I heard a meditation teacher give an interesting answer to a question about trauma. She said something like this:
“Don’t make a meditation project out of healing your trauma. Instead, cultivate the qualities that meditation offers, and let them do the healing.”
Some people use meditation as a collection of tips and tricks to fix specific problems. Others meditate as a path taught by the Buddha and other teachers. So which makes sense for me?
I’m struggling with multiple problems, and the one that troubles me the most changes from day to day. So there’s a regular feeling of alarm, but an irregular answer from my mind about what to do about it. The sensation of jumping from one thing to another is what anxiety and un-confidence feel like.
However, if I take the teacher’s advice above, then I have a single challenge. Meditation starts quite simply and becomes more complex as we see the options for further practice. If I take the building of a meditation path one step at a time, then I can focus. I’ll be able to think, without being scattered by shifting priorities.
People come to meditation for a wide variety of reasons. Some might be struggling with stress and want the medicinal benefit of secular meditation to reduce it. At the other extreme, there are those looking for a deep tradition to add to their spiritual journey.
All of these interests are matched by the wide range of meditation traditions. At the secular end are the amazing programs of MBCT and MBSR, with their evidence-based scientific approaches. Then there are the temples where nuns and monks can immerse themselves in the Buddhist traditions. And there’s everything in-between.
Wherever your goals lie on this spectrum, they will be best supported by establishing a solid base in mindfulness. Without it, I’ve seen people flailing about with poor teachings and unstable practices.
The 8-week MBCT/MBSR programs have been designed for the highest likelihood of success. Even though the programs might seem psychological and un-spiritual, they are the best chance to experience real mindfulness. The course designers know what works; they know how to teach it; and they know how to train the trainers.
What we build on top of this evidence-based foundation is up to us.
It’s often assumed that mindfulness has kindness built-in. I don’t think this is true. A counter-example is the way that some beginner meditators criticise themselves for not being mindful enough. It’s an act of unkindness towards one’s self.
Mindfulness needs to be deliberately filled with the quality of goodwill.
As well as making a healthy static meditation practice, kindness can also be used to give a sense of direction to the practice. It’s the first signpost that we are moving along in the direction of less suffering.
Mindfulness without kindness is like standing on one leg. It won’t get us very far along the path.