How to Meditate by Pema Chodron – a book review

As soon as I finished ‘How to Meditate’, I started reading it again. I first learnt to meditate in 1987, so I guess that shows this nugget compilation of meditation teachings will appeal to and help long-time meditators. If you’re a beginner, or simply interested, well, what a blessing to have this book at your disposal.

Pema Chodron, born Deirdre Blomfield-Brown in New York City, 1936, became a student of the late Chogyam Trungpa. She is a now a teacher in the Shambala tradition he founded, living at Gampo Abbey, Nova Scotia, and a notable American figure in Tibetan Buddhism. She has been phenomenally successful in making these teachings accessible via her well crafted books.

I’ve often heard it said that it’s best for the most experienced meditators/teachers to teach beginners and feel this book bears that out.

It comes after a long list of what are now, already, spiritual classics such as: ‘The Places That Scare You’, ‘When Things Fall Apart’, ‘Start Where You Are’ and ‘The Wisdom Of No Escape’. The sub-title of this book, ‘A Practical Guide To Making Friends With Your Mind’ continues her prosaic yet skilful tradition of great titles. And it delivers.

Part one introduces the technique of meditation. Parts two and three, on working with thoughts, and working with emotions, contain some of the clearest and pithiest advice on these tricky areas that I’ve come across. If you start out meditating, thinking it’s about always feeling good, you’re setting yourself up for failure as well as misunderstanding what it’s about (in this tradition anyway). Even the most settled meditator experiences physical and psychological pain. Part four, on ‘working with sense perceptions’, and part five, ‘opening your heart to include everything’ are, perhaps, addressed to the more experienced.

As in all her books, she has a light touch and a cheerful attitude. What I appreciate above all is simply how human she is, not just about others, “Meditators have moods too”, but also herself. How refreshing for a teacher to share (the example is while looking after her six year old grand-daughter) that she too ‘acts out’ on occasion – as we all do – and how to best respond to that. “One of the many boons of meditation is that it helps us take an interest in our life in a way that is curious and expansive, rather than seeing life’s complexities as a constant struggle.”

Pema Chodron stresses that this is a book on samatha meditation, a word meaning ‘calm abiding’. (Buddhist meditation comprises samatha and vipassana – insight into the true nature of reality. The idea being that you need to be steadfast in order to effectively explore.) There’s a good dose of enquiry type material in this book too, which I really appreciated, especially on the messier side of life and meditation practice.

All of us will reach a very interesting point in our practice when we hit the brick wall. It’s inevitable… I love to talk to people when they’re at the point of the brick wall: they think they’re ready to quit, but I feel they’re just beginning. If they could work with the unpleasantness, the insult to ego, the lack of certainty, then they’re getting closer to the fluid, changing, real nature of life.”

Learning to meditate is simple really – though not easy. Why do it? The nutshells are as good as the book titles. “The motivation behind meditation is not to get rid of thoughts, but to train the mind to reclaim its natural capacity to stay present… we’re training to bring out the mind’s natural wakefulness.”

She adds, just like the Buddha did, don’t take my word for it – test it with your own experience. “It takes quite a while,” Pema notes, “to see that you actually can be awake and present and live your life in a creative and engaged way without letting your mind wander all the time.” So, it may take ‘quite a while’ – and it can be done. You don’t have to be a Buddhist to learn to meditate, or to benefit from using this book as a guide. To use a well known double entendre – meditation is not what you think. It helps to read a book – and it isn’t reading a book either! Give it a go.

‘How to Meditate: a practical guide to making friends with your mind’ by Pema Chodron, Sounds True, 2013.

Learn to Meditate workshop, Sun 7 Sept (and 7 Dec), 10am-5pm.

An 8 week Mindfulness course starts Thurs 4 Sept 6.30 – 9pm.

All at Melin Pant-yr-Ynn, Blaenau Ffestiniog. Visit www.janparker.co.uk for more info and to book.

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