Free to find out what works for you in meditation

We can be ferocious in the way we try to get things right and most of us bring this tendency into meditation, attempting to suppress feelings of vulnerability and to push forward to meet our own or others’ rigid expectations. But there is no one correct way to be human or to meditate — life and meditation are much more interesting than that.

Insisting there must be only one way to meditate is symptomatic of our tendency to dominate and over-control. You can see this in those who insist on how we should all meditate or who gets to call themselves a real Buddhist. We can see this within ourselves as well when a harsh self-critic or form of self-interruption dominates and suppresses the parts of us that feel. Preoccupation with complying with our own or others’ rigid expectations interferes with us connecting with our feelings and developing a more authentic engagement in life. It is by softening our defences and deepening our experiencing of feelings that we come alive to changing contexts, what matters to us, how we would like to respond to situations, and our growth and flourishing. This is what emotion-focused mindfulness therapy seeks to help people cultivate in their lives.

A Finnish PhD candidate, Ville Husgafvel, in his peer-reviewed (2018) paper provides the best description yet of the Buddhist influences that shaped Jon Kabat-Zinn’s work in developing mindfulness-based stress reduction. I found a lovely irony in his description of how the many scholars of Buddhism who complain that Kabat-Zinn misrepresents Buddhism themselves over-simplify and misrepresent it, treating the form with which they are familiar — in this case usually one of the many varieties of Theravada Buddhism — as if it were the original, authoritative teaching of the Buddha, superior to all other forms of Buddhism. They are unaware that their failure to recognize the depth and integrity of Kabat-Zinn’s engagement with Buddhism is due to their own lack of familiarity with the type of Buddhism that most deeply influenced him: he was a teacher-in-training in a Korean Zen Buddhist lineage and director of the Cambridge Zen Centre in Cambridge, Massachussets.

Kabat-Zinn was also influenced by Chan Buddhist, American vipassana, Tibetan Buddhist, and Advaita Vedanta teachers as well as the American Transcendentalist writers Emerson and Thoreau (Kabat-Zinn, 2011). Orthodox teachers and scholars criticize practitioners for studying different approaches as if that were cherry-picking rather than something committed practitioners have done throughout Buddhist history to deepen and expand their practice. For example, Buddhist practices flourished in the rich inter-cultural and inter-religious exchange of trading routes such as the Silk Route and the Asian coast lines. As Ville Husgafvel points out:

Based on my reading, I would say that different contemplative traditions have always been in communication with each other and ideas of clearly defined “orthodox Theravada classical practice” are usually more or less scholarly (academic or monastic) constructions. Lived reality escapes neat categories, and already in a relatively well documented modern vipassana lineage of Ledi Sayadaw, we see that each teacher adds new elements to the practices. I think it has always been so, even if orthodox textual descriptions give more “frozen” descriptions (or rather prescriptions) of meditation.

Ville Husgafvel, private email, April 4, 2019

Each of the many, various orthodox forms of Buddhism, with all their deep differences, claim to possess the complete, original teaching of the Buddha, superior to other forms of Buddhism. For example, notwithstanding the kindness and warmth of the Dalai Lama’s dialogue with practitioners and leaders from other sects and religions, this is what he claims for Tibetan Buddhism. Academics familiar with how varied Buddhism is (e.g., Higgins, 2012; Dunne, 2015, p. 252; Analayo, 2016; Husgafvel, 2018) agree such claims are fideist, based in faith or revelation, rather than on anything that can be demonstrated. It is clear that all forms of Buddhism have evolved, adapting to changing cultural and historical contexts, and that we can not tell exactly what the Buddha taught — even the earliest scriptures are full of contradictions and later interpolations. This is a big problem if you think the only way to practice meditation is precisely what the Buddha taught, since we have no way of ascertaining this.

It is not a problem, however, if you share Scottish philosopher Alisdair MacIntyre’s (1985) view that living fields of human activity, whether academic disciplines, professions, or religions are evolving intergenerational debates alive to the founders’ generative questions and how each generation responded to them. Rather than correct adherence to the supposedly original teachings passed down as “contextless iterations of timeless truths” (Higgins, 2012, page 117), living fields change and evolve and value new, creative developments.

From this perspective, exploration, creativity, adaptation to varying contexts, and growth are key to a living practice. Rather than trying to figure out the correct, authentic way to meditate, meditation can be a way of learning how to navigate life oriented to an evolving sense of your own values and what works for you. Values are what matter to you, they bring you to life, and they shape the kind of life you want to live. You are free, then, to find inspiration in different forms of meditation practice and to discover what works for you oriented to what you are cultivating in meditation and life.