submission and compliance that masquerade as selflessness in traditional settings. But when it works well, it allows you to not be buffeted around by likes or dislikes, the way we usually are by needing to have it ‘my way’ in order to feel okay. There is this element of just surrendering to the moment that’s built into the form and discipline of practice. That can make a big difference in our lives.

But that takes you only so far, and then we have to go onto a next stage in which we bring back into our practice a deep acceptance of our own needs, desires, and vulnerabilities. We no longer think that practice in some way is going to extirpate them from our lives. This is particularly tricky, because we often see – or have been taught – that these feelings are the source of our unhappiness. There are too many people who try to use practice as a way to diminish their vulnerabilities, their need for others, and their desire for moral support and security. These things are sometimes dismissed as attachments, and there’s an unconscious ideal of self-sufficiency or autonomy in a lot of practices. Even though we’re told about interdependence all the time, it’s rarely described as emotional interdependence.

That’s a whole other level that I try to address much more in this new book, because one of the main curative fantasies that a lot of students and teachers get stuck in is this fantasy of transcending the emotional level, our need for love.

MB: I’m so glad you brought that up, because it helps me think about Matthieu Ricard’s TED talk from a couple years ago. In the talk, Ricard suggests that practice is about helping us move from a reliance on external conditions to our own internal resources. (He uses the familiar Buddhist metaphor of the deep ocean untroubled by the waves on the surface.)

There is a way to read that metaphor – and a lot of Buddhist teaching more generally – that the goal of practice is a kind of radical self-sufficiency. Are there resources in the tradition that can help us understand what you see as our ineluctable need for love and support?

BM: You hear a lot about compassion in Buddhism, but it’s always in the form of the compassion we extend to others. There’s very little talk about the need to be at the receiving end of compassion or our need for love. As you described, there’s this sense that through practice we can come to control what’s inner and to accept that we can’t control what’s outer. That was also a classical Stoic ideal, that you want to master the inner and have no dependency on the outer. In a certain monastic tradition, this is embodied in non-attachment, of having no possessions, no relationships, no fixed abode; it’s a practice that basically says, “If you ain’t got nothing, you got nothing to lose.”

This is a lousy model for lay practice. It really doesn’t work at all if you try to do this at home. [Laughter] There may be people who want to do that as a monastic lifestyle, but you have to be able to formulate practice on different terms if you want to take it out of the homeless bhikkhu model and bring it into the household. It’s curious to me as well, that this is put forward as a model of self-sufficiency, since it seems to ignore the reality of inter-dependency. A bhikkhu requires an entire surrounding community and culture of alms-giving in order to survive. Joko emphasized the need to “suffer intelligently,” and I have focused on learning to be “dependent intelligently…”

MB: This seems to be a theme in your work – building new models, and in particular, exploring the interactivity and complementarity of psychotherapy and Zen. I’m curious: how far into other Buddhist traditions do you think the insights that you’ve generated apply?

BM: I’ve grown up pretty exclusively in a Zen tradition, and I think from inside it. I think what’s distinctive about it for me is that it’s not a progressive step-wise technique, in which you go up a kind of spiritual ladder, which I think often seems to be the case both in Theravada and Tibetan traditions. At some point, all of these traditions have to throw away the ladder. But you can spend decades on those ladders. Over and over, I encounter people who are still very involved in either ‘how am I doing’ or ‘he’s got it, I don’t’, which certainly is inherent in the Tibetan model or any kind of guru-centered model. There’s a kind of built-in gap between ‘where I am and where he is’ and an idea of endless practice so ‘maybe I’ll get there someday.’

Zen evokes those transferential feelings, but at its best, it’s always engaging in deconstructing them. The first koan most people encounter is, “Does a dog have a Buddha nature?” It’s really about that kind of immediate sense of gap, the ‘he’s got it, I don’t’ mode of thinking. That koan is about closing that gap. Those are the dualisms that make a difference, the ones that divide us inside ourselves, where we torment ourselves wondering “What is spiritual? What is base? What is lacking? What am I striving for?”

