Why come to class?

Recently someone asked me what the advantages of a meditation class were as compared to self-teaching. For a lot of people, the first introduction to meditation is through books, and the jump to working with a teacher and a class may not seem worth taking. Why learn from some random person at a community centre when you can get advice directly from the Dalai Lama in a book? It’s a legitimate question.

I came up with 10 answers. The first three have to do with access to a live teacher:

1. Access to a teacher means you can ask specific questions when you need to. It’s one thing to read a book, where an author has tried to anticipate your information needs; quite another to have a live person to talk to and get clarification when you need it.

2. A good teacher will spot if you’ve got something wrong.

3. Live encouragement from a teacher works better than printed encouragement from an author (or no encouragement at all).

The next three have to do with access to the others in the class:

4. Being able to meet and work with others who are in the same boat, more or less, gives a sense of support and connection. At the very least you can see that your own feelings and fears are not necessarily unique.

5. Sometimes other people in the class ask questions you didn’t know you wanted to know.

6. Practising in a group has a deepening effect on meditation…there is a kind of resonance achieved by meditating with others that you can then take back to your own personal practice. People tend to sit longer and go deeper in a group.

And the next 4 have to do with the structure of a class itself:

7. Going to a new place and meeting new people challenges some of the old habits and patterns that may hold us back.

8. Going out of your way to show up to class, even when you don’t feel like it, is a way of reifying your commitment to your meditation practice.

9. Knowing you’re going to meet with a teacher and colleagues at the end of the week helps support the discipline of a daily meditation practice.

10. The structure of the course draws you through the learning at an even pace (rather than a burst of learning over a couple of days that is never reinforced, or losing momentum after page 23 in a book).

There are probably a lot more reasons, but 10 is a nice round number.

Overall, self-teaching should be taking place at all times, regardless of whether you’re in a class, reading a book, or working one-on-one with a teacher. You are in charge of your meditation practice, there’s no excuse for bailing out of the driver’s seat and handing your practice over to somebody else, or a group, or an ideology.


Update: I posed this same question to some students who came up with a few responses of their own:

A good teacher will have insights into those aspects of your character that are part of your pattern and be able to create and help you to examine and start to unravel the threads and break down the pattern.

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The class meditation session is often a different experience from daily practice; the class energy can be buoying and reinforcing.

Going to class with a good teacher and practicing peers can provide a helpful reality check.
I know that it is possible to get off track with my practice, and the periodic classes are needed to redirect my efforts.

There is also the not insignificant point of meeting people and making great friends.

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* often someone will say something that makes several bits of information click. If you read the same material a zillion time, the words will never change to make you have that click
* a teacher re-directs you back onto the path
* a teacher customized the learning experience based on your needs
* a book can not offer pointing-out instructions!
* the path is long and lonely without sangha!
* recently I met with someone here in Montreal who was working their way through chapter 4 on their own. They felt they’d mastered the material (after a few breakdowns) and were very ready to move on to the next section, but it became apparent quickly that they had completely missed the points of the meditations/exercises! You must walk with someone who has already walked the path.
* sangha provides you with experiences you may not be feeling, or that might strike a cord in you.
* you learn sooooooo much faster with a teacher!

Eastern Robes for Westerners?

When Buddha started ordaining his followers, they wore simple robes and shaved their heads in order to symbolize letting go of their previous social ties and castes. A Brahmin and a lowly untouchable joining his community would, in theory, have the same robes and outward appearance. This was a revolutionary step when caste differences were more powerful than anything that has ever existed in Europe or America.

So the robe originally meant, “I’m nothing special, no better or worse than the others.” The construction of the robe was simple and practical, for the time and place, and has been adapted and used by Buddhist monastics ever since. In Tibet, the robes are wool instead of cotton. Most monks wear the upper robe over their left shoulder, leaving the right arm free for writing, picking things up, etc.

Here in the West, today, the robe can mean different things. One of my teachers, Catherine Jetsun Yeshe, always wears an upper robe when she teaches. I also have a dear friend who was given a robe by his teacher (also a Westerner) and told to wear it whenever he meditates. It was important to him to honour that instruction, so he does. I think in these cases the robe is a way of signalling a change in how the wearer relates to the world.

Nevertheless the adoption of Eastern monastic dress by Westerners raises many interesting questions about cross-cultural identity, institutions, and the function of monastic garb in the process of waking up. Seeing a Western person wearing robes gives me a completely different impression from that given by a Tibetan. I often have the impression that they are trying to become somebody else, whereas Tibetans seem to me to be completely at ease in robes. At least part of this is simple prejudice, coming from my own patterns.

For the most part I find that recreating setting and dress for Tibetan practices by wearing monastic robes, constructing elaborate shrines, chanting in Tibetan, etc., is not particularly helpful for most Western people. For me, and for the people I work with, plain English and ripped jeans in a community centre seem to create less confusion.

Meditate? Why on earth?

Lots of people write me saying that they don’t know anything about meditation, but would like to do it. Why on earth? Meditation is quite boring. You just sit there for 10, 20, 30 minutes or more. Usually you do nothing. Sometimes you do something, but it’s rarely interesting — paying attention to your breath, scanning your bodily sensations, and so forth. In some practices you have to do something really hard and complicated, like visualize a deity; these practices usually require a lot of repetition and consistent work over weeks or months to be effective, so they can become boring pretty quickly too (and in my experience you never get to a point where you feel you can say “I’m good at this, I can do this”). Other practices, such as Zen koans, require you to ask yourself questions which are actually unanswerable.

Meditation is actually the opposite of rewarding by the standards of any normal, sane person-on-the-street. The decision to initiate, and to sustain, a meditation practice is a very serious one. It is helpful to spend time contemplating your intention in doing so, not just at the beginning of a meditation practice, but every day.