Tag: meditation

Accelerating our Practice

By BHANTE SUDDHĀSO 

Everyone loves to talk about meditation. It’s cool. Heightened awareness? Control of your mental experience? Profound tranquility and joy? Sounds great.

So we learn some basic meditation techniques and start practicing. We notice some benefits arising from their practice, so we keep it up. Then eventually it seems to plateau. Years go by with little or no noticeable improvement. We’re stuck: despite meditating every day, we’re still not enlightened. In fact, far from it. We start to wonder: What went wrong?

This is not a hypothetical scenario; in fact it’s something people ask me relatively often.  They’ll say things like, “I’ve been meditating for 10, 20, 30 years.  Why am I not enlightened yet?”

Well… the truth is, there’s a lot more to the Buddha’s path than meditation.  If all we’re doing is meditation, then we’re missing out on several major components of the practice.  These other aspects of practice receive very little press and often aren’t even known to be part of spiritual self-development.  And yet they are just as vital to spiritual progress.

Ultimately, the purpose of every one of the Buddha’s techniques is to help us develop helpful mindstates and eliminate harmful mindstates.  This is all aimed in the direction of complete freedom from suffering – that is, enlightenment.  The success of this endeavor is dependent upon continually working to cleanse our mind; this is something to be done all day long – not just for a few minutes a day when we’re meditating.  If we do 30 minutes of meditation a day (which is good!), we’re still only spending 2% of our time meditating.  If we’re spending 98% of our time neglecting mental self-development, then it should come as no surprise that progress is limited even after many years.  So what can we do to develop our minds during that 98% when we aren’t meditating?

A good example of this is generosity.  Practicing generosity – physical acts of kindness and consideration for others – directly benefits our spiritual development in many ways.  So what are the benefits of generosity?

First of all, when we consider the wants and needs of others, we are developing compassion and consideration, which directly counter anger, hatred, and aversion.  Since aversion is one of the five primary obstacles to success in meditation, developing generosity aids our meditation practice.

Second, when we give a gift to another person (whether it’s an object, or our time, or our attention, or any other kind of support), we are developing an appreciation for the good fortune of others (which in Pāli is called mudita).  This acts to directly counter envy and jealousy, which are also obstacles to spiritual progress.

Third, when we give a gift, we are giving up something that we possess; therefore, we are developing an attitude of renunciation and non-attachment: the willingness to let go of our possessions and experiences.  This is vitally important for our peace of mind; since everything is temporary, we will eventually lose what we have regardless – and thus it is critical that we prepare ourselves for that eventuality.  This doesn’t mean that we need to get rid of everything we own, but rather that we need to be willing to let it all go without any trace of regret.  Then when we are separated from it – which we inevitably will be – we are not overwhelmed by the loss, and are able to maintain equanimity and contentment.

Fourth, when we see the beneficial effect we have on others by giving to them, it makes us happy; we develop joy and positive self-regard.  This directly aids our meditation practice: as the Buddha says literally dozens of times throughout the Discourses, “A happy mind easily attains concentration” (Sukhino cittaṁ samādhiyati).  It also prevents the arising of dejection and depression, and fosters enthusiasm for Dhamma practice.

Fifth, when we help others, they are more likely to help us.  So even if one has trouble relating to altruistic motives, one can at least act out of self-interest: being generous to others usually makes them like us more and support us more.  It also helps foster a good reputation for us, as others spread word of our kindness.

Finally, if we ascribe to the principle of causality (karma), then we will be the recipients of our own choices.  As the Buddha clearly states in the “Lesser Discourse on Karma” (MN135 Cūḷakammavibhaṅga Sutta), one who is generous in this life will be wealthy in future lives.  And even if one is not ready to accept that idea, then one can at least acknowledge the numerous benefits of generosity that are visible in this very life.

So if we’re already practicing meditation and are looking to deepen our spiritual life, then performing acts of  generosity – freely sharing our time, effort, and resources with others – is an excellent way to accelerate our practice.


 

Would you like to read more? You can find more writings by Bhante Suddhāso on www.bhantesuddhaso.com


 

Meditation Instructions

By BHANTE SUDDHĀSO  * Art MARTINA PAUKOVA *

At its heart, Buddhism is about transforming the way we think in order to eliminate the sources of discontent, dissatisfaction, and distress in our lives.  This is done not by changing the outside world, but by identifying and eliminating the self-destructive habits and tendencies within our own minds.

An intellectual understanding of what mental and emotional habits are harmful is just the beginning; in order to locate and remove those harmful habits, the mind must be focused and imperturbable, with the appropriate attitude.  This is very difficult to achieve with our ordinary, everyday ways of thinking and acting, which tend to be scattered, diffuse, and instinctual.

This is where meditation comes in.  By taking the time to tranquilize and focus the mind, we begin to develop the mental habits of awareness, equanimity, and concentration, which make it much easier to diagnose and correct the internal flaws that cause us so much anguish and turmoil.  In this way we can establish our baseline state of being as one of peacefulness, contentment, and joy.

In Buddhism we speak of two kinds of meditation: tranquility meditation (samatha) and insight meditation (vipassanā).  Tranquility meditation is meant to develop concentration and mental focus.  Insight meditation is meant to develop wisdom and correct understanding.  Both are valuable; however, the peace that arises from tranquility meditation is temporary, whereas the peace that arises from insight meditation is permanent.  That said, it is difficult to develop insight meditation without a solid foundation of concentration and equanimity, which comes from tranquility meditation.  Thus it is important to practice both.

In the Yuganaddha Sutta (AN 4.170), the Buddha gives three approaches to developing these two kinds of meditation: one may begin by practicing tranquility meditation, then when the mind is clear, alert, and focused, one switches to insight meditation; or one may begin by practicing insight meditation, then as the mind becomes clear, one develops tranquility meditation; or one may develop both tranquility and insight in tandem.  While the first approach is the most popular, all three approaches can produce excellent results.

Basic Principles

First decide how long you wish to meditate for.  In the beginning, 10 minutes is sufficient; as you become more familiar with meditation practice, you can gradually extend the length of time that you meditate to 30 minutes or more.

Find a quiet place where you can sit undisturbed for the duration of the meditation session.

Set a timer to go off at the end of the session.

Sit down with your body stable and upright.  Optimally, one sits in a cross-legged position with both knees touching the ground; this is aided by sitting on a cushion or folded blanket to elevate the base of the spine.  One may also sit in a kneeling position, with legs parallel.  Alternately one can sit in a chair, with both feet flat on the ground.  Whatever position one chooses, it is useful to keep the spine relatively upright and relaxed, so that one can breathe easily and naturally.  Your hands may rest one atop the other on your lap, or one on each knee.  Keep your eyes closed unless you are feeling sleepy, in which case you may keep them open and pointed at the ground 2-3 feet in front of you: hold your gaze steady and don’t look around you.  Breathe in and out through the nose, if possible.

That said, the position of the body doesn’t matter very much, as long as we hold it reasonably still.  The important thing in meditation is not what we do with our body; it is what we do with our mind.  So at the beginning of a meditation session, we choose what we are going to focus our mind on.  In Theravāda Buddhism there are dozens of different meditation objects to choose from.  Below are a few of the more common ones:

Mindfulness of the Body

Mindfulness of the body is a form of tranquility meditation.  In this practice, we determine to keep our attention focused on the direct physical experience of the body.  This is not thinking about the body, but rather staying with the immediate physical sensations felt by the body.  This happens entirely in the present moment; past and future are completely irrelevant to this practice.  We stay firmly grounded in the here and now, with our mind devoted to observing the sensations of the body.

One method is to pick a particularly strong sensation (such as your hands) and focus our attention on it.  Another method is to slowly sweep our attention through the body piece by piece, from feet to head and back again, focusing our awareness on each region for a few seconds at a time.  A third method is to hold the entire body in awareness, all at once, as a single object.  You can also start with one technique and then switch to another after a few minutes; for example, you might start by sweeping through the body, then once the mind is firmly established in paying attention to the body, you might hold its focus still on the whole body or on a particular region of the body.  As long as one’s awareness is held within the overall domain of the body, then one is practicing mindfulness of the body.

Mindfulness of Breathing

Mindfulness of breathing is another form of tranquility meditation.  This is an extremely popular meditation practice.  There are several different ways of developing mindfulness of breathing, and different teachers will tend to emphasize different methods.  The basic principles are similar to mindfulness of the body: the meditator holds their awareness on the immediate, present-moment experience of breathing.  Note that this is merely watching the breath, not controlling it; one tries to be a passive observer of the breathing process without actively taking control of it.

One way to do mindfulness of breathing is to focus on the location where the breath enters the body at the nostrils.  One might instead focus on the rising and falling of the abdomen.  Another way is to observe the whole physical process of breathing as a single object of awareness extending from nose to abdomen.

Loving-Friendliness (mettā)

A very different kind of meditation is the development of good will towards all living beings.  This is called mettā, which means “loving-friendliness” or “loving-kindness,” and it is another variety of tranquility meditation.