MB: In Nothing is Hidden, you have quite a lot to say about these “dualisms that make a difference.” In particular, you want to suggest that dualism isn’t just some lofty abstraction that we can easily dismiss. Rather, it’s the kind of thing that continually rears its head in our emotional lives and in our practice – and that most of us even think about enlightenment in a profoundly dualistic way! Can you elaborate?

BM: The real challenge of our practice is to take ourselves whole and our lives whole. So often people experience some part of themselves – their desire, their need for love, their vulnerability, their anger, their sexuality – as the source of their suffering and imagine the solution is to make that part go away. Then one part of the self takes up arms against the other in the name of practice or spirituality. We can never win these battles, but sadly we can almost win them, leading neutered or constricted lives designed to minimize our risk of emotional dependency or injury. Alternately, we can cultivate experiences of calmness, deep inner silence or even bliss and identify these with our “true self.” Then, all our troublesome emotions get shunted aside, only all too often to erupt as a shadow side, something that has plagued Western Buddhism in the form of the sexual misconduct of so many teachers.

The experience of breaking through a koan like mu is of the value, the perfection, of this moment having nothing to do with its content. We realize that at the deepest level, our mind is not defiled by its contents. Our mind is not contaminated by thought or emotions. So it is not our practice to endlessly sweep, clean up, purify, or calm our mind. Our initial experience of practice may be of our mind calming down, and gives us at least an initial feeling that we don’t have to chase thoughts all over the place or be dragged around by them. But you can’t practice very long or well if you’re stuck in an idea that thoughts are your enemy and that practice is essentially playing Whack-a-Mole with thoughts.

Thoughts need to be seen as “empty”, which just means they are transient; just one thing after another that’s happening. It’s like a practicing sitting in meditation in the city where there’s a lot of sounds coming in from the street. The goal can’t be to make all that noise go away, because it’s not going to. Somehow you have to let it wash over you, not as an intrusion, not as a defilement, but somehow just as this background that you float in. Gradually, inside and outside merge and you develop the same attitude toward your own thoughts and emotions. You don’t try to make anything go away; you’re not changing anything, but you let them just be background noise. Nothing has to change.

When we say something is empty, it simply means that it’s impermanent, it’s going to change, and it has no fixed ultimate essence that we have to deal with. We can just let it be what it is and we’ll go along. The equanimity of practice has much more to do with letting thoughts and feelings be like the sounds of the street, rather than finding a really, really quiet place in the woods where there’s no noise. Do you follow?

MB: I do. I’m trying to think about where I want to take this next. This might be a bit of a turn, but so much of what we’ve been discussing so far has been about the progressive release of expectations – that everybody comes to practice with some desires or expectations, and that slowly they get worn away. Let’s dive into that a little more fully.

In reading some of your work and the commentary surrounding it, I was struck by the controversy that bubbled up in 2011, beginning with Glenn Wallis’ criticism of you and Joko Beck.

To summarize for our readers, Wallis suggests that despite all of the existential courage that your teaching requires, it still ultimately holds out a spiritual carrot – that practice can lead us to a state of what you call “deep joy.” Essentially, Wallis is asking what happens when teachers describe their own experiences of deep joy and offer up those same prospects to their students; he seems to think that doing so constitutes a spiritual balm or salve for all the discipline and pain you have to go through in practice.

BM: To try to address his question: there is a very big difference between the joy that Joko talks about and what I call the pursuit of happiness or what you get from some curative fantasy. Most of what I write about is how we have to look for ways in which we think practice is promising us some kind of spiritual carrot and how we have to deconstruct that. But the fact is that when you get to the point in your practice – and I don’t mean only after you practice for 30 years, but even when you start out – when you sit there and genuinely leave yourself alone and have the experience of just sitting, that experience is not neutral and it’s certainly not intrinsically existentially frightening.

