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.”