Finding a teacher that resonates with you is a crucial step on the spiritual journey. Even Jesus and Buddha had great teachers – though they eventually went on to make new and profound discoveries. While a few are blessed with a moment of sudden awakening where everything suddenly becomes clear (think Eckhart Tolle, Ramana Maharshi), the vast majority of spiritual aspirants are on what is called the ‘gradual path,’ and these students need specific pointing-out instructions. If you are on the gradual path, that’s okay! This phenomenon is observed in a variety of fields, like music, athletics, or mathematics: there are a very small number of people who seem to have extraordinary abilities without any formal instruction, yet most students of these disciplines must take many years to master fundamental principles and techniques before performing at the level of a professional.
The advantage of finding a teacher is that they can provide you with sophisticated mental representations to best approach the practice and eventual mastery of your skills – saving you time and pointing out things that are obvious once you know where to look. Mental representations are cognitive tools that people use to make sense of the infinite space of possibilities that exists at every moment. Athletes, scholars, artists, and yes, meditators, use mental representations to determine what aspects of practice are most important to achieve their goals. (I got this idea about ‘mental representations’ from an article I read years ago called The (Sort of) Complete Guide to Actually Getting Better at Meditation – I highly suggest you read it as I will be stealing many of the ideas contained within it)
Life is really complicated, have you noticed? It’s so complicated that you have to ignore almost everything in order to decide to do anything! This means that you must use a mental representation to frame what is important and what isn’t. I can make understanding mental representations easy with an example. Take chess as our example: you can pretty easily learn how each piece moves on the board, and how the pieces move is held in your working memory as you observe the board and decide which move to make. However, merely knowing how all the pieces move won’t ever make you a chess master. Real chess masters have learned how to see meaningful arrangements of pieces that cue them to make particular moves – they have more and better-quality mental representations about the game that enables them to see more meaningful patterns and to recognize those patters faster. I learned this lesson when I was check-mated in only four moves by a third grader. What?! It was at that time that I realized that the key to being great at chess (or any other skill) is possessing high quality mental representations. Brute-force intelligence and discipline, though helpful in many ways, aren’t quite enough to master most skills. Learning how the chess pieces move is only a small piece of the pie in terms of all the mental representations that chess masters use to beat their opponents at lightening speed – it’s the unique positioning of pieces in meaningful ways that we aren’t able to see that gives the real master his edge.
So let’s get back to meditation. Learning to meditate by ‘just following the breath’ is like learning to play chess by understanding how each piece moves – you may have fun exploring but you’ll almost certainly never become a master at the craft. If you’re view of meditation is to simply follow the breath and redirect the attention to the breath anytime it’s wandered, I would say this is a low quality mental representation and probably not likely to get you very far. To become a master at any skill you need access to the highly developed mental representations that help reduce the complexity of the experience, let you see what’s meaningful, and help you decide what should be ignored. The mental representations passed down from meditation teachers have emerged from a process involving thousands of people over millennia devoting their lives to studying the complex nature of the mind – so don’t beat yourself up for not being able to figure it all out yourself! This is what a good teacher is for – and if you’re interested in the path of meditation I highly recommend finding a teacher you can check in with several times per year to help guide your progress and keep you on track.