Beware of Meditation Scams

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Meditation is no longer seen as only a spiritual practice, or an obsession of minority groups. It is a mainstream movement—a tool with proven benefits for your health, mind, and psychological well-being. In fact, meditation is a now a billion dollar industry; as a result, there are plenty of people looking for creative ways to profit from it, and you will find meditation scams popping up here and there.

There are plenty of good meditation teachers and programs out there. But there also some that it would be better to avoid. It can be challenging to tell the difference, especially if you are a beginner in the practice. In this article, I share some guidelines that can help you better choose your teacher/program.

There are those who believe that meditation should never be charged for, and should be taught on a donation basis within the confines of spiritual or contemplative traditions (I disagree).

At the other end of the spectrum, we have people who think of it as just another popular self-help technique, and will try to modify it, brand it, and market it as much as they can, pushing for the uniqueness of their technique or approach. They may also try to “catch the wave” by adding the word “meditation” or “mindfulness” to things that are not really meditation. This just adds to the confusion.

For me, it has always been about finding the middle path. In this case, it is staying true to the traditions that developed these amazing tools, sticking to the techniques that have stood the test of time for centuries, and presenting them in a pragmatic, non-sectarian, and secular way—so that people from all walks of life can benefit from them regardless of any faith or belief system.

We will now explore the different ways in which meditation is being presented to the world in an unhelpful manner—all the way from naive but misguided to fraudulent and scammy. I see these popping up from time to time, and I worry about those who may engage with them and, as a result, have a negative experience with meditation practice.

[NOTE: This article generated some controversy, especially among teachers of meditation/mindfulness. Some loved it, some got upset. So it is worth clarifying that I write this article from a place of concern/disappointment with what is starting to happen to the meditation “industry”—and not from a place of anger.

I believe that there are many paths for one to become an authentic and helpful meditation teacher. But there are also traits that are not helpful—either because the intention behind it is not in sync with the spirit of meditation, or the execution isn’t. Beginners looking to learn meditation may not be aware of the difference, so here I share my view on these things, and what I would like to know if I was a beginner seeking a teacher/program.]

Meditation by Amateurs

In this category we have people who are genuinely interested in meditation, passionate about the idea, and wish to share it with others. Their dream might be to make a living teaching meditation and help many people learn this valuable practice. But they don’t have much experience with meditation and haven’t studied it deeply. It’s not integrated into their personality.

So far so good. You’ve got to start somewhere, right?

From this point, there are two possible paths.

In the first case, they plunge into meditation, trying to learn everything they can. They establish a strong personal practice of at least one hour of formal meditation per day. They learn from authentic and traditional sources—be them spiritual or secular. They go to retreats. They strive to live the practice. Ideally, they go through a meditation teacher training course. And, in time, they start sharing meditation with the world—in a genuine, humble, and respectful way.

In the second case, they are in a hurry to “make it work”. They believe that meditation is a very simple thing to learn and teach, and that there is great value in putting their own spin on things. They are influenced by internet marketers and half-baked motivational speakers who preach “live off your passion”, “everyone is an expert”, and “establish yourself as an authority in your field”.

Even though they are beginners in the practice itself—let alone the experience of teaching it—they start acting as if they are great teachers. Or at least they give this impression. They speak with certainty and authority, present themselves as go-to experts in the field, make YouTube videos, put up a fancy website, and start selling $1.95 ebooks on Amazon—or, worse, a $997 “Meditation Transformation” packages.

Making a living off meditation while remaining genuine to yourself and truly helpful to your audience is incredibly hard. But if you try shortcuts, what comes out is usually not good—especially for society.

Meditation Scams

There are also individuals and groups that present meditation in a scammy way. They may be

  • financially motivated marketers or entrepreneurs, knowing exactly what they are doing (but rationalizing it to be okay for a myriad of reasons)
  • deluded spiritual leaders running groups that are not too far away from a cult

I wish I could give some examples, but that would make this essay be way more controversial than it’s supposed to be, and it would also help to make those scammers more popular. So, in order to avoid a lot of frustration, a thread of 237 comments, and perhaps some lawsuits, I’ll keep this discussion on a more abstract level.

