Thom Walters is a meditation teacher and podcaster from New Hampshire, USA. He has been meditating for more than 35 years, and he both practices and teaches a number of meditation techniques. Tom has recorded over 2,000 podcast episodes for two different podcasts, Zen Commuter and Calmer in 5, and he also has a number of guided meditations available on the Insight Timer app and on his website. Through his podcasts, website, guided meditations and a book, Thom aims to help people become calmer and more purposeful through a mindfulness practice. Clay Hamilton interviewed Thom in the summer of 2019.
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Briefly describe yourself as a meditation teacher.
As a meditation teacher my ultimate goal is helping people understand their significance and their ability to live peacefully. It starts by helping them understand the basics. I teach in person here in the Northeast of the United States (but will go anywhere). However, the majority of my work is available online. I personally practice Zazen, vipassana and ‘I am’ meditation, but teach students mindfulness meditation to start and then expose them to other types later on.
I live in Nashua, New Hampshire and have been meditating for over 35 years. My two podcasts, ZEN commuter and Calmer in 5, are heard worldwide and have been responsible for people learning meditation and calm for over 4 years. It is currently in its fifth year.
How did you first learn to meditate and why/how did you become a meditation teacher?
I grew up with meditation. It was something that my mother always practiced. In fact, she was responsible for helping other people in the town become aware of its benefits. She had two meditation teachers come to the house every other Tuesday and teach a group of about 10 other people from the community. I remember listening to the classes from outside in the hall. Eventually, my mother asked if I wanted to join the group, and I enthusiastically agreed.
I guess the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, because 37 years later I am still meditating, and to my Mom’s example, I now teach meditation. I travel to different parts of the Northeast, speaking and teaching meditation in person.
However, I am probably more well-known for my online instruction, both through the podcast as well as my involvement with Insight Timer.
What types of meditations have you studied or practised, and what method do you mainly use or teach now?
I have studied many different types of meditation, like Zazen and Vipassana, but find that for my students initially, mindfulness meditation is the most beneficial. From mindfulness techniques, I introduce them to various other meditations types, like body scans, loving kindness, starting off with Pranayama breathing techniques.
My practice varies daily. There are days when my entire focus is on connecting with my body. Other days I seek to understand the “me” that exists outside of my body, my connection to all life. And there are even times when I simply allow one of my peers to lead me in a meditation.
Is it more useful for people to know many meditation techniques, or to learn one/few and focus efforts on practising that one?
When I teach students I start off by having them gain comfort with one type of meditation. However, as their familiarity increases I encourage them to explore other forms of meditation to experience which one has the most resonance for them. From a strict pragmatic standpoint, I find knowing multiple techniques beneficial so as not to become bored or impatient with just one style.
What do most students struggle with or get wrong?
The struggles students face are usually cyclical. In the beginning, it is difficult for many to simply sit still. After that, it is challenging for some to learn how to not engage with thoughts. They also struggle with impatience, wanting to be proficient immediately. The last struggle is with consistency. Even though they have experienced the benefits of a practice, many times personal and societal pressures have them becoming spotty in practice, or abandoning it altogether.
Western students also struggle with the concept of meditating “right”. In those cases I am quick to let them know that meditation is not a linear practice. You don’t start off as a beginner and then progress to perfection. Each day is to be treated as its own entity, with no concern over perceived success or failure. If you sit in stillness and silence for any amount of time you have already “succeeded”.
How many times and how much time per day do you recommend students to meditate?
When teaching students I seek to get them to meditate daily; that is the first goal. Whether it’s one minute or one hour is irrelevant, as long as they are achieving consistency. Once consistency is maintained, then we work together to find an amount of time that works best for them in their life at the moment.
Personally, I find value in meditating twice a day, once in the morning and once in the evening. Duration is usually twenty minutes each time, but I too alter that at times. Making it a non-negotiable is key.
From all of your podcast episodes, is there a particularly memorable episode? Or one that you would recommend to people as an intro?
The episode that holds the most resonance for me is episode 1189: “How to radiate Love for the Entire World”. It’s not the most popular episode, but it speaks to what I hope to do with Zen Commuter. The goal of Zen Commuter is definitely to help people understand meditation better, to develop their own practice, but that is a stepping stone. When people become still and quiet, learning how to respond instead of react, they become calmer and more loving. They learn that they have significance, and that the significance that they discover is not at odds with the world around them. In fact, it is because of community and shared love that we understand who we truly are. While that episode doesn’t instruct listeners how to meditate, it does offer a glimpse into what meditation can do for them and the entire world.
What misconceptions about meditation do you hear in the media or popular culture?
The most popular misconception about meditation is the idea that it is about emptying your mind, getting rid of all thoughts. The mind creates thought, it’s what it does. The goal of meditation is to train your mind to become less reactive to the thoughts. Recognize them, but do not get swept up in the narrative. Watch them glide by.
What advice do you give people who struggle to maintain a consistent practice?
Always start small. Don’t try to sit for a half an hour right from the start. Start with a small attainable goal, even if it’s a minute, and then once you have done that successfully for a while, bump it up to two, and so on. And even though there is no right time to meditate, I always find it best to do it first thing in the morning. That way you set the tone for the day, nice and calm. More importantly, as the day goes on, more things come up that could push meditation out of the schedule.
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)?
Since I interview many different authors for ZEN commuter I have the benefit of getting my hands on some really great books. Eckhart Tolle’s book “A New Earth” is a great read, as is Jack Kornfield’s book “Beginners Guide to Meditation”. Recently, Bill Meyer’s book, “Three Breaths and Begin” is truly wonderful, as is Mark Coleman’s “From Suffering to Peace”.
What books/courses/resources do you have available? What makes them special and how can they benefit a reader?
I have several free meditations available on the meditation app Insight Timer, and I have other meditations available to buy out on www.zencommuter.com. My book, “Discovering Joy”, is available on Amazon as well. Whether it is listening to my meditations or reading my book, there is one goal woven through everything I do: helping people become calmer and more aware of their power and significance.
How can readers get in contact with you or find out more?
I absolutely love questions and comments from anyone interested in knowing more about meditation. For more information about my work and to listen all 2000 episodes of the podcasts, simply go to www.zencommuter.com. For speaking inquiries, visit www.thomwaltersspeaks.com.
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[This interview is an extract. You can read Thom’s full interview, plus 29 more interviews, in the book How Do You Meditate? Interviews with 30 Meditation Teachers. Available from Amazon.]