This graphic vividly shows the realities of the learning process – not specific to meditation, but a reality that is even more pronounced with meditation.
Because meditation is entirely internal, then it’s even more important than it is with intellectual subjects to learn how to do it from a qualified teacher.
An inexact analogy is this: You can’t learn math simply by reading a book.
You can read a book to learn a technique, but in order to know how to apply that technique, you must work through some math problems.
I think anyone reading this has had the experience of doing math wrong and getting stuck – and that’s when it is infinitely helpful to have a real live person around to get some help from.
The parallels with meditation are there, but meditation is actually totally different because of this “internal” aspect that I mentioned. In meditation, you’re using the mind in a specific way – a way that most people have little to no prior experience in. It’s very common for people to feel frustrated and confused when starting out. “Am I doing this right?” is such a typical thought when trying to meditate for the first (or first thousandth!) time. If someone has that experience when attempting to meditate on their own, after reading about it in a book, I’m not sure how probable it is that he or she will persevere through and figure out how it works. I think it’s too easy to stay frustrated and just give up.
When you meditate with a qualified teacher who has extensive experience both with meditating and with teaching then you’re setting yourself up for success – because that person is communicating with you in real time, mind to mind, looking you in the eye and transmitting the instruction set to you, so that it’s easier to “get” it. And, that person should be able to sense whether you are in fact getting it or not, based on how the room feels when you meditate together (and the look of joy or befuddlement on your face when you are done!).
Reading books about meditation can be inspiring. However in order to “know” what meditation is, most people need to experience the stillness of meditating with someone who knows how to be still. That provides a map to the end state of meditation which you can then better trace on your own, when you’re practicing by yourself.
Otherwise, it’s likely that you’ll be just chasing your tail when you sit down to meditate – which may be entertaining, but it’s not the fastest path to stopping your thoughts.