Meditation

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Quote.pngWe know the outer world of sensations and actions, but of our inner world of thoughts and feelings we know very little. The primary purpose of meditation is to become conscious of, and familiar with, our inner life. The ultimate purpose is to reach the source of life and consciousness.
Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj

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Meditation is a practice in which an individual trains the mind to acknowledge its own content without becoming identified with that content. The term meditation refers to a broad variety of practices that includes techniques designed to promote relaxation, build internal energy or life force (chi, prana, etc.) and develop compassion, love, patience, generosity and forgiveness. The ultimate aim of many forms of meditation is Nirvana, an indestructible sense of well-being which is independent of external circumstance.

The word meditation carries different meanings in different contexts. Meditation has been practised since antiquity as a component of numerous religious traditions and beliefs. Meditation often involves an internal effort to self-regulate the mind in some way. Meditation is often used to clear the mind and ease many health concerns, such as high blood pressure, depression, and anxiety. It may be done sitting, or in an active way—for instance, Buddhist monks involve awareness in their day-to-day activities as a form of mind-training.

Meditation may involve generating an emotional state for the purpose of analysing that state—such as anger, desire, etc. or cultivating a particular mental response to various phenomena, such as compassion or equanimity. Meditation has a calming effect and directs awareness inward until pure awareness is achieved, described as "being awake inside without being aware of anything except awareness itself".

Habits

Habits form a very fundamental aspect of our perception and being, in fact our entire personality is a structure of habits. Habits grow whenever we act in accord with them, and they degrade over time when we feel their attraction but do not submit to them. It takes force of will to change the structure of habits currently in place, without applying this will to change, the same patterns will keep on rolling and gaining more and more inertia. Observation of our habitual patterns is an important aspect of meditation.

One of the first obstacles one comes across when learning meditation is to overcome powerful desires to scratch itches or to resolve unclosed loops of thought. The first step to overcoming any such problems is to increase the habit of awareness because the earlier the discrepancy of action is spotted the less momentum it will have gained, and so it takes less energy to resist its attraction and return to the role of observer (the Shamatha way). Another method is to focus awareness on the sensation itself and try to understand its true source (the Vipassana way), or alternatively one can just maintain the awareness of the present moment without trying to change anything (the Mahāmudrā way).

Such associations of habit can be built up for all patterns of thought that lead to various kinds of bad habits and suffering in everyday life. They also provide a good means of doing many small meditations as discussed by Tenzin Palmo in the quote below. For example you can build up the association of feeling an itch with the action of returning to a state of observation to eventually replace the normal action of scratching the itch with a state of awareness, over time leading to increased peace.

Quote.pngPeople say they have no time for meditation. It's not true!, You can meditate walking down the corridor, waiting for the computer to change, at traffic lights, standing in a queue, going to the bathroom, combing your hair. Just be there in the present, without the mental commentary. Start by choosing one action during the day and decide to be entirely present for that one action. Drinking the tea in the morning. Shaving. Determine, for this one action I will really be there. It's all habit. At the moment we've got the habit of being unaware. We have to develop the habit of being present. Once we start to be present in the moment everything opens up. When we are mindful there is no commentary - it's a very naked experience, wakeful, vivid.
Tenzin Palmo

General tips

  • At the beginning of the meditation session, mentally review your motivations and methods for doing the practice
  • Use a posture for meditation that you don't use for anything else.
  • Keep the spine straight and still, stillness in the spine allows the rest of the body to stay still more easily after a few minutes.
  • Stay in a state of poise - it's as if your state of presence is a very timid animal that will run away if it notices any movement.
  • Keeping the eyes still helps to keep the mind calm and the attention from wandering.
  • The best way to keep the eyes still is to focus on an object in front of you, but try and stay aware of everything in your field of vision, not just the object.
  • If the eyes are closed, try and see through the third eye instead which helps prevent eye movement (it's easier than it sounds).
  • you're not trying to force yourself not to think! You're building the habit of returning to awareness of the present moment which may or may not involve thoughts. On realisation of that you've focused in (identified with) some thoughts, don't reject them, just slowly expand back out to the full field of observation again allowing the thoughts that took your attention to remain.

