Is it OK to enjoy meditation? What if I don't want to?
There's more than one way to meditate, as anyone who has perused the dizzying array of practices on Insight Timer or YouTube will know. Within the Buddhist traditions alone, we find concentration/samadhi, insight, heart-opening and energetic meditation techniques, along with other related techniques like contemplation.
Different constellations of these techniques show up in different traditions. For example, early Buddhism has jhana practice for samadhi, the Four Foundations of Mindfulness for insight, and the Brahmaviharas for heart-opening, but not much in the way of energetic practices. Rinzai Zen, on the other hand, mainly stresses insight and energetics (Hakuin's 'two wings of a bird'). Within traditions, too, different teachers will have different emphases and different go-to practices to share with their students. (You can see my standard offering for new meditators in my free book Pathways of Meditation.)
But, in such a saturated marketplace, how are you supposed to know which techniques to practise, and what difference does it make anyway?
The Buddha's advice on different paths of practice
In the Pali canon (the oldest records of the teachings of the historical Buddha), we find a discourse (AN4.163 if you want to read the whole thing) which sets out some of the different paths available to us.
"Mendicants, there are four ways of practice. What four?
1. Painful practice with slow insight,
2. painful practice with swift insight,
3. pleasant practice with slow insight,
4. pleasant practice with swift insight."
To me, the fourth option sounds the best, no question! But actually there are arguments to be made for each approach.
Some of us are naturally more drawn to the unpleasant aspects of life. The historical Buddha initially became interested in practice precisely because of the problem of human suffering - sooner or later, all the things we love change and vanish, and we get old, sick and die, so what's the point of any of it? Why love anything when you know it's just going to be taken away from you?
If this is your orientation, a meditation practice which is primarily pleasant might actually feel inappropriate or unhelpful - a kind of spiritual bypassing, just sitting there with your head in the clouds ignoring the problems all around you. If you came here to study suffering in detail, then a practice which puts the microscope on the painful aspects of your experience might be a much better fit for your interest, and much more motivational (especially at first), than the cultivation of love or bliss.
On the other hand, some of us are here because we already feel bad and would like to feel a little better. If this is you, then cultivating love, compassion, contentment and joy might be exactly what you're looking for, and infinitely more appealing than the alternative.
There's even some nuance in the slow/fast distinction. Awakening is often framed as a goal at the end of a path, and when we look at it that way, it's only natural to want to move down that path as rapidly as possible. Whole traditions have set themselves up as 'the fast path to enlightenment' throughout the ages, playing into exactly this sentiment. My teacher's teacher, Shinzan Roshi, would sometimes encourage people to achieve kensho (initial awakening) quickly, both for their own good and the good of those around them. When we hear things like this, it can give rise to samvega, a kind of 'spiritual urgency' which can be helpful in giving us the energy to practise and the motivation to focus on our meditation rather than getting lost in distraction.
However, this way of looking has some drawbacks too. It sets up a situation in which we're deficient right now, trying to get somewhere to find a thing we don't have. The urgency of samvega can easily turn into a frantic grasping which actually tightens the mind and body rather than opening it. And we can become oblivious to our own needs and the needs of those around us in a way that's very unhelpful, ultimately becoming selfish and distant rather than open-hearted. Reportedly, the Dalai Lama was once asked what was the quickest way to enlightenment, and in response he burst into tears. Taking our time, proceeding slowly and carefully, can sometimes help us to avoid these negative excesses, whilst also giving us enough time to integrate what we're learning fully into our lives instead of simply chasing the next insight.
So what are the pleasant and unpleasant approaches?
Returning to AN4.163, the Buddha goes on to describe 'painful practice' thus:
And what’s the painful practice [...]? It’s when a mendicant meditates observing the ugliness of the body, perceives the repulsiveness of food, perceives dissatisfaction with the whole world, observes the impermanence of all conditions, and has well established the perception of their own death.
(Readers familiar with the Satipatthana Sutta will recognise some similarities with some of the suggested exercises in the first foundation of mindfulness.)
What's being suggested here is a form of insight practice: a deep inquiry into the body, its nutriment and the things of the world, recognising their fundamentally unsatisfactory nature (dukkha), an investigation of impermanence (anicca), and the contemplation of death.
By contrast, 'pleasant practice' is described as follows:
And what’s the pleasant practice with slow insight? It’s when a mendicant, quite secluded from sensual pleasures, secluded from unskillful qualities, enters and remains in the first jhana, [...]
(The whole passage is quite long, so I won't quote the whole thing here, but you can find a slightly shorter version of the standard formulation in my article on jhana practice.)
