ALTHOUGH THERE ARE MANY DIFFERENT approaches to meditation, using a great variety of techniques, all meditation methods share some basic characteristics and work in similar ways.
The fundamental requirement in meditation is that we find some way to manage the monkey mind so that we can start training it. The best way to tame the unruly monkey is to have an object of attention that acts as an anchor, or point of reference, for the mind. The anchor is called the primary object of attention, or simply the meditation object. Having an anchor facilitates our observation of what the mind is doing and provides a focal point for developing concentration.
To illustrate this point, imagine that you are sitting in a small boat on a very large lake and that there is nothing to be seen on the horizon other than sky and water. Due to wind and current, the boat may drift in one direction or another. However, you would probably not notice the drifting, because there is no fixed point of reference to indicate your position. In contrast, if you dropped an anchor with a rope attached to it, the boat's movement would immediately become apparent.
Similarly, if we try to observe what the mind is doing, it is hard to be aware of the mental activity because we quickly get lost in the ocean of thoughts. When we have an object on which to focus attention, however, we notice when the mind starts drifting away or chasing after one thing or another.
The object that is used as the anchor, or primary object of attention, is what distinguishes one meditation technique from another. One method uses a word or phrase, usually having some spiritual or religious significance, as the meditation object. In Eastern traditions, such a word or phrase is called a mantra. The mantra is repeated mentally, vocalized silently, or chanted with careful attention. By gradually replacing all the scattered thinking with this one thought, the meditator achieves a peaceful and concentrated state of mind. Mantra meditation is practiced in many religious traditions, including Buddhism, Christianity, and Hinduism.
The concentrative prayer taught by John Main is an example of this approach. Main learned contemplative meditation from a Hindu guru and later, after becoming a Benedictine monk, he began teaching a technique of "Christian Meditation." Brother Wayne Teasdale, who also combines Hindu and Christian elements in his personal practice, describes the method as follows:
Christian Meditation is a mantric form of meditation that counsels the perpetual, conscious repetition of the mantra from the beginning to the end of the meditation period. Like a hammer pounding away at our thoughts, the mantra wears away the support system for our false selves by replacing each thought with the mantra itself. The mantra eventually becomes a vehicle that takes us to deeper and deeper states of inner quiet, peace, and stillness. (Wayne Teasdale, The Mystic Heart, 135)
Teasdale's eloquent description of this type of practice applies equally well to mantra meditation in any tradition, be it Christian, Hindu, or Buddhist. What suits the practice to a particular tradition are the words chosen for the mantra. When Main first started practicing mantra meditation, he used the word "Jesus" as his meditation focus. Similarly, some Hindu's use the phrase "Om Shanti," while in the Thai Buddhist tradition, many meditators use the word "Buddho."
In visualization meditation, another anchoring technique, we form a mental image and strive to sharpen concentration by keeping it clear in the mind's eye. The shape and color of the visualized image can range from a simple colored sphere to very elaborate and complex scenes. Once the image has been aroused in the mind, we hold it in consciousness with single-pointed attention, trying to prevent the mind from being distracted by other objects.
In the Tibetan Buddhist system of spiritual training, visualization plays an important role and is used in various ways to develop concentration. Often the meditator visualizes the Buddha or a deity considered to personify some enlightened quality and endeavors to identify so completely with the enlightened being that similar qualities are aroused within the meditator.
Buddhist nun and meditation teacher Kathleen McDonald explains the technique in this way:
Visualizing deities is made easier by gazing at a picture or statue, then closing your eyes and trying to recall the image in detail. However, this helps you with the details only; don't think your visualized figure should be flat like a drawing or cold and lifeless like a statue. It should be warm, full of life and feeling, three-dimensional and made of pure, radiant light. Feel that you are actually in the presence of a blissful, compassionate, enlightened being. (How to Meditate, 113)
Of course, it is also possible to use various physical characteristics of the body, such as sensations, postures, and patterns of breathing as objects of attention. In fact, we find that in all meditation traditions, a wide variety of techniques have been developed around this approach.
