To Do or Not To Do !
Is that a question?
"It is extremely hard to rest undistracted in the nature of
mind, even for a moment,
let alone to self-liberate a single thought or emotion as it rises.
We often assume that simply because we understand something intellectually,
- or think we do -
we have actually realized it.
This is a great delusion.
It requires the maturity that only years of listening, contemplation, reflection,
meditation, and sustained practice can ripen."
What is Meditation?
Working with the Mind
Calm Abiding, Shamatha
Special Insight, Vipasyana
How to Meditate
Meditation on Watching the Breath
Common Problems during Meditation
Some words from Sogyal Rinpoche's book The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying to Westerners:
"We are so addicted to looking outside ourself, that we have lost access to our inner being almost completely. We are terrified to look inward, because our culture has given us no idea of what to find. We may even think that if we meditate, we will be in danger of madness. This is one of the last and most resourceful ploys of the ego to prevent us from discovering our real nature. So, we make our lives so hectic that we eliminate the slightest risk of looking into ourselves. ... In a world dedicated to distraction, silence and stillness terrify us."
Please realise that these pages just deal with Buddhist meditation. The Tibetan word for meditation, "gom" can actually be translated as familiarising, habituating. In short, it means to familiarise with a positive state of mind. This familiarisation actually refers to training the mind. Meditation is much more than just relaxing, it is trying to develop a highly concentrated and clear state of mind, which is blissful to be in. This state is called "Shamatha" in Sanskrit (see below). Once we have reached this very advanced state of mind, we can learn everything we want very quickly, including transforming our mind. Not only our conscious thoughts can be brought under control, also our emotions and unconsciousness, as they are all based on concepts, which can be changed.
WORKING WITH THE MIND
In meditation, we try to develop wisdom, learn to observe our own mind,
decrease negative mind states and develop positive mind states. To develop
wisdom and insight, we need a calm, clear and concentrated mind. To observe our
own mind, we need to develop a kind of inner "spy" - a part of our attention
that checks our state of mind. To decrease negative mind states we need to
understand where they come from and transform them into positive energy with the
wisdom developed from observing our own mind. To develop positive mind states,
we need to focus away from selfishness and again develop wisdom by observing our
As you may realise from the above, we should actually become our own psychologist, or like the title of a booklet by Lama Yeshe which is called: "Becoming Your Own Therapist".
We will need concentration instead of being scattered, and clarity of mind
instead of dullness. We need to observe our own thoughts and mind states instead
of getting lost in emotions or becoming prejudiced. We need to be honest towards
ourselves instead of fooling ourselves and walk away from unpleasant problems.
Furthermore, we need to be patient (one does not become a meditation master over
night), generate self-acceptance, confidence and enthusiasm to make the mind
All these factors need to be in balance: we need to be somewhat relaxed as well as concentrated, we need to avoid both sleepiness and excitement.
A quote from the late Lama Yeshe:
"Many meditators emphasise too much on concentration: if you are squeezing, then there is no control of anger if someone disturbs you. The beauty of real meditation is, that even if you are disturbed, you can allow space and time for this."
Another misunderstanding about meditation is that we should stop thinking. I assume this comes from the emphasis in many Zen schools to "stop thinking" - which I understand to mean that one cannot realise or experience emptiness when being only caught up in conceptual thoughts about it. That would be similar to trying to experience a beautiful sunset while discussing with yourself, "Is it the colour of the clouds that make it beautiful, or is it the quietness; why does the sun turn red etc."
As Allan Wallace writes in Tibetan Buddhism from the Ground Up:
"The point of Buddhist meditation is not to stop thinking, for ... cultivation of insight clearly requires intelligent use of thought and discrimination. What needs to be stopped is conceptualisation that is compulsive, mechanical and unintelligent, that is, activity that is always fatiguing, usually pointless, and at times seriously harmful.
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CALM ABIDING, SHAMATHA
The definition of shamatha is: the ability to hold our minds on the object of
meditation with clarity and stability for as long as we wish, conjoined with
mental and physical pliancy. It is also called single pointed concentration.
With shamatha, the mind becomes extremely flexible and drastically reduces the power of disturbing attitudes, gross anger, attachment, jealousy etc. do not arise.
Prerequisites for calm abiding:
1. Agreeable place: easy to obtain food without wrong livelihood, powerful place (blessed by holy persons) and quiet, not disease-ridden, proper companions and one should have heard and studied the teachings.
2. Have few desires in terms of food, clothes etc.
3. Knowing satisfaction: acceptance of what you haven and who you are.
4. Pure ethics: try to prevent any negative actions.
5. Forsaking commotion/excitement: few purposes outside meditation, reduce any other activities
6. Abandoning thoughts of desire and lust: contemplating faults of desire and impermanence.
As you may understand from the above, the achievement of shamatha is not a small task. It is said that if one is completely focused on the practice, some people can achieve it in 6 months. There are not many people around who can claim to have mastered shamatha. To seriously engage in this practice, the advice of a teacher should be sought, and several good books have appeared on the subject.
