Recently I was interviewed by Hannah Atkinson of Windhorse Publications in the UK. I’m one of their authors, but she was curious to know more about the guided meditation CDs and MP3s that I’ve published through Wildmind.
Here’s the conversation:
You have produced a large number of guided meditation CDs and you also run a huge online meditation teaching resource, Wildmind. What is the ethos behind your emphasis on audio and online meditation teaching and why do you think it is so important?
Well, it’s something I stumbled into really about 13 years ago when I was doing my Masters degree at the University of Montana. I was wondering about how to teach and I started thinking about the potential of the internet to reach people. Back then there was nothing much on the internet about meditation at all, so it seemed like a really exciting thing to do. I started making meditation courses with audio and text available online and then the CDs just grew out of that really.
So I think that audio and online meditation teaching is a really great way of reaching lots and lots of people and it is also a really great way of reaching people who would have difficulty getting good instruction elsewhere. Perhaps in Britain there are people who don’t have their own transport and who have to travel 20 miles to go to a meditation class, but in the US it’s not uncommon for someone to be several hundred miles from their nearest Buddhist centre.
How effective do you think CD guides are as a teaching method? What are the advantages of your guides over a book or a meditation class, for example?
Every avenue of teaching has its particular advantages and disadvantages. A class is great because you’ve got a teacher there who can answer any question you might have about your meditation practice. But perhaps you go to the class once a week and when you get home you can’t quite remember what the instructions were, or perhaps you didn’t completely grasp the instructions and you’re not actually doing what you were taught. With a CD guide you have a meditation teacher at home – I mean you can’t ask any questions, but if it’s a well-led guided meditation then it will introduce you to some skills that you can repeatedly expose yourself to and begin to internalize.
Books are great for giving people things to think about but they’re pretty terrible from the point of view of leading you through a guided meditation. We’re not very good at memorizing and we don’t want to have to keep opening our eyes and peeking at the book to see what the next instruction is! Memorizing also involves effort that should just be going into paying attention to our experience.
So all these different teaching methods have their place, and I think ideally you want to be exposed to as many as possible, taking advantage of whatever is accessible to you. I think the most important thing is that you have a mixture of teaching and independent exploration in your practice. Guidance from someone who is more experienced than you is obviously essential in order to grow, but I also advise my students to give themselves time to do their own exploration because sometimes you just need to hit a difficult patch in your practice and find your own solution to the problem that you’ve been facing.
Let’s talk about a couple of your CD guides in particular. One has the title Guided Meditations for Stress Reduction. Why do you think meditation is so good at reducing stress?
Well, there are two parts to stress: one is the things happening in your life and the other is how you are responding to those things, and stress mainly comes from the latter. When we experience something difficult or challenging, often our minds go into overdrive – we start obsessively thinking, ‘This is terrible!’, ‘It’s going to go on forever!’ or ‘This shouldn’t be happening to me!’ These kinds of stories that we tell ourselves are where stress is really coming from, and meditation helps us to become aware of those stories and gives us the opportunity to let go of them.
Meditation can also help us to see other ways of being with difficult circumstances and experiences, for example, we can learn to just be with things that are uncomfortable. If you can just tell yourself, ‘This experience feels unpleasant right now’ without trying to run away from it, you’re not adding that secondary layer of suffering.
Yes, on your Guided Meditations for Stress Reduction CD you lead a meditation on acceptance. Can you talk a bit more about the relevance of acceptance to stress reduction?
If we recognize something unpleasant in our experience, we often feel a strong tendency to fix it. And if we’re in an emotional state of ill-will then yes, we need to do something straightaway to stop ourselves behaving in a destructive way. However, if we are just experiencing unpleasantness on the level of vedanas, trying to fix those feelings is misguided. Feelings may be unpleasant, but they’re never unskillful, while aversion to those unpleasant feelings is a form of unskillfulness.
Instead, I find it helpful to try to treat unpleasant experiences as opportunities to be compassionate. If I’m experiencing an unpleasant feeling – anger or fear, for example – I ask myself, ‘Where am I experiencing it in the body? Often it’s down in my solar plexus – I feel this kind of knot of tension there. So I recognize that this is suffering, and what is the most appropriate response to suffering in the world? It’s compassion. I therefore treat the suffering that I’m experiencing in my body as something that needs compassion – I wish the pain and discomfort in my solar plexus well.
I find that if I do this, the whole superstructure of anger completely disappears, because the point of the anger in evolutionary terms is to defend us from the thing that is causing us hurt or fear right now, but in the majority of circumstances in modern-day life, a defensive, angry response is a destructive rather than a useful one. So through meditation we can learn to be mindful and compassionate towards unpleasant experiences rather than reactive and defensive.
The most recent of your CD guides available on the Windhorse Publications website is Mindfulness Meditations for Teens. Why did you produce a CD specifically for teenagers? What benefits can teenagers gain from meditating?
Well that CD came out of some teaching that I’ve been doing in the summer – there’s a national academic enrichment programme for High School students in the United States called ‘Upward Bound’, and I’ve been teaching a study skills personal development course with that for over 10 years now. A few years ago I started introducing a short meditation session into each class, and this was with some trepidation. Would I end up with a fundamentalist Christian parent knocking on my door complaining that I’d been indoctrinating their child? Would the kids just find it really boring? I didn’t know what the response was going to be at all. But it turns out that it is always their favourite part of the course! So I thought, ‘Well if I’m doing something that’s working for 30 teens over the summer, why not record it and make it available for other people as well?’
And in terms of the benefits that teenagers can gain from meditating, I think they’re the same as for people in general really because being a teenager is just an intense form of being human! If you think about all the difficult things about being human, they are all things that teenagers experience really intensely. Take change, for example, teenagers are experiencing constant change in their lives. Each year they have to learn new subjects with new teachers, their bodies are changing, they’re moving into being adults and having to deal with all the pressures of developing romantic, sexual relationships. And they’re going through all this at a time when their brains are still developing as well.
So the way that I teach meditation to teenagers isn’t that different from the way that I teach it to people in general, although I do keep the meditations fairly short and break them down so that we’re just focusing on doing one particular thing in a meditation practice, and I try to keep the vocabulary more simple and appropriate for young people.
Lastly, for those who haven’t used CD guides in their meditation practice before, what is the one thing you would tell them in order to convince them to give it a try?
I would suggest being open to the possibility that there are skills and perspectives that other people may have learned that might be useful in your own life. I know that from my own experience, the guidance that I’ve received from meditation teachers has been enormously enriching because it has exposed me to different ways of approaching life. So I’d really encourage other people to be open to experiencing that as well.