All these different techniques are valid and useful because they work on the same principle: that in order for us to develop concentration and serenity, the mind must stop its restless jumping and settle down. It is difficult to say which technique for reaching this goal is better or easier. The fact remains that each attempts to tame the same monkey—our own mind.
My teacher, Venerable Ajahn Chah, was a highly respected meditation master, and many people would seek his advice and instructions. Often people would ask, "What is the easiest meditation?" My teacher would answer, "The easiest way is not to do it!" Unfortunately, if we take this advice literally, we must continue to live with that unruly monkey, which is not pleasant at all.
Regardless of what technique we use, it will take time, patient effort, and personal skill to achieve the desired results of concentration, clarity, and peace.
THE ANALOGY OF THE WILD STALLION
In Eastern traditions, analogies are often used to illustrate concepts. I have been comparing the untrained mind to a monkey, but in the following analogy, the teachers of old chose a much more powerful animal.
Suppose you wanted to train a wild stallion that has never been broken. First, you would find a very strong post that is firmly anchored into the ground. Then, you would need a long, stout rope, so that you could tie one end around the post and the other end to the stallion. (The wise teachers did not explain how to get the rope around the stallion's neck without being trampled!)
Now that wild stallion, not wanting to be restrained, would try to escape by running this way and that. However, no matter which direction it tried to run, it could only run so far before it came to the end of the rope, where it would have to stop and go back. Eventually the stallion would get tired of running and stand by the post to rest.
The wild stallion represents the untrained mind; the post is the meditation object; and the rope indicates the work of awareness and effort. The stallion resting by the post is like the mind resting in a state of peaceful concentration.
MINDFULNESS OF BREATHING - Part One
The meditation method that we will explore in detail uses the natural breath as the primary object of attention. Often referred to as "Mindfulness of Breathing," it is one of the most commonly used meditation techniques.
It is important to note that Mindfulness of Breathing meditation is different from techniques of breath control. In the yogic practice of breath control, we intentionally alter the flow and rhythm of the breath. However, in Mindfulness of Breathing, we do not interfere with the breath at all. We just let the body breathe how it wants and when it wants. Our effort is directed at cultivating mental awareness and concentration, rather than teaching the body how to breathe.
There are many good reasons for taking the breath as the object of meditation. To begin with, it is a natural phenomenon that is always present and available to us. Whenever we wish to turn our attention to it, we can immediately know whether the breath is flowing in or flowing out. The breath is a universal and completely neutral human experience. Regardless of your religious beliefs, intelligence, sex, race, or age, if you are alive, you breathe. So everyone can use the breath as an object of attention.
The rhythmic flow of the breath is very calming, and it helps the mind become peaceful. Furthermore, the quality of the breath is closely related to the state of the mind. If the mind becomes more peaceful and quiet, the breath will naturally become more refined. Then, because the object of attention has become subtler, the mind will be encouraged to be even more attentive and calm. Thus, this method can be used to achieve very deep levels of meditation.
As you might expect, even Mindfulness of Breathing is taught and practiced in different ways. Some teachers encourage students to focus attention at the tip of the nose and to know the flow of the breath by the sensation felt as the air passes in and out. Another approach involves keeping the attention at the abdomen, noticing the rising and falling motion resulting from the in and out flow of the breath. Others prefer to follow the path of the breath, experiencing the inhalation from the tip of the nose to the chest and down into the abdomen. The exhalation is then followed in reverse order.
Being mindful of the breath by any of these means will work if we can develop the required skill. However, I feel that trying to know the breath by being aware of a specific physical sensation often creates an unnecessary difficulty. Whether it is the sensation at the tip of the nose or the abdomen, the object will not always be clear to the mind. New meditators often experience the frustration of not being able to "find" the meditation object because they cannot feel the breath at the tip of the nose. This presents an unnecessary obstacle.
However, if I ask you, "Are you breathing in or are you breathing out?" you immediately know the answer. You do not have to search for any particular sensation to let you know that you are breathing in or out. Any time you wish to know the breath, you can do so by arousing the awareness that knows whether the breath is coming in or going out. So, the object of meditation is always directly available to the mind. It is just "knowing the breath" as it flows in and out.
