Loading...

Feb 16, 2011

More Q&A about Meditation


What is meditation?

Meditation is a technique for working with the mind. If you think of the mind as a tool then the first step in putting it to use should be to examine it; then reflect on how it works and its possible uses; then put it to work as efficiently and effectively as you can. Meditation is a natural way of getting to know the mind so that we can investigate and understand how it works and then improve it through training. It takes a lot of practice to train the mind. How many years have you spent just basically letting your mind do what it wants to? Can you tell your mind ‘OK now, enough worry, just think happy thoughts - don’t wander off now’. Not me. Are you the mistress or master of your own mind?

The mind is my ‘leader’ - it directs my relationship with the world. Meditation is a way of exposing the ‘leader’s’ weaknesses and enhancing its strengths. If you imagine that sending a businessman on a management course would improve his leadership skills - then meditation is like an (ongoing) personal ‘leadership’ course.
Just as doing weights or jogging makes the body fit, so meditation makes the mind fit. The good thing is though that you don’t need any special equipment. You don’t need to be any special kind of person as long as you are alive and have bits of your brain functioning. That’s enough to begin.
Why do you meditate?

Everything that we experience in life we experience through our mind. When we don’t understand how our minds work we can get confused and suffer. Meditation is about investigating and learning to understand the mind. Just like anything you want to get to know or understand, you have to study it. You stop, and you look, and then you solve the problem. If you ever get stressed or worry a lot or just can’t fit with life or wonder ‘who am I?’ ‘What’s the point?’, then meditation is a way of preparing the mind to investigate life, or at least your experience of it. Looking at the mind (meditation) leads to understanding (wisdom) which leads to freedom from suffering. For this to have any meaning you need to have some insight into the nature of suffering. If your life is all sunshine and roses, your mind clear, you get on with everyone, then why bother meditating - just enjoy it. I meditate because I suffer - not a lot, but enough to want it to end - for ever.

How does meditation work?

Very simple meditation is like resting. When you work your body hard you need to take a break. The mind is not any different. All day you are processing information; sounds, smells, feelings, etc. and your mind needs a break. Sleep takes care of a lot of stuff but, unless you are able to fully relax, the mind ‘holds’ onto things and doesn’t really rest. For example, you have an important exam, or a date, or someone has been cruel to you and you can’t let go of the worry, anxiety or fear. Meditation, at this level, works by getting in touch, making direct contact with, the different feelings and emotions that we experience, as a fully conscious process; as opposed to just drifting, day-dreaming or sleeping. It is actually going right into the difficult, tense or unpleasant mind states. Meditation is not trying to solve the problems but to relax around them, to change the attitude to them.
On a deeper level meditation works by investigating and understanding the nature of the mind itself. It is seen as a condition in nature, devoid of any solid personality or lasting quality. When this insight arises one can be peaceful with the most horrific mind states; one doesn’t take it all so personally.
What are the results of meditation?

The thing you will most notice after you have been doing meditation for a while (like at least a few weeks, or months) is a more stable, calmer mind. Because the basic technique is staying with just one mental object (the breath for example) this is what you learn how to do. If you are doing a maths problem you will find you can ‘just do that’. The mind is able to focus and stay where you want it to be - it’s not jumping about, getting distracted all the time. It is a lot more content to just be with the way things are.
Another result is clarity of mind; the mind is clear and uncluttered. Like cleaning a window - the mind is our ‘window on the world’. Notice the difference when you look out on a sunny day. It is hard to see anything clearly through a dirty window, everything looks a bit blurred. With a clean window all the objects are sharp and clear - life looks crisp.
Calmness and clarity are the social or psychological results of meditation. In relation to the religious or spiritual aspect, the (ultimate) result is a profound insight into the nature of all things. This is the transcendence of ignorance, knowledge of truth, the end of stress and selfishness - this is enlightenment. Pretty amazing, huh? Like with most things it is good just to start at the beginning. I reckon that any increase in clarity and personal well-being that results, however small, has to be worth the work.

How do you meditate?

