Meditation for Type A personality, and people who are driven or obsessive-compulsive, might seem like a bridge too far. They might like the idea of the rewards of meditation, but they often find the process itself discouraging or even off-putting for a number of reasons. It might feel foreign to their nature and even contradictory to their principles.
These hesitancies are all understandable, but…still….They don’t have to get in the way of the benefits of meditation.
So, I’ve brought in my good friend George Chen, a long-time meditator and meditation teacher, to walk us through how people with Type A and compulsive personalities can can find their way into meditation.
Thanks for agreeing to help out, George.
It’s a privilege, Gary.
How did you come to be a meditation teacher? What inspired you?
I came from a mixed race family — Chinese and Greek — at a time when such marriages were still technically illegal in something like 17 states. This generated tension in my family, and an identity crisis in myself. My mother was spiritually inclined, and my father cool and cerebral. But both could also be very hotheaded and argumentative. I inherited an ample dose of all of these traits, and like many children, I’ve tried to reconcile my parents’ differences in my own life. It was mostly the desire to eliminate the hotheadedness that led me, through many twists and turns — notably martial arts and the teachings of Meher Baba — to study several forms of meditation from Hindu, Taoist and Buddhist sources.
In 2011 I started my own company, teaching mindfulness to students in public and private schools, from pre-K through college, as well as in prisons, companies, and to private clients. In 1998 I also founded a Buddhist sangha that meets weekly, and I host two weekly secular public meditation groups on Zoom, one in French on Mondays, and the other in English on Thursdays.
Religion and Meditation?
You mentioned a number of religions there. Do you need to be spiritual or religious to get the benefits of meditation?
Absolutely not. Dr. Herbert Benson, back in the early 70’s, showed that you could take the Transcendental Meditation technique out of its Hindu context, replace the Sanskrit-based mantras with comforting words or prayers from a patient’s own background, and achieve the same physiological effects as were observed in TM.
For several decades, Dr. Jon Kabbat-Zinn of UMass-Amherst has been doing pretty much the same thing for Buddhist meditation — teaching Buddhist mindfulness techniques to patients with serious illnesses without any Buddhist content at all. His system, Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction or MBSR, is highly respected and has become a standard of the so-called mindfulness movement. Today there are all kinds of smartphone apps, magazines, podcasts, video channels and books based on the idea of getting the benefits of meditation without the religious trappings. I’m completely okay with that, and in fact, when teaching mindfulness in public schools, I’ve been explicitly forbidden from mentioning any religious connection.
All of that said, there is definitely, in my experience, something to be gained from studying the cosmologies and belief systems that have coevolved with meditation practices over thousands of years. For one thing, they contain deep insights that help us to put the entire enterprise of meditation into perspective. But even if you have no interest in religion or spirituality, as long as a meditator is open to the insights that come with greater stillness, and is willing to use them to challenge old assumptions, then I believe that he or she can get the same kind of transformation that a religious meditator gets, whether we want to label such benefits religious or spiritual or something else. For me, the labels don’t matter, but the willingness to work with insight and allow it to challenge one’s assumptions does.
Yes, sometimes it seems that the religious origins of meditation can make people feel that it’s an instrument of control, something they are supposed to do rather than something they might reap benefits from.
Yes, I can certainly relate to that. However, I actually believe that the origins of meditation go far back into prehistory and have more to do with the need for rest in a stressful environment than with religious ideas. I do something with my students that I call Proto Meditation, which stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system and triggers a deep relaxation response. I believe that early sapiens, who were keenly observant about other species, knew their own characteristics at least as well, and could have developed similar methodologies. My sense is that the religious dimension of meditation appeared later as a follow-on effect.
Is meditation something that we need to try hard to succeed at?