KNOWING THE IN-BREATH AND OUT-BREATH
The first stage in the practice of Mindfulness of Breathing is. simply knowing whether the breath is coming in or going out. It is as if we stop at a railway crossing and notice whether the passing train is coming from the west going east, or coming from the east going west.
During the meditation, we establish our attention on the in and out breath and encourage the mind to relax with the breath. However, we do not expect the mind to remain focused on the breath. It will want to think about this and that, jumping about as usual. At this stage, our main objective is to sharpen the power of awareness. When the mind is with the breath, we know it. If the mind is not being attentive to the breath, what is it doing? It is important to remain alert and watchful. Each time the mind wanders off, we gently but firmly bring the attention back to the breath.
Because the mind will still want to monkey around, we have to be patient and give it some rope. It is not a matter of fighting or struggling with the mind, but a process of teaching the mind, continually encouraging it to abandon all other activity and return to the breath.
COUNTING THE BREATH
To help keep the attention on the breath, I often suggest one of the following aids:
Â· Mentally noting "In" with each inhalation and "Out" with each exhalation.
Â· Mentally counting the breath. At the end of the in breath, make a mental note "one." At the end of the out breath, again note "one." At the end of the next in breath and out breath, note "two". . . "two," then "three". . . "three," and so forth, until you reach "ten" . . . "ten." Then start again at "one." If at any time you lose count, simply start over with "one" . . . "one."
Counting the breath serves two purposes. First, it provides the mind with something of a challenge that encourages it to remain attentive. Second, it helps us know how attentive themind is. If we continually lose count, we'll know that the awareness is still weak and the effort too slack.
Using either of these aids is optional. You may want to experiment with them to see whether they are helpful in your practice. However, remember that the breath is still the primary object of attention. These aids are like crutches that you can use when necessary.
Referring to the analogy of the wild stallion, you can appreciate the importance of having the right length and strength of rope. If the rope is too short, the stallion may injure itself in attempting to escape. If the rope is too weak, it will not be able to restrain the stallion.
Similarly, if during the meditation we try to force the mind too much, we will create tension and probably end up with a headache. It is not possible to strangle the mind into a peaceful state. On the other hand, if we are not vigilant in guiding the attention to the meditation object, the mind will never learn to concentrate. Hence, we must discover the balance of right effort through trial and error.
As an example of right effort, consider a mother looking after a small child. The mother gives the child a toy and tells him to play with it. The child plays with the toy for a brief time but soon becomes bored and starts looking for something else to do, like reaching for the computer keyboard or the cup of coffee on the table. Now, a good mother knows that this is how children behave, so she remains watchful. Every time the child wanders away, she patiently brings him back and encourages him to play with the toy. If the mother is careless and ignores the child, there may be unfortunate consequences. An equally unsatisfactory outcome would result if the mother were to lose her temper and start screaming at the child because he will not be still.
When training the mind, we must learn to act like good mothers.
PREPARING FOR MEDITATION
The process of meditation is one of gradually calming down, collecting ourselves, and settling into the present moment. It is not possible to change gears suddenly from our normal fast pace of living to a meditative state without some preliminary preparation. To facilitate the transition, it is helpful to establish a few conducive external conditions.
There is no one time that is best for meditation. We are all different and so must discover our own best time. However, there are some guidelines for choosing a suitable time.
You cannot rush into a period of meditation in the same way you might rush to a coffee break. It is important to slow down before you begin the meditation. If you have been very busy, you may want to take a little time to unwind by doing some stretching exercises, going for a relaxing walk, or taking a shower.
Try to choose a time when you are physically comfortable, that is, not too hungry, too full, too tired, too hot, or too cold. Unfortunately, most busy working people with families have very limited options when it comes to choosing a time for meditation. So it is important to make the best of what is available.
While on the subject of time, it may be appropriate to discuss the length of time for each meditation period. Again, this depends on the individual. An experienced person may easily meditate for an hour or longer. However, I recommend that beginners start with a ten- or fifteen-minute period. As you become more comfortable with the practice, you can gradually increase the time. Having decided on the length of time for meditation, you may find it helpful to set a timer, freeing yourself from the need to look at a clock.
