Meditation for Everyone
Published in the Winnipeg Free Press, October 24, 2006
Some thirty-five years ago I took up Hatha Yoga. After a few years I became an adept and began to teach. Back then, Yoga was not well known, and I remember that my mother thought the whole exercise was rather weird. But this has changed: I recently saw a sign on a wooden stick planted in suburban Winnipeg boulevard: YOGA, it said, and below that, a phone number. So now, thirty years on, Yoga is well known pretty much everywhere.
These days a similar transformation is happening to meditation. What was once a secret religious practice among Asian mystics is moving into the consciousness of 21st Century North Americans. Popular magazines and television are focusing on the topic and therapists, counselors, and life-coaches are recommending meditation to their clients and patients. There is even an upsurge in interest in the ancient, spiritually oriented traditions from India and Asia, particularly Buddhism. We all know who the Dalai Lama is, for example.
Our culture is beset by various ailments and complaints, and we are on the lookout for remedies. Meditation is offered as a way to mitigate stress, anxiety, and various addictions, and as a remedial response to a host of physical ailments, including chronic pain, cancer and heart disease. The intention of this teaching is to help us feel better and live better. But how do we know which sources of instruction are reliable? How do we know which meditational practices are authentic and effective?
Buddhism, which evolved through transmission from teacher to student over three millennia, has some sensible things to say about these questions. The elders of a town near to where he was teaching once asked the Buddha: “Many teachers come by here, and offer many different teachings. How can we know which one to follow?” His advice: “Take up the teachings that seem useful, practise them ardently, and evaluate the results. If the fruits are not positive, try something else.” This applies to evaluating teachers as well. In this case, the recommendation is to look to the students, the fruits of the teacher’s work, so to speak. Are they wholesome, friendly, helpful people, or are they at least aspiring to be so?
Today these simple tests are hard to apply, an ironic consequence of the speed and convenience of modern information delivery systems. If the teaching is coming through impersonal, non-interactive channels like books, magazines, television, or the World Wide Web, no realistic evaluation of the teachers is possible. Similarly, if the teaching is coming from experts traveling through town on a whirlwind tour, there is simply not enough time to get a clear understanding of their agenda either.
Therapeutic and religious professionals have begun to offer meditation instruction. If they are local, there is more of an opportunity to get to know these teachers, and perhaps even some of the folks who may have benefited from their efforts, as well. But it is important to find out if such teachers are long-time practitioners of the meditational methods they recommend. If they are not practitioners, how can they know exactly what the practices might lead to?
So what is the ardent seeker to do? First, look to your own motives. Are you seeking a quick antidote for the unpleasant consequences of an unsupportable lifestyle or are you looking for insight into the workings of your own mind? In the first case, the benefits of meditation will be short-lived, however skilled the teacher. In the second case, the work may take some time, but the benefits will be more durable.
Next, make a study of potential teachers. What is their agenda? Is power, money, fame, or absolute control part of the formula, or is the teaching available over the long run, at modest cost, without surrender of one’s will or judgment? Is the teacher kind? Does the teacher make sense? Trust your own instincts.
Finally, there is the test drive. Attend public events, talk to fellow attendees, reflect on the ideas on offer, and try the practises. Those who are curious and persistent will eventually find something that works for them.