Book review: Teach Yourself to Meditate

Teach Yourself to Meditate in 10 Simple Lessons: Discover Relaxation and Clarity of Mind in Just Minutes a Day, by Eric Harrison

This is far and away the most approachable book on meditation that I’ve ever read, as demonstrated by the fact that I’m actually meditating as a result of reading it. Relaxation and focus are things that your mind and body naturally do, Eric Harrison tells us, and here’s how you can clear the space for these things to happen.

Harrison founded the Perth Meditation Centre nearly 30 years ago and has lots of experience with teaching people to meditate. I found the centre’s web site a few months ago when I was feeling very tense and achy and stymied by every method I’ve ever used to try to relax. I did one of those frustrated, foolish Google searches, something like “relaxation for people who get tense when they try to relax.” Improbably enough, that search ultimately led me to this book.

Meditation was not really what I was looking for; I just wanted my muscles to unwind. I didn’t want to force my mind to think or feel something (as in loving kindness meditation, for example) or to make strenuous efforts to clear my mind and quiet its monkey chatter. To me, and I suspect to many others, meditation has become encumbered with a lot of unhelpful ideas, and that’s part of why I had never really taken to it.

But Harrison’s approach doesn’t involve any of those things. He says the two skills needed to meditate are focus and watchful attention; he gives you clear steps to follow, enough background to help but not enough to bog you down, and ways to check whether you’re achieving the goals of meditation. I’ve read the entire book, but I haven’t come anywhere close to practicing with all of the exercises yet. However, I was very taken with the clear, no-nonsense descriptions of various mental states that meditation can bring you to, and with how beautiful the author found them.

One of the key things about meditation is that it’s not the same thing as thinking. In fact, you want to turn thinking off as much as you can. Focusing on your breath (not controlling it, not breathing X counts in and Y counts out, just watching it) is a good way to start. The book gives lots of other exercises for focusing on bodily sensations (scanning your body head to toe, for example) or some other sensual input, perhaps music or something you’re looking at. What this means for me is that instead of treating my body, and my sensory perceptions, only as imperfect tools or maybe even as burdens, I can slow down and look at them, in lieu of thinking. It’s startling how much is there to see when you stop and look.

Cichorium intybus, ©Patrick Alexander under a Creative Commons license
Cichorium intybus, ©Patrick Alexander under a Creative Commons license

Because I’m so tense right now, I’ve been focusing mostly on relaxation, and I was startled to find that on nights I can’t sleep, if I focus on my breathing for a minute or two, I often drift off before I get more than a few breaths into it. It won’t work if I’m in a lot of pain or emotional distress, but on an average tense night, it’s striking how well it works. (The point of meditation, of course, is usually not to fall asleep; you generally want the alertness and focus as well as the relaxation.) The really interesting thing, though, is that even if I can’t get to sleep, I find that physical pain has more texture and variation than I expected. I’d choose well-being over pain any day, but pain is what I’ve had lately, and it’s teaching me something.

One of the first meditations I did according to Harrison’s instructions was in a doctor’s office. I was waiting for the doctor to see me, feeling chilly and apprehensive in one of those open-up-the-back gowns. Instead of reading the same paragraph in a book over and over as my mind seethed with worries, I focused on my breathing and the sensations in my body for the 5 minutes or so that I waited. Instead of turning the key that wound me tighter, I unwound myself by a few turns. Not all the way to total relaxation, of course, but I was in better shape after than I was before. Success!

I really appreciated seeing meditation approached as a straightforward skill you can learn and practice when you like. I had always thought of it as a binary sort of thing: you’re relaxed or you’re not. If you’re not, you somehow make an effort to flip the switch that will make you relaxed. Harrison instead talks about shedding tension a little at a time, in short sessions. You can sit down specifically to meditate, or you can choose to take a moment to relax and focus at odd moments during the day. Meditate at a red light, or on the toilet, or while you’re waiting in line.

I was curious about the lesson on affirmations and mantras. I’ve found positive affirmations (about self-acceptance, for example, or calmness) to be counterproductive. They backfire because deep down I don’t believe them, and the seemingly unbridgeable gap between the positive affirmation and my real self is a terrible thing to contemplate (not to mention the unpleasantness of lying to myself).

Harrison recommends keeping affirmations or mantras very short and simple and not focusing a great deal on the meaning as you repeat them. Maybe use the name of someone you love, or of a place where you’ve been happy, or a single word with good connotations for you. Remember that you’re not supposed to be thinking. Mantras in particular are meant to be more of a soothing pattern than an intellectual exercise. He says that chanting a mantra can be a “sensual, hypnotic, and absorbing practice.” (Oh! Maybe that’s what the rosary, which my family recited daily when I was a child, was meant to be about!)

Toward the end of the book, Harrison talks about theta brain waves, about going to a place very close to sleep but staying awake and aware, watching what your mind does in that state: “You could stay awake as your body goes to sleep.” My mind chewed on that for a minute and said, “But isn’t that what happens in hypnagogia and hypnapompia?” On the verge of either falling asleep or waking, people can have very vivid dreams or nightmares and hallucinations. The body is still asleep, often experiencing sleep paralysis in fact, and the dreams and hallucinations can be terrifying. I’ve had some pretty unpleasant experiences in these states, so I was shocked to hear Harrison describing the theta state as lovely and desirable.

I trust him by now, though; I’m nowhere near being able or willing to play with theta wave meditation yet, but I’m keeping an open mind. I wonder what happens if you learn to approach that state from the awake side rather than from the asleep side, vulnerable and clueless. I wonder if doing that changes what happens when you approach it from the asleep side.

In the introduction, Harrison described his experience with  meditation. This line, about what he learned on a lengthy meditation retreat, was maybe the best lesson I got out of the entire book:

I found the mind is incredibly beautiful and smart if you stop trying to manipulate it.

That was so poignant to me. For many years I’ve tried to manipulate my mind, my feelings, my thoughts, to make them match some ideal. I despaired sometimes because it seemed impossible, and then beat myself up over failing (surely it’s not really impossible; there’s something wrong with me!). The most valuable thing about this book is that it’s helping me to trust my own mind more and to make friends with it. This was far more than I hoped for when I made that ridiculous Google search. Thank you, Mr. Harrison, and thank you, Internet.

Note: Shortly after publishing this, I corrected the fourth paragraph above to correctly indicate the two skills needed for meditation.