Today marks the release of the new Shambhala Sun book, A Beginner’s Guide to Meditation: Practical Advice and Inspiration from Contemporary Buddhist Teachers. It includes guidance from some of Buddhism’s most renowned and effective meditation teachers, including Pema Chödrön, Thich Nhat Hanh, the Dalai Lama, Sharon Salzberg, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, Noah Levine, Ajahn Chah, and many more. Read its Introduction (by the Shambhala Sun‘s Rod Meade Sperry) and Melvin McLeod’s opening meditation instructions for the practice of simple mindfulness meditation, and see just how doable taking up meditation can be.
Welcome to A Beginner’s Guide to Meditation. This is not an advanced meditation book, nor is it a complete, definitive presentation of all the possible approaches to Buddhist meditation. Such a thing might not be possible in a hundred books, let alone one. Instead, what this book is meant to be is sufficient, meaning that these writings by eminent contemporary Buddhist teachers should be more than enough to get you started meditating with regularity and confidence. What you’ll find here is meant to help you to get clearer about meditation—even excited about it—without becoming overwhelmed.
Many books on Buddhist meditation focus on a particular school, approach, or technique. A Beginner’s Guide to Meditation keeps in mind that there are so many different practices under the rubric of Buddhist meditation because there are so many kinds of people. What might work best for one person might not work well for another. My hope is that the sampling of teachings gathered here will help you find an approach that works for you.
If you’re just getting started, it might be helpful to reflect on the reasons people want to meditate. Meditation is, of course, a time-tested method for reducing anxiety and coming to terms with the short- and long-term mental afflictions that we all face. Ultimately, though, there’s more to get from it than just an increased sense of calm. The more you stick with the practice, the more you stand to gain insight into what makes you tick and find more cohesion and connection with the people in your life, too. A meditation practice can help you in a number of ways:
• slow down and break patterns of obsessive or compulsive behavior
• connect more with loved ones and be more present with others in general
• come to terms with loss, addiction, and ill health
• foster better health and body awareness
• create a foundation for further investigation into Buddhist concepts
Part 1, “Let’s Get Started,” presents the practice in its simplest form so that you can see from the beginning that meditation is entirely doable and really not anything extraordinary. From there, you’ll get advice and guidance to help you start your practice off right.
In part 2, “Cultivating Calm and Insight (and More),” you’ll be introduced to the two basic forms of Buddhist meditation—shamatha, or tranquillity meditation, and vipashyana, or insight meditation—as well as other classic practices for cultivating a more spacious and friendly attitude toward others.
You’ll get a glimpse into the world of Zen in part 3, which explains the practices of shikantaza, or “just sitting,” and koan introspection, which is perhaps the best-known and yet most misunderstood meditation approach found here.
Part 4, “Indo-Tibetan Innovations,” shares teachings that spread from the regions of India and Tibet. These practices involve methods of cultivating loving-kindness and compassion, training the mind through the use of ancient and powerful slogans, and looking directly at the mind to analyze what we see.
Finally, part 5, “Keep Your Practice Going,” gives you what you need to do just that, so that you can practice at home or with others at a practice center or extended retreat with enthusiasm, engagement, and confidence. There are even helpful yoga tips to keep you limber and refreshed.
Having originated in northern India more than 2,500 years ago and then spread across the globe, Buddhism has a sprawling terminology that draws from many languages, with much of its terminology from Pali, Sanskrit, Japanese, and Tibetan. Different traditions use terms from different languages, so you’ll see, for example, that the Buddhist teachings themselves may be referred to with the Sanskrit word dharma or the Pali word dhamma. The practice of insight meditation is called vipassana (a Pali word) in the Theravada tradition; others may use the Sanskrit term vipashyana. Zen Buddhism has its own specialized lexicon from the Japanese. There’s a glossary in the back to help you.
The wide range of meditation practices, approaches, and teachings presented in A Beginner’s Guide to Meditation represent the many schools of Buddhist thought. Don’t let it all overwhelm you. There’s no need to worry that you have to “get it” all. Keep in mind that in Buddhist meditation, curiosity—the spirit of inquiry—is key. In that spirit, sample the various teachings here, note what resonates with you (and what doesn’t), and see if you can enjoy playing with meditation. And if you have a day when can’t enjoy it, for whatever reason, remember that this just happens sometimes. After all, that’s what our minds are in the habit of doing: they lead us to make things more complicated than they are. Ultimately, it’s meditation practice itself that helps us train (or untrain) our minds so that we don’t have to follow these same old, tired patterns automatically.
As countless meditators have learned firsthand, the rewards of practice can positively transform the way we see and participate in our lives.
So let’s get started.
BASIC BREATH MEDITATION: It doesn’t get any simpler than this.
As stated earlier, there are seemingly countless approaches to Buddhist meditation. At heart, though, they share one foundation: they start with what is often known as “mindfulness meditation,” in which the breath serves as a guide for the mind.
The Shambhala Sun’s editor in chief, Melvin McLeod, once rendered the following mindfulness meditation instructions in an attempt to show just how universally “doable” meditation, in its most basic form, really is. Read the below and give it a try. There’s no need to think about having the right cushion, or the perfect meditation spot, or all the little uances you might be wondering about. We’ll talk about all of that soon enough.
Choose a quiet and uplifted place to do your meditation practice. Sit cross-legged on a meditation cushion, or if that’s difficult, sit on a straight-backed chair with your feet flat on the floor, without leaning against the back of the chair.
Place your hands palms-down on your thighs and take an upright posture with a straight back, relaxed yet dignified. With your eyes open, let your gaze rest comfortably as you look slightly downward about six feet in front of you.
Place your attention lightly on your out-breath, while remaining aware of the environment around you. Be with each breath as the air goes out through your mouth and nostrils and dissolves into the space around you. At the end of each out-breath, simply rest until the next breath goes out. For a more focused meditation, you can follow both the out-breaths and in-breaths.
Whenever you notice that a thought has taken your attention away from the breath, just say to yourself, “thinking,” and return to following the breath. In this context, any thought, feeling, or perception that distracts you is labeled “thinking.” Thoughts are not judged as good or bad. When a thought arises, just gently note it and return your attention to your breath and posture.
At the end of your meditation session, bring calm, mindfulness, and openness into the rest of your day.
From A Beginner’s Guide to Meditation, edited by Rod Meade Sperry, © 2014 by Shambhala Sun. Reprinted by arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc., Boston, MA. www.shambhala.com