Beginners Mind The first time I sat on a meditation cushion I had no idea what to expect, I had heard about it and I remember being quite nervous and a little excited. After the brief introduction I sat there completely open minded and mystified. I just waited for something to happen. These days I have to remind myself how valuable that approach is, to always keep an eye out for the unexpected, to wonder what might happen next. It is a good discipline to remind myself of the value of Beginners Mind before I begin a practice.
Expectation can take me away from my present experience into a future of speculation. I am not getting something I want now so I feel dissatisfied and unfulfilled. Ultimately I think we all want happiness and contentment or an escape from unhappiness and suffering, the latter is usually the motivational force, the former the goal.
Expectation takes hold when I have had an enjoyable meditation and sit again and try to carry on where I left off. Of course when I think about this I realize that is not possible, but the expectation leads me away from sitting with my present experience. The counter action to expectation then is Beginners Mind. I am reminded of returning to the same place beside a river, everything looks familiar but the water washing over me has never drifted past that place before.
Distraction , My common experience in meditation and daily life is predominantly arising thoughts that distract me away from something I want to concentrate upon, or that there is a mismatch between what I perceive and what I think, that causes an internal conflict.
Concentration is the lead in the pencil, we can't draw without it. The more I meditate, the more I find I am able to develop concentration. I find it unhelpful to think of concentration as a forced, willful act, an example might be revising for an exam where I force myself to read and re read pages of information. After reading a section I notice I can barely remember anything and had not concentrated upon any of it. In contrast I can recall moments in my life when I have naturally become concentrated or absorbed in something wonderful, I remember watching a sunset experiencing awe at the beauty of the delicate colours changing before my eyes, time seemed to stand still, my mind was quiet as I experienced an ecstatic, absorption and delight in nature and my spirits were elevated. I can still remember it clearly today as if it had happened an hour ago.
Almost all meditations have an object to concentrate upon, whether it is the breath or a candle flame. It is the qualities of delight or absorption that are important here, I need to develop an interest in the object in order that my concentration can be sustained.
I find the key to developing concentration is to allow it to develop naturally, it is like any other muscle in the body it can be flabby or it can be toned and able to work hard without effort. As I meditate and become more concentrated the qualities of my thinking begin to change, instead of flitting randomly from one thought to the next, it has the ability to sustain itself, to explore a profound question or to experience myself more deeply.
The Mind is very complex, filled with thoughts and emotions that are inseparable, but usually the first thing I notice is the thought. Connected to both of these are feelings. Feelings are a valuable window into my experience. To feel something is to ascertain if it is pleasant, painful or just neutral, whether it is from a physical sensation, or a recollection, they all arrive in the mind which is regarded as the sixth sense.
Thinking It is not unusual for people new to meditation to arrive with preconceived ideas. A common misconception is that meditation is used to clear the mind of thought, people say when I tried to meditate I couldn't do it because my mind would not stop thinking, as if thinking is somehow wrong. Let me put that into perspective as this can be counter productive. When a thought arises, we can use this as an opportunity to notice and practice awareness. Secondly, thinking can be productive and can lead to valuable insight. To think that when a thought interrupts our meditation it is a nuisance, is missing an opportunity to practice awareness.
Awareness or Noticing is the primary working ground, this is what I apply myself to developing in my practice. A moment by moment illumination of my experience or a knowing watchfulness. An analogy would be going to the cinema and enjoying a film but at the same time being aware that I am sitting in a comfortable chair with a projector flickering overhead. I still fully enjoy the film but I am aware that I am enjoying it. Awareness is a bigger experience because knowing I am enjoying it makes it even more intense.
With meditation I learn to be aware more of the time and also that too much of my time is spent not being fully aware. To develop awareness takes practice, patience and application. Awareness is also .present when I access other areas of my mind where no thoughts arise for example. Noticing that I am stirred up by what somebody has said, Instead of being completely washed away by anger for instance, I cultivate an overview of observation. As soon as I notice anger starting to arise, I have a choice and with choice I have power, the power to change my re actions.
A good preliminary practice is to sit quietly for a while and just notice any thoughts, feelings and emotions arising, I ask if they are pleasant or painful, and then give the mind a kind space to process whatever is present.
