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Is your meditation practice too much like surgery?

Antique surgery tools

I recently listened to a talk by a well-known spiritual teacher who said that if meditation practice is detached from feeling, it becomes too much “like surgery.”

In my meditation, there’s a frequent desire to “figure it out.”

That struck a chord. I typically experience a lot of warmth in my meditation, but there’s also a frequent desire to “figure it out”—to resolve the questions (in my case, spiritual questions) that led me to meditation in the first place.

So a lot of the time, my meditation practice has been in the realm of problem-solving—trying to catch experiential glimpses of my own psychological makeup. I’d always thought this was the right approach, and in some ways it may be; but I’m also newly convinced that, taken strictly on its own, it creates obstacles to regular practice.

How the surgery approach saps the motivation to meditate

It tends to make meditation into a hobby

Meditation practice becomes a “project,” to be naturally put on hold when other, more pressing projects intervene. It’s almost on the level of a puzzle or hobby, both of which immediately become unsustainable luxuries in a busy life.

Meditation becomes draining

The effort to figure things out drains you of energy, leading you to put meditation on hold when you feel stressed out, hurt, or otherwise strained—exactly the times when a kinder meditation practice would be most helpful.

It’s not fun!

Most importantly, meditation practice isn’t fun when you spend the whole time trying to get a glimpse of your own eyeball. Meditation practice should be an opportunity to express love for yourself, like calling your best friend and seeing how she’s doing that day. But if all you do is ask her piercing questions, it’s natural for her to get tired of your little chats—or at least try to limit them to off-days and weekends.

What might help

smiley face cookieI think the inquisitiveness of the surgery approach is great, all else equal. But to be part of a meditation practice that is enjoyable and not draining, it needs to be held along with a couple of other elements:

  • Contentment—meaning the lack of a sense that there’s something “missing” as a precondition to satisfaction. If you feel like you can’t possibly be satisfied until you “figure it all out,” you’ll be in analysis mode every time you sit, and you won’t ever be able to fully relax as a result.
  • Friendliness to oneself—and, relatedly, a sense of humor. The “knowledge quest” mentality risks taking a lot of things very seriously, and the grim fixation that can result is a pretty far cry from the mind of meditation. Being kind to yourself, and not taking yourself so seriously, will give the search a much more authentic character.

“But we do need to figure it out!”

People come to meditation for a lot of reasons. A lot of people are probably wondering why you’d ever take the surgical approach in the first place—and some might be objecting that it’s the only way to get to the truth.

I understand this perspective. The only thing I’d mention is that all spiritual “searcher” stories I know of resolve not with the searcher actually figuring everything out, but reaching utter exhaustion and attaining understanding upon giving up. So the “search” mentality doesn’t work in and of itself—it’s just a way to eventually give in and relax. I do think starting to relax right now won’t dull the edge of your scalpel, and I definitely think you’ll enjoy meditation a lot more.

In conclusion…

Nobody wants to sit through surgery every day. If the surgical approach sounds like you, try coming at your meditation practice with more friendliness and simple inquisitiveness: “What’s going on today?” I think you’ll really enjoy it. Please let me know how it goes!