For at least 2,500 years, there was general agreement in spiritual circles around the world that some form of meditation was the best, quickest, most powerful way to deepen and transform the mind and gain access to the wiser, more real self within. While there were always a few who thought differently, the idea of transmission—seeking then learning the process of meditation from an awakened teacher and applying it to oneself—was the accepted method. And the idea of “method” itself was seldom challenged, except maybe in Zen and some pretty esoteric traditions, far from the mainstream. In this context, the authority of the teachers, and of a system in which someone gets authorized to teach, the simple necessity of the teacher, mainly went unquestioned as well.
The consensus was, first of all, why reinvent the wheel? If you wanted to learn carpentry, or play the piano, sure, you could go to an Ace or True Value and buy a bunch of tools and fool around until you made a table that would stand up; or you could noodle around the keyboard until you found the melodies and were able to play a tune that didn’t make the cats hide under the bed. But why bother? Why do it the hard way, when you could find a master carpenter or piano teacher and learn directly from them? The same reasoning was applied to developing the inner life or spiritual nature.
The second idea was, at least as far as spiritual practice and meditation were concerned, you were likely to fool yourself into thinking you were getting somewhere if you tried it on your own, without a teacher or practice community to check you and correct mistakes. It would be like sailing without a map. You might hit land, but you might just as easily go in circles and get nowhere except the bottom of the ocean.
All of that began to change, however, in the twentieth century. Maybe because of the growing challenges to traditional religion posed by science and psychology; maybe because of the rise of the democratic impulse, the notion that individuals are capable and worthy in their own right, and that creativity isn’t limited to any special class of “geniuses”; but whatever the reason, the whole structure of “seek and you shall find” and “follow an authority figure” got upended by a series of figures who challenged the ancient status quo, perhaps starting with J. Krishnamurti in the 1920s, then followed by Alan Watts, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (Osho), and a host of lesser-known teachers until a loose-knit movement of sorts gained steam and began to filter down to the average person interested in spirituality and meditation.
I became interested in these so-called “radical” teachings when I was in my twenties, and found the idea of “teaching myself”—of not relying solely on the received wisdom of others, from earlier ages, whom I had never met—exciting and attractive. Ironically, one of the side effects of this interest was that I fell in with an authoritarian guru and developed a powerful process addiction that took me years to work through and come out the other side. The unconscious mind sometimes has agendas that the conscious mind knows nothing about. This is worth noting in any important endeavor.
Eventually, I was able to sort out what I had learned and separate what worked and was valuable to me and what wasn’t. It was at that point that I began to realize that some of what helped with meditation came from sources outside of any formal training whatsoever, such as therapy, martial arts, even art, music, and poetry. I started to tinker with what I’d learned, and to introduce some of these “outside” elements and play with them. After all, I figured, how can anything really be “outside” me, or any of us?
The bottom line I reached with all of this was, formal meditation training is great. Studying with a qualified teacher, and being picky in choosing a qualified teacher, is at least as important in this field as any other. Being willing to break ties and leave if necessary, as in a marriage or other intimate relationship, to keep yourself from harm, is also very important. But having done all that, I came to believe that beginning to experiment on your own is also a good thing.
It’s like jazz. You learn to play straight, first, from “Chopsticks” to some of the simpler tunes Mozart composed when he was a little kid and then on to more complex pieces. Then you can branch out, explore, try crazy ideas. Because, as the saying goes, “you’ve paid your dues.” You have a grasp of the basics that enables you to touch and use your own creativity.
So what I want to suggest is that you consider creating your own, tailor-made meditations, something just right for you. That isn’t to say that they might not work for others, as well: that is certainly what people like the Buddha and Patanjali discovered. And, if you don’t turn out to be the Picasso of meditation, so what? Yes, there are geniuses at everything, including spirituality and meditation. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t discover and develop our own gifts in these areas. We should regard such masters as inspirations, not blocks to our efforts. And I know people whose names you’ve never heard of that regularly come up with recipes for dishes that are every bit as delicious as those served in the best, high-priced restaurants. And there are singer-songwriters playing in small clubs right now where the audiences talk over songs as good as those written by well-known artists who get major airplay and end up on Spotify. How will you know if you’re one of those, if you don’t try? And if you come to have three students who learn something about meditation from you, and two of them are relatives, how is that not worthwhile?
So I recommend learning the ropes first. Take a course, learn online, find a teacher—whatever works for you. But if you’ve done some of that, ask yourself if maybe creating personalized meditations might be something you would enjoy and benefit from. If the answer is yes, give it a shot. You won’t know unless you try.
The question, then, of course, is “how”? Or so it seems. When Krishnamurti was once asked that, he replied, “If I may suggest, do not ask that question.” He went on to explain that asking “how” can be a way of blocking ourselves. We are often taught to doubt our own capability, and this can turn to chronic self-doubt. Just start, without necessarily knowing “how.” Learn. Find out. We are often wiser than we know.
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