Mindfulness of Breathing In this meditation we are asked to pay particular attention to the breath. It is not literally the air that is the focus of our attention here, but the movements of the whole body working as a pump, drawing air in, and pushing air back out of the body. Awareness ideally needs to be applied to everything we do, (not just the breath or distractions) but everything in our experience, happening within and around us including taste, touch, sight, sound, smell, feelings, actions and emotions. When we observe the body breathing we cannot help noticing cars passing, birds singing, rain, wind etcetera. To each sounds we can give our attention and enjoy being aware of each sound or smell or touch. When we are aware of all of our senses together there is an expansiveness to our experience. I liken it to surfing the crest of a wave through time with all the ships sensors bristling and feeding information to the big screen on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise with stars hurtling past.
Present moment . It is a tendency to spend too much time becoming anxious about the future or re living events from the past. If I anchor my experience in my breathing, I am less anxious and less regretful, if we feel nervous we are told to take a deep breath, this not because we need to be reminded to breath but because we are paying attention to the breath in the present and not worrying what might happen next. Not that thinking about the future or the past is necessarily bad, preparing and planning for things as well as feeling grateful for all that humanity has provided to bring me to this moment is valuable. This is my starting point and the tools I use are awareness and acceptance. This anchoring does not just apply in meditation, it can enrich every moment of my life. The simple act of preparing food can be approached in different ways, I can resent the time wasted and want to be doing something else (future) or I can see it as my practice of bringing awareness to all my actions (present), enjoying the process of washing and skilfully peeling and preparing vegetables, blending and cooking food for others to enjoy. If I apply this approach in everything I do, involving myself fully in all these simple actions, my day is enriched and satisfying.
Change , what I learn is that I do not have to react (re enact) with the same habitual responses, each time I receive another sensory stimulus, but what do I change into? All of our actions have consequences (karma) that can lead to positive happy states or negative unhappy states of mind. Obviously choosing actions that lead to the former and not the latter should be my aim but is it?. It sounds easier than it actually is because we are such complex beings.
Deep underneath our concious minds, operating moment by moment, are three poisons. The Buddha clearly saw the effects of these and warned us of their dangers. He named them Greed, Hatred and Delusion or wanting more and clinging, rejecting and resisting at times violently and believing that the things we enjoy will give us lasting pleasure and satisfaction and the things we find painful lead to suffering and unhappiness. Here I drop in an obvious example to illustrate that instant gratification does not always lead to lasting satisfaction, and our needs are not always in our best interest. I could take Heroine and enjoy a temporary rest-bite from my troubles, and for a few moments be in a seductive heaven where I no longer worry or care, but what are the consequences of this action? I obviously do not need to spell it out. Conversely I could patiently sit and accept something that has been troubling me, that makes me feel uncomfortable in a meditation and realise it probably needs to be faced and addressed. This experience may not be doing me harm and I can choose not to push it away, on the contrary to sit with it and lovingly own it, is the first step on the road to recovery.
Delusion , Therefore is the drive that is the most subtle of the 3 but is the one that causes all the problems. Living is a process of gaining knowledge, understanding and experience that leads me to make the right choices in future, that I hope ultimately will lead me to happiness. Wisdom is finding the values that lead away from deluded thinking towards making choices that lead to lasting satisfaction.
Wisdom / Insight or Vipassana can naturally arise in meditation and reflection given the right conditions, and is the counter action to delusion. It can come as small bites of understanding or a very profound and deeply moving experience, it can often lead to a realignment of our life. I experience two types of insight, the first is insight with a small i into myself and my actions. The other is with a capital I and that can come as a massive jolt and seems to be deeply profound. Insight is very precious and for many Buddhist's is the aim of their practice.
Bliss As a meditation progresses, it often happens that the mind settles and distils itself. Gaps can start to appear in between thoughts, particularly towards the end of a practice. I may notice pleasurable senstions of rapture and bliss arising quite naturally. Rapture being a physical tingling sensation at the back of the neck, it makes hairs stand on end, It can also be very powerful as released energy courses up through the whole body like sitting on a cascade of sparkling fizzing water, apparently at its most powerful a body can be lifted into the air by it. Bliss is without the physical sensation but is calm, tranquil and deeply satisfying. These states of concentration, rapture and bliss are not anything that we have to work to develop, they are present all the time, just waiting to be revealed from being obscured by negative mental states.