There is an effortlessness that is accessible through meditation, and even beginners can experience it. But stabilizing that experience within our field of awareness, so that we can find it easily and consistently, takes effort and practice, like playing the piano or shooting hoops or anything else. In the popular conception of meditation, the ideal of effortlessness is often conflated with the meditation learning process, making some people believe that any mention of effort is somehow incompatible with meditation practice. That is a misunderstanding. The truth is that effort is indeed required, but “hard” effort, as in stress and strain, is counterproductive. There is such a thing as “Right Effort,” which balances what it takes to master this skill with an attitude of nonjudgmental care and lovingkindness that neutralizes harsh judgment and opens us up to a deeper and more compassionate encounter with ourselves. That, in turn, leads to lasting transformation.
So, if I’m following you, meditation for Type A personality can use their energy and determination, as long as it doesn’t come along with judgment or stress.
That’s it precisely! But judgment is a habit that diminishes very gradually, so when it comes up in meditation, as it certainly will, remember not to judge the judgment!
Goals in Meditation
Most people with Type A personality are very goal-oriented. Is there such a thing as success in meditation? What’s the point of meditating?
There are literally thousands of varieties of meditation, and many different definitions of “success.” It all depends on what your goals are. For a community that is challenged by compulsions and self-judgment, where people are wound up pretty tight, perhaps taking some of the hard edge off of life, going a little easier on ourselves, lightening up a bit so that we free up some bandwidth to really enjoy the beauty and interconnectedness of life — these are worthwhile and achievable goals. And of course, this kind of destressing brings with it a cascade of concrete benefits that have been well documented for decades. This includes improvements in attention span, memory, executive function, self control, mood regulation, sleep, immune response, blood pressure, creativity, empathy, brain longevity and many other factors.
It sounds like you’re saying that we can each, individually, define our goal in meditation, it’s not some creed we need to conform to.
Exactly. Meditation is only as relevant to your life as it is responsive to your needs.
Perfectionism in Meditation
Many people with Type A personalities have perfectionistic tendencies, and they can get frustrated that they can’t meditate “well,” much less “perfectly.” They often can’t concentrate or focus because they feel the need to fix or control anything that’s not unresolved. Any suggestions?
One thing that compulsively inclined people can do is to invest their perfectionism in what I call “getting your reps in.” One “rep” of meditation consists of focusing on an object such as your breath; drifting away, as your mind inevitably will; recognizing that you drifted, and returning to the object. When you do this over and over again, you strengthen your concentration, and ground yourself more solidly in the present moment. The more grounded you are, the less power addictions and compulsions have over you.
If you’re training for the high jump, you don’t expect to clear the world record of eight feet, one quarter inch on your first try. Your criterion of “correct” practice is first of all just showing up for practice every day, and embracing the challenge. You follow your coach’s instructions about breaking down and visualizing every part of the performance task. And you take stock, every day, of where you stand by jumping as high as you can, over and over again, and measuring the results. This is “getting your reps in.” There’s lots of detail here for compulsive-type people to pay minute attention to.
So in that way, it’s just like playing a musical instrument. We need to practice to get closer to the ideal of what we want to sound like.
Yes, and the primary melody we’re playing is mindfulness — the ability to just “be with” something you’re observing in the present moment, without judgment. As beginners, we develop this capacity by focusing on different objects in the outer environment, such as sounds, and the inner environment, such as body sensations, in an orderly and intentional way. In just a few weeks, this kind of practice produces physical changes in the brain that enable the meditator to focus on more difficult objects of attention, such as frustration.
We do this by using what I call “particularization” — experiencing a troublesome emotion such as frustration as a physical sensation, rather than as a story you tell yourself about “why” you’re frustrated. When you “particularize” the physical experience — that is, observe it and describe it in detail to yourself — it takes you out of the story and returns you to the present moment, where you actually have more control. This skill can bring a lot of relief, but you need to develop mindfulness first, so it’s a learning curve.
It sounds like you’re suggesting that we think in terms of small achievements that are “good enough” rather than black and white, perfectionistic thinking. Is that correct?
Yes. One of the critical choke points of meditation practice is the first six weeks or so, when it’s so easy to give up because it literally feels like nothing is happening. Just the small achievement of “showing up” for a few minutes twice a day eventually produces profound benefits. But paradoxically, you need to ease up on judging your meditation to be able to hang in there long enough to enjoy meditation. It’s like the old Chinese saying, “Eat bitter; taste sweet.”
