It is proposed in some lineages of Tibetan Buddhism that one entering meditation should choose an object of observation that will help to quell their most habitual tendency.
In his book “Calm Abiding and Special Insight” (1998) Lama Geshe Gedun Lodro interpret’s Atisha’s “Lamp For the Path to Enlightenment” (11th Century) as saying that there are two types of meditators. The first type is able to choose their object of observation for meditation (e.g. breath, body, loving kindness or unpleasant phenomenon.) The second type (most people) require a second party, such as a spiritual guru to choose it for them.
But Gurus sometimes help and sometimes do not. As students, we become inspired by others. We flounder and flabble trying to fit into their methods. From trying traditional methods and applying our own experimentation we find ways that work here and there and we move forward. Moving forward usually requires making it your own applying personal creativity and humility. Merely following methods will not necessarily yield meaningful results.
How many examples are there of “perfectly enlightened” teachers around whom entire communities form, trying to codify and systematize their process, which is then taught to thousands of others so they too may become “enlightened” and be able to teach others? Does it work? How good is the success rate? How often have we seen a devotee of a great master, follow directly in their footsteps, same methods etc., and come out with the special gift and spark of that master?
We can see that a practitioner might need to be vigilant about not choosing ways to practice that further ingrain the patters that are holding them back. This is no small task and might need support from their teacher, if indeed their teacher is able to discern their patterns and suggest remedies fruitfully.
Then, having chosen some practices to follow, if one finds some parts of it that don’t work for you it is time to take stock of why, before moving forward. First of all, don’t decide this too quickly – try the practice as it is classically done. Take some time with it. Read about the pracice from various sources. Attend community sessions where the practice is done with integrity.
If something is still preventing you from going deeper or having an inspired practice, take a look at what is blocking you. It could be a pattern of your own that is one you’d like to dissolve -for example – the practice requires some memorization and you have a general issue of laziness or inability to memorize. There may be an opportunity to push yourself and get over something that holds you back – finding enjoyment and inspiration in new ways.
Or it could be something about the practice that isn’t appropriate for your path, or that pushes too hard against your grain at this time, or that isn’t intense enough for the energy you have available. So you can leave this practice out or modify it. To do this it would make sense to first understand the intention of the practice and how it functions in its classical format, then make changes so that you personally can better work with it. Again -by this point we have tried it in its classic form, we have learned about it and we have sought input from experienced others and why they feel it might not be working for you.
If you have decided to continue the practice and to modify it, you apply what you know with the goal of most high inspiration, widest view and most practical cultivation for your immediate life situation. If it is a prayer or chant you can change the words. A physical practice you can slow it down, speed it up, shorten, lengthen. You can change the time of day or location of where it is suggested you do the practice. Be creative but be aware of the intention and reflect that in your new design.
Examples from my own path:
1) When I was first taught to bow down to the Buddha statue upon entering the meditation hall I had a fair resistance. “Let’s be realistic, this statue is not alive!” “Wouldn’t you rather do what we’re doing without being culty and silly – what regrettable tangent might that lead to?” “Buddha wouldn’t have wanted us to bow like this, yo uguys have gotten carried away.
An interesting point is, I felt much less like this on the way out, after having meditated, where again we were supposed to bow. As it turned out I continued to bow and learned a few things along the way. For one thing my fellow meditators were not bowing to Buddha like he was a God, but to the enlightened potential in ourselves and all others, with a bit of a nod to Buddha for having taught these methods to us. A couple of years into this practice, during a 5-day residential silent retreat, meditating set after set all day I had a profound experience, followed by which my bow out felt like a great privlege and deeply needed expression of appreciation and surrender.
2) We used to recite the “Three Jewels” of Buddhism in an older Korean language and together read the English translation as a group. The Three Jewels (Buddha Dharma Sangha) can be interpreted as narrow as representing The Buddha Shakyamuni himself, His Teachings, and His ordained renunciates – or it can mean Enlightened Nature of all great spiritual adepts, The Laws of the Universe, and the entire community of living beings sentient and insentient. In order for me to commit fully to my “vow of refuge” in these three, I needed to word it in my mind and in my home practice, to take the shape of the latter. This worked so well for me I can now confidently apply the perspective of the Three Jewels to almost any situation and get some power to move forward.
In this second case, I changed the format a bit, based on observing and learning about various ways other bright people come to it, and without breaking the intention or servicing unhealthy patterns of my own, made a change that helped move forward.
So that’s my suggestion – “Make it Your Own But Beware of Your Demons”, and seek feedback from experienced others.