How to Meditate

A Guide to Self Discovery


By Lawrence LeShan

Foreword by Rick Hanson

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Lawrence LeShan's classic guide to meditation introduced mindfulness to an entire generation. Now it's back in a special ebook edition.

Since its initial publication nearly 50 years ago, this simple yet powerful guide has helped more than a million readers reap the profound and limitless rewards of meditation. Now, in a special new edition, How to Meditate is back, singing the virtues of a quiet mind in the overstimulating bustle of the modern world.

Outlining a realistic and no-nonsense approach that will enable you to bring meditation effortlessly into your life, no matter how thinly stretched you are, How to Meditate is unrivaled as a source of inspiration and practical instruction for anyone seeking inner peace, relief from stress, and increased self-knowledge.


Why We Meditate

A few years ago, I was at a small conference of scientists all of whom practiced meditation on a daily basis. Toward the end of the four-day meeting, during which each of them had described at some length how he meditated, I began to press them on the question of why they meditated. Various answers were given by different members of the group and we all knew that they were unsatisfactory, that they did not really answer the questions. Finally one man said, “It’s like coming home.” There was silence after this, and one by one all nodded their heads in agreement. There was clearly no need to prolong the inquiry further.

This answer to the question “Why meditate?” runs all through the literature written by those who practice this discipline. We meditate to find, to recover, to come back to something of ourselves we once dimly and unknowingly had and have lost without knowing what it was or where or when we lost it. We may call it access to more of our human potential or being closer to ourselves and to reality, or to more of our capacity for love and zest and enthusiasm, or our knowledge that we are a part of the universe and can never be alienated or separated from it, or our ability to see and function in reality more effectively. As we work at meditation, we find that each of these statements of the goal has the same meaning. It is this loss, whose recovery we search for, that led the psychologist Max Wertheimer to define an adult as “a deteriorated child.”

Eugen Herrigel, who studied the Zen method of meditation for a long time, wrote, “Working on a Koan [a meditational technique of that school] leads you to a point where you are behaving like a person trying to remember something you have forgotten.” And Louis Claude de St. Martin, summing up his reasons for his long years of meditation, succinctly put it, “We are all in a widowed state and our task is to remarry.”

It is our fullest “humanhood,” the fullest use of what it means to be human, that is the goal of meditation. Meditation is a tough-minded, hard discipline to help us move toward this goal. It is not the invention of any one person or one school. Repeatedly, in many different places and times, serious explorers of the human condition have come to the conclusion that human beings have a greater potential for being, for living, for participation and expression, than they have ability to use. These explorers have developed training methods to help people reach these abilities, and these methods (meditational practices) all have much in common. As I shall show in Chapters 4, 5 and 6, all are based on the same insights and principles, whether they were developed early in India, in the fifth to twelfth century in the Syrian and Jordanian deserts, in tenth-century Japan, in medieval European monasteries, in Poland and Russia in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries or at other times and places.

All take work. There is no easy or royal road to the goal we seek. Further, there is no end to the search; there is no position from which we can say, “Now I have arrived, I can stop working.” As we work we find ourselves more at home in the universe, more at ease with ourselves, more able to work effectively at our tasks and toward our goal, closer to our fellow humans, less anxious and less hostile. We do not, however, reach an end. As in all serious matters—love, the appreciation of beauty, efficiency—there is no endpoint to the potential of human growth. We work—in meditation—as part of a process; we seek a goal knowing it is forever unattainable.

A good program of meditation is, in many ways, quite similar to a good program of physical exercise. Both require repeated hard work. The work is often basically pretty silly in its formal aspect. What could be more foolish than to repeatedly lift twenty pounds of lead up and down unless it is counting your breaths up to four over and over again, a meditational exercise? In both the exercise is for the effect on the person doing it rather than for the goal of lifting lead or counting breaths. Both programs should be adapted to the particular person using them with the clear understanding that there is no one “right” program for everyone. It would be stupid to give the same physical program to two individuals differing widely in build, general physical condition, and relationship of the development of the breathing and blood circulating apparatus to the development of the muscles. It is equally stupid to give the same meditational program to two individuals differing widely in the development of the intellectual, emotional and sensory systems and in the relationship of these systems to each other. One of the reasons the formal schools of meditational practice have such a high percentage of failures among their students—those who get little out of the practices and leave meditation completely—is that most schools tend to believe that there is one right way to meditate for everyone and, by a curious coincidence, it happens to be the one they use. Both physical and meditational programs have, as a primary goal, the tuning and training of the person so that he can effectively move toward his goals.

Does meditation also change these goals? Certainly the increased competence and knowledge of this competence, the increased ability to act whole-heartedly and whole-mindedly, the wider perception of reality and the more coherent personality organization that it brings do change the individual’s actions and goals as much as good psychotherapy is likely to change actions and goals for the same reason.

My goals are a function of the way I perceive myself and the world. As these perceptions clarify and broaden, my goals also develop. As I become less anxious and feel less vulnerable, I become less suspicious of and hostile to my fellows, and my goals and actions change. The analogy between physical and meditational programs cannot be carried too far, but it seems reasonable here to point out that a person who has trained his body and is confident of it feels far less vulnerable and therefore behaves differently in many situations than a person with an untrained and uncoordinated body.

