It’s the Information Age; secret techniques of meditation, closely guarded for thousands of years, are freely available online, in recordings, and in books. This is truly an amazing development. But there is still the question, what’s the best way to learn how to meditate?
The answer depends on each person to some extent. At the same time, there are some features of learning meditation that seem to be nearly universal. Let’s talk about the different ways of learning meditation.
Read a book. Reading about meditation is a great way to think about and gain an intellectual understanding of meditation. This can be a good way to start, especially for those with an intellectual focus. Reading engages your mind, which can be a great friend or a great foe. Reading can engage your ideals, inspiring you with stories of what meditation has done for a person, how it has been a method of transformation. But reading is extremely limited as a method of learning meditation.
There’s an old story about a man who comes to a master of meditation, looking to become a student. They sit and have tea. The master is silent for a time. And so the man begins to talk about what he has learned about meditation and spirituality from books. He goes on and on about what he’s learned, covering the different opinions of expert after expert. The master listens, then picks up the teapot and pours tea into the student’s cup, who is still talking. The cup begins to overflow. The student notices it, and says “my cup is full!” The master says, ”You must empty your cup.”
Reading fills you instead of emptying you. And while it may give understanding, that understanding is limited by the lack of experience. A minute spent practicing meditation is worth many hours of reading about it, in the same way that reading about love is no substitute for experiencing love.
Recorded meditations. Listening to meditation recordings has a possible advantage over reading: following recorded instructions is usually done while you’re practicing meditation. So then there is a much greater chance of experiencing something, rather than being a purely intellectual exercise.
As you can probably tell, meditation is all about the experience. If gaining an understanding through reading helps you (which it does, for many of us), you should read. Then you should practice.
One thing to really notice about recorded meditations is the distinction between instruction and suggestion. Following a set of steps is the former; do this, then this, etc. The point of instruction is to enable you to learn to do something alone. Some meditation recordings involve suggestion, which is a way of directing your thoughts and the images in your mind. The problem is that if you depend on the suggestion to put you into a state, you never really learn anything about meditation. You may have a pleasant experience, but you won’t be any closer to accessing an expanded state of being on your own. (I have a discussion of this here, under #6 and #7.)
Try it out with a friend. Meditation with other people works very well. The energy that you bring to it is enhanced by the presence of others, particularly for heart-based meditation techniques like Heart Rhythm Meditation. Meditation with others also offers the chance to compare your experience with another person, which is a great way of assimilating the experience. Even if neither of you know much about meditation, the act of getting together and trying it out is often much better than doing so alone.
The only thing about meditating with a friend is, what if you have a problem, or what if you want to know more? It’s hard for someone who’s also a beginner to be of much help.
Study online. Learning meditation online is a modern phenomenon, of course. Online courses vary quite a bit. Some are more like self-study, where you read a set of articles or text at your own pace. There are many spiritual and meditation-based online groups through social networking websites.
Like I said, meditation is about the experience. So if you find a group is helpful for cultivating the experience, you should be part of a group. Many discussion groups can get out of hand when people argue, so it’s good to have an online group that is well-tended by someone.
The main thing to look for in studying online is something that makes it better than simply reading about meditation on the computer, or listening to recordings. Look for a course that provides help and feedback from an experienced teacher who will give you feedback on your practice and your experience, such as our 101 course. With the help of an experienced teacher, learning meditation online can be very effective. Technology is rapidly improving, and the virtual classroom is more and more of a reality. Our 101 course offers streaming video and conference calls with breakout sessions to facilitate dynamic conversation, like our free weekly meditation class. (One benefit of taking the 101 course is being able to progress through the method each week, whereas the free class must stay on a more basic level. Another is that you get to know your fellow students much better when you know everyone is there for the duration.)
Meditation seminar. An in-person seminar can be a great way of learning meditation. The key is finding an experienced teacher who is skilled at communicating the why and how of meditation in an inspiring and practical way. An advantage of the seminar format is the personal contact you have with the instructor and with the other students. Being with a person is much higher-bandwidth than anything online, and you get a much better sense of a person’s atmosphere when you’re with them. The atmosphere that a person has is the most reliable way of determining if that person is a good teacher. The question to ask is simple: how do you feel when you’re with that person? Trust your feelings.
Meditation retreat. A meditation retreat is usually longer and involves more meditation than a seminar. A retreat isn’t the best way to learn meditation, because it’s pretty advanced; retreats tend to work better when you have some skill and background meditating. When beginners jump in, they usually have a tough time. (Like this amusing story of a man who did a week-long Vipassana retreat as his first experience with meditation.)
Some retreats are pretty unstructured. You may be left alone for long periods of time with little or no guidance. Retreats work best when they are done under the tutelage of an advanced teacher of meditation, a retreat guide. A good retreat guide has done many retreats, and knows intimately what happens during a retreat. The guide gives you specific practices unique to your development, experience, personality, and energy. The guide meditates with you on at least a daily basis, to check on the results of the practices and tune them as needed. The more advanced the student, the less guidance and structure is needed from the retreat guide, but even very advanced meditators tend to find a good retreat guide to be very helpful. (At the IAM University of the Heart, we offer two kinds of retreat, the group retreat, which is like a seminar and retreat combined, and the individual retreat, which is totally customized to the individual. I have taken two individual retreats with Susanna, who is an absolutely incredible retreat guide.)
Mentoring. While seminars and retreats are the best way to experience a breakthrough, there is something that always happens when you get back: it’s hard to access the incredible state you attained. Many people struggle to keep up a daily practice of meditation. One of the difficulties is knowing the right practice to do each day, and another is just keeping at it. A mentor is helpful for both of these issues; a mentor’s job is to give you a practice which is right for you on a daily basis at this point in your life, which may be different than what was needed in the intense experience of the meditation retreat.
As you can see from my list, each approach has its strengths and limitations, which is why our two-year program works on five different levels, so that each area supports and reinforces the others.
While the basic message is practice, so that you have a reliable way of cultivating the experience of meditation, it’s best if you practice in the right way.
I hope you found this article helpful; if you did, please consider sharing it on Facebook or Twitter. Thanks for reading! Now practice: 8 beats in, 8 beats out. Take a few deep breaths.