BOOK REVIEW: How to Meditate by Lawrence LeShan

How to Meditate: A Guide to Self-DiscoveryHow to Meditate: A Guide to Self-Discovery by Lawrence LeShan

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Amazon page

LeShan’s book offers a secular and scientific guide to meditation. By secular, I don’t mean to suggest that it’s devoid of mention of religion. On the contrary, How to Meditate delves into a wide variety of meditation styles that have roots in religion, and it quotes from spiritual teachers across a range of religions–including the mystic branches of Christianity and Islam. I mention the latter because the book seems tailored to bringing individuals into meditation that do not normally think meditation as being their bag, which could include atheists, secular humanists, or those whose religious practices don’t involve a mystical component. I just mean that the book is secular in that it doesn’t advocate a specific religion or suggest that one needs to hold any particular spiritual beliefs to benefit from meditation.

Also, by scientific I don’t mean to suggest that the book gets bogged down in the minutiae of EKG’s or the like. How to Meditate is readable to the general reader, except perhaps for chapter 11, which deals with using meditation in psychotherapy. [However, by the author’s own admission, one can skip that chapter with no great loss if you aren’t a therapist.] What I do mean to say is that LeShan takes an approach to meditation that is grounded in real-world, observable results. He tells the reader of the mental and physical benefits of meditation as they are discussed in the scientific literature.

In other words, if you think that meditation is only for hippie-types who believe in auras and astral planes, this book may convince you otherwise. On the other hand, if you’re one who believes in auras, astral planes, or the idea that only one true guru / path exists, you’ll probably be miffed by this book. There are a couple of chapters devoted to ideas that people believe that both have little evidence of grounding in reality and which detract from meditation. This includes ESP, auras, strange maps of reality, and guru-worship.

The core of the book is chapter 8, which explains how to do meditations of eleven different kinds. The book addresses single-point awareness, breath counting, thought watching, bodily awareness (specifically, Theravada Buddhist style meditation), word association (1,000-petaled lotus), mantra meditation, meditation on “I”, movement meditation (particularly Sufi-style), sensory awareness, safe harbor meditation, and unstructured meditation. The first ten are all types of structured meditation, and an earlier chapter is devoted to distinguishing structured from unstructured approaches to meditation. There is also an earlier chapter that discusses a broad taxonomy of meditation and sub-classes of meditation.

The book is logically arranged for the most part. It begins with a chapter on why one should meditate. This first chapter sets up two chapters that deal with the psychological and physiological effects of meditation. There is one oddity of organization. The core “how-to” chapter is bookended by a chapter on ESP and one on various pitfalls of spiritualism. It would seem these two chapters should go together as they both deal with things that detract from meditative practice, and not with the central chapter wedged between them.

The last couple chapters and the Afterword aren’t as beneficial for the general reader as the first 3/4ths of the book or so. One of those chapters is the aforementioned chapter for psychotherapists and the other deals with the social significance of meditation. The last chapter before those that I found superfluous, however, is one addressing the question of whether one needs a teacher to learn meditation. This pro and con discussion seems like a good way to end this book.

There is a long afterword by Edgar N. Jackson that adds a perspective on what we should take from LeShan’s book. I suspect that if page count were not a concern the book would have ended on the chapter that talks about decisions about a teacher. The last two chapters and the Afterword seem to have been added for the twin-fold purpose of hitting a target page count and to add a couple of niche audiences—namely students of psychology and fans of Edgar N. Jackson (i.e. Christians with an interest in mystical approaches to their religion.)

Overall, I’d recommend this book for those who are new to meditation, those who are seeking to expand their practice to new types of meditation, and those who are interested in the mind in general. As I mentioned, if you think of meditation as a route to see the glow of chakras or to commune with the dead, this probably isn’t the book for you—you’re likely to find its disregard for such otherworldly endeavors to be unappealing.

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