If you are perfectly happy all of the time with the conscious quality of your experience and with the self that emerges as a result, then you don’t need to meditate. For the rest of us, the skill of consciousness can be mastered through remedial mindfulness practices. Here is a partial inventory of some of the resources I have found helpful, along with some very brief commentary.
I have well over a decade of experience as a student of a range of techniques, including Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), Shambhala, and Goenka Vipassana. I now mainly practice and teach Shinzen Young’s non-sectarian “Basic Mindfulness”. I also have experience with addiction recovery and several other personal development modalities. I am not a traditional Buddhist in the religious sense, but I do appreciate the classic Dharma. My perspective is informed by the late Leslie Dewart’s realistic, non-reductionistic, non-dualistic, emergent, evolutionary philosophy of consciousness. So far as I know, I am the first to attempt a practical application of Dewart’s phenomenologically derived insights.
Shinzen Young is my own mindfulness teacher. He has developed an exquisitely elaborated system of meditation practices which can be customized to suit just about every taste and proclivity. You don’t need to do or even understand the whole thing to get exemplary results from selected parts of it, but Shinzen does seem to attract intellectuals such as myself who enjoy understanding things. Here is the Practice Manual. A further essay by Shinzen, What is Mindfulness? provides more technical and historical context. I recommend this noting vocabulary for vipassana.
Shinzen’s YouTube Channel presents a complete curriculum which you could, in principle, simply watch and do; in practice, however, most people benefit from more interaction than just that. One Stephanie Nash (another student of Shinzen’s and a teacher herself) has a YouTube Channel of interviews with Shinzen, also with much excellent material. Shinzen has many other talks on the Internet, like this Google Tech Talk and of course his keynote address to the 2011 Buddhist Geeks Conference.
If I were to recommend just one book on meditation it would be Daniel Ingram’s Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha (MCTB), which is both freely available for download and can also be ordered in hard copy. The Amazon listing features a number of excellent critical reviews which collectively provide a good introduction to the book and some of the issues it raises.
The key idea of MCTB is that Enlightenment (yes, the “Big E”) is neither a myth nor a fairy tale nor an impossible goal requiring “many lifetimes” to attain. It is a natural (but heretofore rare) stage of human development which predictably follows upon the skilful exercise of a sufficient dose and course of certain kinds of meditation, specifically, the so-called “insight” practices. Done competently, this takes about the same investment of effort as, say, earning an academic degree or learning to play a musical instrument. Though a real phenomenon, most of the projections and fantasies heaped upon enlightenment through the ages do not hold up to reality testing. Nevertheless, behind the hype is something both attainable and well worth attaining. Moreover, the psycho-spiritual territory leading up to the crucial perspectival breakthrough (traditionally called “stream-entry”) has been well mapped by certain traditions in Buddhism. One key thing to know about that map is that there is a dip — and for some unfortunates, a seemingly inescapable pit — called the Dark Night that can happen along the way. Because not everyone experiences the progress of insight quite so distinctly, Shinzen downplays the “maps” that Ingram stresses in MCTB. But some — such as myself — find them profoundly useful and inspiring, especially in making the switch from thinking “something is very wrong with me and I guess I’m stuck with it” to “I just have a garden variety insight problem, and all I have to do is a certain amount of the right kind of meditation practice to come out of this better than well.” For those who relate, this is better than solid gold.
Ingram has a Website called The Dharma Overground (DhO for short), a bustling place with lots of discussion and a full spectrum of opinions and competence. There is a section devoted to Shinzen’s teachings which I monitor and answer questions on from time to time.
Kenneth Folk is another teacher in the same cohort as Ingram and Shinzen — all of whom are connected in various ways to yet another teacher, the late Bill Hamilton — whom I would like to mention here. Also worth calling out in connection with the “pragmatic dharma” crowd are the podcasts and other resources of Vince Horn’s Buddhist Geeks. Here is the bubbling fountain of cool and interesting ideas and perspectives, just don’t expect them all to agree with each other. I treat this primarily as entertainment and inspiration. Having approached it that way myself a couple of years ago, this is where I first found out about Ingram and the DhO, and through a long chain of events eventually Shinzen. Thank-you, Vince; you too are on my gratitude list.
So far, I have been talking about books, videos, and individual teachers. If you really want to jump in with both feet and develop rapidly, you could do a lot worse than making time for a 10-day Vipassana Course in the tradition of S.N. Goenka. I myself have done the 10-day course five times. Some who do it find all they need there, “marry” that tradition and the technique it proposes, and settle in for (at least) a lifetime of steady progress. Others give it a try and move on to other things. I am not qualified to teach Goenka’s brand of Vipassana per se, but out of gratitude for all I have learned there I am very happy to recommend it to others to whom it may appeal. If you happen to be part of some other program that depends upon a “spiritual experience” to relieve certain kinds of suffering, but you aren’t feeling the magic and you want to fast-track things a bit, this boot camp may be just the thing for you. At the very least, you will learn to “sit” without fidgeting — a valuable skill based on strong determination, not to be underestimated. (By the way, if you are going to a Goenka course, my top piece of advice would be to get a cushion or bench properly fitted and tested before you show up so you don’t waste valuable time second-guessing your posture. Also, these courses are run entirely by donation on a “dana” basis and new students are not permitted to pay anything unless and until they complete their first course and feel moved to do so. In other words, if you want to go you probably can.)
Finally, a word about diet and exercise. If you are interested in the human mind, and in particular you want your own to function optimally, you ought to keep your body in reasonably good shape. Human consciousness is not reducible to the function of the human organism, but organic function is the sole cause of cognition nonetheless. Sub-optimal health can and does impair the irreducibly self-present organic process that we experience as the mind. Therefore, I recommend that everybody get at least moderate exercise on a regular basis and eat exclusively a whole-food, plant-based diet. This is congruent with a wide range of traditional teachings supporting vegetarianism, if not outright veganism, for ethical reasons. Over and above that, recent scientific research has conclusively demonstrated that notwithstanding the cultural momentum and massive economic investment that we as a society have in an animal-based diet, plant-strong is also the way to go for environmental and especially health reasons. Read the book The China Study, watch the documentary Forks Over Knives, and either sample the full-length lectures of the Vegetarian Society of Hawaii or dip into the bite-sized morsels at Dr. Greger’s Website for more information.