I Wasted Years Using Meditation As Escapism. Then I Learned To Engage

meditation and escapism

As a meditation teacher who has been meditating for more than twenty years, it’s fair to say that I’ve learned a great deal about the practice. I’ve learned what does and doesn’t work. I’ve learned the pitfalls that hold people back from progressing in meditation. And I’ve learned one of most fundamental mistakes people make. It’s a mistake I myself made for more than five years. That mistake is Using mindfulness and meditation as escapism.

It’s a mistake that is all too easy to make. Inevitably we all go through suffering, as Buddha said. We all face stress, anxiety, worries… Indeed, right now, as I write this, two of my closest friends are in hospital, and I am most certainly worried. At times like this, it can be all too easy to turn to meditation as a form of avoidance, closing your eyes and pretending that reality doesn’t exist so you don’t have to face the challenges. And if you’re not careful, this can become a way of life. That’s precisely what happened to me.

My Experience Using Meditation As Escapism

About fifteen years ago I made the decision to emigrate from England to Canada to be with the woman I love. Before I left, I had in mind the idea of a fairytale voyage across the Atlantic, imagining that everything would be perfect and easy. That didn’t happen. Leaving my family and beginning a new life in a new country was in fact extremely stressful for me. And, as an avid meditator, I turned to my meditation practice for help. I meditated for hours every day under the pretense that I was “seeking enlightenment”, all the while refusing to face reality. Meditation took over my life. The more I meditated, the further I escaped from reality. But the further I escaped from reality, the worse my reality became as I neglected my needs and responsibilities.

This charade of “meditating in the search of enlightenment” caused me to spend five whole years of my life disengaged from my real-world situation. As I ignored reality, reality got worse. As reality got worse, I felt more and more reliant on meditation as a way to escape from everything… it became a vicious cycle.

Eventually, I did learn to stop escaping. I made fundamental changes in the way I meditate. Indeed, today I meditate specifically to help myself to engage with life in meaningful ways. And through my private meditation sessions, I help others to do precisely the same thing. But perhaps you are not in a position to be able to take private lessons. And that’s why I’d like to share my insights here.

So, let’s look at the relationship between meditation and escapism, and the steps we can take to make sure that we use meditation to engage with life rather than escaping from it.

Are Mindfulness And Meditation Escapism?

Mindfulness and meditation can sometimes be a form of escapism if you choose to use them to disengage from challenges in your life, rather than as a means for self-awareness, self-regulation, and personal growth.

If you’re using meditation as escapism, you might notice these signs:

  • Avoidance: Using meditation to avoid facing difficult emotions or situations.
  • Disengagement: Disengaging from different aspects of your life, especially challenging aspects
  • Emotional Suppression: Using meditation to prevent yourself from experiencing emotions
  • Lack of integration: Learning lessons and gaining insight from meditation but not using those insights in the real world.

Why We Escape And Why We Shouldn’t

The temptation to escape stems from the desire to avoid pain. It’s something most of us can identify with, because, of course, we have all been through pain. For instance, let’s say that someone we love passes away. We know that we have a painful road ahead of us as we will have to overcome grief and other complicated emotions, but we become overwhelmed and shut down emotionally. Or perhaps we are facing divorce and the idea of filling out the paperwork and perhaps moving out seems too much to bear. At these times, we are likely to be tempted to turn away from reality and to escape, such as by sitting on the floor for hours on end every day meditating instead of actually doing what has to be done.

The problem with escapism is both practical and psychological. On the one hand, escapism prevents us from taking necessary steps to overcome challenges so that we can move forward in life. Neglecting these challenges can often make them worse as well, for instance refusing to accept that loan you took out and thereby not paying it will only make your debt increase as the interest racks up. As for the psychological side, avoiding challenging emotions tends to make things worse, so if you fail to face a painful emotion when it happens, it will steadily grow inside you, becoming worse and worse.

Instead of Escaping, ENGAGE

We have the choice of using meditation to escape or to engage with life. Escaping will only ever make our situation worse as we fail to meet our needs and responsibilities. Engaging, on the other hand, means living life with purpose, accepting whatever comes along, and working with painful emotions rather than running away from them.

Some ways to stop escaping and start engaging include:

Identify your personal values: To live a life of value, you first need to decide what values matter to you. Get a pen and paper and write three personal values that matter to you and why. Examples of personal values include: Compassion, Spirituality, Family, Authenticity, and Environmental Consciousness.

Set meaningful goals: Now write a list of goals that relate to the personal values you wrote down above. For instance, if one of your personal values is family perhaps a goal could be to spend X amount of quality time with a certain member of your family each week. Make your goals challenging but achievable.

Embrace challenges: Instead of escaping from challenges, see them as an opportunity for personal growth, and create a plan to overcome the challenge.

Practice gratitude: Instead of focusing on what you don’t have, practice gratitude for what you do have.

Be mindful of escapism: Look for times when you are escaping and find ways to engage instead. Simply being aware of escapist behavior will help you to change it.

Meditate like this: There is a specific way to use meditation to engage rather than escape. I’ll discuss this below.

Using Meditation To Engage, Not Escape

In my private meditation lessons I often work with clients who have unintentionally been using meditation as escapism, and I help them to reengage with life by making key changes to their meditation practice. I’d like to share one of my main tips for doing this.

At the end of each day, write a journal entry (or just make a note) of the most challenging thoughts and emotions that you faced during that day and the real-world situation that they regard. For instance, maybe you had a bad argument with your spouse and so the challenging emotion here would likely be anger and the situation would be arguing with your spouse. Or you have a big presentation coming up at work and you’re very nervous about it. In this instance, you would write in your journal Anxiety about work presentation.

Now, you want to use your meditation session the next day to help you to face the challenge you wrote down in your journal. For example, if your challenge was anger/arguing you might like to practice compassion (Loving Kindness). Or if your challenge is Anxiety/Work Presentation you might like to do Mindful Breathing (to reduce anxiety) combined with a visualization of the presentation going well. Basically, you are using your meditation practice to remedy the challenge that you wrote down in your journal.

Please note that doing this does require good knowledge of the different meditation techniques and their effects. You can do this working with me in my meditation therapy sessions, and I have also created a free resource on this site that shows you all the different meditation techniques and their effects (see our main menu).


Final Thoughts

We can use meditation for escapism or to engage with life, and of course, to make the most of life, we want to engage. The biggest problem, and my concern, is that it is all too easy to unintentionally use meditation for escapism, and this can have serious detrimental effects. It happened to me. And as a meditation teacher, I know that it has happened to many other people too. Thankfully, we have the volition to change our meditation practice and to start using meditation to engage. Making that switch can be the biggest step to finding success and contentment, and purpose through meditation.


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By Paul Harrison

Paul Harrison BSc is a qualified meditation teacher who believes in genuine, authentic meditation. He has more than 15 years experience in teaching meditation and mindfulness both to individuals and to corporations.

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