Ben Irons is a meditation teacher and musician from Scottsdale, Arizona, USA. He was originally introduced to meditation as a way to deal with pre-performance stress, and then went on to train as a teacher himself. In his meditation practice and teaching Ben works extensively with sound as a meditative focus and as a preventative healthcare practice. Clay Hamilton interviewed Ben in winter 2019.

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Briefly describe yourself as a meditation teacher.

I’m an advanced instructor in Vipassana doing grassroots meditation from my gallery, Zen with Ben LLC, in Scottsdale, Arizona. I work extensively with sound (singing bowls, gongs, drums, ting-sha) both as an active meditation kasina (focal point) and through integrating Atma Buti techniques in passive relaxation therapy. I’m also a Sound Healing Artist for Dragonfly Percussion, collaborating on their Resonance Line gong mallets.

How did you first learn to meditate and why/how did you become a meditation teacher?

I fell into meditation as a way of ameliorating Music Performance Anxiety (MPA). I was taking auditions for professional symphony orchestras and was shocked and overwhelmed by the amount of negative self-talk that sprung up when the pressure was on. I started with guided audio tapes by Bodhipaksa. I fell absolutely in love with the practice and read just about every book I could find before eventually finding a modality in which to pursue teaching certifications. I did both my certifications under Dr. Stephen Rinaldi through the University of Holistic Theology. Meditation changed my life in the best possible way and I am working to help others find similar liberation.

What is the greatest benefit you personally get from meditation?  

As the old adage goes: meditation is not about what you gain but rather what you lose. I’m less quick to judge. I let things go. Meditation helps create a space to respond to situations, as opposed to react to them. The practice has helped me feel humbled and unified with this special gift of awareness in this time and place in the universe. I see–both literally and metaphorically–more of what’s happening around me. My moods are consistently pretty level (emotional equanimity). Meditation has helped me grow into someone I’m proud of, and I want to share that gift with everyone around me.

The most skillful growth has been that of “Right Speech,” starting in how I speak to myself and extending to how I speak to others. I try to employ Rumi’s “Three Gates of Speech.” Before you say (or post!) anything, ask yourself: is what I have to say true?; is it kind?; is it necessary? And if your message doesn’t pass all three, maybe find another way to express yourself.

What do most students struggle with or get wrong?

I spend most of my time focusing on a skillful posture with my students. This crucial step seems to be frequently overlooked in the places where people encounter meditation for the first time (like yoga classes). The fundamentals somehow slip by most students. If you set yourself up in a skillful way with the posture, you’ve done most of the work already! As the saying goes, “Tense body, tense mind; relaxed body, relaxed mind.” Setting up the posture for maximum relaxation allows the practitioner to spend their meditation time actually grappling with the mind-related business.

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 community of a retreat is highly valuable. It’s empowering to be surrounded by like-minded individuals who share a common passion, journey, and goal. It’s absolutely worth the time and fiscal commitment to trying one out. If you can’t afford a retreat, I vote make your own! I did a 24-hour “Silent Urban Retreat” in Redondo Beach (California) a few years ago. I set up a plan for myself with a 24-hour schedule of sitting meditation, walking meditation, yoga, vegetarian meals, tea and reading break time, and no electronics or talking. It was really beautiful.

What misconceptions about meditation do you hear in the media or popular culture?  

The most common misconception is that meditation will clear your mind. The brain is a firing mechanism with neurons firing between 5-50x a second. It’s more about how to deal with what comes up in a healthy way. The other thing I find myself clarifying often is that meditation is an active process. A friend once told me that she didn’t understand how I could just sit there and do nothing for 30 minutes. I had to explain that I wasn’t doing nothing! There was a ton of focused activity happening but it’s all internalized. 

What advice do you give people who struggle to maintain a consistent practice?

Start small and get it in your calendar. Make it a habit. 5 minutes while your coffee is brewing. 5 minutes before you start the next episode of whatever you’re streaming. 5 minutes at the end of your lunch break. There are pockets of time all over the place if you can identify and capitalize on a few of them. The attitude of the commitment is big. I found it harder to maintain a practice if I told myself it was something I had to do. Instead, I reframed it as “non-negotiable.” I don’t have to meditate today but I am going to. It’s a non-negotiable part of my day.

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)?

Top 5:

Bhante Gunaratana, “Mindfulness in Plain English.” The fundamentals: misconceptions, technique, dealing with distractions, managing strong emotions. Really, the textbook on meditation.

Will James, “The Posture of Meditation.” Tense body, tense mind; relaxed body, relaxed mind. With the correct posture, enlightenment follows naturally.

Lodro Rinzler, “The Buddha Walks Into a Bar.” Reconciling mindfulness with 21st century social norms.

Eckhart Tolle, “The Power of Now.” Not so much how to meditate but why it’s so beneficial.

Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, “The Joy of Living: Unlocking the Secret Science of Happiness.” The neuroscience behind mindfulness and how it affects our wellness systems.

What books/courses/resources do you have available? What makes them special and how can they benefit a reader?

I have a blog and a [yet unpublished] book entitled, “Mindfulness for Musicians.” It helps musicians (students or professionals) develop and integrate mindfulness practices into their music. Mainly, I just try to help whoever stumbles into my path. I write quite a bit and try to publish where I can: Elephant Journal, Energy Magazine Online. I’ve been told I sound like an asshole on print but really I just have strong and direct sense of humor which doesn’t always translate well to the page. So if you like snarky sage wisdom, I’m your man!

How can readers get in contact with you or find out more?

Swing by my gallery, Zen with Ben, in Scottsdale! I’ll show you what the singing bowls and I are working on or happily sit and meditate with you. I also teach at Desert Sun Yoga (Scottsdale) helping with aerial meditation classes. More information is available on my website; and, of course, there’s Facebook and Instagram. I actually love IG and do most of my day-to-day on that platform.

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[This interview is an extract. You can read Ben’s full interview, plus 29 more interviews, in the book How Do You Meditate? Interviews with 30 Meditation Teachers. Available from Amazon.]