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SPECIAL INSIGHT, VIPASYANA
Vipashyana is defined as: the correct discernment of the object of
meditation, coupled with single-pointed concentration: a combination of
analytical meditation and calm abiding. To develop it, we need to learn to
analyse the meditation object. But not only conceptual; it is a more fully
understanding the object. Our conceptual understanding will eventually turn into
direct, non-conceptual experience.
As the Buddha said:
"Like fire arises from two pieces of wood rubbed together, so does analytical wisdom arise from the conceptual state. And just like the fire increases and burns away all the wood, analytical wisdom increases and burns away all conceptual states."
2 Types of analytical meditation are distinguished:
1. To transform our attitude. Understanding the problems and misunderstanding
of anger, we can eliminate anger.
2. Analysis of the meditation object to understand and perceive it directly.
When doing analytical meditation, never take the first quick answer you give to a question for granted, when you ask "why, how and when" a few times more, you may discover the "real" answers. Also, the answers should not only come just from the intellect, also check your feelings and emotions.
An example: in death meditation you can think of death. When you ask, "Will I
die?" the immediate answer will be "Yes", and it seems you are finished. But
take some time to check with yourself if you live your life consciously in the
realisation that you can die any minute. Asking yourself, "How would it feel to
die right now?" will get you into another level of the mind. Ask, "How will I
die?" and "How will I feel?" and the simple question about death becomes
intensely acute and serious.
Then ask for example, "Why will I die?" and you may answer, "Negative karma". But rather than giving just the textbook answers, check how these things feel: "What is negative karma really? How does negative karma feel? Do I really believe in karma, and do I act that way?" etc.
Analytical meditation is not just about giving the quick logical answers from the books, but verifying what your OWN answers are. For me personally, often the real stuff appears to be stowed away in emotions and is hiding behind the logical straightforward answers.
After doing the analysis, one should single-pointedly focus on the conclusion made in the end, without analysis, just "look at the conclusion". This really works to let your own conclusions "sink in", and make them part of your understanding and wisdom.
As example using above meditation, you may conclude that you are really not so sure whether you believe in karma. The conclusion may well be something like: "I have to check about karma more" or "I need to check why I often don't act as if I believe in karma". Personally, this is the kind of stuff that makes me more sensitive and aware about my state of mind, and it stimulates to meditate more on the subjects of lamrim.
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HOW TO MEDITATE?
I would strongly advise everyone to start with a serious course in meditation in a centre, preferably at least with a few days in silence. This will give you a genuine feeling of the effect that meditation can have on the mind. Many people try to teach themselves meditation by reading books etc., but I think I have never met an enthusiastic self-taught meditator. So a proper course, if possible with a qualified teacher is invaluable. Furthermore, one should realise that continuity in meditation is considered essential: better five minutes a day, every day, than two hours once a week. For example, five minutes in the morning are likely to become longer over time, and becomes part of your everyday life. Many people discover it quickly becomes a more essential and helpful thing than a good breakfast of 'the first cup of coffee' in the morning. In the evening, it is a very good way to stop the worries of the day and go to sleep in a comfortable state of mind. Ultimately, meditation can become a continuous state of mind.
Before starting meditation, we need to take care of a few things:
- a quiet place (using music is nicely relaxing, but not really meditation), switching off the telephone may help.
- make sure you are not too tired, early morning is generally said to be the best time.
- sit comfortable; most people like a cushion under their behind, the room not too warm or cold
- wear loose, comfortable clothing, .
- try to create continuity in time and place to become habituated to the circumstances of meditation.
- keeping the back straight, in whichever posture you meditate is most essential.
- try to be comfortable and physically relaxed, but avoid moving too much.
- keep the head straight, slightly bent forward, keep the teeth slightly apart, the tip of the tongue against the upper pallet.
- the eyes are best kept half-open (without really looking), but many beginners find that too distracting and close them.
- the shoulders should be relaxed and the hands can be put in one's lap
- the legs can be in the full lotus (which not may Westerners manage), but also simply crossed. In fact, other positions like sitting on one's knees or on a bench are good as well. If these are too difficult, you can also use a chair. When using a chair, try to use only the front half of the seat, not leaning against the back rest to avoid a bent back, and keep the feet flat on the floor. Keeping the knees warm may help to avoid numbness of the legs.
- try belly-breathing; not breathing with the chest, but from the navel.
- always remember that the posture should enhance meditation, not be an obstacle!
- be relaxed but at the same time awake and attentive: find your balance!
- be a careful observer of your own mind and thoughts
1. Try and set yourself a minimum time that you want to meditate and try to stick to that as a minimum.
2. Motivation - to know what you are doing, most Buddhists will start with a refuge prayer, generating bodhicitta (for example using the prayer of the four immeasurables) and the seven-limb prayer (this contains the aspects of respectfulness towards the teachers, making (mental) offerings, admitting one's past mistakes, rejoicing in positive actions, asking the teachers to remain, requesting them to teach and dedicating the practice to full enlightenment).
3a. Calming and clearing the mind - often using a simple (but hard-to-do) breathing meditation - see below.
3b. Optional for an analytical meditation: take specific object or technique and stay with that - avoid excuses to change subject.
