My friend Dave Slater and I recently co-led a meditation retreat for teenagers at Shambhala Mountain Center, in the Rockies of Northern Colorado. Dave teaches at a private high school near Boulder that one week every year offers various field-trips to its students, one of which this year was our retreat.
I had been to Shambhala once before with former Still Point abbot Ango Neil Heidrich, driving out in August 2001, two months after they opened the largest stupa in North America.
As beautiful as the center had been, I'm not sure I was adequately prepared for how breathtaking when blanketed by so much snow that we actually started to wonder if we were going to make it off the mountain on schedule.
Not wanting to throw too much at the kids, I nevertheless tailored instruction to include in addition to basic Zen sitting practice some Thich Nhat Hanh-influenced gathas -- "mountain/solid," "space/free" -- where I asked them to create their own versions. We did some visualization based on the work of Daniel Siegel, and body scans especially for one of the participants recovering from an eating disorder. I even threw in some square breathing, which has demonstrable effects on the nervous system (breath in for a count of four, hold for four, exhale for four, hold for four, repeat). Was very interesting to check in over the week and see what stuck for some -- the theme: make this practice your own. Some loved certain practices; others others.
When the week began, most could barely sit still for ten minutes, and half were terrified of the prospect of twenty. By week's end, they all sat up in the stupa like mountains for twenty-five. I mention this not to fetishize time, but to suggest something of the rapid growth of their belief of their own abilities. In fact, one of our ongoing discussions was how the duration of time wasn't the important thing -- some of the boys, especially, kept wanting to turn everything into a "see who can sit the longest" sort of competition (it happens in monasteries, too). A primary appeal of measuring anything is the illusion it then offers us of intimate knowing and so, possessing. Sincere Dharma practice, though, always resists our ownership -- and that may even be its first virtue.
There is a balance for each of us: on the one hand, we are unique in history in that information about every single meditation practice ever is a Google click away. To borrow from my first Zen teacher, what this means is we can easily end up digging a bunch of shallow wells. We try a certain practice and fall in love with it, our heart seems to be opening, this is it! And then in three months, it gets boring, like all the practices do if we stick with them. So we try a new practice, new honeymoon, ad nauseum. But these practices are for digging deep wells. We need to stick with them. We need to know how to be bored; how to "plateau" and keep going anyway. They'll get interesting again, and then boring, interesting . . . and in this way, we learn to appreciate the entirety of our experience.
That said: the wisdom of your own heart is your true teacher. What do you need; which practices feel right to you? And if you absolutely need them, there are ways to measure:
"The other day, someone visited me and asked, 'I wish to practice zazen [Zen meditation] under your guidance. But because I live far away, I can't come to [your temple] very often. I'd like to practice zazen at home. What should I keep in mind to avoid doing zazen in a mistaken way?'
I responded, 'If your wife and children say, ' has become nicer since he began to do zazen,' then your practice is on the right track."