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Do You Need A Teacher To Learn How To Meditate?

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There's no shortage of opportunities for learning practices called "meditation." You can pick one up during yoga class, on YouTube, here on The Huffington Post or at the grocery store -- seriously, last week a guided meditation was going on ("All Shoppers Invited!") in the cafe of my local market.

In Western culture, meditation has reached a new height of respectability, partly because scientific research has shown that an effective meditation technique can yield transformative, lifesaving benefits.

Many of my meditation students say they've tried meditating before on their own. When I ask what kind of meditation, they sometimes say, "Oh, just something I made up from things I've read." The accessibility of so many practices suggests that learning meditation doesn't require an expert teacher.

Yet, within the venerated traditions of meditation, effective practice is an acquired skill. The teacher's role has always been to offer careful, step-by-step instruction in the art of meditation and provide understanding as the student unfolds new and deeper potentialities of the mind.

Certainly there are approaches to be enjoyed without the benefit of a real, live teacher -- taking a moment to focus on your breath and collect yourself or kicking back in a zero-gravity massage chair and zoning out to a meditation CD. For some, meditation is contemplative -- about thinking and striving for insight, or monitoring thoughts non-judgmentally, with do-it-yourself mindfulness instructions (breathe, observe, be in the moment) beaconing from every corner of the Internet.

So, Why a Teacher?

I first got interested in meditation as a teenager in Omaha. I studied every approach I could find and was humbled by the intellectual frameworks of different traditions. I relished the writings of great sages who spoke of a transcendent state where the mind has come back home.

The book, "Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind," by Shunryu Suzuki, encouraged me. The ideal meditative mind, Suzuki held, is not the habituated mind, brimming with "advanced" ideas and judgments about how to meditate. It is the beginner's mind, less identified with accumulated habits -- simpler and more innocent, therefore more awake to its possibilities.

Many texts described a naturally peaceful state of consciousness beyond thinking, a knowingness in pure being. During my attempts at self-taught meditation, I occasionally slipped into such a state. Trying to regain this experience, every effort seemed to thwart the process. It's hard to let go and be innocent while striving to be both teacher and student. Self-instructing or controlling attention can interfere with settling inward beyond the thinking mind.

Most books claimed that meditation wasn't supposed to be easy, that it may take years to get significant results or achieve transcendence. Others urged not to aspire beyond ordinary, day-to-day consciousness because everything is here in the "now" -- just accept "what is," without judgment. However, I had glimpsed richer, clearer, deeper realms of experience, so I knew there was more.

I continued my informal study of meditation but wished for a teacher who could clarify matters. What I found, on the library bulletin board, was a poster: "Transcendental Meditation: A simple, effortless technique to expand awareness and develop your full potential."

Revival of Effortless Transcending

The transcendental meditation technique was introduced by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in 1955. This specific practice, a patently secular form of meditation, had been lost to society even in India. The technique employs a mantra or sound, not associated with meaning, valued for its healthful effects. During TM instruction, one is taught to use the mantra in such a way that it serves as a vehicle for spontaneous transcending -- for traversing progressively quieter states of thought until the faintest thought is transcended and one arrives at the state of pure awareness. This process allows access to inner reserves of energy while giving the body deep, rejuvenating rest.

What's the catch? The technique can be learned only through personalized instruction from a well-trained teacher. Why? Because of the incredible subtlety of what you are learning. With TM practice, you are not learning how to watch your thoughts or control your breathing, but how to experience subtler states of thought and levels of awareness deeper and more refined than the active waking mind.

After decades of meditating, this is still the technique that works best for me, which is why I also teach it. The practice is always done with a "beginner's" innocence -- it doesn't demand of you effort or control. The benefits, even among new students, are often quietly astounding.

Finding a Meditation Teacher

We all understand the privilege of studying with a consummate teacher, whether learning violin, tennis or the culinary arts. Meditation is similarly a refined skill with instructional dos and don'ts that affect the outcome. Numerous studies on meditation techniques consistently show different kinds of practices producing varying results, especially on brain function.

It's simple to find a teacher. Whatever approach one chooses, I suggest the marks of a good teacher to be:

  1. The meditation offered produces verifiable results.
  2. The teacher's concern is not to gather followers but further the student's self-sufficiency in daily practice.
  3. The teacher seeks no recognition but gives all credit to the practice and where it came from.

If you find meditation daunting or unsatisfying, a qualified teacher can make all the difference. With proper instruction, anyone can meditate easily and successfully.

VIDEO: Mantra and meditation explained by Maharishi

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