WHAT IS MEDITATION, AND WHAT IS IT GOOD FOR?
The word meditation refers to a broad set of exercises (as in, hundreds) designed to produce long-term changes in the way we experience life. In the language of the Buddha the word was “Bhavana,” which also refers to “cultivation” in the agricultural sense. Not surprising for a guy from a farming society. You might think of meditation as the cultivation of positive traits. You prepare the soil, plant the seeds, provide water and nutrients, and over time good things begin to grow.
Scholars and experts differ on how to group practices, but we think of meditation as having a few basic categories, each containing multiple practices with dozens of specialized techniques:
Attention practices: Develop the capacity to pay attention, with a sense of profound ease, in great clarity, over progressively longer periods of time. This family includes shamatha and to some extent vipassana and zazen practices.
Affective practices: Develop specific emotional traits and attitudes, including compassion, kindness, and joy, directed towards oneself and/or external beings. This family includes metta, or loving-kindness, as well as self-compassion practices.
Transcendent practices: Working directly with awareness to understand our relationship with experience in a deeply liberating way. This includes dzogchen and mahamudra practices, as well as some levels of vipassana and zazen practice.
Meditation has been shown to produce a startling variety of positive effects. Wikipedia has a fun summary with ample links to original research, and the list of effects includes:
Increased working attention
Decreased ruminative thinking
Increased emotional regulation
Improved cognitive flexibility
Meditation is to mental health what fitness-training is to physical health. In much the same way that a well-designed program of lifting weights or running contributes both to baseline well-being and athletic performance, skillfully employed meditation practice contributes both to baseline psychological well-being and activities that involve thinking and emotion.
IS THIS BUDDHISM?
Yes and no. Many of the primary techniques that we offer are drawn from Buddhism. There are also elements of somatic psychology, evolutionary biology, and neuroscience woven through our teaching. Buddhism is an astoundingly rich tradition comprising epistemology, ethics, cosmology, ritual, symbology, linguistics, logic, cognitive science, and many other fields as well as dozens if not hundreds of specific practices. Our teaching barely scratches the surface of this body of knowledge.
CAN I GET ENLIGHTENED BY MEDITATING?
That depends on what you mean by “enlightened.” There are many definitions of enlightenment – they are worth looking into, and Daniel Ingram’s work is a good place to start. In some ways, the cognitive and emotional benefits of mindfulness are just positive side-effects. In traditional practice, these benefits are not really the point of meditation – the point is to see the nature of reality more clearly and thus develop a profoundly different relationship with and expectation of your experience – one characterized by tranquility, wisdom, and compassion. This requires abundant, stable, and penetrating attention to each moment. Thus, mindfulness training.
We specialize in beginner’s instruction, and the cultivation of the positive effects mentioned above. Should you decide to dive more deeply into these trainings, we are very clear about where our expertise ends, and we can point you towards teachers who are capable of guiding you to the further reaches of the path.
ARE THERE ANY DOWNSIDES TO MEDITATING?
Yes. Paying close attention to your experience may reveal things about yourself and your life that are not particularly attractive. If you are interested in and capable of doing work in personal growth and ethical living, this may be great. If you are not interested in such work, this can be profoundly uncomfortable. There is a reason that ethical training generally precedes training in meditation – it is important to be living a life that you would want to perceive more clearly.
WHAT DOES MEDITATION INSTRUCTION LOOK LIKE?
Just as physical training should be designed to address the concerns of the athlete, meditation should address the concerns of the individual. We start with getting clear on the particular circumstances and challenges of your life. We pay close attention to the problems you face on a daily basis, so that we can be clear about what capacities we should focus on.
Once we have a sense of our priorities, we will lead you step-by-step through the meditation most likely to impact your life. You are encouraged to record this instruction, so that you can refer to it at home. We also discuss when and where to practice on your own - half of getting benefits from meditation is building the habit.
Each time we meet, we will review what’s been happening in your practice, what changes you’re facing in your life, and make adjustments to your technique accordingly. You are welcome and encouraged to record our instructions each week.
HOW MUCH SHOULD A PERSON MEDITATE?
This question is probably not that useful. It may be more helpful to ask: “How can meditation become a natural part of my life?” We can help you generate a beginning strategy based on your life circumstances, goals, and disposition. We’ll likely adjust the strategy as you test it on the ground. The goal is that meditation become like brushing your teeth or taking a shower - a form of mental hygiene. No big deal.
Many people are relieved to hear that there is evidence suggesting that short, consistent, skillful practices can indeed produce measurable effects. A good place to start might be 10 minutes a day, or 10 minutes twice a day. For most people, practicing 10 minutes twice a day would produce tangible, positive benefits in a matter of weeks.
HOW IS THIS DIFFERENT FROM THERAPY?
Psychotherapy is broader than meditation training in that psychotherapy incorporates a great deal many more tools than meditation to address a great deal many more challenges. Meditation is deeper than therapy in the sense that it takes a select number of essential capacities and strengthens them exclusively.
As a meditation trainer and psychotherapist, I can help identify when the line between meditation and therapy is nearby, acknowledge it, and collaborate with you in deciding how to respond. It is not uncommon for someone progressing in their meditation practice to discover opportunities for therapeutic work, and I am happy to facilitate that work as appropriate. Likewise, most psychotherapy clients find meditation training of one kind or another to be an important part of their healing process.