Mention meditation to many people and they immediately try and bend their legs into the full lotus and posture their hands in odd ways. Not necessary. What is important is to be physically comfortable. Keep the body erect with the spine straight, the head balanced evenly. The posture is firm but not tense. Sitting on a chair is OK and lying down is fine but you tend to fall asleep, so it is not recommended. Choose a clean and quiet place. The main thing is to keep things simple.

Mental activity and general stimulation through the five bodily senses (eyes, nose, tongue, ears and skin) are what makes the mind busy - uptight - stressed out. How to minimise this?
Silence is a very powerful tool in meditation; this stills the ears. Close the eyes gently; this stills the eyes. Use a cushion to tip the pelvis forward, it helps to keep the back straight. The beginning and the end of the day are the best times for sitting meditation. Choose one (usually simple) thing as your meditation object. Use this object to focus your attention on. Concentration is the key to begin with. You can use almost anything as your meditation object - the breath, a candle or a flower (with eyes half open), a simple phrase you repeat, the touch of moving a string of beads. Try using the breath. If it is difficult to focus at first, try a couple of deep breaths just to get the ‘feel’ of it. Put your hand on your belly or chest and actually feel the breath move the body. Where do you notice it most clearly? At the nose tip? the tummy? the chest? You could make it easier by counting each in-breath. Count from one to ten and then start again at one. Keep doing this and just relax. How long is it before you lose count? Where does your mind wonder off to? You will probably find that the mind will get bored and restless and start thinking about other things. Be patient. Don’t expect any special experience or signs, just practise relaxing. When your mind wanders off, just come gently back to the breath. Again and again. Just about any other time is also a good time to meditate - waiting for the bus - at the dentist - doing file backups - waiting for the kettle to boil - there are lots of spaces in a day when you can turn quietly inward.
My favourite summary on how to meditate is:

1) STOP
2) LOOK and
3) LISTEN

I don’t know anyone who finds meditation easy, but I know for me that it gets easier the more I practice. The result is peace in the heart. The result is feeling less of a victim to the whims of the mind.

Which form of meditation do you follow and why - samatha or vipassana?
Samatha - tranquility, calmness (a result of samadhi - concentration); and vipassana - insight and wisdom, are two sides of the same thing i.e. meditation. It is like the head and tail of a coin; you can’t pick up just the head and not the tail. You need a degree of calm and concentration in the mind to be able to investigate nature (the mind; the world). You need a degree of wisdom, reflection and some insight into suffering (dukkha) to see that it is made worse when the mind is loose and unfocused. The two techniques can be worked on separately, for example, you can exercise the arms with one exercise and the legs with another. But the purpose of all exercise is to improve general health (if you exclude vanity). I apply my efforts where I see my weaknesses; with the aim of moving away from unhealthiness. So, if I have been very busy and my mind is all stirred up, I begin my meditation with some samatha. Regardless of the technique, the inclination is always toward harmony, peace, Nibbana.How does meditation improve your samadhi?
Even if you are only using meditation for relaxation, just stopping and being still settles the mind. With the natural restraint that arises from meditation there is less agitation in the mind, the mind is having to process less ‘things’. The mind is not bigger, but because there is less ‘stuff’ in it, it is more spacious, tidier. There is more clarity of mind - the mind is ‘sharper’. Samadhi is one aspect of meditation - the mind that is concentrated, focused on an object. Focus is not fuzzy, but clear and sharp. Practising meditation is as much about getting concentration as it is about losing or letting go of dullness (which is getting insight and wisdom).

How does meditation improve your samadhi?


Even if you are only using meditation for relaxation, just stopping and being still settles the mind. With the natural restraint that arises from meditation there is less agitation in the mind, the mind is having to process less 'things'. The mind is not bigger, but because there is less 'stuff' in it, it is more spacious, tidier. There is more clarity of mind - the mind is 'sharper'. Samadhi is one aspect of meditation - the ability to concentrate, focus the mind on an object. Focus is not fuzzy, but clear and sharp. Practising meditation is as much about getting concentration as it is about losing or letting go of dullness (which is getting insight and wisdom).

How is wisdom used in the practice of meditation?


