Meditation for Beginners: Buddhist Monks & Teachers Explain the Basics

In the app-rich, nuance-starved cul­ture of late cap­i­tal­ism, we are encour­aged to con­flate two vast­ly dif­fer­ent con­cepts: the sim­ple and the easy. Maybe no bet­ter exam­ple exists than in the mar­ket­ing of meditation—the sell­ing of an activ­i­ty that, in essence, requires no spe­cial­ized equip­ment or infra­struc­ture. What medi­a­tion does require is a good instruc­tor and encour­age­ment. It is sim­ple. But it is not easy. It’s true, you’ll hear teach­ers rue­ful­ly admit, they don’t print this on the brochures for retreat cen­ters: but sus­tained med­i­ta­tion can be dif­fi­cult and painful just as well as it can induce seren­i­ty, peace, and joy. When we sit down to med­i­tate, we “feel our stuff,” to para­phrase David Byrne.

Next to the host of phys­i­cal com­plaints and exter­nal stres­sors clam­or­ing for atten­tion, if we’ve got per­son­al bad vibra­tions to con­tend with, they will ham­per our abil­i­ty to accept the present and relax. This is why, his­tor­i­cal­ly, those wish­ing to embark on the Bud­dhist path would first take eth­i­cal pre­cepts, and prac­tice them, before begin­ning to med­i­tate, under the pre­sump­tion that doing good (or non-harm) qui­ets the mind. “It is true that med­i­ta­tion is impor­tant in the Bud­dhist tra­di­tion,” writes Tibetan teacher Yongey Mingyur Rin­poche at Lion’s Roar. “But in many ways, ethics and virtue are the foun­da­tion of the Bud­dhist path.”

Of course, there are non-Bud­dhist med­i­ta­tion tra­di­tions. And the mind­ful­ness move­ment has demon­strat­ed with great suc­cess that one can carve most of the reli­gion away from med­i­ta­tion and still derive many short-term ben­e­fits from the prac­tice. But to do so is to dis­pense with thou­sands of years of expe­ri­en­tial wis­dom, not only about the dif­fi­cul­ties of sus­tain­ing a med­i­ta­tion prac­tice over the long term, but also about med­i­ta­tion’s inher­ent simplicity—something those of us inclined to over­com­pli­cate things may need to hear over and over again.

Tibetan teach­ers like Mingyur (and teach­ers from every Bud­dhist lin­eage) are gen­er­al­ly hap­py to expound upon the sim­plic­i­ty and joy of medi­a­tion, with the good nature we might expect of those who spend their lives let­ting go of regrets and fears. Some­times their mes­sages are pack­aged for eas­i­er con­sump­tion, which is a fine way to get a taste of some­thing before you decide to explore it fur­ther. But the point remains, as Mingyur says in the video at the top from The Jakar­ta Poet, that “med­i­ta­tion is com­plete­ly nat­ur­al.” It is not a prod­uct and does­n’t require any acces­sories or sub­scrip­tions.

It is also not an altered state of con­scious­ness or a nihilist escape. It is allow­ing our­selves to expe­ri­ence what is hap­pen­ing inside and all around us moment by moment by tun­ing into our aware­ness. We can do this any­where, at any time, for any length of time, as the monk fur­ther up tells us. “Even three sec­onds, two sec­onds, while you’re walk­ing, while you’re hav­ing cof­fee and tea, while you’re hav­ing a meet­ing… you can med­i­tate.” Real­ly? Yes, since med­i­ta­tion is not a vaca­tion from your life but an inten­si­fied expe­ri­enc­ing of it (even the meet­ings).

We get a celebri­ty endorse­ment above from the man who plays the angri­est man on tele­vi­sion, Gor­don Ram­say. The chef takes a break from his abu­sive kitchen rages to meet with a Thai monk, who says of his deci­sion to enter the monastery, “I’ve been to many dif­fer­ent places, I’d trav­eled around, but the one place I hadn’t looked at was my mind.” West­ern­ers may hear this and think of far out states—and there are plen­ty of those to be found in Bud­dhist texts, but not much talk of them among Bud­dhist teach­ers. Gen­er­al­ly, the word “mind” has a far more expan­sive range here than the fir­ing of synaps­es: it includes move­ment of the stom­ach lin­ing, the ten­sion of the sinews, and the beat­ing of the heart.

