…there may actually be puritanical fanatics of conscience who even prefer to lie down and die on a certain nothing than an uncertain something. ~ Nietzsche
…every artist first attains the supreme pinnacle of his greatness when he can look down into himself and his art, when he can laugh at himself. ~ Nietzsche
I found the recent “F*ck That” meditation video to be a skillful skewering of the spate of self-anointed meditation teachers. Since there is no unanimously accepted meditation teacher training certification or licensure program, anyone can call himself a “Meditation Teacher” with that title currently being as legitimate as “Published Author,” “International Speaker,” “Urban Shaman,” “Sought After Visionary,” “Spiritual Advisor,” “Intergalactic Warrior Priestess,” “Intuitive Healer,” “Life Coach,” “Wellness Expert,” “Vedic Master,” “Severely Gifted Conversationalist,” “Famous Blogger,” “Social Media Guru,” “Leading Handshake Consultant,” “Founder of Narcissists’ Central,” “10 Time Winner of Best Narcissist Award (from Narcissists’ Central),” etc.
However, there are certain people teaching meditation who are so off the mark that their own marketing betrays their illegitimacy.
Before I list how to discern if your meditation teacher is a charlatan or not, allow me to state that I once learned that the best way one can be authentic is to decry one’s own inauthenticity; so I’m going to write this article primarily outing my own social media whorishness, but feel free to apply these guidelines to your own teachers to see if they fit. If you have attended my workshops then you know that I fundamentally teach people how to be authentic, honest, present, and how we can “own” our lives (accept every aspect of our lives and stop our minds’ proclivities to create woulda-coulda-shoulda-didn’t narratives better known as resentments). Meditation and yoga are some of the myriad tools I employ to help people gain insights into how their minds currently operate and how to make tweaks that will keep them at the higher ends of their happiness spectrums.
Here are 5 ways to discern if your meditation teacher is authentic or just acting:
1. Your meditation teacher has an IMDB page. There are so many failed actors aping meditation teachers that it is easy to see how teaching meditation is the new bartending. People have taken umbrage with the fact that I use the word “failed,” but Julia Roberts meditates and you don’t see her teaching meditation. If your meditation teacher was earning Mindy Kaling’s salary would he teach meditation? (Although, I must admit that one of the first meditation classes I attended in 1996 was by Academy Award winning writer Bruce Joel Rubin, and one of my favorite yoga nidra teachers is noted film producer Tracee Stanley, so maybe there is another website exclusively for thespians?)
What I’m arguing is that most of the senior meditation teachers who I have sat with teach by donation and those who have IMDB pages or went to acting school have just found another way to be quasi-“famous” while making a few bucks. It is plain to see by the parodying “F*ck That” meditation video that it is not difficult to act like a meditation teacher – correct? Just sit there, tell students to close their eyes and relax, and then use your most serene voice to spew new age truisms. OK so here’s my IMDB page: Have yourself a laugh! And then put your meditation teacher’s name into the search bar and see what movies or TV shows come up.
2. Your meditation teacher is self-righteous. If there is one thing that senior meditation teachers agree upon it is that meditation teaches humility. Dan Harris says, “Meditation is like being kidnapped by the most boring person on earth” and Chögyam Trungpa says, “Meditation is just one insult after another.” His Holiness the Dalia Lama has been meditating for 14 lifetimes – LIFETIMES – and still would not consider himself one of the world’s leading meditation teachers; and yet, I have seen websites of teachers who have been meditating for less than a single decade declare that they are amongst the world’s leading meditation teachers.
Really? Was there some sort of Meditation Olympics that I missed? So you won gold, His Holiness took silver, and Ram Dass bronze???
If you are just starting out, please look up Dr. Elliot Dacher, Dr. Mark Abramson, Dr. Dan Siegel, Dr. Deepak Chopra, Tara Brach Ph.D., Jack Kornfield Ph.D., Ram Dass Ph.D., Ron Alexander Ph.D., Lorin Roche Ph.D., Ron Sharrin Ph.D., Rick Hanson Ph.D., Alan Wallace Ph.D., Sylvia Boorstein Ph.D., Jon Kabat-Zinn Ph.D., and monks/nuns such as Pema Chodron, Mathieu Ricard, Thich Nhat Hanh and Lama Surya Das and you will find that none of them would ever claim to have developed anything new or that he or she is one of the world’s leading teachers. All of the above teachers have been studying the human psyche for at least 40 years and I have found all of them to be excessively humble. So declaring yourself to be one of the world’s leading meditations teachers is self-refuting, it’s oxymoronic.
