In this age of widespread technological access and spontaneous dissemination of information, a plethora of content is available on every topic. We are indeed spoilt for choices. This dilemma presents itself in activities as routine as grocery shopping to more complex endeavors like learning a new skill. The biggest challenge it seems is making the right choice.
Once an aspirant overcomes his psychological barriers like procrastination, fear, reservations, etc., and decides to dedicate time to learning a new skill/art, the next big challenge is to find a credible source to learn from. This is where making the right choice becomes important. The consequent progress and results will vary depending on the choice. If the skill that one chose to learn is basic and the intent is to learn casually, then the results may not vary much, and hence the choice might not be as important.
But if one chose to learn something as intricate as meditation, then the source of knowledge and method of instruction will indeed define the outcome. For a serious aspirant who is determined to master the science of meditation, choosing the right source is the most important step. It’s not just the choice of content in the form of books or podcasts but the source of the knowledge i.e. coach/ mentor/ teacher/ guru that becomes crucial. The more time one spends in practicing an incorrect method, the more ingrained it becomes in the mind, and subsequently, that much more difficult to unlearn. The human mind, after all, is difficult to tame.
Based on my personal experience of interacting with meditation aspirants, I could classify people’s approach in one of the following ways; sometimes a combination of them:
Self-Learning: The internet has gifted us with the tools that can be used for self-upliftment. There is seemingly infinite content available online and an equal number of books on the topic of meditation. Making the right starting point holds the key. Since the art of meditation involves training the mind, any content read on this topic will have some psychic imprint. If the content does not actually have practical validity, one may end up picking up a totally different truth. Before taking up any course, the aspirants only have reviews to evaluate the quality of content, the authenticity of which is a bit questionable.
Assuming that one does end up with decent content, the complexity of the topic takes its toll eventually. No matter how easy the author/teacher may make it look, if not backed by practical experience, the words and practices do not hold any meaning.
“The task of becoming a metacognitively sophisticated learner is far from simple; it requires going against certain intuitions and standard practices, having a reasonably accurate mental model of how learning works, and not being misled by short-term performance and certain subjective indices”. (pdf)
There are numerous problems in making it on your own; you don’t recognize the issues standing in your way. Even if you do, you necessarily don’t know how to fix them. The result is that somewhere along the way you stop improving. It’s not about how good you are now; it’s how good you’re going to be that really matters.
Learning from a Novice: Learning from someone who has only surface-level knowledge of meditation may not be that helpful either. Just because somebody has acquired information and basic knowledge on meditation before you, does not make him/her worthy of being a coach. You will soon find that you are able to bridge the knowledge gap between yourself and the teacher, and there is nothing much to gain beyond that point. I once read “Knowledge is understanding that a tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad”.
Eventually, knowledge is nothing but “information and skills acquired through education and experience.”
When it comes to meditation, the mind, clouded by ego and emotions, loves to draw lofty conclusions, many of which pump up the importance of the “self”, which is a big trap. Working with an expert teacher, whom you have observed and tested to make sure you can trust them, is a great way to grow spiritually.
Learning from an Expert: Why should we go to experts? Because Experts have wisdom, “an astute ability towards sound judgment in the application of that knowledge, acquired over time through many experiences” (ref)
In the TED Talk “Want to get great at something? Get a coach”, Dr. Atul Gawande, a famous surgeon, and writer shares his experience about the influence of an expert coach in his life as a surgeon. Dr. Atul describes how he observed that once he had reached practice of 5 years as a surgeon, he could see the complication levels slowly dropping and eventually leveling out. A few years later, he realized he wasn’t getting better anymore, which led him to contemplate, “Is this the best I can get with my practice?”
He decided to get a coach and invited his old professor to observe him when he performed an operation. Although Dr. Atul thought the operation went well, his coach had a page full of comments. On discussion, Dr. Atul realized that it was a whole other level of awareness that the coach brought to the table with very minute and fundamental comments.
He quotes “Great coaches are your external eyes and ears, providing a more accurate picture of reality. They recognize the fundamentals; they break your actions down and help build them back again. It is a painful process, nobody likes to be observed, sometimes you feel you are getting worse before you actually get better. But it made me realize that coaches were onto something profoundly important. Coaching helps you to learn to execute the fundamentals.”
An expert helps you in getting you started in the right way by laying the foundation (where to start and how to start). After noticing certain progress, the expert helps you with maintaining the rhythm by prescribing the right rigor (how much to practice) as well as providing valuable insights on common mistakes and methods to correct them.
Arjuna had his Dronacharya, Vivekananda had his Paramahamsa, Tendulkar had his Achrekar. Bill Gates had his Warren Buffett, Oprah Winfrey had her Maya Angelou. Be it any field, every successful person has had a very strong backbone in the form of their go-to expert to whom they have returned time and again during their journey towards eventual success.
On a journey as challenging as self-transformation using meditation, you would need someone who has walked the path, who understands the subtleties of the practices, who is aware of the hurdles and challenges that the mind and body throw at you.
No matter how mystical the practice of meditation may sound, it is the conventional master-student approach that seems to facilitate organic learning and growth. The journey of mastering the art of meditation is like walking solo in a vast desert (without Google Maps). Only an expert can help you distinguish if you were heading towards a mirage or an oasis.
~ Rajesh Kodukula