Meditation as a balancing exercise

Balancing exercises such as tight-rope walking, prolonged hand stands or some yoga asanas are an excellent analogy to use for understanding how to meditate in the present moment and why progress can be so slow for many people.

The idea in the basic Shamatha type of meditation is to maintain a continuous state of present awareness of all the senses and the mind. I used the term "basic" not because it's easy (it takes some years of regular practice to master), but because it's sole purpose is to prepare the mind for other more specific types of meditation. You could think of mastering Shamatha as being like attaining your "black belt" in meditation :-)

The problem is that the mind continually wanders, refusing to stay in the present moment and identifying itself with specific mental objects to the exclusion of all else. One must repeatedly remind oneself of the goal and return again and again to the present moment. With a lot of practice the moments of unconscious identification become shorter and shorter, and eventually one can feel that they're continuously very close to the present moment almost as if they're wobbling around pure presence as if it were a central point of some kind.

This is where the analogy of balance fits so well. For example, using the analogy of tight-rope walking we notice the same kind of phenomenon. At first we don't achieve much time standing on the rope in our practice sessions, most of the time is spent falling off the rope - this is analogous to becoming unconsciously absorbed within thoughts or images in meditation.

After we practice a lot we'll eventually be able to spend a lot of time standing on the rope - maybe even the whole practice session, but it's not easy. A lot of concentration is required, and we can't stay still and relaxed on the rope - we're constantly wobbling. This is exactly like the feeling of wobbling around the state of pure presence in meditation, we can stay very close to pure presence - often passing through it for short periods, but it's not easy and if we stop concentrating we soon fall into a trail of thoughts.

So how does this analogy help us? Well the main thing is that some of the things which are successful for practising a physical balancing exercise are also helpful for meditation. The most important thing is to remain relaxed and happy, if you get angry and frustrated when you fall off the rope, then tension will build up in the body and your awareness will become more closed. The best approach is just to be happy that you're practising something you like, and just get straight back on the rope, no frustration, no judgement, no comment. Just as important is to remember what you're there for - if you fall off and just relax laying on the ground a lot, progress will be very slow. Just keep getting right back on while staying relaxed and focussed - you know that if you keep doing this you can't help but get good at it. For meditation it's exactly the same, you realise that you've fallen into a sequence of thoughts, just go straight back to pure awareness without any judgement or comment - and remembering what you're there for, the presence is the only place to be for progress to happen.

Getting back on the rope: Another thing we see with tight-rope walking is that you can't simply jump back on the rope any old how, or you'll fall straight back off again. You need to have a specific process for getting back on while carefully avoiding adding any horizontal momentum that may get out of control and throw you off again. The simplest one I've seen is to sit on the rope and then carefully bounce until you're bouncing high enough to get your feet under you onto the rope. Again the analogy holds up well for meditation. Once you've caught yourself thinking, simply returning to presence isn't enough because the thinking aspect of your mind has built up momentum and will throw you straight back into thoughts again. A good process for getting back into consistent presence is to go back to awareness of the breath. Breathe slowly and deliberately just aiming to stay present for this one breath. Breathe in observing intently until all the inward flow has become absolutely still, then slowly release the breath doing the same until the outward flow has become absolutely still. Breath as if your state of presence is a very timid animal that could be scared away by the slightest movement. Repeat for another breath, and so on until you feel stable enough in presence to add another sense such as sight into your awareness. Remember to try and stay aware of the entire visual field, not just a single object, as this will encourage a greater state of openness.

It will eventually get easy! One more important thing that we all know about balancing exercises is that it doesn't stay hard forever! For example, we know that if we keep practising tight-rope walking for years, we'll get so good at it that we'll feel as comfortable on the rope as we do on the ground. We'll be able to stand on one foot, read a book and even sleep balanced on the rope. In this level of skill there's no wobbling, we're able to remain perfectly still on the rope for as long as we like, and it doesn't take any effort to do it.

