Martin Aylward is a meditation teacher in the Buddhist forest tradition of Vipassana or Insight meditation. After many years living and studying in Asian monasteries, retreat centres and Himalayan hermitages, he founded and runs a meditation retreat centre in France. Martin has been teaching meditation around the world for more than 20 years with a flexible approach that supports students who want to connect more directly to their inner experience. Clay Hamilton interviewed Martin in autumn 2019.
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Briefly describe yourself as a meditation teacher.
My main background is in the Buddhist forest tradition of Vipassana or Insight meditation practice. I teach silent meditation retreats at the centre I founded in France and around the world, and lead urban intensives, bringing transformational practices into everyday life. I also train Mindfulness teachers in the US and in Europe. Mostly, I listen as fully as I can to what’s going on with people, so as to simultaneously both meet them right where they are, and guide them towards a freer possibility.
How did you first learn to meditate and why/how did you become a meditation teacher?
I went to India aged 19 and spent most of the next four years in various Asian monasteries, retreat centres and Himalayan hermitages. In 1999, after 10 years of intensive practice in Asia and Europe, my main teacher asked me to begin teaching and guiding students. Invitations grew from there and developed naturally.
What types of meditations have you studied or practiced, and what method do you mainly use or teach now?
I’ve practiced many streams of Buddhist practices for the last three decades, and lived for several years with a Hindu hermit in the Indian Himalayas. I also spent 13 years as a student of A.H. Almaas’ Diamond Approach. Those formal practices have supported the equally rich informal mode of practicing with each moment, each relationship, each situation. I developed a program called Work Sex Money Dharma which draws on this integrative approach to learning from the charged areas of everyday life, which more renunciate or monastic approaches can tend to leave out.
After 20 years of teaching worldwide, I would call my main approach ‘Freestyle Awakening’. More than trying to promote any particular meditation style or technique, I am interested in supporting students to connect as directly as possible to their inner experience; finding ways to meet, understand and transform their habits, and to meet life more fully and freely, to discover an unimaginable but very real liberation from their usual, narrow sense of self and of reality.
What is the greatest benefit you personally get from meditation?
Love! The love of being intimate with breath and body, with thought and feeling, world and consciousness. Being intimate with all of life, just by sitting down and opening up. Meditation is an opportunity to know and taste the true nature of experience; an invitation to open oneself up to whatever is present in the moment. Whether you are feeling clear or confused, peaceful or agitated, happy or sad, is less important than the way you are relating to it. Meditation can teach you how to befriend your experience, regardless of whether you would have chosen it. To love what is, whether you like it or not!
What do most students struggle with or get wrong?
There are two main things. The first is having some wrong or unhelpful idea of how meditation should be, imagining for instance, that thoughts should stop or that you should feel some special state or quality of peace. If this is you, stop should-ing on yourself, and meet your experience just as it is.
The second is the insidious influence of doubt and self-criticism. The negative self-talk that we take as the truth about ourselves undermines any deep experiences we might have. You might tell yourself that your meditation is lousy, and you don’t sit enough, particularly when you’re restless or dull or impatient or bored. By doing this you just emphasise a sense of failure. Don’t evaluate your meditation practice each day. Instead, just sit. Hang in there and things will start to transform by themselves. Guaranteed!
These are the two qualities I find that people emphasize too much: Duration and Quality—how long they sit and how ‘good’ the sitting is. There are two other qualities which are much more helpful: Regularity and Sincerity. Sit often, however long or short that is. And be sincere in your attention, whatever is going on in your mind.
What important aspect of meditation do you find yourself teaching over and over again? Is there a phrase or message or quote you repeat to students again and again?
The first would be encouraging people to trust in the goodness of their practice. This goes together with my comments above about regularity and sincerity instead of duration and quality.
The second thing is connected to this. I often say if I could zap people with one core understanding, it would be that there is #NoWrongExperience. I tell people it’s a hashtag, to help them remember. There is no thought you shouldn’t have, no feeling that shouldn’t arise. You want to be careful about what gets expressed and acted out, but there is fundamentally nothing that can arise in your heart and mind and body that needs to be rejected or spurned. #NoWrongExperience is a way that our fundamental orientation towards experience becomes one of love.
How many times and how much time per day do you recommend students to meditate?
A little more than their laziness tells them to, and a little less than their inner tyrant expects.
What do you think about meditation retreats (what form, how long, any advice)? What if someone can’t afford the financial or time commitment of a retreat, do you have any recommendations for them?
The majority of my time is spent teaching meditation retreats. I’ve made my home in retreat centres that I’ve founded for the last 25 years. So obviously I’d say, retreats are good! A dedicated time of intensive practice gives a different kind of opportunity to deepen one’s practice. Silence, support, the shared field of practice and intention, contact with teachers and the sheer number of hours sitting on your butt all add to the potency of the situation.
Some retreats are very expensive. Some are more modest in their fees, and some are offered entirely on the basis of dana, meaning generosity or mutual support. In the Theravadan tradition, all the monasteries welcome people and offer teachings freely. Lay organisations such as Freely Given Retreats and S.N. Goenka’s Vipassana foundation also offer not only teachings, but also accommodation, available freely on the basis of dana. And of course, despite this field of freely offered teachings, there may still be issues of travel costs or time away from work that make retreat attendance prohibitive. Partly as a response to that, I started a non-profit called WorldwideInsight.org some years ago, offering both weekly online live meditation classes with world-renowned teachers, and longer form courses that can be taken as a kind of home-retreat. Many people have found that the support of teachings, guidance and peer-contact through these courses, in the midst of their daily lives at home and at work, have been powerfully transformative.
What meditation books have you read and admired, re-read, or do you recommend to others (they can be directly or indirectly related to meditation)?
When I was 18 or 19, right before I started practicing myself, I read Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha. It had a profound effect on me, especially the part where Siddhartha has left the forest to look for work after years of austere practices. A merchant asks for his ‘résumé’ of capacities and he replies: I can sit, I can fast and I can wait. When I read that, it seemed to me the perfect skill set, and was one of the catalysts that propelled me into intensive practice.
Shunryu Suzuki Roshi’s Zen Mind Beginner’s Mind is a classic. Small and simple, exquisitely expressed. I gave a copy to my son last year when he went travelling, and it was touching to see him using it to reflect on the same truths and inquiries I had at his age.
And not about meditation, but I’ll add Animal: The autobiography of a female body by Sara Pascoe, which I read very recently. It is fun to read—she’s a British comedian—but its wit and irreverence belie a keen inquiry into culture, gender, and sexuality. I enjoyed it, and so did my daughter.
What books/courses/resources do you have available? What makes them special and how can they benefit a reader?
In April I published a book in French, called Ne te quitte pas. It will come out shortly in English (in which I wrote it), published by Wisdom Publications. It looks at the various realms of human experience—physical, instinctual, psychological, relational, and shows how to explore our experience in a deeply embodied way. There is a big emphasis on profound relaxation, going way beyond the muscular relaxation we are all familiar with, to encompass relaxing our nervous systems, our subtle defences, and our self-identification.
I have various online courses, but I’ll particularly mention one called ‘I See you Mara: From Inner Critic to Inner Freedom’. This course has really good tools for understanding how we get enmeshed in self-doubt and deficiency, and how to really wake up around judgement. I’ve had amazing feedback from many people about how freeing it has been.
How can readers get in contact with you or find out more?
French speakers can check out our meditation app—Mind-app.io
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[This interview is an extract. You can read Martin’s full interview, plus 29 more interviews, in the book How Do You Meditate? Interviews with 30 Meditation Teachers. Available from Amazon.]