Monday, May 12, 2014

A Beginner's Guide to Meditation edited by Rod Meade Sperry

A Beginner’s Guide to Meditation:  Practical Advice and Inspiration from Contemporary Buddhist Teachers edited by Rod Meade Sperry is a collection of essays, most of them quite short, from several familiar and some not-as-familiar names in Buddhism.  Although the title suggests this anthology is for the beginner, I think it is ideally suited not to the true beginner, to someone who has never tried meditation, so much as it is ideal for those who have tried to meditate an maybe not experienced much success or those who are meditating but are unsure if they are doing it quite right.

Hint:  If you are doing anything, you’re doing it right.

Part One introduces mindfulness meditation, focusing on the breath, with essays from Sharon Salzberg, Thich Nhat Hanh, and Clark Strand.  You may have never heard of that last writer but I love his book Seeds From a Birch Tree.  There is an invitation in this first part to practice meditation for only 2 weeks and Norman Fischer defrays the usual excuses why it can’t be done.  By the end of the first part, the reader who has tried and failed will be inspired to try again while the one who is practicing will be reassured that the most essential part of meditation practice is simply showing up.

Part Two redirects the reader only slightly, exploring how attention in meditation can be used to benefit the practice.  Sylvia Boorstein and Jack Kornfield as well as the perhaps less familiar Noah Levine and Gen Lamrimpa talk about metta meditation and insight meditation (a great Q&A style piece by Sayadaw U Pandita) alongside another from Thich Nhat Hanh on walking meditation.  Each subject is given a cursory introduction so a reader wanting to learn more will hopefully be inspired to find other resources that will take them further. 

Hint:  Thich Nhat Hanh has an entire book on walking meditation that includes a DVD & CD on walking meditation which is quite good!

Part Three focuses on the practical—sitting zazen on a zafu.  Anyone who’s read Natalie Goldberg probably recognizes these words but you don’t have to know which is what to benefit from this section.  There are articles on koan practice from James Ishmael Ford and John Tarrant along with a wonderful except from Shunryu Suzuki Roshi’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind

Part Four gets to the nitty-gritty of some of the challenges of an ongoing meditation practice, the importance of perseverance, as well as taking the practice deeper still using lojong slogans (the essay is from Judy Lief and I just finished reading Pema Chödrön’s book Start Where You Are so, as you see, a curious reader who wants more than an essay can easily find other resources to explore after finishing this book). 

Part Five talks about meditation retreats, meditating in a sangha, and reminds the reader to just do it.  Some may be surprised to see a section from Cyndi Lee and David Nichtern on yoga and meditation but the Buddha practiced yoga before finding enlightenment and the two are innately complementary to one another.  The concluding piece from Pema Chödrön is a perfect closing to what is a wonderful collection, one that lends itself to being a permanent collection to anyone’s library.

The editor has culled powerful pieces from Shambhala publications.  The essays are organized to build upon one another very clearly while others almost seem to bookend one another.  There is a tightness implied within a collection that nonetheless manages to flow from one idea to the next.  If this collection doesn’t inspire the non-practitioner to meditate, I can’t imagine one that could do it.  For someone who is already meditating regularly and perhaps wanting to take the practice to the next level, I’m confident this book will have ideas to move the practice into a more experiential one, whether through the moving meditation of walking/yoga or through the use of koans and slogans.  I would be genuinely surprised if even a longtime practitioner didn’t come away with some new insight and inspiration.  Altogether, a wonderful resource.

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