Not just an analogy Actually meditation is a balancing act - it's about maintaining an intricate balance between restlessness and dullness which can be achieved by using introspection to assess ones state and then arousing the attention during the in breath and relaxing during the out breath as much as necessary to maintain the balance.

When we achieve this level of skill in meditation, we've achieved Shamatha, also known as "pure witnessing". We can stay purely in the present moment and it doesn't take any concentration or effort to do it. All other more specific forms of meditation such as inquiry into the nature of mind (Vipissana), creative visualisation exercises or opening energy channels and chakras will all be immeasurably better if they're practised on top of a stable foundation of Shamatha.

The present moment

The idea of returning to the present moment over and over again until it becomes a habit is one of the most common pieces of advice given by masters of all sorts of traditions. But Tenzin Wangyal has a different way of putting it which I really like and has helped me to make progress in my shamatha practice. He says that we should try and build up familiarity with the present moment. This is a subtly different idea because it involves observing the qualities of the present and becoming more familiar with them which makes it much easier to return to it and to recognise it. In fact I don't think it's even possible to build up a habit of returning to something that you don't even recognise!

One quality I started to notice was always associated with the present moment was a kind of feeling similar to nostalgia. At first I noticed it in the warmth of the sun, the feeling of the wind on my face, and with the sound of the rain. Later it started being associated with more things like the sound of birds or even the buzzing of flies passing by. Eventually I started noticing that it was there all the time, but only noticeable in the present moment. I realised that actually these other things that seemed to exhibit this feeling were actually working more like doorways to the present moment which is what this nostalgic quality is actually associated with.

It's not quite the same as nostalgia though, because there's no specific event or time of life that it applies to. It's more like the recognition of the present moment as a silent companion who's always been right there with you throughout everything, but is so quiet that you hardly ever notice him.

The recognition of this quality was great progress for me because it's had a self reinforcing effect on my ability to build familiarity with the present moment. Not only in the form of the motivation that comes from the quality being very pleasant, but also by the quality forming a kind of anchor to form a habit in. It allows me to quickly recognise the present so I can spend more time there and start to observe other aspects of it.

Openness

The present moment is an open state, any aspects that are closed are a deviation from the present. We can constantly become more open by observing more of the full field of observation as well as physically releasing any muscular tension we become aware of.

Whenever we realise we've lost the present and have become focused in on something specific (i.e. we've become identified with something) we build up the habit of returning to the full field of observation again - but this too can be done in an open or in a closed way. If, on realisation of loss of presence we reject the object of identification and snap back to the present, we've essentially closed ourselves to one thing that exists in the moment - the object itself! This snapping back to the present also creates a separation between the previous moment in which we were occupied by the thought and the new moment in which we've returned. So this snapping back creates closed regions both spatially and temporally in our experience.

This habit of return itself needs to be practised in an open way, whereby on noticing we've identified ourselves with something we just slowly expand our consciousness back out to the full field of observation, allowing the object to remain. This way we haven't rejected anything and our meditation slowly becomes more and more holistic - a single continuous moment.

Mahāmudrā

At the beginning of 2015 my wife and I went on a meditation retreat that was focussed on a specific kind of meditation called mahāmudrā, which means "natural being". Mahāmudrā is a set of practices including shamatha and vippissana meditation, but it has a slightly different approach to the meditation than the commonly known focus-oriented approach described in the previous section. Rather than learning to stay in the present moment by a concentrated effort of will, Mahāmudrā is about letting everything in the mind be as it is, and building up recognition and familiarity with the present moment whenever the mind returns there naturally. The mind is comfortable with what it's familiar with and naturally gravitates to those things. By building familiarity with the present moment, the mind will slowly begin to reside there naturally without requiring any force of will.

I found some things about the Mahāmudrā teachings very confusing and I got no satisfactory answers from Tilmann or Gelek (the teachers at the retreat). One of the issues came up after some of the students showed signs of relaxing after a long meditation had finished - when Tilmann noticed this he said, now that is resting in natural being! That's how you should be during the meditation, not after it's finished! One of the students said that their mind was just wandering around aimlessly, is it therefore fine to just meditate like that? Tilmann said "yes that's natural being, just relax and let everything be as it is, let the mind go where it will, but just remember to stay aware". Well this last part is what confused me - how can you let your mind wander where it likes, but also stay aware?! Those two things seem to be contradictory and although they did answer my questions, their answers did not help me to understand.