Greediness When moments of pleasure do start to arise, I feel my greedy nature trying to grab on and demand more. I notice that as soon as I try to perpetuate something, it vanishes like a slippery bar of soap in a hot bath. I have learnt to use my awareness and just stay with the object of concentration, if I can do this, very often the feelings of bliss stay and develop.
Negative Mental States are the Demons that make it difficult and uncomfortable to stay with the practice. They are restlessness, anxiety, anger, distraction, tiredness, desire for sensory stimulus, fear, doubt and indecision. Working with these states is mostly what I spend my time doing in my practice.
Self view I notice I have a tendency to be self critical at times, I hear myself saying I am no good at meditation, but is this true or just a view I have adopted. Just noticing that this is the Demon of doubt gives me something to work with. I need a strategy to deal with these Demons as without one I can feel a sense of failure or that I am wasting my time and there is no point in sitting here. I try a positive approach to these temporary obstructions and that is to apply patience and mindfulness. I adopt the view that things will change if I just sit and accept that this is my experience. Without mindfulness I can lose perspective.
It can take time to dawn on me that I am in one of these states so the steady application of paying attention is the first thing to apply, Then I need to acknowledge the experience as my own and accept it rather than trying to ignore it or fight it and push it away. By starting here this can help to de-construct it. I find it also helps to adopt the view that this state of mind is never permanent and it will pass.
Sitting patiently with these mental states is an important aspect of meditation, just trying to be aware of which one I am dealing with and applying the antidote can be very constructive. This is why It is often said very clearly, there is no such thing as a bad meditation. I recommend as a warm up, sitting and just watching whatever is arising, check to see if each state is either positive or negative, do this for about ten minutes before a main practice.
Mindfulness and Awareness are similar in their definition, but there is a subtle difference. To be mindful means to keep the goal in mind. Why am I doing this, What are my reasons for sitting here? Sometimes dwelling in our mental states can be very uncomfortable (it is not always enjoyable) so why subject ourselves to something that is difficult. I answer this question by being patient and trying to mindfully recommit to my goals.
Integration If I count the things that push and pull me in different directions, I notice a myriad of complexity. As I sit to meditate the most urgent or current pop up into my mind, and my experience is one of distraction or disintegration. I can use meditation to refine the things that make me disintegrated by making choices, or I can look at the things I chose to do, and ask myself, do these things actually lead to lasting happiness? Giving up these things I find is not as easy as it seems. For one reason much of what I do has become habitual, and my responses can be strongly influenced by ingrained patterns of behavior. Reflection and meditation can be very helpful when I find myself perpetually following the same Pavlovian patterns of behaviour or giving the same responses to things that flow into my consciousness from my senses. If I observe where my thinking takes me with awareness then gradually I can make better choices.
Creatures of Habit If you have ever been addicted to something you will understand how strong habits are to overcome. I am not just referring to the obvious ones like smoking, they can be much less obvious. If I repeat the same pattern of behaviour again and again it will eventually become a habit. A stimulus triggers transmitters that travel through the nervous system into the brain, they follow the same neuro pathways and before long a track has been warn and a habit has formed. If I bundle all my habits together I start to see a personality. She is a smoker, He is a Carpenter, She is a Vegetarian, He takes sugar, but am I really these things, are they fixed and unchangeable or do I have a choice? Here again awareness of my responses can help me make choices that either reinforce or alternately could start to break down my habits.
Working in Meditation I am hard wired with the view that I want to be instantly rewarded for my efforts, that if I apply myself to something II should be able to achieve results. So this instinct forces me to try hard and be wilful, driving me to rigidly stay with counting the breath for instance, to the exclusion sometimes of everything else. Rarely I find does this sort of wilfulness bring any results.
Drifting in Meditation The opposite approach is to just be lazy and drift along, not making any effort to develop concentration or awareness. Most meditations have a clear object of concentration so it is fairly straightforward to notice when we are being wilful or drifting. Somewhere in between lies a happy medium or the middle way.
Just sitting is one of the few meditations that does not have an object of concentration, in fact it deliberately does not have a focus or something specific to work with, for that reason it can sometimes seem more difficult. So how should I approach this equally valuable practice.
First of all it is often used before or after another practice. At the beginning it can be valuable in allowing the mind to settle, like water that has been churned up. Just Sitting on a cushion quietly observing whatever is arising and passing, like puffy white clouds in a clear blue sky.
