The importance of a good teacher
Recently I went to see the Marvel comic movie ‘Dr Strange’ and despite it being a work of fiction, upon walking out of the cinema I felt a strong reminder that it’s the physical presence of great teachers that are indeed a key catalyst to help bring together a better understanding of the essential nature of mind and develop the knowledge to work with different methods of meditation at different times to reach a desired state of total presence.
Often when I meditate I don’t use any particular method, I just allow my mind to rest in and find stillness quickly and quietly. This is especially the case when I am feeling inspired and practicing at inspiring locations. However at other times, and for the vast majority, we will find it difficult to arrive at that state straight away. This is when we need to employ a method of skilful means to evoke it. The method though is only the means and not the meditation. It is through practice of the method that you can reach the pure state of total presence, this is the real meditation. Mediation is therefore not something you can ‘do’ but something that slowly arises from a continued practice of a method (Buddha could apparently teach over 80,000 different methods). So when I hear a statement like ‘I tried meditation and it didn’t work for me’ or ‘I can’t do meditation’, it should be more correctly phrased ‘I tried a method of meditation and had difficulty in continuing with its practice’. The state of meditation was never actually reached so it is likely that either the method was not absorbed, explained or taught well, it did not resonate with the person at that time or the person trying it had an expectation for something to happen instantly and did not persevere with patient practice or the practice was not within a suitable environment for that individual.
With the modern world being consumed with its fascination of technology, I often hear people saying they’re mediating or learning meditation using an ‘App’. This always evokes a bit of an internal reflex giggle but also illustrates our addiction to technology and the programmed practical formulas of doing something for an anticipated result i.e. buy this Meditation App and receive Inner Peace and Harmony. Not to say that an ‘App’ can’t help but in my experience and especially if you are a beginner it can never come close to replacing a great teacher and in truth, if you are having trouble with meditation practice, starting out with an App could certainly be setting you up for disappointment and frustration.
Regardless of which method you use (3 effective and most common ones include using an object, reciting a Mantra and ‘watching’ breath) creating the right environment is vital for meditation and its practice. This will be initially true for the outer and inner conditions. A good analogy taken from Tibetan Master Songyal Rinpoche is that when you are a beginner to a practice, your mind is like a candle flame unstable and flickering away with the uncontrolled winds of our thoughts, emotions and distractions. The flame will only burn steadily when we can calm the air and turbulence around it. Once you find this stability noises and disturbances of every kind will have far less impact on your practice.
He also described that ‘the most important feature of meditation is not the technique but the spirit; the skillful, inspired and creative way in which we practice called ‘The Posture’. This is ‘the posture’ adapted with all 3 areas of body, mind and spirit’. My meditation ‘posture’ has been intimately shaped by all my teachers and I owe the depth of my practice to them. Just like when I dance you can see a little bit of all my great mentors come out, I feel the same way when I meditate, I evoke and emanate a little bit of their spirit and certainly more particular ones in particular situations. For example, if I ever feel my physical posture slouching I will never forget the feeling evoked from an experience with seeing my teacher Venerable Bhikkhu Sanghasena sitting majestically and at ease at the top of a Himalayan mountain just like the peak itself.
The night before he had instructed me to awaken at 4am and hike up a particular mountain behind our lodgings in the Himalayas for a sunrise meditation. It was a reasonably difficult hike and I was young and fit so the last thing I expected to see as I came around the final pass was Saghasena himself, who would be around 60 years old, already sitting in meditation at the mountain peak. For all I know he must have levitated up there but it was certainly a special moment that invoked a profound effect within as a great teacher can do.
Everyone and everything has the potential to teach us great lessons, including the students to a teacher but if you are finding meditation practice difficult or feel you had little success with it in the past, consider seeking the assistance from a good teacher. Buddhist monks are always a good option as it has been part of their culture for centuries. There is also now a teacher’s board (ATMA) that is starting to regulate Meditation Teachers and their level of training in Australia so you can search for one there. I have reached the training and teaching levels required to be recognised with them through my time in study and teaching at The Gawler Foundation Victoria and will soon be offering free drop in guided sessions and 6 Week Mindfulness Meditation Courses at our Wellness Centre in Byron Bay.
Meditation is much more than it’s practice and not something you just ‘do’. It should be an enjoyable, interesting, peaceful, challenging, educational, moving, spacious and fun journey whilst growing to skilfully evoke a state of calm abiding, leading to resting it in the very nature of mind.
I will sign off with a poem by another great Tibetan Master.
Rest in natural great peace
This exhausted mind
Beaten helpless by karma and neurotic thought,
Like the restless fury of the pounding waves
In the infinite ocean of samsara
Rest in natural great peace