I have been meditating for about three or four years. I got started with contemplative prayer. Then, once I started studying Buddhism have been practicing based on Buddhist meditation techniques. I've found meditation to be relaxing, frustrating, hard to stick with and extremely beneficial. I want to meditate but there's always something more urgent to do. I want to meditate but it's so boring just sitting there by myself. I want to meditate but I just can't slow my thoughts down long enough to feel the time has been well spent. I've read books about meditation and contemplative prayer and listened to many PodCasts. But, of all the materials I have studied, the best so far is Turning the Mind Into An Ally by Sakyong Mipham.
It's likely you don't think of your mind as an enemy. But, for many of us an untamed, out of control mind is just that. I've known for years that my thoughts race. I knew I wanted to get control of the flashes of anger that could just pop out or the rush of fear that could be triggered by a single thought. One thought leads to another which leads to another and you "wake up" minutes later to find you've said or done something you regret. Meditation helps us study the often unconscious habitual patterns our minds fall into, so that we can see those things happening as they happen and, ultimately, before they happen. Buddhist practice isn't so much a religion as it is a disciplining of the mind and an attempt to face ultimate reality. When I first started reading the book, it seemed too basic for me, like Meditation 101. It's written in non-technical language and is full of real-life illustrations that make the material easy to read and grasp. One metaphor the author uses throughtout the book is comparing the mind to a wild horse that we need to tame and that once tamed is a powerful vehicle to take us where we want/need to go. I also appreciated that he did not talk about the ego and how it's something we have to kill. The untamed mind is not something to be killed but something to be tamed. The goal of meditation is to transform the wild horse into the windhorse which we can ride to boundless joy and freedom.
I've been meditating and following the breath for a few years now. My meditation practice has been spotty (at best). This book motivated me to get back on to the cushion. Thanks to this book, for the first time I think I really understand the purpose of following the breath which is not just following the breath for the sake of counting it or even experiencing it but for the sake of training your mind to focus on what you want to focus on and set aside distractions. This will inevitably fail and you will find yourself drifting and have to re-focus your attention. This act, repeated time and time again is like yoga for your mind, making it stronger and allowing you to see how it works. After the mind has been trained in this technique, we can begin to truly contemplate ultimate reality. The joys of being born human, the fact that our actions have consequences, the natural progression of growing older, becoming sick and dying, having compassion for all sentient beings. And, when we are off of the cushion, we actually have some chance of being able to get control of those patterns we so easily fall into when our mind is running out of control.
I think this is an excellent book for beginning meditators to those who may have begun meditation a while ago, don't fully understand it or just need a reminder of why it's so important and how it can help. You don't have to be Buddhist or even spiritual to get something out of this book and out of meditation. It's a book I'm glad to have in my library and one that I'm sure I'll be reading again just to remind myself of how and why to continue to practice.