Beth and I continued to practice Mahāmudrā for a couple of hours each day after we came back from the retreat as part of our new daily schedule, but I found it to be quite difficult and unsettling - it felt very groundless compared to focussing exclusively on not-thought, and although my mind did indeed keep returning to presence naturally of it's own accord, it would quickly slip away again and I didn't feel like any familiarity was forming, I felt like I was just drifting about aimlessly. But eventually after about a hundred hours of practice over ten weeks or so, I had a breakthrough and practice became much easier and all the seemingly paradoxical conceptual aspects became clear.

Although my breakthrough was specifically concerning my Mahāmudrā practice, it was another practice called "The Nine Breathings of Purification", from Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche's book Awakening the Sacred Body, that actually led to the breakthrough. His book is excellent and well worth the read even just for his advice about meditation in general. He comes from the Bön Dzogchen tradition, which is also all about natural being and familiarity with presence. This exercise involves clearing attachment, aversion and doubt by clearing energy channels in the body through a special breathing technique. We've been doing this exercise at the beginning of each meditation session as it helps create a more open and clear state of mind to begin the practice from.

The particular issue that I was clearing at the time of my Mahāmudrā breakthrough was a subtle knot in my stomach that has always prevented me from achieving a deeper state of relaxation when I'm meditating. After doing the exercise on this feeling for a while it began to open up and reveal it's nature. It turned out that I couldn't relax because I was rejecting a part of myself - specifically, my conceptual mind (the one that's always narrating and chattering). It suddenly became so clear and obvious! And the ironic part about it is that it's meditation itself that has built up this rejection that prevents further progress in meditation!

After the nature of the problem was revealed I felt a great sense of relief as if a long standing conflict had been resolved within myself. At the same time I felt upset at the way I had treated my mind which is so precious and plays such an important role in my life. I felt a shift in perspective from thinking of my conceptual mind as an obstacle, to seeing it as a friend that would be with me in my spiritual journey.

Many schools of meditation are based on this strong focus-oriented principle of "taming the mind", that the mind must be subdued into silence before further progress with meditation can be made. While this is a valid method and does achieve results in time, it can also create an artificial separation between self and mind which can lead to conflict and tension.

True presence is an open and expansive state of being. Putting walls up to prevent thoughts coming in can give rise to a state of silence that's closed and stagnant, and is not beneficial to spiritual progress. Instead of defending against intrusive thoughts, the Mahāmudrā way is to try and maintain awareness of the entire field of observation in an all-inclusive way. The feeling is a lot like focussing on an object to anchor the vision while paying attention to the entire visual field, but expanding this state to include all senses, including the mental content as well.

Another aspect of this method of practice concerns the point in time at which you realise that you're absorbed in a sequence of thoughts. The normal focus-based approach says to acknowledge the thoughts and "return to presence", but this is again a closed approach involving rejection of the thoughts by "turning your back" on them to return back to your protective insulated form of presence. The Mahāmudrā approach is "let it be", which in this case means to not reject them by "turning away", but to carefully expand your focus back out to encompass the entire field of observation again, including the thoughts that were previously absorbing all attention.

Mindfulness and Introspection

Actually after doing this Mahāmudrā method for a couple of years, I found a subtle change to it that made my practice improve a lot. In the last paragraph above I explained the importance of the point in time at which you realise that you're absorbed in a sequence of thoughts. Firstly I've realised that this point is much more important than I previously thought, it's in fact the central point of mediation itself - and in fact I'd go so far as to say that this realisation is a big part of Realisation itself! What you're actually realising at this point is that you WERE lost, you WERE identified with thoughts, you WERE NOT aware of your awareness. This means that at that exact point of realisation, you are not lost, you're identified only with yourself, and you're aware of your awareness, conscious of what you're conscious of.

