Q & A: Meditation Techniques

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Question: I’ve got a nuts-and-bolts question about meditation.  There are so many varieties:  following the breath, paying attention to whatever arises,  focusing on something particular (like a prayer), Tonglen, etc.  After years of teaching and practice, which methods have proven most helpful to you and your students? Is it useful to try different types of meditation at different stages?  What are your recommendations for the beginner, as well as the more experienced student?

Answer: This is a great series of questions about what is core to any authentic spiritual practice. So let me first start by saying that the heart of enlightenment, or awakening, or whatever you want to call it, is stillness. We can uncover the stillness that is the source of everything when we become truly still in these bodies we inhabit. Now as simple as this sounds, most of us find it rather difficult to actually become still. There is always a sense of movement, be it in the body or the mind, that minimizes our recognition of stillness. We might recognize it briefly, but then in our excitement we find that it’s gone. So we practice, over and over, moment by moment, year after year, to open ourselves to the deep quietude that permeates and lies beneath all experience, by meditating.

When we start out, we usually find it difficult, so we do simple things like following the breath, scanning the body, or reciting a sacred verse or mantra. All of these are great ways to open our experience to stillness, since they tend to allow our discursive minds to take a break. Suddenly we notice that the chatter has died down and there is a vastness to our experience that we may never have known before. It’s not beginner’s luck. It’s an invitation to the amazing party of authentic spiritual work, a celebration that is at once glorious and challenging.

As we get better and better at stilling our mind, we can begin to use any number of different techniques to train ourselves more deeply, allowing us to explore the various meditative states that are always available to us. However, I’ve seen this exploration lead people astray for years. They become skilled at uncovering various meditative states and confuse these states with enlightenment. Enlightenment is not a state. Rather, it’s the groundless ground of all states that is consciously integrated into the lives of those practitioners interested in sharing it. This is why I prefer to encourage students to simply open to what is showing up in the moment, then watch without commentary as each thought or feeling shows up. Just watch. As this watching continues, a subtle awareness of what we might call the “watcher” develops.  This is a naked awareness that is both still and totally oriented in the present moment. Consciously meeting our lives from this open stillness can’t help but awaken us to what is eternal in us.

Give it a shot… and report back.

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