There is no age limit for meditation. This book was originally titled Meditation for Adults. One can practice, and benefit from, these disciplines as long as you are adult enough to understand that your own growth and becoming is a serious matter and worth working for. And so long as you understand that if you wish the best from and for yourself, you will have to work hard, that it does not come without sustained effort.

Meditational techniques have been primarily developed by individuals generally termed “mystics” and in certain mystical training schools or traditions in which individuals come together to study and practice these techniques. The term “mystic” has long been widely misunderstood in Western culture as referring to an individual who believes in things no one else can understand, who withdraws from the world and has little to do with its ordinary activities, who talks or writes in terms that communicate nothing and who, if not actually certifiable as insane, has drifted so far from common sense that he or she certainly could not be considered sane. (There has certainly been a modification of this viewpoint in the past few years in this country, but the position as stated has been the prevailing view for a long time. Recent developments in Western culture are changing this stereotype.)

It is certainly true that there are a good many individuals who identify themselves as mystics who fit these criteria. However, if we look carefully at the larger number of those who are classified or who classify themselves as mystics we find a curiously different picture. We see that the two main characteristics of this group are their high level of efficiency at what they do (Western mystics are especially noted for their proficiency in business)1 and the serenity, good human relationships, zest, peace and joy that fill their lives. Further, their agreement on major issues—the nature of man and the universe, the ethical standards of life, and the like—is very strong no matter what time and culture they live in. All mystics, wrote de St. Martin, “come from the same country and speak the same language.” Speaking to this point, C. D. Broad, the British philosopher, has written:

To me, the occurrence of mystical experience at all times and places, and the similarities between the statements of so many mystics all the world over, seems to be a really significant fact. “Prima facie” it suggests that there is an aspect of reality with which these persons come in contact and largely fail to describe in the language of daily life. I should say that this “prima facie” appearance of objectivity ought to be accepted at its face value unless and until some reasonably satisfactory explanation of the agreement can be given.2

Evelyn Underhill, herself both a serious mystic and an outstanding student of the literature of mysticism, wrote in this regard:

The most highly developed branches of the human family have in common one peculiar characteristic. They tend to produce—sporadically it is true, and often in the teeth of adverse external circumstances—a curious and definite type of personality; a type which refuses to be satisfied with that which other men call experience, and is inclined, in the words of its enemies, to “deny the world in order that it may find reality.” We need these persons in the east and the west; in the ancient, medieval and modern worlds… whatever the place or period in which they have arisen, their aims, doctrines and methods have been substantially the same. Their experience, therefore, forms a body of evidence, curiously self-consistent and often mutually explanatory, which must be taken into account before we can add up the sum of the energies and potentialities of the human spirit, or reasonably speculate on its relations to the unknown world which lies outside the boundaries of sense.3

Mysticism, from a historical and psychological viewpoint, is the search for and experience of the relationship of the individual himself and the totality that makes up the universe. A mystic is either a person who has this knowledge as background music to his or her daily experience or else a person who strives and works consistently to attain this knowledge.

The results of this attainment are a capacity to transcend the painful and negative aspects of everyday life and to live with a serenity, an inner peace, a joy and a capacity to love that are so characteristic of the lives of the mystics. The best of mysticism also provides a zest, a fervor and gusto in life plus a much higher ability to function in the affairs of everyday life.

All other definitions of mysticism and mystics are the definitions of one particular school or religious group. They may be adequate definitions for that particular religious group; they are not adequate for the basic meaning of the term.

The mystic regards this search for knowledge of his relationship with the universe (and for a very deep sense of the union of himself and the All) as a search for a lost knowledge he once had and for a way of being that is the natural one for man. The root of the word “mystic” is the same root as the word “to close.” The mystical search is training in closing off all those artificial factors which ordinarily keep us from this knowledge, this birthright we have lost.

Mystics are individuals who have worked long and hard at meditation and who have had their perception of their ability to participate in reality changed by the work that they have done. Much of each mystic’s specific views about reality are colored by the culture he or she grew up in, but behind the façade of different terms and specifics, there are deep, vast areas of agreement.

In the classical Western tradition, there are two alternate paths to mystical development in addition to the via meditativa, the way of meditation. These are the via ascetica and the via illuminata.

The via ascetica, the way of assault on the body and ego, is of little applicability today. Never very useful in itself, its long years of fasting, self-flagellation, etc., are simply not going to be followed much in Western culture as we know it. The via illuminata, the sudden tremendous change in personality integration and understanding, has been the source of some mystics’ development. However, it happens so rarely that there is really no point in holding your breath waiting for it. If you are on the right part of the road to Damascus at the right time—congratulations! Otherwise, you better get to work meditating if you are interested in this sort of growth. In addition, of course, it has been generally reported that followers of both these roads have done a great deal of meditation.

There are two major common results reported by mystics the world over and that all mystical training schools (such as Zen, Hesychasm, Yoga, Sufi, Christian mysticism, Hindu mysticism, Jewish mysticism, and so on) aim toward. These are greater efficiency in everyday life and comprehension of a different view of reality than the one we ordinarily use.

