How to Meditate, Interview – April 16, 2010
HTM: I’d like to hear about the vision behind GoSit.org, but first I'd like to have a greater understanding of your feelings and ideas about meditation in general. I am assuming you yourself meditate. When did you first become interested in meditation and what were the circumstances?
Peter: It’s been a long time, nearly 40 years since I first became interested in meditation. I remember getting a book on yoga the summer after my first year of college in 1970. The next year I joined a hatha yoga club at college and began practicing yoga regularly. As I remember, we always did a few minutes of meditation at the end of a session, and I think I got the idea that meditation was at the heart of yoga.
About January of 1972 after dropping out of college, I remember coming across the book, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. I would say that’s been the most influential book I’ve ever read (and reread many times over the years). I guess, like many of my generation, I was upset with and confused by our conflict in Vietnam, and was searching for a way to fit into society in a more rational and ethical way.
I think the government’s lies and mistakes in Vietnam and the blind loyalty of many Americans made me much more skeptical of everything in American society. On the other hand, Shunryu Suzuki’s message resonated with me in every way. An approach to life with “Zen Mind” allowed me to start to feel more comfortable with society, and to feel like I had an approach that would allow me to better understand reality. Anyhow, since 1972 I have meditated very nearly every single day.
Other than Suzuki, through his books, I have never had a “teacher” or felt the need for one. Still, over the years I’ve read other good books on Buddhism & meditation and attended a few weekend trainings, including one week in Suzuki’s former training monastery in Japan. In 2001 I began a training session at a center in Massachusetts. I became very dissatisfied with the method of instruction because it seemed based largely on hypnotic suggestion.
I found it cult-like and very deceptive, so left the training in the middle. That experience, along with Malcolm Gladwell’s book The Tipping Point, plus my interest in web design led to the idea of an independent meditation center guide on the Internet where users could share their experiences at meditation centers. With enough input from web users, I hoped fellow meditators would have a better chance of finding appropriate training sessions for themselves.
HTM: I have had some interesting discussions with people involving the whole idea of teachers, masters, and gurus. I wonder if you could share your take on why some are so insistent that a teacher is necessary. Also, I am interested in hearing more about your daily meditation practice. Is it a sitting meditation? If so, how long do you sit and in what position? Also, is it primarily non-doing, or do you have a specific self-guided approach that you are fond of?
Peter: About teachers, I think people learn in different ways. Those who’ve become teachers probably studied with teachers. I feel like I learned enough to get started from Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind and later from other books. I’ve met a few teachers, and I’m sure they’ve added to my practice, but none gave me the feeling that I needed to go back and see them regularly. I got to know one fairly well established teacher a bit on a personal level, and he basically said it was a job.
From a monetary standpoint, if teaching is your job, you need students. So, it’s obviously in teachers’ self-interest to promote the idea that we need teachers to make progress.
I sit on a cushion on the floor for 40 minutes every morning with very rare exceptions. Since I’m semi-retired, work at home, and mostly set my own schedule, it’s usually no problem finding the time. I’m able to comfortably sit in a full-lotus for about 25 minutes.
When I start to feel that I’m hurting my knees, I switch to a Burmese position. Before going to bed I normally sit in a Burmese position for 15-20 minutes. I feel that these positions allow me to keep my back straight. Once I’ve got my posture, I feel like I’m doing meditation, and I don’t have to do anything else.
Often I count my breaths, or focus on letting go, but I don’t obsess over what’s going on in my mind. Really, more and more, I believe meditation is a physical process that has more to do with chemical brain function than psychology. I’ve said for a long time that the reason for reading books on meditation or Buddhism or going to group sessions is to encourage us to deepen our commitment to practice more than to learn anything new.
HTM: I appreciate all that you offered about teachers, and our different ways of learning. I have to tell you that I am impressed that you can do full lotus for any length of time. Also, I am curious about the Burmese position. Can you tell me more about it, as well as any other insights into posture that you have picked up– especially for how you see the physical element as being so essential.
Peter: The Burmese position is pretty comfortable for many people. I use this or a quarter lotus position when I intend to sit longer than about 25 minutes. Here’s a page I found with good pictures of meditation positions. I do believe that posture is a large part of meditation. I think remaining still in an alert and relaxed posture facilitates a meditative state of mind.
Whenever I realize I’m daydreaming, I notice that my posture has slumped. The chin being tucked-in really does seem to promote awareness. I think maintaining the posture develops discipline, self-confidence, grounding, and the ability to focus on reality. Of course, the mind always wanders, but straightening the posture seems to start something happening in the brain. This is totally speculative on my part, but I’m convinced good posture has a beneficial effect through hormones, brain waves, or some physical process.
There seems to be a fair amount of research showing that meditation does affect the brain. I’ve linked to a couple of articles on this topic at the website here. In Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind Suzuki says in his talk about posture—
"These forms are not the means of obtaining the right state of mind. To take this posture is itself to have the right state of mind. There is no need to obtain some special state of mind."
