Potential pitfalls in Meditation

Extracted from teachings of Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche (please do not copy without permission)

Problems Often Encountered During Meditation


Firstly, knowing that thoughts arise, being led by the thoughts and pursuing it.  This is a waste of time in meditation and is no different from ordinary people who do not practise meditation.   The only difference is that people who do not meditate are unable to see their own thoughts arising.  Day by day, following one thought after another all over the place, having all kinds of hopes and wishes, if one is not recalling the past, then one is planning for the future, this continuous stream of thinking is samsara.

Secondly, being afraid of thoughts.  Treating it like an enemy, one tries to eliminate all thoughts.  This is like the cat catching the mouse. When thought arises, one sees it and the thought very quickly dissolves by itself. Resting in this gap of clarity and non-thought, one regards this as liberation.  Being attached to this clear, thought-free state of purity, when one departs from this pure state and gives rise to various thoughts, one becomes fearful and feels that one has been debased or that one’s practice has deterioriated.  Actually, whether one is able to see the arising or ceasing of thoughts or not, the thought will dissolve by itself as this is the nature of thoughts. Due to not having the recognition of the nature of thoughts, one does not possess the wisdom of liberation and still remains in ignorance, being unable to uproot the flow of confused consciousness, therefore there is no ultimate liberation.

Thirdly, many people believe that since samsara is of such great suffering, we should try to leave it behind and try to obtain nirvana.  They imagine that after practising, one day will come when they see nirvana or emptiness and at that time, they will feel, ‘Now, I have attained realisation and have been liberated.”  In this way, they pursue and hope for some kind of appearance or phenomenon.  Thus, in their meditation, they will always have a sense of waiting and expectation, hoping that maybe after all my thoughts have completely died down, an unfathomable state of emptiness will appear, then I will attain realisation.  They feel that, as long as I continue to strive, there will be some kind of such and such state that will appear and at that time I will generate the unimaginable qualities of various Buddhas… these people are always pursuing some kind of meditative state and waiting for some state to appear.

In general, people who are in the first or third situations will be very tense in their meditation and have very strong attachments.  It is easy for them to have symptoms like swelling or pain at the crown, chest pains, numbness in their hands or legs etc.  At this time, if one is not able to make adjustments and corrections, it is very easy to go into deviations.

Fourthly,  some meditators like sitting very much, therefore they sit for an inordinately long period of time, but due to the lack of guidance from a realised being, they rest in a clear and thought-free state for a long period of time, feeling that I am without thoughts and pure.  They think that their meditative prowess is outstanding and other people may even praise them, leading them to cling even more to their meditation. Meditating in this way for a long time, one can attain a state where the breath and even heart-beat or pulse completely stops.  At this point, several situations can occur: one is that the person will become more and more inert and passive, gradually losing their ability to discriminate, becoming more and more stupid and ignorant.  This type of practitioner is likely to take rebirth in the animal realm as one of those animals who hibernate.   The other situation occurs to a smaller proportion of people, they will develop attachment to states of emptiness, bliss and clarity arising in their meditation and thus take rebirth in the heavens.  An ordinary individual will take rebirth in the desire realm due to attachment to his gross thoughts while a meditator who clings to his experiences of clarity in meditation will take rebirth in the form realm heavens.  One who clings to his experiences of emptiness in meditation will take rebirth in the formless realm heavens.  These attachments that arise in one’s meditation are generally quite difficult to correct and remove.

I myself have had such an experience in meditation.  When I was at Yachen Monastery receiving the pith instructions from Lama Rinpoche, once in my meditation, I clearly saw the scenes for a few hundred metres outside my meditation hut.  There were monks and nuns buying things at shops, talking, walking about. I saw this clearly as if I were physically present there.  This vision became clearer with the passing of each day. I could see the external environment further and further.  The experience of clarity lasted for about a week. I was exhilarated and thought, “Did I attain an extrasensory perception?  Am I going to attain realisation soon?”  So I eagerly rushed to my Guru to report this meditative experience.  To my surprise, my Guru scolded me fiercely, “If you continue like this, you will run into demonic states. No matter what you are attached to, you will still be in samsara.  No matter what kind of experience you encounter in your practice, don’t cling to it, continue to meditate based on the Guru’s pith instructions, come back seven days later to report your experience in practice.”  So I went home to continue meditating, before long, there appeared the experience of emptiness. My room, mountains, river, the great earth and all external phenomenon, including myself disappeared before my eyes.  After that, there was also the experience of mind and body dissolving into space, flying in space and all kinds of experiences.  But due to my unlimited faith in my Guru and his blessings, I did not have as strong an attachment to these subsequent experiences as I had to my initial experience.  After seven days, I reported my experience in practice to my Guru and this time, Guru was very happy and encouraged me saying, “Good child, it is just like that, continue to practice in this way…”

Telling all of you this part of my experience in training is for you to understand that during the process of meditation, there is a definite need for personal guidance from a qualified teacher who has experience in meditation and realisation. Without a qualified teacher pointing out the way, it is almost impossible not to be deviated from the proper path.  It is like someone who is blindfolded walking towards a target.  To him, he feels that he has not strayed from the path and that he is walking on the correct road. However, any witnessing party can clearly see just how ridiculously off the target he is.  This is because the clinging to a meditative experience is almost always not obvious to oneself.  Only after one has transcended that attachment, can one realise that one has been grasping to it. Besides, even if one knows that one is clinging to a certain meditative experience, it is very difficult for one to drop that attachment.   Frequently, it is when one is having a good feeling that one is most attached.  Sentient beings are obscured and confused by ignorance, if they are not attached to the previous thought then they are attached to the next thought, or else they are clinging to the clarity, non-thought and purity of the gap in between.  If not clinging to existence, then clinging to emptiness. If not grasping at external appearance then grasping at liberation.  As long as ignorance and confusion is not cut through, the wisdom of the vipassana or ‘superior seeing’ will not arise in a stable manner, then attachment can’t be completely released.  Thus the Lineage Master Longchen Rabjam said, “Many meditators are born in the animal realms.”  This is truly a very pitiable matter.

The above-mentioned problems arise because a meditator does not rely on an experienced and qualified teacher.  Another reason is that one does not proceed according to the graduated steps of the lineage and practising accordingly.  Therefore, those who practise meditation should not just rely on books, or one’s own understanding, combined with just a little past experience in meditation and believe that one has an uncommon view and understanding.  One should rely on a pure lineage and practise in a systematic fashion under the personal guidance of a qualified teacher.  This way of training in meditation which accords with principles and teachings is the safest and swiftest.

(Note: you can read more of  Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche’s teachings at this blog http://journeyofclearlight.wordpress.com/ and his English website http://yachenlama.com/)