Samatha brings a spaciousness to the mind. It is in this space that vipassana (led by investigation, observation and reflection) can take place. The result of observing things - life, feelings, other people, nature, etc., - with a mind that is clear and uncluttered gives rise to wisdom, insight. Wisdom is the result of considering something and reflecting on it. ‘Why is it like this?’ ‘How come?’ ‘Why do I É ?’ This process can be brought to bear in all situations, not just formal sitting or walking meditation. There are a few classic suggestions for investigation in Buddhism. Have a go at: ÒAll things are impermanent.Ó’ And the follow on from that is: ÒBecause they are impermanent, believing that they will bring long lasting happiness only brings suffering.Ó Or, ÒThe cause of all suffering is desire.Ó And, how about the biggie of Buddhism - ÒAll things are not what I am.Ó Wisdom is not about intelligence or getting straight A’s, it is about understanding nature - especially human nature. Ideally wisdom comes with the experience that age brings, but meditation gives you a bit of a jump start on things.

How useful have you found the technique of anapanasati?

Mindfulness of breath, anapanasati, has been my most useful foundation for practice. As a ‘tool’ it is portable, free of charge, and always there (if you haven’t got breath, you haven’t got a problem - you’re dead). Above all it is natural, and as such, simple. As an object for developing calm and concentration it is brilliant. Focusing the mind on the natural rising and falling of the breath brings a lot of calm. However, anapanasati can be a bit subtle sometimes, so I either sharpen my concentration or use another object. Sometimes the mind is just too dull so I do walking meditation.

Do you find it easy to clear the mind for meditation?

This is a little like asking do I wash my clothes to get ready to do my laundry? Meditation (at least samatha- calming concentration) is the process of clearing, or stilling the mind. Maybe the question would be better phrased as ‘Do I find it easy to meditate?’ In a word, no! The mind is like an untrained, well-greased snake - difficult to get a handle on. It takes practice to train the mind. How many years have you spent just basically letting your mind do what it wants to? Can you tell your mind ‘watch the breath for half an hour and don’t wander off’. Are you the mistress/master of your mind? I don’t know anyone who finds meditation easy, but I know for me that it gets easier the more I practice.

How does meditation restrain the senses?

Through the practice of meditation you become very aware of mental processes. You see that strong sensual activity generates strong mind states. The immediate experience may be pleasant but processing them can be quite tiring. With increased mental sensitivity the short-term pleasure often seems less and less worth the frequent bad side-effects (have you ever seen anyone with a bad hangover?). It is not so much that meditation ‘restrains’ the senses but more that one feels less inclined to be bothered with the work of sensual over-stimulation; one sees the ‘pain’ resulting from sensual indulgence and more and more appreciates the peace of a simple lifestyle.

How does meditation help to stop the five hindrances?

Also see above. It is not so much stopping the hindrances as seeing the pain involved around them and so feeling more inclined to overcome, avoid, transcend them. With increased awareness of the mind you begin to see cycles of reaction - habit patterns. The framework of the five hindrances can help you to identify your ‘character type’ or highlight certain personality weaknesses. There is a simile in the scriptures that compares the hindrances with various types of water: Sense desire is compared with water mixed with manifold colours, Ill-will with boiling water, Dullness & Drowziness with water covered by mosses, Restlessness and Worry with agitated water whipped by the wind, Sceptical doubt with turbid and muddy water. Just as in such water one cannot perceive one’s own reflection, so in the presence of these five mental Hindrances one cannot clearly discern one’s own benefit, nor that of others’. Fancy having a mind covered with moss? Having reflected on the hindrances, even memorised the list, when you sit in meditation past actions ‘bubble up’ and you can more clearly see patterns which once noticed can more easily be avoided.

What are the purpose and importance of posture, chanting & mantra in meditation?