I’ve come to believe that from my practice.
HTM: Thank you. I will have to try adjusting posture and pay attention to differences. I want to ask now about GoSit.org. Can you tell me more about your vision for this site– what it offers, and what kind of information one can get there?
Peter: The vision for GoSit.org was a web site to help people decide where to go to learn about and to practice meditation. There are so many meditation centers these days. Magazines like Tricycle are full of advertisements for meditation centers. Most residential centers have web sites that explain how good their retreats are. I assume most people have limited time and money to devote to training periods. So, it would be beneficial to have an independent guide to help us decide where to go to practice meditation.
Originally the site was going to focus on centers that offered intensive training sessions, but it seemed unfair to exclude groups that regularly practice together without offering retreats. So GoSit.org lists all kinds of meditation groups and retreat centers. The main idea of the site was to provide a forum for individuals to comment on their experiences after attending retreats. I was hopeful that many people would share their opinions, and that would give others a much clearer idea of what to expect when selecting a meditation center.
Unfortunately very few web users have entered comments. However, the site does provide a number of ways to search for meditation centers; for example, by city, state, zip or area code. It incorporates Yahoo Maps and Google custom searches to provide additional information that might be useful in selecting a center. Listings are free and help promote meditation centers. To make the site more inspirational it has a number of quotes from popular books on meditation that randomly appear in the top banner.
Links to book excerpts and purchasing through Amazon are available. (Although a few dollars in commissions are earned from Amazon, the web site definitely costs more than it earns.) The Find Books link promotes a number of books that have been recommended for learning more about meditation and Buddhism. Also, the Links page gives links to a number of other web sites that might be useful for those who meditate, including libraries of free online books and articles.
HTM: Thank you for going into those details and explaining how the site works. It is a terrific idea. Perhaps this interview can drive a few more visitors there. Are you open to these same advertisers who advertise on Tricycle? You could offer these centers space at a fraction of the cost of Tricycle or Shambhala Sun all to help support this site.
Peter: I don’t think the web site could maintain its independence if it had paid advertising from centers. I never thought of it as a money-making venture, but as a hobby and providing a useful service. In my mind the cost is like a donation to a charity, and in this case I know how the money is being used, which I’m skeptical about when contributing to large charities.
HTM: That all makes sense. How do you keep your records of various centers up to date? Do they volunteer this information, or is it something you do? Also, is there any orientation or set of standards that a center must meet before you include them?
Peter: Mostly these days I wait for e-mails or comments from the web site telling me about changes or new centers to list. In the past I was more proactive. Sometimes I would send out e-mails to a hundred centers at a time asking for updates. (There are now 2241 centers in the database.) Sometimes I would check against listings in magazines or other web sites. Also, I’ve tested the links to meditation centers in the database to make sure they are still accessible. In order to get a listing, a center generally needs to offer group meditation practice, classes or retreats. Although I started with a concentration on Buddhist centers, requests for any type of meditation are listed.
HTM: Meditation is such a personal experience, and there is an element of participation needed for people to share comments. Still the database itself offers valuable information. Is the site used often for those seeking information, and can you tell when people query your database and find answers they need? I suppose the more people visiting the site the more likely the comments will grow. The more the comments grow, the more value it has for those visiting.
Peter: Thanks for the positive feedback on GoSit.org. Although the site gets 2000-3000 visitors per month, very few leave comments (per year!). I suspect the site would need 100 times more visitors to get a significant number of comments. I've tried a number of methods to encourage more comments, and maybe will try some again in the future, but I've mostly resigned myself to the situation, that the site will not generate the comments that I hoped for.
It's been active for 7 years, so I do not expect a huge increase in usage at this point. I think visitors to the site are probably normal in terms of response rate. Sites like Amazon get useful Internet feedback, but the percentage of those who write reviews is undoubtedly very small. I used to track user actions on GoSit.org pretty closely, and am satisfied that most users are able to search and find what they are looking for in the database. I certainly agree that more independent comments on meditation centers would make the site more beneficial, so if you have any suggestions, please feel free. Maybe this interview will inspire a few.
HTM: Perhaps it will. Peter, it feels to me that this interview is starting to wind down, and before it does entirely I wanted to ask you if you had any advice to offer those who may just be beginning to meditate.
Peter: My advice for anybody starting to practice meditation is to not have any expectations. I think sometimes we get confused or dissatisfied with our practice if we expect something special to happen. Or if we get the idea that there’s a right way and a wrong way to meditate, it can hurt our practice. The main thing is to sit still and see what happens. Not to try to achieve any special state of mind, but to naturally develop a regular schedule of sitting. To have an understanding that once we are sitting still, we are already meditating.
HTM: This is wonderful advice. I really admire what you are doing with GoSit.org and recognize its tremendous value both as a wealth of information and an opportunity to share experiences which could inform further. Thank you on behalf of those of us who meditate and look for places to sit and do just that. It has been a pleasure interviewing you.
Peter: Thank you for doing this; it’s been interesting.