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

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."

The full interview is available at The Wisdom Blog.