I think that there is simple animal joy in being alive that I share with my dog [laughs], that I usually don’t have access to because I am too busy trying to be or do something else, too busy trying to become more than I already am. But a lot of what I believe religious feeling is – and sometimes it gets translated into ‘God’ language – is this sense of the basic okay-ness or vitality or goodness or aliveness of the moment just as it is, regardless of its content. Buddha didn’t say, “Life is suffering. Get used to it!” [Laughter]

Wallis seems to want to make genuine Buddhism existential, like all you’re supposed to do is to look into the abyss and leap. But even Beckett mostly played it for laughs, and that’s closer to the Zen idea that even in the midst of the darkest places, there’s an aliveness and even joy in what we normally think of as the grimmest of circumstances. I don’t particularly understand why Wallis has focused his criticism on me and Joko. I would have thought I’d be the last person accused of holding out bliss carrots for people; I write all the time about deconstructing that particular fantasy


MB: So much of what you just described actually points to views that cut across the various Buddhist traditions. When you talk about a joy or vitality at the bottom of the well, I immediately think of Tibetan Buddhism’s emphasis on the openness, clarity, and compassion underneath ego.

BM: I would say it’s even there in the midst of the ego. I think what you’re describing is maybe a different state. I just don’t want to attribute it all to some state that is accessible only after. In Zen we say, “Ordinary mind is the way,” and we mean it.

MB: Ordinary mind is the way – could you say more?

BM: What our practice does is redeem “ordinary mind” for ourselves. Our whole impulse is to say, “This isn’t it, my mind is the source of my suffering, so my mind has to be changed or fixed or sometimes just eliminated.” But in some deeper way, what we’re trying to do is redeem our minds to ourselves so that we’re not afraid of the contents of our own minds. That’s a big part of this new book – about psychoanalytic theories of dissociation and how in practice we often end up having one part of the mind take up arms against another part in the name of spirituality.

MB: I don’t want to press this point too far, only because I’m new to my tradition and I’m not familiar with yours at all. But my understanding of the teachings of Trungpa Rinpoche and some of the other teachers in the Kagyu and Nyingma lineages is actually fairly similar to what you’ve just said – that none of the products of the mind are problematic in and of themselves. Rather, suffering arises when we take thoughts or feelings and solidify them or hang on to them or build a whole narrative on top of them.

BM: Okay, good.

MB: We began this conversation talking about happiness. Perhaps we can wrap things up by circling back to that theme, but from a different vantage point.

Since the inauguration of Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness policy in the 1970s, a number of countries have begun moving away from purely economic means of measuring their national wellbeing and have begun incorporating other measures — health, relationship quality, even spirituality. It seems that we’re beginning to take account of more of the things that make a human life go well.

BM: Economists are taking account of those things that everybody knows but they’ve not been able to quantify. So you need somebody like Amartya Sen to make simple things complicated enough so that an economist can understand them.

MB: That’s a great way of summarizing Development as Freedom. It’s a brilliant book, but I also remember thinking, “Why was this such a big deal?” From your point of view, though, I wonder if there’s something problematic – or even counterproductive – about framing these new efforts in terms of moving toward happiness.

BM: I think that Sen and [Martha] Nussbaum actually put it in terms of capabilities; they are drawing on Aristotle’s notion of eudaimonia or ‘flourishing’ – mistranslated as ‘happiness’.’ That’s the real thing that we’re aiming at. The Aristotelian notion is that our flourishing comes about from the full development of our virtues or capacities, and that is the kind of criteria that they try to measure when they talk about literacy rates among the women or the poor. There’s no immediate economic payoff here or something that you can quantify, but you can see it in a life that is flourishing versus a life that is in some sense constrained or stunted. That’s the language of what’s called “virtue ethics”, and they’re trying to bring it over into ways of thinking about the economy. But we really should stick to the concepts of capacities and capabilities rather than try to get it all under the umbrella of “happiness.” ‘Happiness’ tends to get narrowed down to a feeling state rather than the flourishing of the whole person in a whole society.

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