Are There Rules for Meditation?

Are There Rules for Meditation?

Six Lessons From a British Buddhist Master (and Others)


Commit and enjoy, but resist dwelling or patting yourself on the back. And don’t guru-hop.

In 1924, at the age of 23, Christmas Humphreys founded The Buddhist Society in London and served as its president until his death sixty years later. In that time, the society became one of the largest Buddhist organizations outside of Asia, and in his day, Humphreys, a barrister and later a judge, was the most prominent British convert to the religion.

His books on Buddhism have sold millions of copies. In his classic, Concentration and Meditation: A Manual of Mind Development, Humphreys introduced Western readers to the practice, reminding them there were specific “rules or maxims” to be kept in mind for meditation to become, as he put it, “an entrance to the way of enlightenment and not merely an intellectual pastime.”

Christmas Humphreys’ 6 Rules for Meditating

1. Do not begin unless you mean to continue.

Here Humphrey challenges those who are unable to make a serious effort, who are merely curious about the benefits of meditating and unable to commit.

“Meditation is not a hobby,” he writes, “and it is unwise to trifle with so serious a subject.” The effort must be continuous and consistent if one expects to see positive, cumulative results.

[Read: “Why People Don’t Meditate ... Even If They Want To.”]

While there is no fixed answer to the question of how often one should meditate, John Hudson, author of Meditation: A Practical Guide to Achieving Harmony, offers this guidance: “The benefits of meditation come from regular use. If you are under stress, you may find that meditating twice daily will be effective in restoring composure and reducing irritability. Allow at least ten, ideally 20 minutes, in meditation at each session.”

2. Beware of self-congratulation.

All too frequently, modest advances in one’s meditation practice can begin to breed pride and arrogance.

“When the first well-earned results of mental training begin to manifest, beware of the separative effect of self-conceit,” Humphreys notes, adding: “All too soon a little success in the inner life will breed a sense of superiority over one’s fellows, a sense of separation from those (apparently) less advanced upon the Way. Therefore, be wary lest too soon you fancy yourself a thing apart from the mass.”

Meditation is a tool for releasing attachments of all kinds, something pointed out by Buddhist nun Pema Chodron: “Buddhist meditation is about dissolving our fixation on ourselves, on the process of meditating, and on any result we might gain from it. Through meditation, we begin to get the hang of living with a non-grasping attitude. When you sit down to meditate, you can bring to your practice the notion of the threefold purity: not being caught up with ideas about yourself, not being caught up with ideas about the practice, and not being caught up with ideas about the result.”

3. Avoid guru-hopping.

His concern is over those who are constantly moving from one teacher to another in order to speed up their spiritual growth. “The Western world is filled with those who seek for ‘Masters,’ ‘Gurus,’ and other mysterious personages to lead them swiftly to the goal.” There are no shortcuts, he’s saying, and a person must proceed with self-discipline on the spiritual path. “Beware, then, of this craving for assistance,” Humphreys warns, “for it is born of laziness and conceit and is, in turn, the father of disappointment and delay.”

In an interview decades later, the Dalai Lama offered similar guidance to Buddhists in the West:

“[T]o quote a Tibetan proverb: A disciple must not throw himself upon a spiritual master ‘as a dog throws itself upon a piece of meat.’ A disciple must not rush to place their trust immediately in a master, but must rather take the time to reflect carefully and examine the master’s qualities before establishing a spiritual bond with them by receiving their teachings.”

4. Ignore psychic experiences or the appearance of psychic powers.

Many beginners perceive auras, hear sounds, and experience new sensations. While these may be valid, Humphreys cautions against attaching too much importance to them: “Let not the student be fooled by their enchantment… . To waste one’s precious time in cultivating psychic powers is to sidestep from the Path of Self Enlightenment. These powers will be useful at a later stage, but for the time being, are best ignored.”

Traleg Kyabgon Rinpoche, author of Mind at Ease, confirms that meditators will indeed enjoy all sorts of experiences on the spiritual path that can motivate them to remain on it. However, he advises being wise and prudent about mystical meditation moments: “Each experience has to be let go of, or the mind will simply close down in its fixation on that experience, leaving little or no room for new experiences to arise. This is because your fixation will encourage worries and doubts to arise in the mind and interfere with the development process.”

5. Learn to want to meditate.

Most people do not find it easy or natural to sit in meditation. It is a desire which must be consistently directed. Humphreys explains it this way: “Unwilling work is badly done, and there is less waste of effort and a higher standard of workmanship in exercises carried out with the whole soul’s will than in those which are the outcome of a habit forced on an unwilling mind.”

[Read: “Has Meditation Gotten Too Easy?”]

A popular Zen fable reinforces Humphreys’ view. A wandering monk is meditating by a river when a young man interrupts him: “Master, I want you to teach me how to meditate.”

“Why?” asks the monk.

The young man thinks for a moment. “Because I want to become enlightened.”

Promptly, the monk leaps up, grabs the young man by the scruff of his neck, drags him into the river, and plunges his head underwater. After holding him there for an agonizing period of time, as the young man kicks and struggles to free himself, the monk finally pulls him up out of the river. The young man coughs up water and gasps to catch his breath.

When he eventually recovers from the unpleasant experience, the monk says: “Tell me, what did you want most of all when you were underwater?” Naturally, the man replies that he wanted air. “Very well,” says the monk. “Go home and come back to me when you want to meditate as much as you just wanted air.”

6. Do not neglect existing duties.

Once meditation does become a regular and pleasurable habit, Humphreys warns against allowing the practice to displace other important responsibilities connected to family, work, or relationships.

“It has been said that meditation is first an effort, then a habit, and finally a joyous necessity,” he says citing a common progression. “When the third stage comes, beware, lest the discovery that it ranks in interest and value far ahead of earthly pursuits and happenings should lure one from the due performance of the daily round.”

Japanese Buddhist teacher Daisaku Ikeda likewise says: “There are simply no Buddhas who spend all their time sitting in meditation. Buddhas are buddhas precisely because they continually ponder and take action to help others.”

[Read: “6 Ways to Give Like a Buddhist.”]

A Buddhist’s Final Breath

Humphreys energetically continued his work with The Buddhist Society quite literally until his last breath. He was 82 and had just begun sitting for meditation with a group of friends when he died suddenly from a heart attack. To those who commit themselves to a regular meditation practice, Humphreys provides this encouraging and motivating insight: that it is the practice of meditation which “tends to remove the fetters of suffering by raising the consciousness to a level above its sway.”

Rules for meditating

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