I found the first year or two of my serious practice very challenging. Part of this was because of physical issues (having to do with pain during sitting meditation), but another component had to do with misconceptions and hidden assumptions that needed to be shaken out.
While my remarks should be taken as by one who is still very much a student, there are an a number of points that stick out from my experience and which jive with the teachings in my tradition of practice. I wish I had heard these points made when I initiated serious practice in this tradition over a decade back, and so I'll try to express them here.
As in the performing arts and sports, progress in meditation requires "practice, practice, practice". This doesn't mean just putting in the time in a brute-force sort of way, but also careful attention to what is doing, to the results that one is getting, and to active experimentation to try to improve those results. The tradition particularly emphasizes experimentation, trying out different strategies to identify ways to get results more efficiently, or to get around problems. As with other skills, this takes effort: persistence and attention and care, rather than just being a "turn the crank" sort of practice. I know that others and myself have found an hour or more of formal meditation a day a level of practice that can yield some modicum of progress or at least maintain one's current level of skill. Both myself and several other practitioners have found two hours a day of practice to yield substantial benefit. There is a predisposition in the West to try to be sophisticated, and to claim through one argument or another that one doesn't really have to spend much time in sitting meditation. This is sometimes tied up with misconceptions about the role of desire in the path, or the claim that "efforting" is dangerous. As Thanissaro Bhikkhu has commented, such attitudes threaten to short-circuit the path. From all I have experienced and seen, the "effortless" character of practice at high levels of skill is only made possible through great deadication and spending long, long hours in practice.
Particularly as a scientist, it is tempting to take a skeptical stance with respect to many beliefs tied up in the tradition -- beliefs about the possibility of qualitatively distinctive states of Awakening and the existence of the Deathless, kamma, rebirth, and others. For those early on the practice, this could also include beliefs such as regarding the need for self-restraint, and feasibility of reaching the Jhanic states.
It is tempting for those from philosophically and scientifically sophisticated background to aspire to a state of neither committing to such beliefs nor avowing non-belief, but instead to just aim at an open-minded, uncommitted perspective. Unfortunately, it may be possible to adopt this stance with respect to many sorts of facts and hypotheses, it is not feasible to be truly uncommitted for the many practice-related beliefs which have implications for what we do in our practice. After all, we can insist on our open-mindedness and non-committal stance all we want, but at the end of the day, we need to act, to something throughout the course of every day. Typically our actions -- choosing to behave one way or another -- reflect a tacit wager on whether the belief (about which we aspire to be "open minded") is true or false. From my experience, such putatively "non-committal" stances regarding matters of the mind often end up getting int the way of real progress in our understanding -- we are too loosy-goosy in our views to really commit to the level needed to really empirically -- and experientially -- test the plausibility of the beliefs. Here, all too often, one can't really claim to have given the practice a decent try!
I found an analogy helpful here. Given the urgency of the practice and its giant impact on our life, it's a poor analogy, but does capture some of the irony of the situation. Specifically, avowing "non-committal" believes regarding potentially observable areas of the mind reminds me of someone living far from the mountains who takes an "uncommitted" attitude towards whether mountains exist -- and claims that this is rational because they have never seen the mountains. Claiming to lack any particular belief on the matter, they never have the or motivation to impetus get off their duff and go try to verify the existence of the mountains.
In line with Thanissaro Bhikkhu's suggestions, rather than aspiring to an infeasible "uncommitted" stance to things claimed in the suttas that we have not yet experienced, I find it much more effective to commit wholeheartedly to such beliefs as working hypotheses -- and to commit to exploring first-hand the effectiveness of putting such beliefs into practice in what we do. To continue on the imperfect analogy, knowing that other knowledgeable individuals (analogous to other highly experienced practitioners -- whether contemporary or in the Suttas) have commented in detail on the existence of the mountains and described how one reaches them and the desirability of reaching them, one commits to belief in such mountains as a working hypothesis, and strives in a careful fashion to reach them. In this case, one has a good chance that you'll be able to assess the reliability of the claims of mountains -- and benefit from the results one way or another.