What's being described here is samadhi practice, specifically the cultivation of the four jhanas, since this is a discourse from early Buddhism and that's their approach to samadhi.
So the Buddha seems to be suggesting that insight practice is likely to be 'painful', whereas samadhi practice is likely to be 'pleasant' - and experientially this does seem to be pretty accurate. The modern proponents of 'dry insight' practices like Mahasi noting will tend to trumpet how effective these practices are for generating lots of insights pretty quickly, but at the same time will talk about the negative side effects of the practice (sometimes called the 'dark night', a term borrowed from the Christian contemplative St John of the Cross). By comparison, jhana practitioners (like my teacher Leigh Brasington) tend to have a much better time of it, since their practice involves training the mind to rest in positive states for extended periods, and seem anecdotally to have much less difficulty with the bumps along the spiritual road.
(As an aside, it's also interesting - and important - to note that you don't need to do the 'unpleasant practice' - i.e. formal insight meditation - to get even 'swift insight'. The yoga tradition of Patanjali described in his Yoga Sutras is a very deep samadhi practice with very little in the way of 'insight techniques', yet from Patanjali's descriptions it leads to the emergence of insight nevertheless. We talk about 'insight meditation', but insight is an outcome, not a technique. Insight meditation can lead to insight because it involves actively investigating some aspect of our experience which has been found to be fruitful over 2,500 years of exploration; but samadhi can just as easily lead to insight because it involves training, sharpening and quieting the mind to the point that we can see what's going on far more clearly than usual.)
What about the slow/swift thing?
The speed of progress depends on many factors. One is simply the amount of practice we do - more tends to move things along faster than less. My practice noticeably accelerates if I double the amount of sitting I'm doing each day. (Conversely, when someone is going through a difficult patch of practice - perhaps the aforementioned dark night - it can help to reduce the dosage a little bit to make things more manageable.) Another is our intention - if we are clear about why we're sitting, we tend to see clearer benefits than if we just sit out of habit or because we think we're supposed to for some reason.
Going back to AN4.163, however, the Buddha suggests another reason:
"they have these five faculties weakly: faith, energy, mindfulness, concentration and wisdom. Because of this, they only slowly attain the conditions for ending the defilements in the present life."
(And conversely, by having those five faculties strongly, a practitioner may swiftly attain the conditions for ending the defilements in the present life, which is just another way of talking about awakening.)
We can interpret this passage in a couple of ways.
In many of the classical sutras and commentaries, you'll find practitioners split into three categories - those of inferior, middling and superior spiritual capacities. Those of inferior capacities are traditionally said to need simpler instructions, take longer to understand the ultimate truth, and so on. (Often you'll find texts saying 'That tradition over there is designed for inferior types; we've got the good stuff, but it's only for superior types!')
But this rather fixed way of categorising people is pretty limited, in my humble opinion. The whole point of the Buddhist concept of emptiness is precisely that we aren't fixed, enduring entities with permanent qualities that simply can't be changed. We're much more like processes than entities. And so if, right now, someone is finding that their 'spiritual faculties' of faith, energy, mindfulness, samadhi and wisdom are a little on the weak side, that doesn't mean they're doomed to a life in the 'inferior spiritual faculties' club.
A few weeks ago I wrote about the seven factors of awakening, and how we could see the subsequent factors emerging naturally from the earlier ones. Rather than trying to develop one-pointed samadhi on the breath simply through force of will, we could instead approach our practice as taking an interest in our breath, and allow the one-pointed samadhi to develop as a consequence.
In just the same way, approaching our meditation practice with the right attitude helps our spiritual faculties to develop as a consequence of our practice, rather than a prerequisite. Going back to the earlier discussion of pleasant and unpleasant practice, this is why it matters that you choose a practice that speaks to you, rather than one that doesn't. If the practice looks interesting and appealing, you'll more easily trust that it's going to be helpful for you (faith), you'll be more motivated to do it and to keep going when it gets tough (energy), you'll pay more attention to what's going on (mindfulness), you'll focus on the practice better (concentration) and you'll learn more as a result (wisdom). Conversely, if you're forcing yourself to do something you think is stupid, you won't have any confidence that it's going to be useful, you'll give up when you get bored, you'll only be half there when you aren't totally lost in mind-wandering, and you'll learn nothing of value.
So this stuff really matters. When you're starting out, explore what's on offer. Be critical. Try things out. Figure out what speaks to you, and go with that. Don't keep jumping around forever, though - by all means take your time choosing your means of transport, but at some point you have to set off on the journey.
And remember to notice the scenery along the way!
Matt has been practising meditation for over ten years and hopes to share these powerful techniques for the benefit of all.