How you respond to this realisation is absolutely key to your practice! Of course a response like "Bugger! I'm thinking again, stop it!!!" is very sub-optimal. But actually even the advice in the previous section of responding by "expanding your focus back out to encompass the entire field of observation" is not perfect either, because any response that involves a change of focus or conscious-will of any kind actually ends the moment of realisation by changing the focus to something other than it! The correct response is in fact..... nothing! Simply "let it be" - the Mahāmudrā way! Just let it be, become more familiar with it. The point of realisation is actually what we've been looking for all along, but it's so simple, natural and glimpsing that we're addicted to looking for it somewhere else, but it cannot be found by any conscious mental movement, it happens all by itself, it's just a matter of getting to know it better :-)

The maintaining awareness of the present moment, and the realisation of needing to return to the present are two important foundations of meditation which the Buddha called mindfulness and introspection. The fourth century Indian meditation master Asaṅga wrote in the Mahāyāna Sūtrālamkāra kārikā that "mindfulness and introspection are taught, for the first prevents the attention from straying from the meditative object, while the second recognises that the attention is straying".

Apprehension of the infinite

Coming soon...

Duality, verbalisation & randomness

This pure present state of Shamatha is called "non-dual" because there is no distinction between subject and object, or indeed between anything. This is the natural state of the mind, it's only when we focus in on some specific thought or impression that these divisions are created. All concepts of self and other such as one's position with respect to other things, or even the idea of ourselves and what we perceive as being different, are mental abstractions that are not present in the natural state of pure presence.

One important thing to note about this process of conceptualisation is that it's not about verbalisation. Verbalisation, or mental commentary, about the self and the perceived objects is another level of abstraction that, if it occurs at all, comes after the act of focus has already yielded the sense of subject and object.

For example, today in meditation I was in the present moment, and the wind kept blowing plastic cups off the table behind me onto the floor every minute or two. Every time this happened an involuntary mental impression of the cups on the floor would immediately arise in my mind. Although I was unable to avoid this impression arising, I noticed that I could choose whether to focus on the impression to the exclusion of everything else, or to stay in the present allowing the new impression to co-exist with the other sensory perceptions.

In the case of focussing in on the mental impression of the plastic cups, I noticed that I had a clear sense of myself in the room surrounded by other objects including the table and the cups on the floor. This all occurred without any mental commentary about the situation, it was all part of the deeper focussed view of the impression.

This example of the plastic cups also highlights another interesting and helpful aspect of Vipissana (inquiry into the nature of mind), which is that the random events can offer a lot of insight into this nature because they produce a spontaneous and unforced response in the mind. If one is in a state of presence when these events occur, and can maintain this state throughout the incident, the nature of these responses can be clearly observed. Some examples of these random incidents are sounds produced by surrounding activity, bugs flying through the field of vision, spontaneous sensations in the body and even spontaneous internal visions and emotions.

Identification

Identification with thoughts is one of the most important hurdles to overcome in meditation practice. The idea is to be in a state of pure observation where you can just watch all the thoughts as they come up and fade away again. Most meditation traditions have a lot to say about this aspect, for example here's Osho on the subject.

Quote.pngIt is none of your business – if greed is passing by, let it pass; if anger is passing by, let it pass. Who are you to interfere? Why are you so much identified with your mind? Why do you start thinking, 'I am greedy... I am angry'? There is only a thought of anger passing by. Let it pass; you just watch.
Osho

But in practice it's no easy task to simply step back and watch your thoughts go by. It seems to me that there are actually two sort of levels involved in being focused on a particular train of thought. It doesn't matter whether those thoughts are narrative in nature or purely visual, these two levels still apply. The first level could be called creative focus which is where the awareness which has narrowed in on this train of thought, to the exclusion of all others, is in a controlling role - like it's in the driving seat choosing the direction of the train of thought. The second level could be called receptive focus where the stillness of the meditation has begun to take hold and the awareness has given up its control, it's stepped out of the drivers seat and allowed the train of thought to direct itself. Both are still focussed on this particular train of thought to the exclusion of all else, but the latter level has taken on a kind of dream-like quality since it seems as if it's all happening by itself.