Needless to say, frequency and regularity of practice are very important. Meditating once or twice a day on a regular basis makes it possible to build up momentum. Irregular or occasional practice may still be beneficial, but it will not be as effective in developing the necessary skills.
Although meditation is a mental process, we cannot completely ignore physical posture, because the state of the body affects the mind to some extent. For this reason, there are guidelines for what constitutes correct posture in meditation. However, do not allow these "rules" to hinder your endeavor. If you cannot sit in the correct posture, just practice in whatever posture is suitable for you.
When most people think of meditation, they imagine a yogi sitting cross-legged on the floor. Indeed, the cross-legged yoga posture, either half-lotus or full-lotus, is the traditional meditation posture used in the East. It is a very stable and comfortable posture for those adept at it. Unfortunately, most Westerners find it difficult to sit cross-legged without a lot of discomfort. If you wish to sit in this way, it may be advisable to practice yoga or other stretching exercises in order to increase your flexibility. Also, sitting on a firm cushion will reduce pressure on the legs and help you sit erect.
Of course, you can also meditate sitting in a chair. The chair should be of a suitable height so that your feet can rest on the floor while you are sitting comfortably upright.
Correct posture sends the right message to the mind. Regardless of whether we are sitting cross-legged or on a chair, we want the body language to say to the mind, "Be peaceful, but stay focused and alert." Thus, it is best to sit in a comfortable position remaining quite still. The back should be erect, with the top of the head reaching toward the ceiling.
A more detailed description of the posture is given in the exercise below.
Place and Clothing
Find a quiet place in your home or in an outdoor setting where you are least likely to be distracted by noise or people. At first this may be a challenge, but with planning and creativity you can arrange space to meet your preferences and need for privacy. Clothing for meditation should be loose fitting and comfortable, as this allows you to relax more easily.
Find a reasonably quiet and private place. Sit in a position that feels comfortable so that you can remain still for ten or fifteen minutes without experiencing a lot of pain. You can either sit on a chair or cross-legged on the floor.
Try to keep your back erect. This is best achieved by pushing the lower back forward and allowing the abdomen to relax. The rest of the back follows the natural shape of the spine. Keep the neck straight and the top of the head toward the ceiling. Let the shoulders hang down and keep the arms loosely by your sides. Rest your hands one on top of the other in your lap or as you find comfortable.
Close your eyes and your mouth, but keep your teeth slightly apart. Let the body breathe naturally through the nose. If for any reason you cannot breathe through your nose, just breathe through the mouth.
Now, in order to achieve peace and concentration, it is essential that you intentionally put aside all concern for other matters. For this brief period of time, you are not interested in memories of the past or plans for the future. You are taking time out from all your responsibilities at home and work. When thoughts about any of these things come into the mind, just let them go. You are not interested, because this is your time to rest.
Leaving everything and everyone outside, bring your attention inward. Come within, and experience the body sitting. Let the mind sink into the body and sit with the body. What does it feel like? Is the posture balanced? Is the body erect? Is the body still? Spend a little time caring for the body by systematically moving the attention through the body, gently relaxing the different parts as explained in the exercise of the previous chapter.
You are now sitting quite still, the body is relaxed, and the mind is sitting with the body. Now, become aware of the breathing. Let the body breathe as it wants, but try to sustain the awareness that simply knows the breath coming in and the breath going out. Encourage the mind to relax with the breath—peacefully breathing in, peacefully breathing out. You may want to count the breath to help the mind remain attentive.
Try to allow everything else to fade into the background as you continually arouse interest in the flow of the breath. Only breathing in, only breathing out. If your mind drifts away to something else, just note this fact, and gently but firmly bring the attention back to the breath. Continue in this way with patient and vigilant effort.
When it is time to end the meditation, stop concentrating on the breathing and allow your attention to rest with the body once again. Be at peace with the body. Sit quietly for a few seconds, at peace with the surroundings, and then stretch your legs and open your eyes.
Try to practice this meditation exercise for approximately fifteen minutes, once a day. Gradually, you will develop the skill of calming and concentrating the mind.
Let us now address some questions that are often raised by new meditators.