Great Efficiency in Everyday Life

Nowhere is the usual stereotype of the mystic as wrong as it is in this area. The mystic is usually seen as unworldly and dreamy. It is a strange concept, almost as if anyone who trained regularly and in a disciplined manner in a gymnasium were to be considered as belonging to a group whose members were regarded as unmuscular and uncoordinated. Much of the work of any form of meditation is in learning to do one thing at a time: if you are thinking about something to be just thinking of it and nothing else; if you are dancing to be just dancing and not thinking about your dancing. This kind of exercise certainly produces more efficiency at anything we do rather than less.

Tuning and training the mind as an athlete tunes and trains his body is one of the primary aims of all forms of meditation. This is one of the basic reasons that this discipline increases efficiency in everyday life.

There are also other reasons. One of these (I shall discuss others in later chapters) rests on a theory of how to reorganize the personality structure therapeutically. “If we look deeply into such ways of life as Buddhism or Taoism, Vedanta or Yoga,” wrote Alan Watts, “we do not find either philosophy or religion as these are understood in the West. We find something much more nearly resembling psychotherapy.”4 In this area, mysticism and Western psychotherapy follow different paths to the same goal. If I have a severe anxiety attack and go for help to a psychotherapist, she will attempt to aid me primarily by exploring the content of the problem: what is it focused on, what is the content of its symbolic meaning on different personality levels? The therapist will work on the theory that as the content is reorganized and troublesome elements brought to consciousness, the structure of my personality will also reorganize in a more healthful and positive manner.

If, however, with the same anxiety attack, I go for help to a specialist in meditation, she will attempt to aid me primarily by strengthening and reorganizing the structure and ability to function of my personality organization. She will give me various exercises to practice in order to strengthen the overall structure of this organization. She will work on the theory that as the structure is made stronger and more coherent by these exercises, content that is on a nonideal level (i.e., material that is repressed and causing symptoms) will move to preferable levels and will be reorganized properly.

Both theories are valid and both approaches “work.” Both are also in primitive states of the art and there is a great deal of nonsense at present in both mystical and psychotherapeutic practices. Perhaps ultimately we may hope for a synthesis of the two, combining the best features of each and discarding the concretistic thinking and superstition presently found in both. This would certainly lead to a much more effective method, but unfortunately there is very little research in this direction at present. A few psychologists and psychiatrists—such as Arthur Deikman, M.D.—have been experimenting with this synthesis and doing some excellent work with it. A bare beginning is being made.

Comprehension of Another View of Reality

The second major result reported by mystics of all times and places, and aimed at in their training by all mystical schools, is the comprehension of a different view of reality. I use the term “comprehension” here to indicate an emotional as well as an intellectual understanding of and participation in this view.

This is a strange and difficult claim. What can the mystic mean when he refers to a different view of reality? Is not reality what is “out there” and is not our task to understand “it”? If there are two different views, must not one be “right” and the other “wrong”? If the mystic says that there are two equally valid views, is there not a basic contradiction?

The problem is a real one. On the one hand we know our usual view of reality is essentially correct. Not only does it “feel” right, but we operate in it far too efficiently; the results of our actions are predictable enough so that it is obvious that our assumptions about the nature of reality (on which we base our actions) must be correct.

On the other hand, a large number of serious people—including many of those whom humanity regards very highly—have stated clearly that they were basing their actions on a quite different view of how the world works. They also state that they “know” this other view to be valid. And, to make it worse, they also appear to achieve their ends, to operate efficiently in the world, often to have a large effect on it. They also claim to have achieved serenity and joy in their lives, and outside observers report that their behavior appears to bear out this claim.

I shall discuss in some detail this other viewpoint about the nature of reality in Chapter 3. Perhaps it will suffice here to say that if we have learned one thing from modern physics, it is that there may be two viewpoints about something which are mutually contradictory and yet both viewpoints are equally “correct.” In physics this is called the principle of complementarity. It states that for the fullest understanding of some phenomena we must approach them from two different viewpoints. Each viewpoint by itself tells only half the truth.

The mystic does not claim that one way of comprehending reality, of being at home in the universe, is superior to the other. He claims rather that for his fullest humanhood, a person needs both. The Roman mystic Plotinus said man must be seen as an amphibian who needs both life on land and life in the water to achieve his fullest “amphibianhood.” So, also, a person needs to be at home in the world in two different ways—one can call them “different states of consciousness” or “use of different systems of metaphysics”—for one’s fullest development. In a curiously similar way the Indian mystic Ramakrishna likened man to a frog who, in his youth, lives as a tadpole in one medium only. “Later, however,” wrote Ramakrishna, “when the tail of ignorance drops off,” he needs in his adulthood both land and water for the fullest attainment of his potential.


On Sale
Oct 3, 2017
Page Count
240 pages
Little Brown Spark

Lawrence LeShan

About the Author

Lawrence LeShan is a psychotherapist, educator, and bestselling author whose groundbreaking research into the therapeutic and ethical implications of meditation helped bring about a mindfulness revolution in the West.

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