My instructions to first-time meditators are becoming more and more minimalist. These days, it’s something like “Sit quietly and notice what’s going on.” It used to take longer—when I was the meditation instructor at a Soto Zen sangha in Mountain View, California, I would spend thirty to forty minutes telling newbies how to sit, how to breathe, how to bow—not to mention how to enter and leave the zendo, how to ask a question, and (talk about setting them up!) what to expect.

Part of my “quickie” approach these days is dictated by logistics. At the jail where three of us local “zennies” take turns leading a men’s meditation program, we are almost always with inmates who have never meditated before, and we have limited time. I want to give them a taste right now of the essence of meditation. And when I’m leading our local weekly evening meditation group, new folks always seem to walk in as I’m about to ring the bell, so it’s a quick “Welcome . . . shoes off, please . . . chair or cushion? . . . so OK, why don’t you just sit and notice what’s going on for the next thirty minutes . . . thank you.”

Amulet, Steven B. Perkins, © Steven B. Perkins
Amulet, Steven B. Perkins, © Steven B. Perkins

That’s it? What about eyes open? Forty-five-degree head tilt? Cosmic mudra, thumbs just barely touching? Spine as straight as the proverbial tower of gold coins? Tongue on roof of mouth? Breath awareness? Counting? Attention on the hara? Letting thoughts through without stopping for a chat?

All this is fine to experiment with once someone’s made the decision to practice, but for first-timers? I prefer giving them a big field to play in by following my core belief about meditation, that there’s no way to do it wrong — as opposed to just about everything else in life! During the course of my day, I often have an underlying editorial commentary, along the lines of “Hey, good job, Barry . . . uh-oh, you really screwed up there . . . man, you’re doing well . . . oh god, the day’s gone and I’ve done nothing!” Meditation, on the other hand, comes and goes, the antidote to goal-oriented existence: I meditate because I meditate, and for the most part, I don’t try to improve it or tinker with it. It is what it is.

My problem with detailed meditation instructions is that by their very nature, instructions imply there are good ways and bad ways to do something. They say, this is what you should be doing, this is right, this is wrong. Instructions set up goals, just like in “real” life.

I wonder if this is why so many people try meditation once and quit, feeling they’ve somehow failed? At my old sangha, we estimated that out of five or six first-timers who came to the instruction session (followed by a sit), we saw just one of them again. For the vast majority, that one time was enough. How many times have I heard something like “Yeah, I tried meditation once, but it didn’t work for me. . . . I just couldn’t do it right. . . . My mind wouldn’t calm down”?

If a newcomer does have questions or concerns, I encourage them to try it first and ask questions after. Someone sitting for the first time can learn more about meditation in thirty real-time minutes than any experienced meditator can explain to them in that same amount of time. Because meditation isn’t about following directions down a mental highway: it’s an off-road adventure. 

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