This is a pretty good attempt, though. James Hewitt gives the basic advice on posture, breathing, etc., and then takes us through various different methods, with a chapter on each: breathing meditation, visual meditation, listening, repeating a mantra, meditating on love, and meditating on the question, ‘Who am I?’
The best feature of the book is its breadth of outlook. Hewitt doesn’t really favour any particular school, or any particular religion or belief system. He quotes from Maharishi Mahesh Yogi on one page and Wordsworth on another. He covers Sufism, Whirling Dervishes, Christian mysticism, Hare Krishnas, Taoism, Zen, Jainism and many more, while also giving space to scientists who reject the spiritual basis of meditation but value it for its ability to increase relaxation and regulate blood pressure.
The breadth and fair-mindedness of the coverage, however, has a paradoxical effect. Rather than being inspired and intrigued by all the variations, I felt as if I’d been presented with a vast menu on which every choice was the same. As Hewitt keeps reminding us, no method is better than another. Basically, if you sit upright, minimise distractions and breathe smoothly and rhythmically, you’re meditating. It doesn’t matter too much whether you visualise a mandala, count your breaths, chant ‘Om’, listen to the ticking of a clock or imagine the sound of one hand clapping. Even the yogis and Zen masters who prescribe detailed meditation techniques admit that the details are unimportant. Hewitt tells a traditional Hindu story:
A man approached a great Yogi and asked by what method he could attain enlightenment. The guru said: ‘Chant RAMA [one of the Hindu names of God] a thousand times a day.’ Many years passed before the two men met again. The great Yogi immediately perceived that the other was enlightened. ‘Did you chant the sacred name, as I instructed?’ asked the teacher. ‘Yes, Master!’ came the reply. I became a solitary in the mountains, and every day for ten years I chanted MARA MARA MARA a thousand times, just as you told me to do.’ Mara, an anagram of Rama, is the name of the Devil!
If the details don’t matter, then why describe them in such detail? I suppose it’s to give you a choice and help you find the one that’s right for you, but to me it felt a bit repetitive, especially because many of the basic instructions were repeated in each chapter.
There were nevertheless some wonderful explanations, like ‘The Onion Game’, in which the layers of the self are stripped away:
I am not the body. I am not the senses. I am not this. I am not that. What then am I? What is the self? It is in the body. It is in the everybody until there is nothing left but the original oneness, the ‘something larger’ that many of us sense in quieter moments. It is everywhere. It is the All. It is Self. I am It. Absolute Oneness.
The range of this book made me wish certain topics could have been explored in more detail. It introduces a lot of ideas, but there’s no space in this format to do more than touch on them. I got the weird sense that the book could have been expanded to 1,000 pages or condensed to the back of a postcard. Still, I’d recommend it to those who are fairly new to meditation and want to learn more about the various techniques and to be introduced to a mind-expanding range of ideas from thinkers in different eras, faiths and regions of the world.