One of the most trag­ic mis­un­der­stand­ings of med­i­ta­tion casts it as a men­tal dis­ci­pline, split­ting mind and body as West­ern thought is wont to do for cen­turies now. But the aware­ness cul­ti­vat­ed in med­i­ta­tion is aware­ness of every­thing: the sens­es, the body, the breath, the space around us, our cog­ni­tion and emo­tion. Every Bud­dhist tra­di­tion and sec­u­lar off­shoot has its way of teach­ing stu­dents what to do with their often-ignored bod­ies while they med­i­tate. The dif­fer­ences between them are most­ly slight, and you’ll find a good guid­ed intro­duc­tion to begin­ning med­i­ta­tion focused on the body just above, led by Mingyur Rin­poche.

The hap­pi­ness one can derive from a med­i­ta­tion prac­tice does arrive, accord­ing to med­i­ta­tors world­wide, but it is not a soli­tary achieve­ment, Bud­dhist teach­ers say, a prize claimed for one­self like a prof­it wind­fall. It is, rather, the result of more com­pas­sion, and hence of more humil­i­ty, bet­ter rela­tion­ships, and less self-involve­ment; the result of strip­ping away rather than acquir­ing. Bud­dhist monk Matthieu Ricard, who left a career in cel­lu­lar genet­ics in his twen­ties to study and prac­tice in the Himalayas, hasn’t shied away from mar­ket­ing as a way to teach peo­ple to med­i­tate. But he is also upfront about the impor­tance of ethics to begin­ning medi­a­tion.

In addi­tion to being a “con­fi­dante of the Dalai Lama,” notes Busi­ness Insid­er, Ricard is also “a viral TED Talk speak­er, and a best­selling author.” His mes­sage is the impor­tance of compassion—not as a goal to achieve some time in the future, but as the very place to start. “There’s noth­ing mys­te­ri­ous” about it, he says in an inter­view on Busi­ness Insider’s pod­cast. He then goes on to describe the basic prac­tices of “Met­ta, ”among oth­er things a way of train­ing one­self to have kind and lov­ing inten­tions for oth­ers in an ever-widen­ing cir­cle out­ward. In the video above, Ricard talks about the prac­tice, and the sci­ence, of com­pas­sion at Google.

Many peo­ple balk at this kind of sen­ti­men­tal stuff, even from a man Google describes as “the world’s best bridge between mod­ern sci­ence and ancient wis­dom.” But if we can hear any­thing in the ancient wis­dom dis­tilled by these Bud­dhist teach­ers, per­haps it’s a sim­ple idea fast-med­i­ta­tion apps and util­i­tar­i­an pro­grams gen­er­al­ly skip. No, you do not need to put on robes, become a monk or nun, or take on a set of ancient tra­di­tions, beliefs, or rit­u­als. But as Amer­i­can Bud­dhist teacher Jack Korn­field says below, “if you want to learn to be wise and present, the first step is to refrain from harm­ing your­self or oth­ers.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Alan Watts Presents a 15-Minute Guid­ed Med­i­ta­tion: A Time-Test­ed Way to Stop Think­ing About Think­ing

How Med­i­ta­tion Can Change Your Brain: The Neu­ro­science of Bud­dhist Prac­tice

Dai­ly Med­i­ta­tion Boosts & Revi­tal­izes the Brain and Reduces Stress, Har­vard Study Finds

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Jasmine Ruiz says:

    I think this is so pow­er­ful. If we can learn to look past reli­gion, and instead invite the peace­ful­ness and reha­bil­i­ta­tion of med­i­ta­tion, we would have anoth­er tool for our stu­dents to become their bet­ter selves and strive for lit­er­al hap­pi­ness.

  • Atheeth Belagode says:

    A love­ly, inspir­ing arti­cle. I could read it again and again.

  • Rebecca Philips says:

    I’m inter­est­ed in learn­ing med­i­ta­tion and learn­ing about Bud­dha

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