Posture, chanting and mantra are all things that we ‘do’. Because we have a body we ‘do’ all sorts of things. There is some choice in this. We can use our posture to be sexually provocative, or to give a suggestion of humility, or of arrogance, or whatever. It’s not that any posture is so special but we notice and reflect on how different postures affect the mind. How does it feel to bow to your friend? How does it feel to shake your fist at your friend? In relation to the question, we generally use postures that are gentle and modest; these tend to have a calming effect. Similarly with chanting, the use of words of kindness, compassion, generosity, love etc. tend to produce those kinds of feelings both in the listener and the speaker. Mantra is usually a simple sentence or phrase with some meaning. It works on two levels: firstly, the meaning is mentally ‘absorbed’ through repetition (try using Love as a mantra for half an hour) and there is some reflection on the meaning. Secondly, it functions as a meditation object - like the breath, it is simple and when repeated calms the mind.
All three - posture, chanting and mantra - set up boundaries, restraints on physical action, which help contain the mind and this helps the meditation process.

 Do you meditate alone or in groups?

We do both. Even though I may be sitting in a group the work of meditation is very personal. The advantage of group sitting is that one feels supported - others are making an effort and one is less inclined to fidget or get up to do something else. Also I follow the group leader’s direction rather than just follow my own preferences. The advantage of being alone is that when I am by myself I can set a schedule to suit my needs. If I want to sit for two hours I can, if I want to sit for half and walk for half, I can. I can chant a mantra, without disturbing others. In both situations the idea is to watch the mind. Do I resent being told when to sit and when to walk? Do I just waste my time reading a magazine when I am left to set my own schedule? It is important to accept personal responsibility for one’s practise, whether in a group or alone. We have a nice expression in the monastery using the image of the donkey - ‘No carrot, no stick’. There are no special prizes for being diligent in your meditation and nobody telling you off if you are slack. If you are honest and mature you see that you experience the results of your practice.

 How long do you spend meditating each day?

Usually we have a group meeting at 5:00 in the morning and chant for about half an hour and then meditate for an hour. Sometimes I am not busy in the morning and I will sit for a while (an hour or two) in my room on my own. We have another group meeting in the evening when there is more chanting and another hour of meditation. We occasionally have retreats (for a week or two) when we will do about eight hours a day - walking and sitting meditation. However, meditating is ideally not something that you divide up into slots, pick it up at 9:00 am and put it away at 5:00 pm. A large part of the practice is the cultivation of mindfulness - being awake and aware in all situations. How do I feel now? What is my reaction to this loud noise? How do I feel being with this person? If you can’t see or be aware of the mind, how can you hope to train it or change it in any way? For example, if I am unaware of a negative attitude to sweeping leaves in the Autumn, and just sweep and whinge, then my life will always be full of ‘sweep and whinge’. First I must see the process, the connecting conditions - sweep followed by whinge - and then investigate. What is the problem? Is it valid? Yes or no or whatever; but if these mind states are never noticed, acknowledged and investigated then what else can I expect but a life full of ‘sweep and whinge’. So meditation is a full time affair where formal practice flows into everyday life.

Do you think anyone can meditate or must they know all about Buddhist belief before they can do it properly?

Buddhism is just one path to freedom - some people find it useful, some not. Other paths will suit different temperaments. Generally, if such paths have a moral foundation they will naturally lead to contemplation, meditation - to asking questions beyond the usual ‘what’s for dinner?’ or ‘how can I get more sense pleasure?’ Enlightenment is a natural aspect of human consciousness - no particular religion has copyright. You just have to stop, look and listen. If you have a guide to give you a few tips then you are bound to see more. This is the advantage of a traditional form like Buddhism.

Did you have to be taught to meditate or did it come to you naturally?

The body and mind know how to survive; they have an instinctive, animal nature. Human beings have the capacity to reflect on their circumstances that I don’t think animals have. We have a natural tendency to wonder - Why was I born? How does this work? What happens when I die? This is natural but for most of us the development of intelligence and contemplation - beyond just plain survival - is a learned thing, especially these days as we are quite removed from nature. I learned how to meditate partly from books and partly from teachers.

What feelings or experiences do you achieve when meditating?


The whole idea of achievement is not really relevant to meditation. It is more a letting go of tension than a getting of relaxation; more an understanding of ignorance (letting go of delusion) than a getting of wisdom. There are many types of experiences that some people have (lights, sounds etc.), but the important thing to remember about Buddhist meditation is that its sole purpose is freedom from suffering. Freedom is way beyond experiences which just come and go. Once it has been realised and understood, it is eternal.
It is difficult to measure progress in these kinds of things. Have you ever learned the piano, or even to ride a bicycle? Sometimes it seems as if it’s all going nowhere, just a waste of time. And then somehow, something changes and you think: ‘hey, doing all right’.