Compulsives also have a tendency to want to control their mind. Is meditating a form of controlling the mind, or of not controlling it?
Meditation is a way of training the mind, which is different than control. I always tell my students, “There is no off button to the mind.” Whether you like it or not, it will continue to produce thoughts, just as your kidneys secrete urine and your liver secretes bile. The problem with thoughts lies in the importance we give them, not in the thoughts themselves. Thoughts are like bubbles in a glass of club soda, but we treat them as sacred idols to be followed and obeyed. In meditation, we develop the capacity to observe thoughts as they come and go without reacting or chasing them down every rabbit hole. Once you just let the thoughts be there without interacting with them, the mind settles down by itself. Eventually, it becomes like a cool, still lake that reflects your situation with perfect clarity, unclouded by emotion.
You and I have spoken a little bit about wuwei—the Taoist concept of non-doing, or aimlessness. How do you reconcile that with the very deliberate attempt we make when we take time to meditate? Perfectionists might feel like they would be lowering their standards to be accepting and aimless. Is it really aimless to meditate?
When you first learn to eat with chopsticks, your hand cramps up and it takes a lot of effort to get a bite of food to your mouth. It’s natural at this point to just give up and go back to using a fork. But if you persist, within a few weeks you learn to use the chopsticks effortlessly. They become an extension of your body, just as natural as eating with your fingers, and you don’t have to think twice about it. Wuwei is like that. This goes back to what I said before about confusing an ideal of meditation with the process of learning the skill of meditation. It takes effort to learn something new, not because struggle is needed to get the actual task done, but because in the end, the struggle helps us to identify and locate our tension and let it go. That’s when we realize effortlessness. In reality, there’s no contradiction. Both the effort and the effortlessness are two sides of the same continuum.
That’s helpful. If it doesn’t feel effortless at first, that’s no reason to give up. It will become effortless.
Absolutely. And on its way to becoming effortless, it will get easier and easier, until it’s something you really look forward to.
Losing the Intent; Rules?
Compulsives are known for losing the original intention of plans. They get caught up in the rules of doing it just right. Are there rules for meditating that might get in the way of their experience?
My first rule of meditation is total acceptance, and if you get it, then nothing can hinder you. You accept everything that arises in meditation, without judgment and without exception. Now, learning to work with these thoughts, feelings, perceptions and body sensations skillfully, so that in spite of it all you keep making progress in the direction of stillness and peace, that’s what comes with practice. Perfectionism is a kind of energy. You learn to recognize it, name it, and work with it. When it tries to assert itself by claiming your attention when your attention is already engaged elsewhere, there are many, many techniques and strategies to train the mind to stay on track. The more you practice, the stronger your focus becomes. The only requirement is gentle persistence.
Ah, perhaps the snake needs to bite its tail here….the idea being that we might use the energy of perfectionism in the service of becoming “perfectly accepting.”
How to Start
Meditation theoretically might help Type A and overachieving people to relax, and let go. But it seems like they actually need that skill of being able to relax to be able to meditate. How can you start if you don’t have those skills to start?
Everyone can relax to some degree. If I ask you to make a tight fist, and then release it, you will feel that relaxation all the way up your arm. When you do, you’re using the sense of interoception, the ability to feel what’s going on inside your body. In meditation practice, we develop interoception to a high degree through various techniques such as progressive relaxation and body scans. Over time, this gives you more and more ability to identify and let go of tension. Relaxation is both an art and a way of life. We master it only to the extent that we make it a priority. Given that as much as ninety percent of all disease is stress-related, we should all be motivated to study and practice the art of letting go. Meditation is an ideal way of doing that.
Sitting or Walking Meditation?
We’ve been talking about sitting meditation so far. Can people start with walking meditation or other forms instead?
Yes. Anything you do, whether seated or in motion, can be a meditation. When Oprah asked the Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, “Do you meditate every day?” he responded, “Not only every day, but every moment.” What he meant is that if we bring the energy of mindfulness to any action, that action becomes, in effect, a meditation. Ideally, we want to merge our meditation practice with daily life so that they become a seamless whole.
