When I started practicing meditation in 1995, I didn't tell too many people about it for fear they would think I had joined a cult or turned into some kind of new-aged oddball. If I mention it today, however, I'm more likely to be greeted by comments like, "I just came back from a 10-day silent Vipassana retreat," or "Yes, my doctor told me I should meditate to stabilize my blood pressure." I knew that this ancient practice had officially entered our culture when I saw a billboard advertising a new sleeping pill called Zazen. It's here.
Now, we're faced with a plethora of choices for developing a meditation practice. I say go for it! Explore the practice of "Vipassana" or "Insight Meditation." Ask your doctor to refer you to a clinic where they teach mindfulness based stress reduction, which is connected to Vipassana. Visit your local Shambhala center or another Tibetan Buddhist center and learn "Shamatha" or the practice of tranquility. Try "Zazen" (the Zen meditation practice, not the sleeping pill).
There are many other forms of meditation practice, but as a Buddhist, these are the ones I am familiar with and can vouch for. And as you do your research, I suggest you consider these parameters:
- Choose a practice that is rooted in a lineage that is older than, say, 2,500 years. Not saying you have to adopt another culture or act Eastern, just that it's good to find something time-tested and honed. Thus, you can have confidence. Confidence in the practice is always step one along the spiritual path. When you know it is genuine, you relax and listen more closely.
- Learn the technique from someone who has been trained to teach it. Teaching meditation is more than an explanation, it is a transmission. It is passed down from one who has learned from his teacher, who learned from her teacher, and so on. The longer the chain, in some sense, the greater the power of the practice.
- Don't accept anything watered down or instant. There are many skillful and intelligent ways to present the practice of meditation simply, and I'm not referring to any such attempts. Just that meditation takes effort and will at some point be uncomfortable and boring. Any practice that promises otherwise should be investigated especially carefully. Stay away from things that can be done in five, seven or 57 steps. It's just not that simple.
- Don't make stuff up. This is one area of life where it's really important to follow the instruction very closely and exactly. At some point in your practice, maybe you'll figure out some personal tweaks to the technique, but hold all tweaks for months, years and lifetimes. The thing with practices that are this long-standing is that they are soaked in wisdom. All the tricks you can think of to avoid looking at your own life have already been tried by countless individuals in all sorts of cultures. The practice has been built to foil all such trickery. Thus, no detail is casual. It's all there for a reason. Respect and love the technique and it will respect and love you back.
- Make it very, very personal.At the same time, whatever practice you do, it will only come to life when you make it personal. There are wonderful guides who can help you enter the practice, and maybe at some point you will even find a teacher. In any case, at every step, you are on your own and charged with bringing what you have learned into your own life. You have got to figure it out on your own. Don't take anyone's word for anything. Trust, verify. Trust, verify. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Your experience is the path; there is no other path. So stick with practices that encourage deep inward looking and personal responsibility.
- Avoid practices that suggest the point is transcendence or bliss. The point of practice is to be here. If you don't know how to be here, how are you supposed to know what you're transcending to or away from? And no one even knows what bliss is, anyway. I don't. All I know is that it's something other than feeling super happy and untouched by anything. (When asked what bliss felt like, Tibetan meditation master Choygam Trungpa said, "To you, it would probably feel like pain.") Practice makes you more human, not less. This may not get you to a perfectly peaced-out state, but it will do something way better and, let's face it, more practical: It will make you more authentic. More human. More open and tender and thus of far more use (and interest) to your fellow humans.
Welcome to your life! Practice introduces you to the brilliant, confused, grumpy, joyful and deeply tender person that you already are and opens door after door for this amazing being to enter the phenomenal world -- for her benefit, yes, but also for the benefit of all sentient beings. So look for a practice that appreciates happiness and lightness, sure, but doesn't turn away from sadness or darkness. Look for something emphasizes compassion, love, tenderness and dedication to becoming fully human.
Definitely try things out; however, at some point it is important to choose one path (or no path -- this is best for some folks) and stay with that way.
Thoughts? Ideas? Questions? Please post below.