Question from a reader: Can I do more than one meditation practice?

January 31, 2012   |   13 Comments  |   FavoriteLoadingAdd to favorites

I recently received this very excellent question from a member of The Open Heart Project:

Q. This Shamatha meditation you are teaching is giving me good results (I become more compassionate to myself and to other people around me, and I become more objective with my feelings and thus not easily bruised).

I have joined a Zen Meditation group (where I live), and there is a requirement of giving up other meditation practices while doing the orientation course for their group.

I am confused…I feel as though your guided meditations are complementary to their Zen meditation practice as these are all Buddhist meditations. Am I being unfair by doing both Shamatha and Zen and keeping to to myself?

Maybe they are afraid of conflicting instructions confusing the new students of Zen making it harder for them to teach.

So could I just do both quietly and see what happens? Well, I couldn’t just drop one over the other, as I need a group and I need a more detailed instructions. Can you please give some input on my this?

A. I understand completely why the Zen group would want you to give up other practices while doing their orientation. Both Zazen and shamatha are very precise. The techniques are very specific and, while not easy, are very simple. It is very common for us beginning practitioners to complicate them by making little adjustments to the technique. This is our egoic mind trying to interfere with the arising of our wisdom mind. As we practice, we will find all sorts of reasons why we can’t do this or that part of the technique and may even seek to combine the elements we like best from each practice we learn. This does not serve our awakening.

In this sense, the requirement to give up other meditation practices is an act of compassion–exactly as you say, to avoid conflicting instructions that make it harder for students.

Zazen and shamatha are very similar. Yet there are distinct stylistic differences. This is a vast over-simplification, but one could say that Zen practice emphasizes precision first and spaciousness second while shamatha emphasizes spaciousness first. The culture of Zen is more austere. Shamatha (as taught in the Shambhala Buddhist lineage) is more colorful. Both are excellent. Both can lead you to enlightenment. It is a matter of which style resonates with you.

That said, don’t practice half-heartedly. If you choose to continue with the Zen group, please follow their instructions exactly. That way you (and they) will derive the most benefit. If you want to continue to practice shamatha after the orientation, you will be in a better place to make that choice having given your Zen practice your whole heart.

If you want to continue to use The Open Heart Project material, that is fine. Just listen to the dharma talks I give and when it comes time to practice, do your Zen practice rather than following my instruction. Does this make sense?

Keep me posted!

You can’t go wrong with either of these paths!

Best, Susan

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  • Posted by:  Capital Dharma

    Great post! It is a joy to see such lack of competition between different schools of meditation. It’s true that you can’t really go wrong either way.

    • Posted by:  Susan

      The only way to go wrong is to go no way!

  • Posted by:  kara rane

    hi Susan-
    hi Susan~thank You for this insightful reply. It is so true that sometimes we try to make our own adjustments that serve the ego,, I notice this in myself when I will skip over things that seem “beginner” when really they are “foundation” techniques.

    • Posted by:  Susan

      yes, exactly. a great distinction: beginner vs foundation. thank you.

  • Posted by:  james

    I don’t know if this is helpful/relevant or not, but I read this in a book:

    “Most of us encounter many different approaches to both Buddhism and meditation. It is easy to inadvertently muddle together teachings that are quite different, and so there is a need to study our own tradition in some depth. When another practice has a method or means that seems very helpful and we regret its apparent absence from our own tradition, we should thoroughly investigate to see if it is actually absent. If it is absent, ask why that may be, before importing it into your practice. If we fail to take care with this, we may water down the teaching or obscure elements that we find challenging, but which are the most far-reaching and effective in the long term.”
    (Buddha recognizes Buddha, by Daishin Morgan)

    This is written in the context of Soto Zen, but would seem to be be equally applicable to any tradition.

    • Posted by:  Susan

      Brilliant. Perfectly said. Thanks so much for sharing this.

  • Posted by:  Leanna

    I am a new to meditation. I do Shamatha because that is what I was taught at a writing retreat with Susan where I was introduced to meditation. But, I don’t think that means that I must choose Shamatha as the kind of meditation I will practice for the rest of my life, since it was the first one I came upon. Can someone practice a few different kinds before settling on a specific tradition that they like, without it watering down the teachings?

    • Posted by:  Susan

      Of course. Definitely. I’m not saying that the first meditation you try should be the one you do for the rest of your life. I’m just saying that when you decide to do a particular practice, follow the instructions.

      In fact, this is just what I finished writing about for today’s Open Heart Project post. So more on this later.

  • Posted by:  Andrew Lightheart

    I would tend to agree. Different meditation practices have different ‘directions’.

    Not better or worse. Main thing seems to be finding one and sticking to it, especially after a few years when the temptation is to swap… 🙂

    • Posted by:  Susan

      Yes. It can take awhile to find the right one. But when in doubt, go deep. That’s me, though. Everyone has to figure this out for themselves. Luckily, there are millennia of wisdom we can turn to for guidance.

  • Posted by:  Ann

    I guess it’s my choice to be a muddler. But I think of it as cross training, or having a double major. (Zen and Vipassana). I do however try to stick with one style during a single sitting session, and when I’m on retreat, I take a “when in Rome” attitude. Works for me.

    • Posted by:  Susan

      Sounds good to me.

  • Posted by:  james

    A propos to this topic, here is the Glimpse of the Day from Rigpa from a few days ago, which is an extract from Sogyal Rinponche’s The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying.

    The most important thing is not to get trapped in what I see everywhere in the West, a “shopping mentality”: shopping around from master to master, teaching to teaching, without any continuity or real, sustained dedication to any one discipline. Nearly all the great spiritual masters of all traditions agree that the essential thing is to master one way, one path to the truth, by following one tradition with all your heart and mind to the end of the spiritual journey, while, of course, remaining open and respectful toward the insights of all others. In Tibet we used to say: “knowing one, you accomplish all.” The modem faddish idea that we can always keep all our options open and so never need commit ourselves to anything is one of the greatest and most dangerous delusions of our culture, and one of ego’s most effective ways of sabotaging our spiritual search.

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