Should I meditate at the same time each day?
There are some advantages to having a regular time for your meditation. Both the mind and body seem to respond well to regular patterns. As the mind becomes accustomed to meditating at a particular time, it will naturally incline towards a meditative mood at that time. Having a regular schedule also makes it more likely that you will do the meditation.
However, it is far more important to meditate on a daily basis, regardless of whether it is at the same time or not. Can I meditate with my eyes open?
Yes, it is possible to meditate keeping your eyes partly open; in fact, this is how they meditate in the Zen tradition. I prefer the more common approach of meditating with the eyes gently closed, because it removes the distraction of visual objects and makes it easier to focus attention on the meditation object. Is it possible to meditate lying down?
In theory, we can meditate in any posture, but in practice, some postures are more suitable than others. Lying down is a very comfortable posture. Unfortunately, it gives the wrong message to the mind. It tells the mind, "Relax, take it easy, go to sleep," and that is usually what happens; we fall asleep. While lying down is a good posture for relaxation, it does not promote the alert and clear state of mind required in meditation.
However, if for any reason you are unable to sit up, or need to remain in a reclining posture, then by all means meditate while lying down. For example, if you are ill and confined to bed, it can be very beneficial to do some meditation. Being attentive to the breath and gently calming the mind will not only make the discomfort of sickness more bearable, but it can also promote the healing process. In later chapters we explore the power of the mind to influence the body and see that a peaceful mind is indeed conducive to physical well-being. When I pay attention to the breathing, it feels like I am controlling it. Is this normal?
When new meditators first start practicing Mindfulness of Breathing, they often find that simply by being attentive to the breath, they unintentionally interfere with its flow. The breathing becomes somewhat unnatural and may feel uncomfortable, possibly causing tightness around the chest. This common experience should not be a cause for undue concern. However, it is necessary to understand what is happening so that you can deal with it appropriately.
It is difficult for most of us to simply observe something without interfering with it. But we can, and need to, develop this ability. So, during the meditation, regularly remind yourself to allow the body to breathe as it wants and when it wants. With practice, as you become more familiar with this technique of meditation, you will find yourself settling back and relaxing into a role of being an interested, but unbiased observer. The breathing will find its own rhythm, according to the needs of the body, and you will feel comfortable.
Achieving this state of being physically comfortable and at ease with the breath while meditating is important. Otherwise, it will be difficult for you to meditate for very long or develop more refined meditation states. The situation may be compared to exercising on a treadmill. Fast walking or running on a treadmill is an excellent form of exercise for developing general fitness and stamina. However, before you can walk quickly or run, you must first learn to feel comfortable and relaxed while walking on the treadmill at a normal pace. Should I analyze the thoughts that come into my mind during meditation?
At this stage of training, the mind is still very noisy with many thoughts about all sorts of things. Most of this mental activity is just habitual recycling, because the mind has not yet learned to rest in silence and peace. Generally, these thoughts have no special significance and require no special attention. When thoughts come into the mind, just recognize them as thinking, planning, remembering, and so forth and let them go. Continually bring your attention back to the breath.
If something comes up that you feel is important, make a mental resolve to deal with it after the meditation period and continue the meditation. Later we will discuss the practice of contemplation and reflection, which involves careful and systematic investigation of mental states and emotions. However, before we can embark on that practice, it is important to first establish a good foundation of awareness and concentration. We need to thin out the jungle of thoughts so that we can begin to see clearly. I don't normally have so many thoughts, but when I sit in meditation, it's like opening a can of worms. Where do all these thoughts come from?
Usually we keep the mind preoccupied with a lot of sensory stimulation and mental activity. The mind is accustomed to being busy, but during meditation we are trying to keep the mind occupied with only one simple object, the in and out breath. It is to be expected that the mind, not used to such simplicity, will start grasping at this thought or that memory out of restlessness and boredom. However, once the mind experiences the joy of resting in silence, it will no longer behave in this way. Is it possible to do too much meditation?
This is not a common problem, but it is important to pace yourself according to your ability. If you intend to do a lot of meditation, such as on a meditation retreat, I would recommend doing so with the guidance of an experienced teacher.