Meditation: Sense and Nonsense

When I was first learning to meditate, I looked for a teacher. There weren’t many options in Pittsburgh back then, and the Pittsburgh Shambhala Meditation Center looked like one of the better options. By all accounts, they offered solid meditation instruction to beginners and they seemed like nice, ordinary folks. (For what it’s worth, I think most people involved in Shambhala are nice, ordinary folks.) As I dug deeper into their beliefs and practices, however, I found some things that didn’t sit well with me:

  • At the higher levels of the organization, people were expected to take part in rituals that seemed like a kind of Tibetan medieval role-playing game.
  • There was a subgroup within the Shambhala organization called the Dorje Kasung–a kind of unarmed paramilitary.
  • Their long-term vision seemed to involve establishing a utopian kingdom of some kind.

My immediate reaction was, “Well, this is all nonsense.”

And my immediate reaction was correct.

And now this.

So here are a few tips to avoid nonsense as you look for a meditation teacher:

  • Meditation can be helpful in a lot of ways. The evidence suggests that it can help you increase your concentration, compassion, and sense of well-being. All good stuff. If a teacher suggests that it can solve all of your problems or raise you to some new level of humanity, however, you should run the other way.
  • Any talk of world peace, levitation, psychic powers, or any other claim that sounds like nonsense is, in fact, nonsense. You might have some weird experiences when you meditate, but they’re not supernatural.
  • Hierarchy is almost always bad news. Learning to meditate should be like learning how to play the piano or fix a motorcycle. The teacher can help you because he or she knows more about the subject than you do, but they are not some different kind of being.
  • The teacher-student relationship is always imbalanced. Teachers shouldn’t be sleeping with their students, whether they teach meditation, physics, or square-foot gardening.
  • Don’t trust anyone who says that you’re over-reacting or narrow-minded because you’re Western and you just don’t understand how things are done in the East. Your Western instincts are almost certainly correct.