Once meditation became mainstream, some people started looking at it the same way they look at any other product: “How can I sell this better than others. How can I make meditation be better, faster, and cheaper?” I cringe as I write these words….

“In the West, people would like enlightenment to be fast, easy, and if possible, cheap!” — Dalai Lama

The truth is, meditation has been around for over 5,000 years. It has been developed by groups of people who had nothing else to do in life but to meditate and explore contemplative techniques around the clock. So the chance of a 21st-century city dweller creating or discovering a more “powerful” way to meditate is close to zero.

But, unless they claim that, how will they convince you to pay a hefty amount of money to learn it?

The idea of secret techniques, hacks, and shortcuts is very attractive—especially for the “fast food”, instant-gratification mindset prevalent in modern society. And that is why these promises in the field of meditation can be so alluring, and many fall for it.

“More mindfulness in less time.”

“Achieve enlightenment through our proven system!”

“Meditate like a Zen master without spending years practicing…”

Below are some of the commons traits of meditation scams. A group, organization, product or course doesn’t need to have all of these to be a scam, but if you see any of these elements, treat it as a red flag.

(On the other hand, I’ve observed that some authentic meditation groups also display some of these characteristics—but it’s then often more a case of dogmatism and closed-mindedness than of fraud.)

Consider it a red flag if they:

  • promote that their meditation technique is unique, superior or more effective than other techniques. Or maybe the “only true way to meditate”, or “the best one”. They will surely give you a host of fancy reasons to support their claims.
  • try to convince you that all other meditation techniques are not for you, or are very hard to practice, while their technique is “effortless and simple”. They want to convince you that their technique is a shortcut and that you’ll get “more for less” with it.
  • do not teach their meditation in public, but keep it secret, protected behind a paywall of sorts. You can’t try it without committing money to it.
  • use exaggerated language to speak about the benefits of their approach, and what it will do for you.
  • don’t answer basic questions about the practice and what else is involved until you join.
  • are offered by a faceless organization, or by someone who doesn’t have a deep experience and is not a real practitioner of the art.
  • charge a huge price to teach you how to meditate.
  • put pressure on you to join/pay right now.
  • have invented/discovered the technique themselves—even worse if they have named the meditation after them. Or they claim an obscure link with an ancient contemplative tradition, but that can’t really be verified.
  • portray themselves as a secular organization but secretly promote religious practices and beliefs.

By the same token, doing these things is this is precisely one of the ways of “making millions with meditation”— adopt as many of these points as you can, in a way that most people don’t suspect.

There is no magic secret to meditation. It simply takes time to learn it well. But if you have the right teacher, you can enjoy the journey right from the beginning, and experience some of the benefits early on.

How to Learn Genuine Meditation?

Photo by Natalie Baxter

You need to find a genuine teacher or organization, be it secular or spiritual.

What about learning meditation from apps, books, courses, and videos? The same principles apply—see who is behind it.

Not all meditation teachers are created equal. Make sure you learn from someone with a solid personal practice, good knowledge and experience in meditation, and the ability to teach it well. The more they have integrated meditation into their own life, the deeper is the learning and transformation you can have.

(Refer to this article for more guidelines on how to identify a good meditation teacher.)

Here I have explored some of the red flags for you to be aware of, so you don’t waste your time and money. As with everything else in life, we need to do our research until we find what we are looking for. And in this process we need to beware of scams, amateurs, and half-baked teachers—and there will be more of all of these as the demand for meditation increases.

Now hopefully you are more well informed in this journey.

If you had a bad introduction to meditation, don’t let it put you off. Meditation is a treasure. It can bring dozens of benefits to your health, performance, life, and well-being. I know that for me it has.

Don’t let your experience with a particular method or teacher discourage you from practicing meditation. That’s like saying that all relationships suck because you just came out of a bad one.

There are hundreds of different ways to meditate, and many different approaches to teaching it. Taking the time to discover which one will serve you best will pay off in manifold ways.

Please share this article to help raise awareness and keep the meditation clean and sacred for everyone.

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