Walking meditation is an excellent way to approach this. Of course, you can take a casual stroll mindfully, and that’s far better than just vegetating in front of the TV or computer. But walking meditation as a formal technique is just as intentional as sitting meditation. Put time aside to do it. Turn off the phone. Be someplace where you can be alone, or with others who are doing it with you. Take one step and one inbreath, one step and one outbreath at a time. Notice how the heel makes contact with the ground, then the arch, then the balls of the feet, and finally the toes. Be very deliberate. In the same vein, tai chi is also an excellent way of integrating meditation into movement.
Metrics and Meditation
Compulsives can get really captivated by counting and measuring. Do you think it would be helpful to count the days they have meditated, the way the app Insight Timer does? Or how much they have meditated?
Yes! This relates to my earlier point that we don’t need to struggle against perfectionism, but simply to align that energy in a way that supports our meditation practice. The same can be said about counting and measuring. In meditation, there are many techniques that involve counting breaths, and counting meditation sessions and days of consistent practice are extensions of that. The principle is to co-opt the habit and align it with your highest intention rather than resisting it.
George, we’re in such agreement here! It sounds like you’ve been reading my book, but I think you knew this stuff already!
I’m not surprised, Gary. You’re a long-time meditator with deep understanding, so your insights are informed by both science and meditation. It’s great when the two reinforce and confirm each other!
When Meditation Causes Anxiety
This final question is not just for compulsives…I’ve run into a few clients who tell me that it actually makes them anxious to meditate. There might be something about it that makes them feel too vulnerable. Any suggestions for people who have that experience?
I’d be interested in knowing if these clients have trouble sleeping. Sometimes “meditation anxiety” is not necessarily specific to meditation, but rather an across-the-board reaction to any kind of quieting down. As a younger man I was responsible for negotiating multi-million dollar contracts. I was required to take negotiation trainings every year. One of the first things we learned in those trainings is that silence is intimidating. If you’re at an impasse in a negotiation, and just stop talking, the other party will often make a concession just to break the silence. So discomfort with silence is a well-known phenomenon, and meditation leads us to a deeper silence than most people are used to. So it’s natural that some people will feel uneasy about it.
Like many kinds of fear, the fear of silence and stillness can be overcome by progressive exposure. Start with short periods — five to ten minutes is enough. Use mindfulness exercises with plenty of little placeholder tasks like listening to sounds and feeling body sensations. If we can learn to be happy and at ease just sitting quietly with ourselves for a few minutes, that will already have a profound impact on physical and mental wellbeing. Making friends with silence is really reconciling with yourself.
My Buddhist teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, often said, “People are afraid to come home to themselves, because there’s a war going on at home.” For years, we have covered up our anxieties and unreconciled emotions with electronic and sensory overstimulation. A big part of the way our society uses stimulation is as an avoidance mechanism. So helping people to overcome their fear of stillness and silence is, in a very literal way, helping to heal the wounds of our society. For people who are afflicted with this fear, it may be empowering to remember that in healing themselves, they can bring healing to the world.
Interesting, so meditation is not just a selfish project.
Definitely not! In meditation we develop the insight of interconnectedness, which softens our egos and helps us see that what we do for others, we do for ourselves, and vice versa.
Thanks for sharing your experience as a teacher with us George.
Thanks to you and your community for having me, Gary.
George Chen’s Biography
George Chen has been practicing mind-body and life skills including meditation, tai chi and chi kung, for over half a century. With an academic background in journalism, George spent twenty years in the corporate world, where he was a director at a Fortune-500 company. Concurrently, he pursued a passion for spirituality and meditation, attending annual meditation retreats with his family for many years, and traveling to India several times. Since 1991, George has been teaching in diverse settings including universities, community colleges, public and private schools, businesses and prisons. He also works with private clients and online groups with students from the U.S., Canada, the Caribbean and Europe. George and his wife Sunny live in lower Westchester, NY. They have two grown children.
For further information contact George at email@example.com, or call 914 337-6388.