There are hundreds of different types of meditation. How do you know which technique, or tradition, is right for you?
I’d like to propose that this is the wrong question. I don’t believe there is a technique right for you, or anyone. There is no method you need to adopt, no approach you need to stick to. The way you meditate will likely change and evolve, just as your needs, desires and goals change. And one can never know what particular instruction or practice will work at any given time.
Meditation can be much less structured and disciplined than you might think. It need not be the diligent application of some instruction. Instead it can be thought of as an ongoing organic and instinctive relationship with yourself. It need not even be taught. You can learn it just as you learned to walk. A little encouragement is sufficient.
If you’ve developed the habit of thinking of meditation as returning to the breath, or scanning your body, or repeating a mantra, you might be surprised to learn that none of these tools are necessary. It’s possible to meditate without such props. Indeed, I tend to regard any technique as a training wheel, necessary only as long as you can’t manage without aid.
Meditation need not even be a practice in which you endeavor to calm yourself down. Instead, it can be a place where you stay with whatever it is you happen to experience: to-do lists, agitation, sleepiness, old memories, flashes of color, anxiety or grief, long trains of thought, stillness, quiet, restlessness, weird images, odd body sensations, relaxation, discomfort, pain, deep focus and so on. Whatever happens is meditation, regardless of how it looks or what you think. Why? Because whatever happens once you decide to meditate is meditation. You’ve set the stage for things to happen in a different way. It may seem like you are just daydreaming, just gnawing on old hurts, or indulging in fantasy and pointless rumination; but the intention to meditate will alter your experience, albeit perhaps only in subtle ways.
Consider, for example, the ways in which you relate to your thoughts and emotions in daily life. Generally speaking, social norms require that we suppress our true thoughts and feelings to some extent. It’s not appropriate, for example, to strangle your boss, nor to burst into tears at every perceived hurt. Furthermore, our busy schedules often don’t allow us the time to pay full attention to our thoughts and feelings. They need to be put aside in order for us to perform our jobs, or even to respond to the people we’re talking to.
But thoughts and feelings that get put aside don’t go away. They just get buried. Is it a good idea to continue to dismiss these thoughts and emotions? Perhaps meditation can be a place where we refrain from this self-censorship? In this way you can relate to yourself in a very intimate, honest and authentic manner. You can acknowledge your own experiences with more patience and kindness than is possible in everyday life. And in meditation you can sit with your thoughts and feelings in order to understand and learn from them, rather than simply indulging them, as may happen when you are not meditating.
Normally, of course, the discipline of a meditation practice is in continually returning your attention to an ‘anchor’, usually the breath. Here though, the discipline is just the opposite. It’s in learning to be with your thoughts and feelings for longer, and to tolerate them at greater intensities than you might normally. This doesn’t mean that you have to adopt an ascetic or stoic attitude. If things feel over-powering, or too intense, then you may choose to direct your attention into more neutral territory. Through this process, your thoughts and feelings become less distracting. Rather than problems, they become areas to explore. And in this process you can learn to be less harsh and self-critical. Through kindness there is less conflict, and less struggle.