4. Conclusion and dedication - to make impression on the mind
In short: meditation is a method to transform ourselves into the person we would like to be; don't forget what you want to be like, therefore we need to set the motivation which gives perseverance in the practice. Keep relaxed, don't push yourself and don't expect great experiences. A dedication at the end directs positive energy towards results.
The Tibetans advise the '6 Preparatory Practices' prior to the first
traditional meditation session of the day:
1. Sweep and clean the room and arrange the altar.
2. Make offerings on the altar, e.g. light, food, incense, water bowls, etc..
3. Sit in a comfortable position and examine your mind. If there is much distraction, do some breathing meditation to calm your mind. Then establish a good motivation. After that, take refuge and generate the altruistic intention by reciting the appropriate prayers.
4. Visualize the merit field with the Gurus, Buddhas, bodhisattvas, etc. If this is too difficult, visualize Shakyamuni Buddha alone and consider him the embodiment of all Buddhas, Dharma and Sangha.
5. Offer the seven limb prayer (sent previously) and the mandala, by reciting those prayers.
6. Make requests to the lineage gurus for inspiration by reciting the requesting prayers. It is also good to review the entire graduated path to enlightenment by reciting for example, "Foundation of All Good Qualities". This helps you to understand the purpose of the particular meditation that you will do in the overall scheme of training the mind in the gradual path. It also plants the seed for you to obtain each realization of the path.
A large number of meditations can be found in the List of Sample Meditations.
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MEDITATION ON WATCHING THE BREATH
Give yourself a minimum time, like 15 or 30 minutes for the session, put a
clock in front of yourself.
Take a couple of deep breaths to relax, check if your body is relaxed and reasonably comfortable.
Set the motivation: for example recite the refuge prayer:
I go for refuge to the Buddha,Setting the mind towards enlightenment (a prayer from the Mahayana tradition):
I go for refuge to the Dharma,
I go for refuge to the Sangha. (3x)
By virtue of giving and so forth,My personal favourite: the four immeasurables:
may I become a Buddha for the benefit of all sentient beings. (3x)
May all sentient beings have equanimity, free from attachment, aggression and prejudice.The seven-limbed prayer may be a good idea:
May they be happy, and have the causes for happiness.
May they be free from suffering and causes for suffering.
May they never be separated from the happiness that is free from suffering. (3x)
Respectfully I prostrate with body, speech and mind;Next, concentrate on the tip of your nose, and feel the breath going in and out.
I present clouds of every type of offerings, actual and imagined;
I declare all my negative actions done since beginningless time,
and rejoice in the merit of all Aryas and ordinary beings.
Please, remain until cyclic existence ends
and turn the wheel of Dharma for all sentient beings.
I dedicate the virtues of myself and others to the great Enlightenment.
By this virtue may I soon
reach a Guru-Buddha-state,
and lead each and every being
to that state of Buddhahood.
May the precious Bodhicitta
not yet born, arise and grow
may that born have no decline
but increase forever more.
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Physical pain is a common experience, especially when you are not yet used to the position. Instead of immediately moving at the first note of discomfort, remain seated, do not move and study yourself and the pain. How does pain really feel? Give yourself time to discover and explore the feeling. You can visualise your body as completely empty, or feel remote from the body, as if you are observing yourself from outside. When the pain is very strong and comes every session again, check your posture; experiment if you like to sit on a higher cushion or without, try different positions etc. Also yoga exercises can help a lot. Take a physical brief break by standing up, but try to keep in the meditative state of mind.
Sensual desire, attachment
A common disturbance is being drawn to someone or something; it is often not easy to forget about your lover or a piece of chocolate once the thought has come up. But you can try some of the following: realising that these things are so brief and come with problems attached. Fulfilling one desires is never enough, the next one will come. Looking at the reality of the object: a body is really not much more than a bag of skin filled with bones, meat, blood etc.
Distraction, restlessness, worry
The best way is not to give it attention, notice it and don't get involved. If it persists, usually it helps to do a short period of breathing meditation as described above. Check with yourself if you are maybe pushing too hard, if so, relax a bit. You can remember that past and future don't exist, there is only the here and now. Restlessness from the past and worry for the future are illusions. Sometimes it helps to get the energy down from the head and to remember belly-breathing. You can also focus on an imagined black spot between the eyebrows. Persistent matters can be given a very short attention and the promise to deal with it later. It may even help to have a pen and paper at hand to make a very short note. However, make sure you don't start to write an essay - then it just becomes an escape from meditation. If everything else fails, try an analytical meditation on the problem or situation that distracts.
Lethargy, drowsiness, sleepiness
Remember that death is certain, and this chance for meditation should not be missed. There is only the here and now, past and future are imaginations. Check your motivation for meditating. You can concentrate on a visualised white light between the eyebrows. Take a couple of deep breaths. If you are really tired, take a rest and continue later.
Despite of all these problems, do not let yourself get discouraged to easily; meditation is about habituation, so it may take a while to get used to. Don't condemn yourself when a session did not go well, try to find the cause and avoid it next time.
Remember that we cannot avoid problems, but we can change our reaction to them. Be kind to yourself!
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List of Sample Meditations
Last updated: April 28, 2001