Alan Wallace on the Pay-off of Meditation

The following article is from the Spring, 2012 issue of the Snow Lion Newsletter and is for historical reference only. You can see this in context of the original newsletter here.



Sometimes the wish for results from our meditation practice can get in the way. In this adaptation from The Seven-Point Mind Training, Alan Wallace lays out a few of the hidden or not-so-hidden wishes for a pay-off that can be problematic.

We can dispense first with some very mundane hopes for results―ones that are not worth nurturing at all: the hope, for example, that others might esteem us more highly as a result of our practice, or offer us service or devotion. Geshe Chekawa identifies other hopes that should not be cultivated: the hope of being invulnerable to harm, or the self-centered hope of attaining a fortunate rebirth, or liberation, or even Buddhahood, as a result of practice. Most important, we are encouraged not to cultivate hopes for great or swift benefits as the result of practice.

There is a natural tendency, when our practice starts to go well, to get excited at the prospect of attaining wonderful results very quickly. This excitement is believed to attract moras, malignant entities who create obstacles for us. It is like turning on a neon sign in our thoughts that says, "I am on the verge of a great breakthrough! Hey maras, come and get it!" Avoid this, because experience teaches us that this kind of excitement over hopes of great and swift results, rather than enhancing the practice, simply creates problems in our meditation.

The question of hope and anxiety is important in spiritual practice, especially when we enter into sustained and earnest meditative practice. Meditative quiescence is a prime example. The treatises of the great contemplatives describe in detail the benefits of this practice and how to cultivate it; upon its attainment, how readily one can develop clairvoyance and other psychic powers; and the tremendously wholesome qualities of consciousness that result the physical and mental bliss, the serenity, the stability, and the transcendence of mundane experience. Tsongkhapa and others have described these benefits to kindle our incentive for practicing earnestly and with perseverance. What is likely to result, of course, is the hope of attaining meditative quiescence. Moreover, if we are dealing with a limited time span, as we all are, we naturally hope to attain it in a year, or three months... And then I can go on and develop bodhicitta in three months and realization of emptiness in another three months, and then tantra....

Not that it is impossible, but beating this drum primes us for anxiety, especially when we bracket our hopes in terms of a specific time, a specific place, and a specific technique. We set up a situation of subtle, internal panic as we wonder unconsciously, Am I on schedule? Will I meet the deadline? Whether or not we believe in external maras, we certainly have these maras of mental affliction within our own minds.


There is a natural tendency, when our practice starts to go well, to get excited at the prospect of attaining wonderful results very quickly.

In the beginning stages of a practice, self-centeredness is a useful incentive. Instead of simply abandoning it, we gradually strain it out. As Santideva says in his Guide to a Bodhisattva's Way of Life, if you don't think of developing bodhicitta for your own sake, how can you ever aspire to develop it for others? And his first chapter is devoted exclusively to the benefits of developing bodhicitta. Whether the practice is Mind Training, meditative quiescence, bodhicitta, or the realization of emptiness, an awareness of the benefits as well as the potential problems and their antidotes provides us with a clear understanding of how to engage correctly in the practice. The results will come from correct practice done with earnestness, a proper level of intensity, and continuity over a long period of time. They will not come faster by anticipating or longing for them.

The commentary speaks of devas, gods like those of the Hindu or Greek pantheons. Many accounts suggest that these nonhuman beings can be rather fickle. If you honor and worship them, they may help you. If you don't, they may turn around and injure you, in which case the god descends to a devil, an inflictor of harm.

What does it really mean for the divine to descend to the diabolical? The point of the Mind Training is to subdue our own mind: to gradually vanquish self- grasping and the mental afflictions that arise from it. No matter how intensely, earnestly, and diligently we practice, we may still inflate ourselves with a sense of superiority, using our spiritual practice as an unfortunate source of conceit. This distortion of the practice is the descent from a deva to a demon, from a god to a devil.

The commentary offers a wonderful analogy here. You are standing guard, vigilant at the front door of your house, while a thief climbs in the back window and robs you blind. As diligent as your efforts are, they are working against you, simply because your attitude towards the practice is misconstrued. The profundity of any practice is a function not only of the technique but also of the practitioner. A human being cannot be fundamentally superficial, because the Buddha nature we each have is an utterly pure and divine essence; but a person who is trite and dilettantish in terms of conscious behavior can trivialize an ostensibly profound practice. The corollary is also true, that a profound person cannot practice superficially.

On hearing teachings that are said to be rare and secret and only for the most advanced practitioners, we may feel that we have managed to slip through the door of an elite club. We can fool ourselves that the visualization or mantra or whatever practice we have learned is extremely profound; but that may not be true for us right now. Sometimes the most profound thing we can do is to meditate simply on the continuity of consciousness from lifetime to lifetime, the fact that different sequential lives are related by our actions, and that right now we are creating our future even as we experience the results of our past actions. Something as straightforward as this is a profound practice when contemplated by a profound mind. But even the most advanced tantric techniques are not profound if we come to them with a superficial mind.

Why do we engage in any spiritual practice? The answer that Buddhism emphasizes is our own vulnerability to suffering, whether blatant or as an undercurrent of anxiety. If we are deeply aware that we need help and recognize that without Dharma our minds are dysfunctionally creating misery, it becomes ridiculous to hold a supercilious attitude. It is hard to be pompous when the reason for practicing is a desire to be free of our own mental distortions. The Four Noble Truths―the existence of suffering, the source of suffering, freedom from suffering and its source, and the means of achieving such freedom―are very sobering in this regard.

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