The Link Between Meditation and Inner Work
Psychological maturity is a requirement for bliss
Meditation is hard. Some people struggle for years, attending retreats and studying texts, without feeling anything more than a baseline relaxation.
But occasionally someone comes along, sits for the first time, and boom: bliss state, ego death, encounter with God, Kundalini awakening, whatever you want to call it—something clicks and they’re in it.
What separates these two groups? Why do some get it immediately, while others toil for years with no results? And why do most people fall in the middle, making progress at a rate that only loosely correlates with the seriousness of their practice?
The crucial factor is what I’ll call psychological maturity. By cultivating empathy and equanimity in day-to-day life, we can carve an inner landscape that’s easy to traverse; when we neglect that process, meditation is a bumpy ride at best.
Increasingly I see meditation taught as a technical skill, like playing a sonata or sinking a three-pointer. All you need to do, some claim, is train your attention!
Traditional religious sources, on the other hand, mix their instructions with exhortations about morality, lifestyle, relationships, and beliefs. They seem to be crafting not just a particular mindstate, but an entire personality.
The secular approach comes from a well-intentioned desire to distill the dynamics of meditation from all those moral and metaphysical beliefs. And it successfully attracts the sort of scientific-minded folks who would scoff at the idea of “dwelling in Christ” or chanting “Hare Krishna”. If so many contradictory belief systems all produce results, surely we can factor out the nonsense!
But there are important similarities that get lost in all that culture-bound weirdness: there’s usually an emphasis on treating others well; on abstaining from sex, drugs, wealth, and other distractions; on submitting to a higher power.
These practices might not seem like they have much to do with developing control over your attention. Personally, I wouldn’t consider any single one a hard requirement. But each of them helps you develop a stable, equanimous inner life—which is a hard requirement for regular access to stable, equanimous mindstates.
Some folks will find this idea—that you need to attain to some subjective standard of maturity in order to access these experiences—implausible. In my early days of studying meditation I thought the same. But there are good reasons why it’s hard to develop the skill of modulating your attention without doing a great deal of inner work.
Specifically: it’s hard to meditate if you’ve got a bunch of bullshit to worry about.
No Drama Lama
…training in morality…is indispensable for the next training: concentration. So, here’s a tip: if you are finding it hard to concentrate because your mind is filled with guilt, judgment, hatred, resentment, envy, or some other harmful or difficult thought pattern, work on [morality] training…spend your non-retreat time cultivating a healthy mind, a healthy body, and a skillful and mature set of coping mechanisms.
—Daniel Ingram, Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha
It’s hard to say precisely what I mean by “psychological maturity”, but hopefully you can think of a few people, real or fictional, that fit the phrase. Some qualities that come to mind: poise, grace, empathy, magnanimity, equanimity, confidence, contentedness. Self-possession is a good synonym.
When I hear stories of people who have breakthrough experiences after only a small amount of meditation practice, they tend to have a high degree of psychological maturity. Usually they’re the back half of their life, work in an introspective profession like talk therapy, or have a long-standing interest in both physical and mental self-improvement.
On the other hand, in every meditation group there are usually a few eager seekers who struggle with the material. Predictably, they’re also a bit more neurotic. Not always profoundly neurotic—usually they’re just people with a normal, healthy neuroticism. Often they’re young, still dating and building a career, figuring out who they are and how they fit into the world.1
And I’ve seen the same dynamic play out in myself. On days where drama pops up in my life—especially interpersonal drama, like a conflict at work or a disagreement with my partner—it becomes hard to meditate. I end up mentally rehearsing all the reasons why I’m right instead of concentrating on the task at hand. But through introspection and self-confrontation, I’ve made at least a bit of progress on the path to psychological maturity, and my sits have gotten easier as a result.
The more I learn to handle adversity skillfully, the deeper my meditation goes.
Inner work requires a great deal of introspection, honesty, and self-confrontation. All of us are willfully ignorant of our flaws; we’ll even wear our flaws as a badge of honor, unaware that every positive trait carries a shadow. It’s hard to fix a problem that you refuse to look at.
Talk therapy is probably the best way to dig through your emotional baggage and find out what’s blocking you from a deeper sense of peace. It’s helped me more consistently than anything else. But it’s also expensive, and—depending on the therapist, modality, and your needs—can be a waste of time.
Before starting therapy, I got a lot of mileage from Jungian shadow work. It’s the only self-help framework that seems to scale—it has a genericity that’s allowed me to tackle a wide range of personal problems, from depression to lust to narcissism. I’ll give a brief overview of it here, because I think it’s the easiest way to get started with inner work.
