The Dark Side of Meditation

Anders Breivik in court via the

Meditation should make you a better person right? Calmer, kinder, more empathetic?

Well, maybe not.

Today at his trial, according to observers, Anders Breivik claimed to be a daily meditator.

Breivik says he meditates “every single day” in order to be “desensitised, blunted”. Started in 2006. (via here)

I haven’t the time for a thorough discussion of this point here and now, but it’s worth noting that meditation isn’t exclusively ‘Buddhist’, nor does it necessarily have positive moral effects (or so it would seem here). What type, and (more importantly) what ethical practices (sila) and understanding/wisdom (panna) accompany meditation are far more important than how often you ‘sit’ – or that you sit at all.

It has been said enough times to go unsaid, but Buddhism and so much of Eastern wisdom and practice has been ‘boiled down’ in the West to meditation in the name of getting rid of unwanted cultural accretions…

Careful, folks.

Maybe those medieval, unsophisticated, etc etc cultural accretions are important.

Let’s just hope Breivik doesn’t claim to be an all-out Buddhist tomorrow.

  • arunlikhati

    Thanks for sharing this! Wow/yuck/:-O!

  • Doug

    I think too often in Buddhist practice meditation is described as a direct vision into reality, when in fact if properly done it is shot through with very substantial moral and philosophical claims. These claims are then reflected in the practice, in such supposed ‘direct vision’ of things like past lives, or other supramundane abilities, as well as a buildup of moral wisdom. Without those claims lurking in the background, meditation can show one anything, or nothing.

    And among many Western Buddhists is too quick a notion that meditation is (or has been shown to be) beneficial, full stop. Meditation is a great practice if done properly, but that’s not saying the same thing.

    All shows how readily the human mind deludes itself.

  • Ashin Sopaka

    the results of Wrong Effort, Wrong Mindfulness and Wrong Concentration (miccha vayamo, miccha sati, miccha samadhi)

  • Algernon

    They say the devil can quote scripture, and Mara can claim to meditate daily. But what kind of meditation is this? I’m not of a view that meditation “makes” you “good” in any case. I’m probably just restating your point here: without sila, this is not a realization of Buddhism.

  • Ani Chime

    In Tibetan Buddhism we say that intention is everything. Bodhichita the mind of compassion and generosity or Bodhisattva mind is necessary to engage in any kind of meditation. Some times the Lamas go on and on about this issue. Many times we think oh! is that necessary? Here is the answer.

    • David Musgrove

      I’m not sure there’s any lesson in the actions of this madman. The doomsday cult Aum Shinri Kyo, David Koresh and the Branch Davidians, Applewhite and the Heaven’s Gate cult; all were insane and used known ‘spiritual’ methods.

      In any case, Anders Breivik used meditation specifically to inoculate himself against reluctance to kill. Nevertheless, from his own testimony, he heard hundreds of voices in his head telling him to stop.

      It seems to me a far stretch to compare lunatics who use meditation for maniacal purposes to a normal person using meditation alone. Apples and oranges, I say.

      Be well.

    • mickey

      As Ani Chime says, intention is everything, and if this man has wrong intention, acts upon it, rejoices in it, encourages others to do it . . . ouch, the zillions of years in the miserable realms . . . yet he may have a small experience in this lifetime of some clarity and/or calm.

  • Elena

    Anything that a person concentrates (meditates) on will grow stronger… if a person concentrates (meditates) on something horrible/hateful, they will water the seeds of that thing, and it will grow. Anyone who understands meditation/awareness would realize that simply to say “I meditated on it” would not implicate the act of meditation, but rather the meditator.

  • Kyle

    I’ve spent too long trying to find some solid articles to cite on this in vain, but I recall hearing that the highest ranking Nazis often sat in silent contemplation for hours on end. As a daily sitter myself, I can see how it would be a useful practice on either side of the isle, as it were, of the good and the bad. Focus is focus, and meditation provides the optimum environment for it. I feel strongly that intent is the linchpin.

  • Suzi O’Dell

    Helen, he could clam it, that wouldn’t make it true.

  • Lynette Genju Monteiro

    Tragic but it solidifies the point that ethics must be part of any Mindfulness-Based intervention. Perhaps the worst thing about the distillation of Buddhist practice into this aspect of Western psychotherapy is that sila is assumed to be an emergent property of practice.

