The best advice I ever got was from the Thai Forest tradition monks that I’ve been on retreat with. In a hundred different ways, generally in their very laid back but persistent way, they said: have a go.
I first found their attitude confusing. I’d been told that Buddhism was the most comprehensive and systematic approach to awakening, and my discovery of an intricate Pali lingo of vipassana and samatha bore this out. The monks would casually mention jhana and samadhi in one breath, but then their meditation instructions would be (to me) incredibly sparse. ‘You can try this… or this… or that’, they would say, and I would be flummoxed. Which was the best approach? Why were they not explaining their rationale?
Now I tend to explain my rationale in this blog, because I think it can reassure the more intellectual and partly because I like the sound of my own typing, but for the beginner, it’s all about actually developing some experience that you can then apply the theory to. If you don’t know what the attempt to follow the breath feels like, then how can you know what all this stuff about applied and sustained attention means?
The attempt to prepare so much that you never make a mistake is paralysing in every pursuit, and while I am now a bit of a dharma dictionary compared to some practitioners I know, often I was reading when I knew I should have been sitting. Another little game of avoidance. I wonder now, if I was so fascinated by the Four Noble Truths as an undergraduate, why I didn’t sit down and try the meditation that the Buddha kept banging on about? (That is an enquiry in itself that can bear fruit.)
I sometimes say ‘smells right’ when talking to someone about practice, which is to say that based on my intuition, the thought they’re professing seems true. You get to know what something smells like by, well, smelling it. You can recognise that oh so delicious smell of awakening more and more. A compass that sets you back to North, a person in the dark going by feel; the metaphors are endless.
You can find out what practices you’re deeply interested in, and frankly, which ones you’re good at, by trying them. If you are a beginner and you find you immediately fall into states of bliss when you do a loving-kindness practice, that’s going to encourage you to try further, and maybe with a little bit of advice, you can start to use that as a base for insight meditation. If you love praising God, you’re going to want to do it more.
Conversely, if you hate a practice: why? What is it about it that you can’t stand? What is the lesson there? I won’t say I haven’t bloody-mindedly kept on at times to find out what lies beyond the knee ache. There is a point at times to going where it hurts, and finding out why in a visceral manner is what awakening is all about. You can’t read that stuff in a book.
Another aspect of ‘have a go’ is the self-responsibility it entails. You get to decide what practice you try. You get to decide when enough is enough, what is honestly working, what you are getting out of practice, how much is realistic, how to trust your own intuition, how to know when you are deluding yourself. I am a big fan of naked faith these days, but as ever it is not as simple as just agreeing with everything your teacher says when you deeply feel it is wrong, and you risk getting abused or wasting your time if you’re not careful.
‘Have a go’ implies putting up with a bit of difficulty for a greater reward. The sense of accomplishment of something worthwhile and wholesome is a good motivator – never mind all this ‘have no sense of gaining’ stuff that simply isn’t in accord with how the pleasure principle works – and later on that dogged persistence will become a habit. I say all of this from experience: playing on hard mode from the start makes you capable of much more equanimity.
But mainly: experimentation is fun. It might make you feel more scientific to do it systematically, and it might help (or it might not, who knows?) but in the main, play is known as a way we learn well, and we stick with things we enjoy. I’ve been guilty of being a masochist at plenty of points in practice, and I never developed a solid sitting routine. Starting to look forward to taking advantage of the new and curious things that happen in your practice this time can only be a good thing.