Here’s the basic loop2:
Notice a negative emotional reaction
Find the internal mechanism driving it
Dismantle and absorb that mechanism
Each of these steps is profoundly difficult.
I’ll give a personal example to illustrate why: I used to get annoyed when I had to meet with my manager. We had a weekly one-on-one that I found myself wanting to avoid.
Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.
For a long time I didn’t classify this as a “negative emotional reaction”. I just thought the meetings were unproductive, that my manager wasn’t really good at their job—of course I don’t want to go to these meetings! This is a very typical rationalization, and learning to recognize it is an important skill in shadow work. A good rule of thumb: any negative feeling is worth examining, no matter how justified it seems.
Human beings have an enormous desire not to know. It is very painful to know. If we did a popularity contest among all the defense mechanisms, the defense mechanism of denial would win hands down.
—Robert Moore, Facing the Dragon
Next, I had to uncover the mechanism driving the aversion. This process is basically an infinite regress of “why” questions about feelings:
Why don’t I want to attend these meetings? Because I find them unproductive.
Why do I find them unproductive? Because my manager mostly has bad takes that I have to argue against.
Why do I feel the need to argue? To protect my team.
Why do I feel protective? What am I protecting them from? I’m protecting them from my manager’s stupidity.
Why do I find my manager’s stupidity threatening? Because they have more power than me.
Notice that the feelings become more primal as the regress continues: I moved from “feeling unproductive” to talking about threats and power. Ultimately, I came to the conclusion that the real reason I hated these meetings was that I felt intellectually superior to my manager, and resented their (in my mind) undeserved power and title.
Again, it would be easy to stop here. These might be facts: that I had a higher IQ, a higher EQ, less power, and that everyone would have been better off if we swapped roles. But facts are beside the point.3 My feelings were at odds with reality and that needed to change.
I can’t point to exactly what I did to fix this (and to be honest it never completely went away). But over the course of months I tried to focus on what my manager did well; I considered all the ways my own reports might see me as incompetent; most importantly, I slowly started to accept the fact that power and intelligence are only loosely correlated, melting some deeply rooted prior that the world is mostly meritocratic.4
This work not only improved my relationship with my manager (and made our meetings more productive)—it fixed a general problem with my worldview. I’m far less frustrated by current issues with my company’s executive team; I’m more aware of and able to correct for my own flaws as a leader; it even made me more comfortable5 with the Trump administration, whose antics had thwarted more than a few of my meditation sessions.
The key insight of shadow work is that you’re the problem. Always. If you can figure out how that statement is true, no matter what situation is bothering you, you’ll grow tremendously. And you’ll find it far easier to sit in meditation.
I want to reiterate that technique is still an important aspect of meditative practice. Skillful meditation requires both technical proficiency and psychological maturity, in the same way that a marathoner needs to have good running form and be in great shape.
To be fair, even the secular meditation manuals usually acknowledge this. They’ll open with a chapter on moral development before proceeding to lengthy descriptions of technique and signs of attainment. But as a reader, it’s easy to gloss over that part and cut straight for the bliss.
Historically, meditation practice has been intertwined with moral, psychological, even physical self-development. In my experience, these are key ingredients, not things that can be distilled out as cultural bias. Again, blissful meditation isn’t a purely technical feat like playing a sonata or sinking a three-pointer—it’s the culmination of a long process of sculpting your inner world.
To be clear, this is very anecdotal data. It comes from the handful of seminars I’ve been to, as well as interactions both live and online with other meditators. And it’s very hard to tease out correlation and causation here; meditative proficiency and emotional maturity reinforce each other in a feedback loop.
Like all my writing about Jungianism, this is my own regurgitation of his ideas. Actually it’s a regurgitation of other regurgitations. This is getting gross—point is, you won’t find this loop written out explicitly in any of Jung’s books.
More specifically, counterfactuals are beside the point. There was a gap between how I thought things “should” be and how things were. In shadow work, it’s the former that needs changing.
I find this is a very common prior among fellow White guys. Differences of opinion about how much powerful people deserve their power is probably the biggest driver of the culture war—maybe all culture wars.
The obvious criticism here is that I shouldn’t be OK with these things. I should be angry and upset, because they’re things worth being angry and upset about. All I can say is that the change in my emotional reaction seemed to make me more effective in combating them, not less. My interactions with management became more fruitful, and I’ve found it’s easier to disenchant a Trump voter by listening rather than arguing.
The difference between apathy and equanimity is subtle but huge.