Regarding learning meditation, on the front page of this website I have written:
“In the end it is YOU finding YOUR way. The teaching supports you in exploring, trying things, and ultimately trusting your experience.”
Putting it in a different way one writer on Zen meditation explains:
In zazen, you sit down and spend time with yourself ….. You are given a few basic pieces of advice, primarily about posture, and are encouraged to find out for yourself how to continue sitting. It’s that simple – and that difficult.”
[Edward Espe Brown, in Quiet Mind: A beginners Guide to Meditation (2008) ]
That best known of all meditation advocates, Gautama the Buddha lived and taught approximately 500 years before Christ, across the region that is now the India-Nepal border. That’s a long time ago, but a great body of his teachings are well recorded and widely taught in training programs to this day.
There is something of a paradox about Buddhist meditation instructions. They can be quite technically detailed, with some training programs teaching them in rather strict and regimented ways as if they were set in stone. Yet what we know of Buddha’s own journey is that he experimented greatly and developed his own ways.
Over some years, after he left his privileged palace life Gautama Buddha wandered the countryside of north India and visited a number of the renowned Gurus at their forest hermitages. These revered teachers were yogis or masters of Vedic spiritual lore. Of course there was no Buddhism then, nor was Hinduism an existing term or concept.
Gautama trained with these teachers, questioned them and practised all that they taught more diligently than anyone. Yet before long, with each of them he felt that their guidance could take him no further, and he left to carry on his own searching.
For much of the 6-8 years that he conducted this spiritual search, or ‘self-inquiry’ he did it by himself and under his own direction. Sometimes he had a handful of associates with him undertaking the same austerities and disciplines.
We are told he was practising solo when it came to that most famous evening and night, immortalized in all Buddhist literature, when he sat under the Bodhi tree and by morning achieved a so-called Enlightenment. And out of that enlightenment came the structure of his initial teaching program, the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. Meditation is a key part of that path.
The only reason for relating this very potted summary of Gautama Buddha’s spiritual journey is to emphasize the point I make on the homepage of this website: “In the end it is YOU finding YOUR way.” To paraphrase Frank Sinatra: Buddha did it his way.
While some meditation teaching can be strict and dogmatic, the greatest role model we have seems to have tried many approaches, chopped and changed, reviewed the results he was gettting and in the end put together a synthesis of what worked for him.
If we take up meditation we have lots of choices as we go along, about whether to try to follow the instructions exactly as we receive them, or to try adaptations and variations.
We can do both of course. I believe there is value in sticking to a learned practice fairly closely for a period of time. There is also value though in remembering that ultimately you must be the best expert on your own mind, and what works for you.
In any case there is something far more important than whether you follow directions exactly as they have been handed down over centuries, or whether you introduce your own creativity. The most important thing is that you practise – that you put in the time consistently. If you do that it may not matter too much which path you take in applying meditation directions.