Sometimes I have meditation students who have problems learning a particular meditation technique because it appears to be fundamentally different — even contradictory — to other approaches to meditating that they’ve learned.
In fact, I’ve had experiences myself that are similar in some ways to this. I once went on a retreat run by teachers who have a different approach to me in order to learn more about their techniques and perspectives, and I found that some of the things they said plunged me into doubt and confusion — and aversion.
I found myself in my meditation continually arguing about things that they had said and about how I thought they made no sense. There was one statement in particular that I thought was contrary to the Buddha’s teaching. A teacher said, “In vipassana we don’t try to get rid of the hindrances” — the hindrances being a traditional classification of distracted states of aversion, craving, and confusion. This threw me into turmoil for two days! I kept thinking of all the suttas (discourses of the Buddha) where he talks about the necessity of overcoming the hindrances. In the face of this (and other teachings), the advice not to try to rid the mind of the hindrances seemed positively un-Buddhist.
This turmoil went on until I had a chance to talk to the teacher who had made this statement. And when I told her I was confused, she replied, “Oh, I didn’t really mean that — it’s just something I say to the beginners.” The intention was to help beginners not to see it as “bad” that they were experiencing the hindrances: to help them avoid the trap of developing aversion to the hindrances and trying to push them away or suppress them.
So sometimes these confusions are apparent, and if you dig deeper you find that two seemingly different approaches aren’t as different as they might seem.
Other times meditation practices may actually be based on quite different premises. There are practices where you’re very definitely trying to bring particular states into being. For example you may be cultivating lovingkindness in the metta bhavana. There are other practices in which you may be just allowing your experience to arise, without interfering with anything. Those are very different approaches, but it’s not that one or the other is wrong: they’re just different tools.
When we cling to the idea that there’s one “right” way to meditate, and that new approaches are “wrong,” this isn’t very helpful. If you hear anyone saying that there’s only one way to meditate, I suspect they’re misinformed, caught up in clinging, or selling something.
The Buddha taught many different meditations: anapanasati (mindful breathing meditation) leading to jhana, meditations leading to the formless spheres, metta bhavana and the other brahmaviharas, six element reflection (and four- and five-element reflections), simply paying attention to the impermanence of our experience in meditation, etc. He taught visualization practices. He offered us a rich tool box of approaches to working with our experience.
These approaches are all valid and complementary, and the practice of one can enhance the experience of the others.
Some people might argue that in doing a number of meditation practices you’re digging many shallow wells rather than one deep well. But since meditation practices are different tools meant to accomplish specific tasks, it’s more like using a variety of tools to dig one deep well. Sometimes you need a shovel, sometimes you need a pickax, sometimes you might need a pry-bar, sometimes you need to take a rest (that’s a tool, too). You’re taking many different approaches — but to one end. There’s really only one task.
There are just two things I would add to this. One is that we need to be clear what the task is; what is the well you’re digging? And second, we need to use the right tool, or combination of tools.
That task, the well we’re digging through Buddhist meditation practice, is what I call “unselfing.” Any practice you’re doing is reducing the sense of having a fixed and separate self that leads us into suffering. Some of the approaches are “samatha” (i.e. they’re aimed at developing and strengthening positive qualities such as mindfulness and lovingkindness) and some are “vipassana” (i.e. they’re aimed at changing, on a fundamental level, how we see ourselves and our relation to the world) but all meditation practices involve unselfing.
Simply paying attention to your breathing — letting go of distractions as they arise and returning over and over to the breathing — unselfs us by quieting the constant thoughts we have that involve comparison, aversion, and clinging (activities that reinforce out sense of self).
Cultivating lovingkindness unselfs us by expanding our sense of concern beyond ourselves and into the lives of others, so that we see others’ joy and pain as being part of our concern. In a way we expand our sense of self, and thus dilute it.
Six element meditation unselfs us by helping us to see that there is no separate self. We’re not physically separate from the world, so there’s physically no “me.” Our consciousness is also not separate from the world either. There’s nothing to grasp onto; there’s not even a “me” to do any grasping.
“Just sitting” practices that lead to experiences of non-duality lead to unselfing by reducing our sense of separation.
Any meditation in which we’re observing the arising and passing of our experience is likewise unselfing. We train ourselves to see more and more clearly that there is no part of “us” that is stable. How, therefore, can there be a stable, static, separate self?
So we need to have a coherent sense of what it is that we’re actually doing. Deep down, there’s no conflict between these practices, because they’re all unselfing. Because the practices I do are all doing the same thing, but in different ways, they’re all complementing each other.
Then there’s a question of which tools to use, and in which combinations. For me, some form of mindfulness of breathing and some form of developing lovingkindness or compassion are crucial. These two practices are complementary to each other, and also essential. We need mindfulness. We need lovingkindness. And this may be all we do for a few years.
But eventually some form of vipassana approach is necessary as well, whether it’s six element meditation or simply observing the impermanence, non-self, or unsatisfactoriness of our experience (or doing all three).
I’m not too good at dealing with complexity, so two or three regular practices is about all I can manage, although when I’m on retreat I’m happy to explore other approaches. But I’d guess that for most experienced meditators something like three to four practices is enough to be getting on with. Precisely which ones
You may find it’s useful to have a schedule, and to plan out what practice you’re going to do on any given day: body scan on Monday, Mindfulness of Breathing on Tuesday, Metta Bhavana on Wednesday, etc. That might give your mind permission to be content with what you’re doing on any particular day. Or if you don’t suffer from the torment of not knowing which practice to do, you can just play it by ear. At times you might have to be disciplined so that you don’t avoid a practice you don’t think your “good at.” Other times you need to give yourself the flexibility to work on what needs to be worked on.
So to cut a long story short: don’t assume there’s only one right way to meditation. Be clear about what the well is that you’re digging, and see how the various tools available to you help you to dig that well. And lastly, choose the most appropriate meditative tools, and use them as wisely as you can.
Thanks…I needed that. I’m relatively new and confused by all that I’ve read (mostly Tibetan based material) about analytic meditation vs mindfulness of the breath. Your article very concisely summed up everything so that I now have a better understanding of the different approaches to meditation. Again…perfect timing and much appreciated.
Wonderful article. I have been confused on a number of occasions as to how many practices are too many. Some teachers say one is enough, but in my heart I felt that was not sufficient. As Americans/Westerners we have so many more options and choices in life (as compared to some third and second world Buddhist countries) and I believe we need that power of choice to feel comfortable. Committing myself to one practice just seemed a little too strange for me. I like to apply two or three as the situation and my mental state dictates, and after reading this article I feel more comfortable doing so. Thanks for the insight!
Please excuse me, I’d like to point out that the end of the third-to-last paragraph is missing (Precisely which ones……).
Also, second-to-last paragraph: “… so that you don’t avoid a practice you don’t think your “good at….” ‘your’ should be ‘you are’ here.
You might want to set this right.
Thanks, Silvia. The problem seems to have been a technical glitch involving my brain :)
Just wanted to say how much I appreciate the clear way you have set this out. And especially because – I agree!!