Slavoj Žižek argues in “The Perverts Guide to Ideology” that atheists are more religious today than most Christians; Marc Maron in “Thinky Pain” claims it is insufferable to dine with vegans because they are so self-righteous. Meditation is one of myriad tools of sundry religious and spiritual traditions, but detached from the wider teachings it is not the panacea that some self-righteous teachers portray it to be.
And if someone citing Žižek and Marc Maron (shucks, I left out Marcuse!) in the same sentence didn’t make you laugh, then please check out my Instagram page!
3. Your meditation teacher talks about neuro-plasticity and prefrontal cortexes and corpus callosums as if he or she is a seasoned brain surgeon (note: I adore and admire Rick Hanson but I don’t agree with him). The next time your meditation teacher starts prattling on about neurons and synapses just raise your hand and say, “Show me. Please point to the neurons that fire when you meditate.”
As I have stated before, HUMAN BEINGS WILL NEVER HAVE DIRECT INTROSPECTION INTO THEIR OWN BRAIN STATES.
Let me repeat that, please: HUMAN BEINGS WILL NEVER HAVE DIRECT INTROSPECTION INTO THEIR OWN BRAIN STATES.
For example, at no time will a human being utter, “Synapses 936,337 and 85,306 just fired; I’d better take an aspirin.”
To the best of my knowledge, there are no studies unequivocally proving (holding all other variables constant) that meditation CAUSES specific neurons to fire; there are studies using MRI machines that show CORRELATIONS, but just because two things occur at the same time does not necessitate CAUSATION.
I have been in classes where teachers talk about some omniscient “They” but never cite actual scientific studies; instead the teachers use vague and unsubstantiated phrases such as, “We know neurons fire! And we know what the pre-frontal cortex does!” to inadvertently construct false syllogisms such as, “So meditation is SCIENTIFICALLY PROVEN!!!”
Trying to determine the efficacy of meditation with an MRI machine is like trying to measure milk with a ruler.
Any neurologist will tell you that neurologists have only speculations regarding how the brain functions. The brain is the hardware; the mind is the software. Meditation works on the mind, the brain’s operating system. But I guess if you are one of the world’s leading meditation teachers then you know more about neurology than the entire scientific community.
4. Your meditation teacher has a publicist. No explanation needed.
5. Your meditation teacher teaches a fabricated “style” (i.e. brand) of meditation with no clear lineage. There are two dominant threads of meditation prevalent in America today: 1. Hindu and 2. Buddhist. The Hindu lineage is primarily theistic; the Buddhist lineage is primarily atheistic. There is no distinction between the type of meditations that monks and “householders” practice. And just FYI, the majority of Buddhists do not meditate. From what I studied in graduate school, meditation and/or yoga during the Vedic period consisted of men gathered around a fire screaming the name(s) of God. Meditation did not become a seated practice until the Upanishads. So if anyone tells you that they are teaching “Vedic” meditation just ask him, “Oh, then I guess you wouldn’t mind reciting the Vedas for me?“
Intellectuals are specialists in generalizations, so here is how I would simplify it: the Hindu lineage uses meditation as well as yoga to enable practitioners to (temporarily) transcend their minds and “realize” their inner divinity; I put “realize” in quotation marks because it is not a cognitive (language based) phenomenon; it is an extra-linguistic somatic experience. The Buddha was born a Brahmin (Hindu) but after his journey to determine the origins of suffering concluded that there was no self to transcend nor a divine to transcend to; thus, mindfulness meditation is best explained as exercising the mind as if it were a muscle so that you strengthen and tame it so that it does not endlessly drag you through the mire seeing as it has a negativity bias (the vast majority of thoughts are redundant and negative). My favorite teachers provide a range of meditative practices to meet the students in their own theistic or atheistic paradigms.
And for one last chuckle… check out the eight different types of meditation I teach on my new app Meditation Made Easy!
Well, I hope this helps novices discern sooner rather than later if their meditation teacher is a huckster with well-lighted, airbrushed headshots or the real deal: because an authentic teacher will quickly identify himself or herself as a monk/nun or former monk/nun from a particular lineage; or, like Fred Luskin, David Richo, Ron Alexander, Donald Altman, Mariana Caplan, me, and the aforementioned doctors, will identify himself as a psychologist or psychotherapist or physician who is teaching tools to help people transcend or tame their mental chatter and thus alleviate suffering (anxiety, depression, etc.) and help move them down their individual paths of personal growth.