Having practised meditation for some years I average it out and figure I am more relaxed with life, it’s not such a big chore. I’m not trying so hard to be anything or anyone special. I’m still quite busy and have quite a lot of responsibility but it’s more just doing what needs to be done rather than trying to be successful, achieve or prove anything.

Do you feel you will ever reach Nibbana?

The first thing to do before answering this question is to define ‘Nibbana’ - not an easy thing to do. One definition is: freedom from suffering. Another is: cessation and absence of greed, aversion and confusion. Nibbana is the goal of Buddhist practice , so I guess that’s what I’m after. Sometimes it seems like such a difficult and long way to go. Sometimes, sitting still, a clear mind after a day of good effort in practice, it seems to be right next to me. I always try and keep in mind that now, this present moment is the only reality, it is the only time and place where there is enlightenment. Being fully present in just this very moment, when there is no desire beyond this - this is enlightenment. Conditions will change but, right now, if I can be with that, then hey - that’s it - Nibbana - bingo! (My theory number 16a.)

Generally I see that the more I live this life, and practise in this way, the less I suffer, the less greed there is, less anger, less confusion. As far as Nibbana as an experience - not just a theory - this is something one realises directly. For now I just hope to be able not to take myself too seriously or do anything too stupid.

What problems did you face when you first started the practice of meditation?

One of the main problems I had when I began meditating was restlessness. My mind had been trained, in youth, to be busy and active, seeking (sense) objects in the world. I had not been encouraged to contemplate the space around and between these objects. I had been encouraged to get what I didn’t have rather than be content with how things already were; ‘the grass is always greener’. Sitting in meditation is practising contentment with this present moment, being fully content with just this. The busy mind tends to find peace a bit boring. Sitting still is not always easy.

Does meditation involve extreme introversion?

Buddhism is often referred to as the middle way so anything extreme should be regarded with caution. The Buddhist eight-fold path is often summarised as sila (morality), samadhi (concentration) and pa––a (wisdom). All three need to be developed in equal measure to attain enlightment. There is a nice story exemplyfying this about three boys going to visit a temple. On the way they pass a flowering tree and think how nice it would be to offer some of the flowers at the temple shrine. The blooms are too high on the branches for even the tallest of the boys to reach so they agree to work together. Sila kneels down on the ground to form a strong base - morality is always the foundation of any activity. Pa––a stands on his back as he is the tallest but still has to stretch to the limit of his reach and feels a bit unsteady. Samadhi is very strong and holds Pa––a firmly. With the combined efforts of the three it is finally wisdom that reaches out to pick the beautiful flowers.
Introversion is a tricky word as it has two meanings - psychological and pathological. I often wonder, not settling for thinking of it as the brain, ‘where is the mind?’ Is it inside, outside, both inside and outside, everywhere, is it universal, individual? Generally meditation is thought of as ‘going inward’ but if I am not this body then what is going where? It is good to keep a sense of the cosmic or spiritual in mind with meditation as this helps not to take any of it too personally. I think introspection might be a better word than introversion.

What are the dangers regarding Buddhist meditation?

Meditation is about working with the mind and there is much about the mind that is unknown - that’s why we meditate. Intense development of concentration can result in the release of certain energies or bring about unusual states and if one doesn’t have a well-balanced lifestyle this can be difficult. It is not recommended that people with psychological problems take up meditation without suitable guidance.
The process of meditation entails an opening up of consciousness. Many memories are not available to the conscious mind because of repression, avoidance (because of the pain such memories hold), denial, lack of time etc. With the relaxation that comes through meditation, often old or long forgotten memories and feelings ‘pop up’. If these are particularly powerful they can be a bit overwhelming. This is not unnatural, and is more a difficulty than a danger. The danger is not really with the meditation but with moving into a neglected or abused mind. Like a machine that has been badly used and poorly maintained, when you start it up there is a worry that something might fly off in your face. Contact with an experienced teacher, especially to get started, is always helpful.

Reactions:

0 comments: