In my last post, I provided a VERY brief contextual and historical overview of meditation in the service of illustrating why the world of meditation is complicated and full of different perspectives, vocabularies, and to some extent goals. I’ll pick up where I left off, specifically focusing on the role and methods of meditation that come from the realm of Tibetan Buddhism (fully acknowledging that most of this is consistent with all cultural forms of Buddhism, it’s just that this is the form I have studied the most).
Recall, the goal is to eradicate ignorance, craving, and hatred. How can meditation help accomplish this goal?
Meditation practice is a developmental process, in which one becomes more adept and is able to reach deeper within the psyche over time, and there are some techniques that require earlier stages to be well established before beginning; yet, generally speaking, all forms within the cannon of Tibetan practices are to be practiced repeatedly across the lifespan and are not strictly speaking hierarchical.
The Tibetan word that gets translated as meditation is pronounced gom (like dome) and is literally translated as a verb meaning, “to become familiar with”. Thus, the fundamental task of meditation is for you to become intimately familiar with your mind. In becoming familiar with how your mind works, you will become aware of all the shenanigans it gets up to, like projecting fears and desires onto others, like disregarding all kinds of information in order to maintain emotionally laden beliefs, like spending hours daydreaming about things that will never happen but cause emotional stress nonetheless. The idea being that if you do this long enough, and sincerely enough, you will eventually get sick and tired of playing such games and you will begin to redirect your awareness to things that bring you inner peace, that bring you accurate assessments of the world around you.
But in order to get familiar with your mind and to begin to change how it operates we must get used to being still and staying mentally focused. To do this, we use meditations that fall into the category of “stabilizing and concentrating”. The simplest (to explain) is breathing meditation, in which you sit still and focus on the sensation of your breath as it enters and leaves your body. Many people feel the sensation on their upper lip if they are breathing through their nose (as is recommended, but not required). Some people focus on the feeling of their abdomen (diaphragm) as it contracts and releases with the breath.
Breathing meditation is commonly the cost of entry to learning to meditate, and despite being very simple to explain, the cost is quite high because it can be excruciatingly boring and you can feel like a total failure for not being able to stay focused on your breath for more than a few seconds at a time. And then as soon as you do begin to be able to sit still and stay focused your body begins to hurt! I think many people give up here. Its unfortunate though because this early stage of meditation, while seemingly ineffective, is where the easiest changes are made the quickest.
The first change I noticed in my mind when I started breathing meditating was the ability to let go of obsessive thoughts. As you try to pay attention to the sensation of your breath, you actually wander off into daydreaming over and over again. Sometimes every breath! Eventually (hopefully before your timer goes off or the teacher reminds you what you are up to) you realize you’ve wandered off and you bring your attention back to the breath. It turns out that the subtle sensation of the breath was chosen on purpose, to make it difficult to focus on, so that you would have to develop awareness of where your attention had gone and then the ability to redirect it back to where you wanted it. My realization of this occurred one morning when I got up and something happened, I don’t remember what, could have been a million little things that set my mind off, and I began ruminating as was my habit. Off to work I went, and within a couple of blocks I suddenly became aware that I was thinking about something pleasant rather than the ruminating ideas that I had been focused on when I walked out the door. I was shocked because I knew darn well that I would normally carry on the rumination until I reached work and was forced to redirect my attention (and on a bad day even that wouldn’t slow me down).
Now, I did not consciously redirect my attention away from the rumination. My mind just did it, and I attributed that to the daily practice (about 10 minutes a day at that point) of attending to where my mind was focused and letting go of whatever it was and redirecting it back to the breath. In doing that practice I started noticing how often my distractions where rooted in agitation, annoyance, resentment, etc. My mind was actually getting trained to let those types of thought patterns go and return to something more calm, peaceful and centered. I realized that whatever other benefits might come from meditating, this alone was worth the effort. Not long after, a woman in my meditation group who started practicing about the same time as I did, said something very similar, she told us that she noticed that her mind just didn’t gravitate towards agitating, negative thinking as much anymore and was more attracted to peaceful thoughts – I found this hugely validating and I've heard it many times since from meditators.
There are some helpful hints as to how to make this work. You want to enter into the practice with an attitude of being non-judgmental about your thoughts. Regardless of whether they are peaceful or disturbing, you want to establish some distance between you the observer and the thoughts created in your mind. Judging them will lead you to being disturbed, disappointed, and discouraged. Having a neutral attitude is also setting the stage for future endeavors like reducing craving and hatred – which are often translated as attachment and aversion. Another important tip is to be present focused, to keep your awareness on the here and now. This is where the breathing is helpful because it is happening continuously without any effort and it is always in the present moment. This too sets the stage for future development because much of our mental shenanigans happen while thinking about the past and the future, staying in the present moment is a way of warding off mental states like resentment or shame, as well as craving for future gratification.
I happen to like being still and quiet, so to be honest, even before I discovered the benefit of letting go of ruminating thoughts, I was enjoying my meditation. I realize that many people do not find this intrinsically rewording. Fortunately, there are other, more mentally and physically engaging meditations one can do to begin eradicating the three poisons. One example is walking meditation. This is not the same kind of walking that we usually do, surprise; it is a form of walking in which we do the exact same thing described above for the breathing meditation, but we do it while walking back and forth between two points that are not too far apart and not too close (I like about 20 feet). Everything else applies, you take a non-judgmental attitude and stay focused in the here and now. You can still focus on the sensation of the breath, or what I like to do is to focus on the feeling of my feet contacting and leaving the earth. I generally start out at a “normal” pace and then begin to slow down more and more to the point that it can become difficult to maintain balance (but not too much or you are totally distracted by that). I finish by coming to a standstill and just noticing the feeling of the here and now. Regardless of whether you tolerate sitting meditation well, this practice is great to do and prepares you for moving your mindfulness off the cushion and into everyday life.
Some of you may notice that I’ve essentially described what is commonly taught as mindfulness meditation. As I mentioned there is substantial overlap between different traditions of Buddhist practice and you can probably see why this practice has not raised concerns about religiosity, or even spirituality, it is really a practice in mind training that relieves stress and promotes inner peace, requiring no adherence to dogma. It is said that if you only do this practice, you will eventually clear the mental clouds that obscure the nature of reality, leading you to profound inner peace. Fortunately, from my perspective, there are many other practices, as I’ve mention, more mentally engaged practices that augment and accelerate the process. Allowing us to mix it up a bit and not get bored with our practice.
Before wrapping up I want to return to the notion of concentration. Ultimately what the breathing/walking meditations do is build your ability to stay focused and to concentrate. These attributes will be immensely helpful as you begin practicing the more mentally and emotionally oriented practices. More on that next time.
Once again, I’ve taken up more space explaining than I expected. I encourage you to try 10 minutes a day of breathing and/or walking meditation and see for yourself how it impacts you. There are guided audio files and videos for the sitting meditations on my YouTube channel.