Below I share my own background with meditation, as well as some lessons I have learned that may help you avoid some of the sillier sides to the industry they call meditation and mindfulness.
My own experience with meditation (skip this part if you don't care!):
I've always been a bit of a mystic, interested in religious rites and rituals of all kinds. I was curious and a little perplexed by those of the episcopal church I grew up attending socially with my family, tried to make sense of a child's illustrated bible my minister uncle provided upon my request when I was 8, and did a 25 page report on Haitian Voodoo ceremonies for an expository writing class in high school.
When I was in college, I ended up double-majoring in art and religion - the least practical two fields one could choose, and two that really were perfect for me. I chose the religious studies department at Brown University because it was a more 'happening' department at that time than the Anthropology department from what I could tell. I studied East Asian religions: Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, as well as Christianity, and a tiny bit of Judaism and Islam. I wrote my senior thesis on Jonestown. I was interested in the difference between cults and religions, how they form and who decides.
I didn't actually meditate at all until I was out of college for a few years, when a good friend, visiting me in the midst of a painful breakup (mine), showed me how. I spent the next ten years trying to attain sainthood by doing lots of meditation of various forms, having a couple of 'special state' moments, and a couple of cultish sidebars that made me wary of the whole thing and fairly confused. Suffice it to say, I learned a lot about what meditation is not, and what to do if you really want to hurt yourself.
After that, I found Vipassana meditation, also called insight meditation, and I liked it because I felt there were fewer bells and whistles, and less outward forms and rituals to adhere to than my forays into Tibetan and Zen buddhism had yielded. I also did some specialized yoga, went on a pilgrimage to south India, and almost gave up my life to go live at an ashram with a couple of kooks; I am grateful that I ultimately did not!
What all those years of attempting to perfect or fix myself and my troubles through meditation did, is to hone my bullshit meter pretty sharply. Here are my *fairly cynical* (you are forewarned!) takeaways or you might call it
Hannah B’s Rough Guide to meditation:
Meditation is being present for what happens. It is simply a form of attention. Attention is love.
There are many ways to be present, some of them are easier than others, some work better for one person than another.
Meditation can be used to calm and center the mind and body, and can be good for your health. It can also really F up your knees if you think it has to be done cross legged like on the magazine covers.
Meditation doesn't look a certain way. You don't have to buy special stuff or hold painful poses. You do not need to have a top knot or mala beads or a shawl. You can eat meat. You can be in therapy. You can enjoy wearing heels or vote republican. If you find yourself developing a new style or persona around your meditation practice, please notice this: it's got nothing, nothing, to do with actually being present.
Meditation doesn't mean that thinking stops. In my experience, you are not in charge of thoughts: the brain thinks like the nose smells, just doing its job. Thinking is not you but a function of the organ called the brain. The more you believe a thought to be you, and believe whatever ticker-tape thoughts come along, the deeper suffering may ensue.
Meditation is not one-size-fits-all.
If anyone tells you their way of meditating is the right way and only way, please do not believe them!
Everybody responds differently to different types of meditation, based on who they are, their genetics, personalities, learning styles and needs, and there are many options. That being said, I recommend keeping it simple and not getting too fetishy about it.
The whole thing, I’ve found, is an inside out process. How you look is just your ego trying to be perfect and liked. I spent a long time trying to 'do it right' and 'look good' because frankly I didn't like who I was, and I thought if I could be this saintly gal, I would have no flaws and I would finally be loved. What I had backward is that the only place where love is is inside, and the outer situation only reflects whatever that relationship is. If the teacher liked me, then I was ok. If I seemed sagely and selfless, then I was safe. Underneath was a really fraudulent feeling and I didn't think it was ok to have such a feeling, to be confused, to be a giant throbbing mess. But I was.
The good news is that, though you can hurt yourself with this "idea" of yourself as a meditator or somehow in a superior place, eventually your course will self correct, it can't not. It may just take longer if you are trying really really hard.
People often learn how to meditate from other people.
This is a little like the way electricity is conducted through metal. It seems helpful to be in conversation with others. In this day and age, such an interaction can be refreshingly down to earth. In my experience a good teacher makes you feel at ease with things as they are, and yourself as you are. Because in a way this is all a big mirror, if you feel like you are disappointing your teacher or getting corrected a lot, it may be because they are feeling disappointed and critical of themselves. Your boundaries are to be valued and honored, as well as your life experience.
If you feel like there's a level of fakeness in the air at a given meditation center, there probably is. A healthy community that forms around meditation is not hierarchical, does not involve prescribed dress and ways of moving, speaking or talking, or giving up all your cash. It may be you that's feeling fake. So see what it's like if you drop that. If it's not okay, perhaps you're in a cult! They are quite common. If you can't be yourself or make choices for yourself freely in that environment, there may be a problem there.
Sometimes there's this far out thing described as having an enlightenment experience, and somebody who has special status because of theirs. Also, be wary here. If what is being referred to is in the past, is romanticising a certain time or association, or a special state other than the present, including you and your experience, also this is something to avoid getting too enamoured of.
Any teacher sitting in front of you is a human being with their own conditioning, preferences, foibles and imperfections. If this is not acknowledged by the teacher, this is a flag. If they dangle something really special in front of you like waking up, and tell you that it takes a long time, decades of sitting on a meditation cushion, or lots of money and expressions of loyalty to the teacher, please run away! If there is like an inner circle, that too is weird. It is!
Some people may be fully awake and never have formally meditated, and never will. Often people who spend decades on a meditation cushion, like I did, do so because they have trouble getting along in the world, not because they've transcended it. Any claim I make, or another makes, to being superior is hiding a fear of being inferior. We certainly all, as humans, believe and sometimes outwardly make such claims, but remembering this can help you take any leader with a grain of salt. As my friend Brian likes to say, we are all - every last one of us, a bunch of third graders wandering around. No one can claim authority for another when we see this fundamental truth. So be scientific and skeptical. Ask the awkward question. Try it out, but trust your gut.
Just Sitting There
My Philosophy of Prayer
Or see the category: Contemplative Practice
Hannah Burr is a contemporary artist and author. Originally from Boston, she lives in Ann Arbor MI.