[Letter] Mundane Problems Have Mundane Solutions

A reader sent me a message.

Hello! I'm contacting you to ask for meditation advice, basically.

I previously read Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha and started meditating, and stopped in a week after making no progress on concentration exercises. I later started doing freeform insight practices (just looking at qualia) and that has yielded some stuff but relatively little.

I am looking for advice on specific practices to improve concentration, attain jhanas, or improve insight/specificity of perception. Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha did not offer very many specific practices besides noting and examining of particular stimuli. I presume it is supposed to be supplemented by other reading material.

(In terms of externals, I want jhanas to improve compassion and pain tolerance, concentration to do stuff, and insight to better avoid rationalization and falling into maladaptive interpersonal patterns.)

This is related to my last problem. It seems to me that there are multiple different enlightenment states, and I find it likely that suggestion plays a role in the induction of particular states. Thus, I would like to do exclusively practice of specific exercises and as little theory as possible, so that my experience of qualia does not have its well poisoned.

My Reply

The purpose of insight meditation is to observe the nature of suffering and thereby free yourself from it. Meditation is not the solution to all of your problems, especially mundane ones. If you want better concentration then eat healthy, get lots of exercise and cut junk media out of your information intake. If you want better pain tolerance then expose yourself to pain. If you want to avoid rationalization then tell the truth. I'm not sure what you mean by "maladaptive interpersonal patterns" (the term covers a broad swathe of human behavior) but I think you grasp the idea I'm trying to get across. Meditation helps me get along better with other people, but it's a rounding error compared to reading How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie.

If you want to increase your compassion then lovingkindness meditation might help. You sit quietly and cultivate compassion for your loved ones. You work your way outward toward strangers, enemies and eventually everyone. There are countless lovingkindness meditation guides. Use whichever one works best for you.

I am a big fan of Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha as a book but I actually don't do vipassana. I do Zen. Zen doesn't care much about jhanas. I can't help you explore jhanic states because I don't explore jhanic states. I get the impression The Mind Illuminated is a good meditation guide for exploring jhanas but I haven't tested it myself. Zen places little emphasis on enlightenment too, which is ironic because (to paraphrase Bhante Gunaratana's words from Mindfulness in Plain English) Zen is what you get when you throw out all the conceptual maps and attempt instead to just steer directly toward enlightenment through sheer force of will.

If you want to meditate with as little theory as possible then Zen might be right for you. My favorite books on Zen are Hardcore Zen by Brad Warner, Three Pillars of Zen by Philip Roshi and Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, by Paul Reps and Nyogen Senzaki.