At the end of a meditation it is often the time when the fruits of my efforts ripen, After the final bell I relax and often in so doing, the rewards blossom.
There seems to be no short cut to arrive at these rewards unfortunately, I have to apply myself to the meditation in order to reap the rewards after the practice reaches the end.
Just Sitting points at the total experience, as I sit on my cushion, legs crossed, hands gently resting on one another. I try to notice and be with everything as it arises, observing physical sensations in the body, the mind, feelings and emotions. Being observant of this stream of arising, changing events, not focussing, labelling or judging anything, but having a broad awareness of my wholeness. An analogy could be a mirror that reflects back an image without being stained or tainted by the object. "In the seen only the seen, in the heard only the heard"
Metta bhavana is a deeply transformative practice, which contains Buddhist values more deeply and explicitly than the mindfulness of breathing. It involves working with all the stages of the “system of practice”. That is why it can be a challenging and difficult practice, but also such a transformative and liberating one! If you had to choose only one meditation practice to do, metta bhavana would be the best choice.
Take time in the practice to be receptive to your emotional experience. Look for clues to this in the body, the heart centre, and in the “tone” and content of thoughts in the mind. Notice the times in the practice where you maybe want to turn away from your experience and your mind generates distraction, boredom, or some other “avoidance strategy”.
3) Distinguish “emotion” from “feeling”
The metta practice is about trying to cultivate and encourage positive intention, a friendly attitude, well-wishing. It is not about cultivating pleasant feelings. You may not have feelings of warmth, expansiveness, or blissful love straight away! That is not how to judge the success of the practice. For example, you might be thinking of someone you find difficult and it feels uncomfortable, or even painful, to think of them, but you are responding to that by trying to be kind and understanding and wish them well. So, although it doesn’t feel pleasant you are really engaged in the metta practice. Or, you might be thinking of a friend, and you go off into a bit of a fantasy about spending time with them. Although it feels pleasant, you are not really wishing them well, and so you are not really engaged in the metta practice. This is not to say there is anything wrong with pleasant feeling – hopefully it will be a pleasant and happy experience to think of people much of the time! It is just to say that intention, attitude, well-wishing is the criterion of success, not feeling.
It can be inspiring and motivating to consciously do the practice for the benefit of others. It counteracts any subtle tendency for the practice to become just about me feeling good, in a rather self-referential way. The more emotionally positive we become, the more we can be a source of good in the world. Doing the metta practice will benefit other people around us! You can bring this to mind at the start of the practice, just saying to yourself “may this practice benefit others as well as me”.
It is imagination and empathy that unlocks the heart and lets metta flow forth. We have to find the way our imagination works; it is different for different people. Maybe we see (visually) the person going about their life, maybe we have an intuitive sense of them, or we reflect on our common humanity, perhaps we hear their voice, or maybe we think about their qualities. What helps us be aware of them as a person? In a way, that is all we have to do – just try and imagine the person and their life and hold that in awareness.
Notice when we have a commentary or story going on about someone. Notice the tone of voice in which we talk to ourselves about someone. Is it a sympathetic voice? And is what we are saying true? Try and unhook the emotion – the raw energy – from the commentary. If you can do this, the emotional energy may free up and be transformed through relaxing and breathing into it.
A difficult person is giving us the opportunity to develop kindness and patience. The Dalai Lama is sometimes quoted as saying, “Chairman Mao is my best friend; he teaches me compassion”. Trying to see difficult situations as opportunities in this way can actually work! It gives us the initiative back and encourages us to engage with the person with creativity.
At the start of Buddhist practice we may change certain things about us quite quickly, even dramatically. But after that, change is usually gradual. We need to enjoy the process of meditation and hold expectations lightly. We need a kind of “creative waiting”, rather than a “passive drifting” or a “wilful forcing”... we are creative and active in the practice, we plant the right seeds, but then we are content to wait for them to grow.
Visualization and the imagination play an important roll in meditation, In Just Sitting for example or when practising visualisations, it is traditional to begin by bringing to mind a clear blue sky, not just the beautiful blueness but the spaciousness that goes with it. Allow the mind to expand into that infinite space, fearlessly opening out in all directions. That expansiveness is not a fearful place but a perfectly natural experience, sometimes the mind can become quiet and expansive during any practice as one becomes concentrated.