how to meditate

Most of us try our best to avoid frustrations and difficulties in life. David Schneider thinks that with a little effort we might actually come, if not to welcome them, then at least to make use of them and accept them more graciously. The key to this radical shift in attitude, he says, is meditation practice. And this, ironically, is usually a counsel of last resort.

"When things are going along sweetly, we don't think, 'Oh, maybe I should meditate'. It's only when we're in pain, or heartbroken, or in grief or frustrated, when some terrible thing has happened, that it finally occurs to us to take a closer look at our lives. So, in some sense, obstacles actually push people on to the meditational path."

Schneider, a meditator for more than 25 years, has been teaching meditation for the last 18. A native Californian, he was recently appointed European director of Shambhala Training, an American organisation set up to promote meditation practice in a secular, non-denominational context.

Although founded by a Tibetan Buddhist lama, Schneider insists Shambhala has no interest in winning converts. "You can retain your Christianity, your Judaism, your Catholicism, your atheism, whatever, and still meditate. The core teachings of the Shambhala path are really about meditation, courage, and gentleness. These are just human qualities, not inherently Buddhist or Asian qualities. They are just ideals which we can find in every culture."

Though based in Germany, Schneider will be in London this weekend leading an intensive seminar in meditation practice and the cultivation of awareness. Called "Obstacles as Path", the course will involve instruction from experienced teachers, guided meditation sessions, discussion groups, individual interviews, and Schneider's three keynote lectures.

Meditation is not about creating a cosy New Age cocoon, says Schneider. Rather, it equips the practitioner to deal with the grit and frustration of everyday life. "The posture is very important. You have to sit upright, and that gives you a feeling of being solid, strong, unshakeable, immovable. This solidity allows you to relax your mind, see things directly, accept them as they are, and let them go. The stability of the posture, and the technique of letting thoughts flow in and out, gives you all the space, allows you to see - but not be swayed - by what occurs."

Schneider says that this detachment - he calls it "spaciousness" - can alleviate petty aggravation. "You can allow moods to occur without denying them, without having to rearrange your whole day. You're not pushed around by your feelings in the same way. You don't have to stop, or go off and find something to distract yourself. You can continue, you can allow yourself to be what you are, without getting dragged down - or overly excited."

Another consequence of this openness is a heightened appreciation of others' difficulties which, says Schneider, makes for closer relationships. "If you are open to the obstacles in your own life - the frustrations, the pain, the grief - you can be a better friend when someone comes to you with their troubles. You can be the kind of person that people can talk to, a genuine, authentic presence, as opposed to someone who's superficially kind. The difference is subtle, but it's very easy to feel. Certainly, it's instantly apparent to the person who's in pain."

Of course, all of this requires a certain discipline. But it's hard to argue with Schneider's belief that 20 minutes a day is a small investment, especially since a lot of the hard work is done for you: apparently, the knack is in not making so much of an effort.

"Out of meditation, awareness arises, and that is probably more powerful than any attempt to change your mind. You see, you don't have to fight off your so-called negative tendencies. If you practice meditation and watch, your negative thoughts get ashamed and run away by themselves, because they don't want to be seen."


'Obstacles as Path', 19-21 Jan, at the London Shambhala Centre, 27 Belmont Close, London, SW4. Details: 0171-720 3207