The short answer? Yes, you pretty much can. It’s a short answer, but it’s not like a super high endorsement with spectacular confidence answer. But the answer is still yes, you can. Books and meditation have a grand tradition together.
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A lot of the meditative literature, mostly in Sutras, are in a written form. Of course, they initially started out verbally what we might consider as audio books in live time. Or if I wanted to be a bit more self-promotional, I might say the scriptures and the oral form were the original podcasts. There have always been some sort of supplemental materials to the direct instruction given by a meditation teacher. So meditation and books, they have a long history together.
But what about question can you learn meditation only from a book?
You can definitely get far in meditation, only from a book. You can learn about techniques, stories. You can get ideas to reflect on. You can get inspiration. But what a book can’t give you is accompaniment on the path.
Sure, someone who’s very open-hearted and can feel a direct connection with the writer and can feel a sense of accompaniment and that’s very important. But it’s different from accompaniment of live human beings who are going along the path, learning what you’re learning together along with you. In a previous podcast, I talked about sangha, a spiritual community, and that’s what I’m trying to intimate here.
A sangha is a group of have living meditators meditating with you. A sangha can accelerate your meditation skill and knowledge and understanding of self. An experienced meditation teacher can help guide you along the path. One of the biggest benefits is that you can get feedback in real time.
I like to use the analogy of sports and music a lot in this podcast, and it really also applies here. A coach, whether that be a sport coach, a music teacher, or a meditation teacher, can see things that you might not be seeing yourself or aware of that need to be tweaked in order to improve your progress in whatever you’re trying to excel at.
When learning meditation the feedback is mostly on your perspective on the meditation techniques and principles. A good teacher can point out tiny details, which can often result in big improvements.
Coming back to the sports example, it could be a simple thing like how you place your hands on a baseball bat, or your attitude when you come to practice or your mind-set when you’re performing.
The attitude towards practice is the single most important factor in success after the basics of skill and knowledge have been learnt. Having someone model a light hearted but focused intensity can do wonders for your meditation practice. It’s invaluable and it can’t really be learned from a book.
A common experience most of us have is that we can take on the excitement someone else has for something and join in it. A great example of this is kids play. I love having an actual cup of tea, but I admit to having a lot of excitement over pretend tea with little kids.
Or I normally don’t get too excited about the sequence of letters in the alphabet, but when I start singing them along with kids, suddenly it’s the greatest piece of musical composition ever created.
Normally I don’t really wonder about which direction the wheels on the bus go, but bring an enthusiastic kid, singing that song and it’s really exciting that they go round and round.
Similarly with sports. Sports is this made up thing that a group of athletes gather together and pretend to represent a specific city, even though often most of them aren’t even from that city. Butwhen I’m out at a sporting event or watching a sporting event with friends and family, we all get this pretend excitement, which is still genuine emotion, the emotion is genuine, but the excitement is a veiled excitement, pretending like somehow all of these athletes represent us or me or the city I happen to be living in.
And that’s what it’s like in joining others on the meditative path. You can draw on their enthusiam and passion and let it ignite similar feelings inside of you. A great meditation teacher can truly inspire and bring forth reserves of dedication and commitment and stamina from within you. Reserves you might not have thought even existed inside of you.
It can be a revelation of the self where you realize how much you are truly capable of. In this revelation, seemingly fixed boundaries, boundaries that you didn’t even realize existed, boundaries you thought were the truth and undeniable, are pushed aside and you’re able to achieve more than you thought possible.
A living teacher, a coach, a mentor can ignite that fire inside of you.
But here’s the twist.
Sometimes a living teacher or coach might hinder your progress or crush your enthusiasm. Some teachers and coaches may not have your best interests at heart. They may be controlling or overpowering or manipulative or trying to get something else from you.
This is a common occurrence.
Stories of discouraging or overbearing or abusive teachers are almost a daily event. Sometimes you would have been better off not enlisting the help of a teacher or coach.
But if we’re talking about sincere, loving, ethical teachers, they really can be a big help. If we’re talking about a sincere, loving, ethical meditation community, it really can be a big help.
They can support you in enthusiasm and dedication.
Another way a meditation teacher or coach can help is by understanding the ups downs of progress as you try to master a skill. A book or a meditation app can’t replicate those things. I hinted at this when I said a teacher can give you feedback in real time. This is what I was referring to.
Inevitably, no matter the skill you’re trying to learn, you’re going to come up against obstacles. There will be times during which you’ll feel: Wow I can’t believe what I’m learning or how I’m feeling or, or the change that’s happening inside me and in my life. This is just spectacular!
And there’s going to be times during which you’ll feel: It seems like I’ve been doing this thing over and over again, day after day, month after month, maybe even year after year. And nothing seems to have changed. Things just seem to have plateaued!
Someone who’s been on this journey can help you understand this journey. They can guide you into overcoming these feelings of lack of progress. Or maybe there really is a lack of progress and something needs to be changed. Someone who knows this journey can help you identify what needs to be changed and how to change it.
A book or the modern day experience of a meditation app, can’t replicate this type of feedback. These tools can give you wisdom about techniques, you can become more aware of issues things within yourself, but some habits are more easily identified by other people. We all have our own blind spots.
For the most part, you can learn meditation from a book or an app, but your progress might be slow and you won’t get live feedback or transferred enthusiasm.
But on the other hand, the positive is you’ll be in charge of your own journey. No one can discourage it unjustly. What you achieve is up to you.
So, if you don’t have access to a good meditation teacher, I still encourage you to dive into all the resources available to you. Books, apps, podcasts, documentaries, everything that’s available right now.
That’s the great thing about the modern age, anything you want to learn there is an ocean of wealth of material that you can draw from.