Everyone is praising meditation lately. The over 70 benefits of meditation can give the impression that this practice is a panacea. In a way this is good, because people are motivated to practice it. As someone who has practiced meditation for over 16 years (nearly 7,000 hours) and deeply integrated several teachings in my life, I can say that meditation is essential, but not enough.
Meditation invites us to take a deep look inside ourselves, and to grow beyond our mental and emotional limits. But if you spend 20 minutes a day meditating, and 23h40min completely ignoring the lessons and skills developed through meditation, then your practice will be incomplete. You don’t hear this often, and I know this is not popular advice – but it’s the truth. So in this short(ish) article—originally published in the Contemplative Journal—I’ll explore other ways that you can complement and grow your meditation, for maximum transformation.
A Tool In Your Toolbox
Meditation is a powerful tool, both one with many uses and one that sharpens other tools. Still, in some instances, it may not be the most useful tool. Some examples:
- For letting go of shadow parts of your personality—self-reflection and therapy might be needed.
- For opening your heart and connecting to God—prayer might be more suitable.
- For creating positive change in your life and habits—effort, reminders, goals, and taking action are equally important.
Meditation is one of several practices of personal and spiritual growth. It can bring wonderful benefits in your life; but it’s not enough by itself. Meditation is best used in connection with other practices and approaches.
This is not a new idea. In its traditional roots, meditation is not seen in isolation.
In Buddhism, for instance, Meditation one of the three pillars of practice (along with Morality and Wisdom). In Yoga traditions, meditation is seen as an advanced practice, one that usually requires due preparation of body work (asanas), breath work (pranayama), and certain lifestyle changes (yama, niyama).
For me as a teacher, meditation is one of the 4 core practices for self-transformation.
It’s okay to jump straight into meditation—you will find several benefits. But it’s only by integrating other tools, practices and knowledge, that you will make the most out of it. Otherwise, meditation may end up being a simple stress-relief ball, or potentially can even be distorted to be a means of escape.
Complementary Practices to Meditation
Now let’s have a look at some core practices that complement meditation very well. You don’t need all of them. See which ones best match your personality and needs.
This is the ability to be introspective, to look with discerning eyes upon one’s behavior, motivations, thoughts, emotional patterns, and actions. It doesn’t mean to criticize or scold oneself, but to intelligently reflect on what’s working and what’s not.
Below are some powerful questions that can guide your self-reflection. Let’s suppose you are examining a particular feeling or thought pattern. You can ask yourself:
- Why am I feeling/thinking like this? What’s truly behind it?
- Is this based on facts or assumptions? Is it really true?
- Is this serving me in my higher goals and ideals, or is it creating stress?
The questions can take many forms. The essence, though, is to see clearly what’s happening inside of you, and question your assumptions. Then you can learn more deeply.
In this process, journaling can be helpful. In every case, the most important is radical honesty with oneself. Even if you know you are sabotaging your own life, making silly decisions, and you secretly want to continue to do that—fine! That’s your choice. But at least recognize clearly that this is what’s going on. Don’t lie to yourself.
Without self-reflection, the personal and spiritual growth one can have is severely limited.
Spiritual study can take the form of reading the texts of your tradition, attending study groups, workshops, online courses, or having one-on-one time with a teacher. It can also mean reading texts on psychology and other related areas. The goal is to expose yourself to other perspectives, to learn from the study and life lessons of another person, so you don’t need to go through the same pains.
In my path, I have surely benefited from studying spiritual books. It allowed me to reform my own ignorant points of view, by comparing them with more “enlightened” points of view. A good book will instruct you, motivate you to practice, and make you feel like you are sitting in the presence of a master.
3. Bodywork and Breath Work
The limitations in our mind, the shadows, the ignorance and negative emotions—all these have a corresponding expression in our bodies and in our breathing. Often, working on the level of body and breath comes much easier in practice, because they are more tangible and stable than the mind.
Let’s say you are struggling with anxiety. It manifests in the mind as restless thoughts. But it also manifests in your body as tension, and in your breathing as shallow and irregular patterns.
For sure, meditation can help with that—by either allowing you to dive deep into the anxiety and “dissolve it”, or by focusing your attention on something else. However, working through your anxiety by doing specific breathing exercises, and even physical yoga, can potentially be easier.
Regulating your breathing to be deep and rhythmic, even for five minutes of pranayama (yogic breathing), can prepare the ground for the deeper work of meditation.
4. Human Interaction
Deep human interaction is a rich laboratory for personal growth. It can take many forms, and here I’ll focus on three: therapy, social interaction, intimate relationships.
Therapy, counseling, and coaching, in many of its modalities, can be useful for dealing with personality patterns and mindsets that are limiting you. This allows you to bring the shadows out to the light, to liberate certain emotional energies that are trapping you.
Social interaction also provides many opportunities for self-study. Many of our triggers are only pressed in interaction with other people. The presence of the other is a tool to challenge us, polish us, and reflect to us our own patterns. The metaphor that was used in a Zen monastery where I trained is that we are like a raw diamond, and the grind of hardships and conflicts of community life slowly rounds our corners and make us shine.
Finally, intimate relationships offer a precious opportunity for self-knowledge and transformation. Of all people, our life partner is in a position to see our shadow sizes, addictive behaviors, and biases, more than anyone else. He/she can then throw them at our face mercilessly, again and again, until we either change or give up.
That is why meeting the challenges of an intimate relationship with openness of heart and mind is a great practice in and of itself.
A More Holistic Approach
There is no doubt that meditation, even by itself, can bring many benefits and transformation. However, it is only by integrating other practices, and other aspects of your life, that you can make the most out of meditation. The key is integration of mind-body-heart, integration of formal practice and daily life. So that when we meditate we are whole—and not the guy in this post’s picture.
Here are some of my articles that explore other aspects of this same idea:
Meditation enables you to see better and have more options of action (since you are less reactive). But you still need to have the willingness to look at yourself with honesty and the discipline to consistently make wiser choices, based on your best knowledge.
Therefore, whether you are seeking to grow as a person, or to achieve spiritual liberation, don’t look at meditation as your only tool. At the very least, integrating the habit of self-reflection and study should also be in your toolbox.
On to you now. What complementary practices do you find most helpful? Let me know in the comments section.
[Image credit: www.mensjournal.com (cover image), http://imgur.com (Mark Twain quote), www.fansshare.com (heart and brain)]