Bad News, Good News

“You can buy a ticket, but you can’t pick the destination.” — Ken McLeod

When beginners sit down to meditate, they generally hope for certain experiences: calm, clarity, a sense of well-being, even bliss. There are literally centuries of anecdotal evidence of this, and today we even have direct scientific evidence of the positive results of meditation. But what most people actually experience at first can be quite different from this.

Meditation is the practice of cultivating awareness. As Ken McLeod says, when you decide to become aware, you don’t get to pick what you become aware of. When we begin to notice how our minds actually work, we get the bad news: we are not nearly as consistent as we thought we were. We may see ourselves as kind and reasonable, but we notice thoughts that are cruel and capricious. We may see ourselves as strong and courageous, but we notice vulnerability and fear.

Meditation doesn’t cause these “new” thoughts and feelings to arise: it simply reveals what is already there. What’s there right now is the result of what we’ve done and experienced in the past. Of course we don’t have much influence over this — things are just unfolding according to past events and actions.

The value of meditation is not just the calm states it can sometimes produce (although those are very nice), but fact that it allows enough “space” in the mind for us to see how we’re causing needless suffering for ourselves and others. We do have influence over our future states of mind, because our future state of mind will be a result of what we choose to do from now on. If we stop letting our patterns run our life, things will change. And that’s good news.

“The practice of meditation is the study of what is going on. What’s going on is very important.” — Thich Nhat Hanh

“I want to learn to meditate. Where do I start?”

Start with a teacher. A good teacher can communicate skills, clarify background information, answer questions, and help you test your understanding.

Prepare to do some shopping around for someone that “clicks”. There is no one “right” teacher, just a lot of options, some of which will work better for you than others. Most teachers teach or work with groups on some level, so the simplest thing to do is to google around for meditation classes in your area and ask if you can sit in on a class. That way you get to watch the teacher in action with different people. How does he or she treat the students? How do the students treat each other? Is there a hierarchy? Are you comfortable with what you see?

Be clear about what you are looking for, and don’t be afraid to ask how a teacher or group will fit in with your goals. Observe the teacher carefully: look at their website, their literature, their demeanor, listen to the words they use. What is being served? For example, some religiously-oriented teachers may at least in part be serving the perpetuation of their cultural traditions. This doesn’t mean they can’t help you, but in a teacher-student relationship, the progress of the student should take priority. Will it? Watch the interactions, and judge for yourself.

Many people that you meet in a particular class or center — even the teachers! — are committed to a given philosophy or school and know little or nothing about other schools and ways of doing things. Don’t fall into that trap yourself; be broad-minded, sample a lot of things, and understand at least some of the differences before making up your mind. Talk to a number of teachers and/or visit a number of groups. How are they different? How are they alike? Where do you feel comfortable, and why? If you want to grow, you need to challenge yourself, so a certain amount of discomfort is a good sign. But examine it closely. Is it just the discomfort of trying something new, or is your gut trying to tell you something’s out of balance? Follow up your hunches with careful observation, and ask a lot of questions.

Finally, it is reasonable to pay for teaching, generally at about the rate you would pay for a group class in some other discipline or for consultation with a psychotherapist (if one-on-one teaching is what you want). Although some teachers still follow the Buddhist custom of offering teaching on a donation basis, remember that “donation” does not mean “free”. If a given teacher or group IS offering teaching for free, is something else expected in return? What? Why?

Once you find a teacher that seems a good fit, commit yourself to follow his or her instructions carefully for at least a few months. It will take this long to really assess at least some of the possible long-term impacts of the practice. An on-again, off-again meditation practice doesn’t get you very far at all.

Further reading: Here is a link to an article by Ken McLeod about selecting a teacher, and here is another, longer one, that goes deeper.

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.