Want to be a better person? Meditation is not enough.

Meditation has been seen as a do-no-harm practice but there are reasons to not just practice meditation. It's not enough to improve your life.

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Photo by Zoltan Tasi on Unsplash

For about 7 years, our team, now known as YogaX , has been promoting the integrative nature of yoga practice and philosophy.  We have demonstrated via research that integrated yoga can be helpful in the fields of medicine, psychology, and physical exercise.  It is now becoming clear that our emphasis on teaching a yoga that is inclusive of holistic lifestyle practices is also important to the field of mindfulness. Over the past decades, mindfulness has emerged as a powerful intervention in many contexts.  Thanks to influential scientists, such as Jon Kabbat-Zin and Rick Hanson, and technology solutions, such as Calm, Headspace, and Insight Timer, mindfulness has become a widely-accepted and common practice.

Mindfulness has achieved a can-do-no-harm reputation.  However, have you ever met a daily meditator who creates harm, lacks awareness, demands attention, fishes for compliments, or plays on a phone through a conversation?  Of course, we all have! Meditation cannot excuse us from being human and it is not a complete solution for life improvement.

Psychological research asserts that awareness is necessary but not sufficient for change.  Mindfulness is often practiced as an attention-strengthening activity.  For example, the act of listening to a meditation for 5 minutes in the morning or noticing your breathing for 10 minutes after lunch helps build the capacity for paying attention.  Enhanced attention is incredibly helpful and a necessary ingredient for change.  However, without a path to help place attention on life practices that create harmony and purpose, attention is simply noticing; in and of itself, it not transformed into change.

A recent article by Eric Dolan in PsyPost this August (link here) reviewed a study demonstrating that the non-judgmental practice of mindfulness may actually increase immoral behavior in meditators.  The study involved 714 German adults (Study linked here) assigned to a brief mindfulness meditation practice or listened to a control recording. Participants assigned to the mindfulness condition showed less effort toward repairing damage, for example, after losing a friend’s bicycle.  One possible explanation is that non-reactiveness facilitated by meditation reduced negative feelings caused by losing the bicycle.  This reduction in negative affect may have resulted in less effort to repair the relationship and make amends. 

Photo by Alessandra Caretto on Unsplash

Although researchers continue to question and explore the mechanism of action that might have given rise to this finding, the point is well taken.  Mindfulness by itself does not provide guidance about how to live an ethical life.  It is designed to increase the capacity for awareness and concentration.  While these skills have a number of standalone benefits, including decreased stress and stress-related physical reactions, they are not skills that necessarily translate into ethical or moral action.

Yoga philosophy, on the other hand, treats mindfulness as only one part of a larger system of living called the eight limbs of yoga.  The eight limbs of yoga detail a path towards awakening, the final state of meditative consciousness.  The eight limbs are as follows:

Limb 1 Yamas: ethical life choices

Limb 2 Niyamas: disciplined lifestyle

Limb 3 Asana: movement and posture

Limb 4 Pranayama: breath and energy awareness

Limb 5 Pratyahara: sense withdrawal to turn inward

Limb 6 Dharana: concentration

Limb 7 Dhyana: meditation

Limb 8 Samadhi: absorption or union with a greater whole

The foundational practices of the eight limbs are the ethical and disciplined lifestyle choices (called the Yamas and Niyamas, which you can read about in our blog). Yoga ethics encourage us to promote peacefulness (non-harming), truthfulness, non-stealing, moderation, and non-passiveness.  Yoga discipline guides us towards living a life of purity, contentment, discipline, self-reflection and dedication to the greater good.  These practices lay the necessary foundation and create a helpful container for the development of breath work, movement, and the inner practices of concentration and meditation.

In this tradition of yoga, mindfulness and meditation practices are not recommended until ethical practices, personal discipline, breath awareness, embodied movement, and withdrawal of senses are in place.  The contemporary urge is to cultivate mindfulness as a quick tool that facilitates a better system of living.  In yoga, however, mindfulness and meditation are practices that rest on and support a holistic and comprehensive lifestyle of compassion, lovingkindness, and joy. 

We hope that these yogic wisdoms widen your understanding of mindfulness and to consider situating your mindfulness practice within a larger system of living that includes self-inquiry, breathing, and physical practice.  This holistic approach might just enhance your experience of meditation and make you a better person in the process.

Thank you for reading.  


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