There are many ways of developing mettā; here is one technique:

We can begin this practice by wishing for our own happiness, by spending a few minutes internally reciting, “May I be happy, may I be healthy, may I be safe,” and genuinely trying to mean what we’re thinking.

Next we select a person who we care about, such as a parent, a sibling, or a close friend.  Again, we spend a few minutes internally reciting, “May that person be happy, may that person be healthy, may that person be safe,” while trying to really feel the sensation that accompanies that attitude of goodwill.

Then we universalize the attitude, by internally reciting, “May everyone by happy, may everyone by healthy, may everyone be safe.”  Again, we make an effort to mean it when we think it; to focus on the feeling of wanting everyone to be happy.

Contemplation of Impermanence

Another kind of meditation is to draw attention to the constantly changing nature of all phenomena.  This is a form of insight meditation.  Everything we experience is continually shifting and altering; in this meditation practice, we actively pay attention to that process of change.  This can be added onto any of the previous practices; for example, while paying attention to the body, one can focus on the continual change in the physical sensations we experience – from one moment to the next, it’s always slightly different.  This is also very easy to notice when doing mindfulness of breathing, as breathing is a process which is in a constant state of change.  Unifying contemplation of impermanence with one of these mindfulness practices is an example of developing tranquility and insight in tandem.

One can also contemplate impermanence using active thought, by recalling either the way one’s body was ten or twenty years ago and comparing it to the way it is now, or the mental habits and tendencies one had and noticing how they’ve changed.

Recollection of One’s Own Virtue

Yet another meditation object recommended by the Buddha is the recollection of one’s own virtue.  This is reminding oneself, “I am a good person: I don’t kill, I don’t steal, I don’t tell lies; I am kind, friendly, generous, and considerate.”  One can recall specific examples of one’s own good conduct if one wishes, or keep it generalized.  Either way, this practice brings joy to the mind and works to counteract self-hatred by developing a healthy sense of self-esteem.  It also helps maintain the sense of importance that we place on good conduct, which encourages us to preserve and deepen our commitment to kindness and generosity.

Walking Meditation

While meditation is most commonly done while sitting, it can be done in any position: sitting, standing, walking, or reclining.  Many successful meditation practitioners will alternate between sitting meditation and walking meditation.

To do walking meditation, select a path about 20-30 feet long.  Starting at one end, walk to the other end, a little bit more slowly than your normal walking pace.  Devote your attention to the feeling of your feet pressing against the ground; this is doing mindfulness of the body while walking.  Keep your eyes open and pointed at the ground a few feet in front of you, and your hands clasped in front of your body.  When you reach the end of the designated path, pause for a few seconds, then slowly turn around and resume walking meditation.  Continue to mindfully walk back and forth in this manner for the duration of the meditation session.

While walking meditation is naturally conducive to mindfulness of the body practice, you can use any meditation technique that you wish.

Common Problems

Regardless of which meditation method one uses, there are a number of potential obstacles that can arise.  Usually the first thing we notice is how difficult it is to get the mind to stay on any one subject for more than a few seconds at a time.  This is normal.  It’s like when you first learn how to ride a bicycle, and you can only go a few feet before losing your balance.  But eventually, with a lot of practice, you develop the skills necessary to keep the bicycle moving forward for as long as you wish.  Similarly, when the mind is untrained, it is difficult to keep our attention focused.  So we just keep trying.  If you notice your mind has wandered off track, just gently re-establish your attention on the meditation object.  There’s no need to criticize or condemn yourself for this; self-criticism is also an obstacle to meditation.  Instead we just keep re-establishing the mind on our chosen subject.  (For more detailed information, see MN20 Vitakkasaṇṭhāna Sutta.)

We may also find ourselves drifting off, losing focus, or falling asleep.  In those situations, there are several options we have to keep ourselves awake and alert.  If our eyes are closed, we can open them.  If we’re using a passive meditation method, we can switch to an active meditation method.  If we’re sitting down, we can stand up and continue to meditate in a standing position.  If even that doesn’t work, we can do walking meditation.  If we find we are still so overcome by exhaustion that we are unable to focus, then it may be time to get some sleep, and resume our meditation practice after we wake up.

The most important thing in meditation practice is persistence.  Meditation is a skill that takes a lot of time and effort to develop.  Don’t expect mind-blowing results to manifest immediately; just keep practicing every day, and results will come in time.


Would you like to read more? You can find more writings by Bhante Suddhāso on www.bhantesuddhaso.com