In short, given that I aspire to really give the practice a serious try, I've found that I need to be very cautious about the idea that I can simply put totally aside issues of central claims. Even in the typical case you haven't seen the evidence first-hand yet, the sensible thing seems often to commit to them as working hypotheses -- indeed, this seems to often be the only way I would have the chance to really see the evidence first hand. However seductive from the perspective of sounding advance and savvy, from my experience, taking an "uncommitted" stance seems to often doom us to a situation where we block our own path by cutting off the chance of witnessing first-hand the very evidence that would allow us to deepen and make progress in our practice.
Until one advances to very high levels of practice (and particularly if one lacks the guidance of very high quality teachers), it is typical for defilements to cloud one's understanding, predispositions and judgement. Because of this, I have found that I need to treat with great caution and wariness my predispositions towards certain components of the practice and particularly the fact that some aspects of the practice appeal less to me. My experience suggests that one needs to be suspicions of the belief that things that "resonate" with me are the natural teaching vehicle. Instead, it is often the components of the Dhamma that don't appeal to me that will serve as a better -- "bitter" -- medicine.
Similarly, my practice experience suggest that one needs to be very cautious in beleving one's initial assessment as to what is "important" and what is a "minor item". I find that it is often the things that seem "minor" -- things easily dismissed as "quirks" or "oddities" -- that reflect some of the highest priorities for practice, and where the need for understanding is the greatest.
Partly reflecting the presence of these defilements that obscure our understanding, the Suttas and the tradition in which I practice establish a very high bar for teaching, requiring -- as I understand it -- the exceptional high degree of practice characteristic of one who has reached the first level of Awakening (one who is a sottapana). It is my recurrent impression the West is filled with "Dhamma teachers" who are entirely too premature in their impulse to teach -- to the point that it is very much a situation of the "blind leading the blind". While it may seem compassionate, this rushing gives rise to many adverse consequences. Most clearly, this leads to poor advice being given to students on particular issues. Less obviously, it raises barriers to the practice of the teacher. The effects, however, are more widespread. The proliferation of low quality teachers has also lead to a low "signal to noise" ratio for the Dhamma in the West, making it more difficult for potentially serious students to secure the reliable instruction that you need. In effect, the casualness with which teaching is treated in the West, shortchanges the Dhamma practice of diverse students,effectively cutting many off from recognizing -- much less fully realizing in their practice -- the depth of the Dhamma.
Those claiming to teach without the requisite responsibilities are, in my view, behaving quite irresponsibly, and should be viewed with the same caution -- and perhaps opprobrium? -- as would someone who is only superficially trained in medicine passing themselves off as a surgeon or oncologist.
I would advise students and potential students to exercise great care and heedfulness in choosing a teacher. The Buddha's words on choosing a teacher seem as prescient as ever. Speaking from about 2 decades of experience with diverse tearchers, I have come to the conclusion that it is far preferable to have a fully qualified and insightful teacher at a long distance than a "teacher" of uncertain quality nearby.
While people have encouraged me to think about my teaching, it goes without saying that I am a long distance away from realizing the level of practice for me to do so responsibly.
Among those in the West interested in Buddhist approaches, there appears to be a widespread believe in the importance of not getting "hung up" on matters, of just "letting go" of issues and accepting things as they are. As a student, it's my perception that this has its place in the practice (e.g. as a way of dealing with matters of inappropriate attention), but is applied far too indiscriminately, in too much of a blanket fashion. This can lead to privileging a sense of casualness, to the point of carelessness and sloppiness.
Most critically, while "letting go" is a big part of the path, I've found it incredibly helpful in my own practice to focus as well on the imperatives -- stressed in the suttas -- of developing and building up. The suttas make it very clear that during the path, one lets go of some things and develops others (where the balance of these changes throughout the path). The Buddha further commented that heedfulness is the one most important quality on the path. It's been my observation from personal experience and from such excellent Dhamma teachings to this effect that it is critical to train oneself to recognize - and not merely glom over or shunt aside -- the dangers in carelessness, and to cultivate a sense of meticulousness and circumspection in all one's activities.
I also found very helpful Thanissaro Bhikkhu's comments that we need to have patience on the results of our actions, but maintain a sense of urgency in putting in place the causes for such progress.
People sometimes enquire about the relation of my form of practice with other branches of Buddhism. These are very distinctive, to the point where they might be reasonably viewed as different religions. One should be very cautious about drawing conclusions about the beliefs of one branch based on knowledge of another branch.
Below I list some resources I've found to offer much value.
Additional resources can be found on the Saskatchewan Kammatthana site links page..