  • Jake

    We are the jedi and he is the sith…. nuff said. I am also here for my lightsaber.

  • Jeff

    “It has been said enough times to go unsaid, but Buddhism and so much of Eastern wisdom and practice has been ‘boiled down’ in the West to meditation _in the name of getting rid of unwanted cultural accretions”.

    lol. Really? You’re that sure that’s the reason? You’re old enough and experienced enough to make such a far-reaching statement? You have extensive experience within all the substantial and formal traditional Buddhist organizations, lineages, and teachers that are doing the vast majority of Buddhist teaching in the West…that enables you to second guess the wisdom of their strategy and efforts? You know better than all of them what the right and proper way is to introduce Buddhism to the Western mind and Western civilization? Pardon my assumption, but I doubt it. Perhaps you should check in with your teacher, if you have one. If you’ve ever had one. I’d also you do some googling about Right Speech.

    Careful folks, there’s a whole lot of Internet Buddhists offering their opinions about how Buddhist training _should_ be operating in the West…but all too often their opinions simply mirror what they _personally_ don’t like or would prefer – preference. This/Not That reactive behavior. Grabbing at and pushing away. Internet Buddhist defined: Reads, Thinks, Conceptualizes a lot _about_ Buddhism, but rarely has any formal training or extensive teacher-supported consistent practice. In other words, they read stuff online, they think they know better in the absence of traditional training with a traditional established teacher, they make stuff up, and then think they know enough to assume an “expert” role, dispensing wisdom as if they were an accomplished and realized, highly trained teacher. My traditionally trained teachers, affiliated with lineages established many centuries ago, rigorously train for 16 years before assuming the role of teacher. Before you take seriously any critique of Buddhism in the West, be sure to inquire re: the critic’s formal Buddhist training credentials.

    • Jan Peter Otto

      But Jeff, what if you 16 years of rigorous training is a feudal structure, dogmatic training into old concepts, only relevant to the religious historian? What if your being so impressed by old systems and the old authoritarian guru-models, is your personal need right now? I say it is ok to have that need. Do your training as long as you can muster it. But this is the moment when Breivik and other rigorous persons kill young kids interested in social democracy.

    • JMS

      Well said. Right Speech and Right View are so overlooked. The Buddha gave specific teachings on all this. Internet Discussion forums should paraphrase what the Buddha said regarding how to skillfully discuss and issue and to be mindful of our view. The Nikayas show the Buddha taught good manners just as he did jhana or mental absorption. Morals and Ethics. That’s where it all starts, right?

  • Was Once

    We often get “hooked” by the extremes in the ‘NEWS,’ feeding the same fire of delusions of how things should be.
    I am trying to watch the personal I, doing this to claim some position that feels “right” to me furthering suffering.
    It just is.

  • Justin Whitaker

    Thanks for all of the wonderful comments, everyone. I’ll just touch on a couple points. In response to David Musgrove, I think of the problem more in terms of a spectrum than apples and oranges. He used meditation to sharpen his hatred, while others -lacking moral grounding and understanding- can sharpen their own aversions, greed, and/or delusions. Perhaps we could think of Breivik as something similar to a modern-day Angulimala or Milarepa (but without the second half of the story; so perhaps Devadatta is a better one)…

    Jeff, it seems that I touched a nerve with that statement, but perhaps (probably) you are reading more into it than is actually there.

  • JMS

    I heard somebody say most Eastern dharma practitioners do not even have a word for meditation. Sitting practice may be more appropriate. Buddhist is a western term too, correct? We are not ‘ist. (Reminds me of a old Shambala Sun article talking about identifying the ‘wego’) We just follow the dharma. Most western meditation exercise are a far aspirational cry from true sitting practice as taught by the Buddha or a teacher who can truly teach the dharma. Thats ok, I guess. However, I think all practitioners need to be aware of practicing on an aspirational level vs true sitting practice.

    It is interesting how the media is picking on ‘Buddhist’ this year. Whats the agenda?

  • The One You Feed

    There isn’t any discussion that I can see that discusses what sort of meditation he does. Meditation can mean a lot of things to a lot of people. It doesn’t say, that I can see, that he was doing mindfullness, zazen, or any other approach. Some people consider repeating the words of a text over and over as meditation. If you are meditating on hate you will get hate. There are a thousand things that this guy did that you could point to and say those things have a “dark side”.