These self-driven thoughts can deviate a lot from reality or have some surprising content in them, the usual reaction to this is that the awareness quickly jumps back into the drivers seat as if the thoughts are a car that has deviated off the road into danger. The thoughts need to be connected up with the rational, known, conceptual world-view.

I think the idea is to build up the habit of returning to the full field of observation on realisation that we've focused in onto a specific train of thought, so that the mind's reaction to the realisation of self-driven thoughts is to expand back out to full awareness letting the thoughts be as they are, rather than jumping back into the drivers seat of identification.

The Witness State

The so-called witness state is an important milestone in meditation practice. One important thing I've found with regards to developing the witness state is that the idea of "watching thoughts" can be misinterpreted to mean a kind of "inspection" or "mentally noting" each thought that crops up, but this is not what it means. Rather it refers to watching all the conscious content at the same time. To watch a particular thought is to direct ones awareness away from the centre. By focusing awareness on all conscious content, the witness state will soon manifest - for small moments at first and then eventually unbroken for the entire meditation session.

Once in the witness state, the mind becomes very still after some time. Even though the mind is much calmer it still has a lot of content in it, but there's a sense of dream-like detachment from it. One can clearly see that there is no difference between internal and external content - all of it is conscious content.

A good exercise that helps bring about the witness state is to meditate watching the ocean or a river, in a way where you're looking at all the ocean but never focussing on any specific wave, and keeping the eyes still and focussed on the entire scene in general. This same method of "focussed non-focus" is the same process used to observe thoughts without moving away from one's centre, but it is much easier to learn and practice when looking at a wide scene of natural motion. When the witness state emerges while looking at a dynamic natural scene an amazing new way of perceiving nature forms. Similarly amazing results emerge when perceiving other natural phenomena too such as listening to bird song or even watching swarms of insects.

Quote.pngWhen the mind is quiet, we come to know ourselves as the pure witness. We withdraw from the experience and its experiencer and stand apart in pure awareness, which is between and beyond the two. The personality, based on self-identification, on imagining oneself to be something: 'I am this, I am that', continues, but only as a part of the objective world. Its identification with the witness snaps.
I am that (6)

Quote.pngThe witness is not a person. The person comes into being when there is a basis for it, an organism, a body. In it the absolute is reflected as awareness. Pure awareness becomes self-awareness. When there is a self, self-awareness is the witness. When there is no self to witness, there is no witnessing either.
I am that (50)

Quote.pngIt is only when the observer (vyakta) accepts the person (vyakti) as a projection or manifestation of himself, and, so to say, takes the self into the Self, the duality of 'I' and 'this' goes and in the identity of the outer and the inner the Supreme Reality manifests itself. This union of the seer and the seen happens when the seer becomes conscious of himself as the seer, he is not merely interested in the seen, which he is anyhow, but also interested in being interested, giving attention to attention, aware of being aware. Affectionate awareness is the crucial factor that brings Reality into focus.
I am that (62)

Self-realisation

Both meditation (direct experience) and knowledge are important in this concept. Meditators often place little value on knowledge, thinking of it as another level of materialism - its not necessary because the more you dwell in the direct experience of the present, the less you need knowledge and the more in to harmony with life you become. But for some people knowledge is a domain where they actually enjoy being. These are the people that design our systems, and so the more influence this principle has on our systems, the better for us all. Secondly, to truly understand this principle, and to know first-hand that it's real, so that you can explain it clearly to teach people and to write about it, requires that a person be able recognise these patterns in their own mind and see that this is how the thoughts, feelings and concepts that make up our reality do actually work.

There is already a type of meditation practice specifically designed for understanding the true nature of mind - the method that Buddha taught which is composed of two different kinds of meditation; shamatha and vipissana. These can be translated roughly as "calm abiding" and "inquiry". Different meditation masters throughout the ages, and maybe even Buddha himself, have recommended different approaches to learning these to forms of meditation in order to achieve true self-realisation (understanding first-hand the true nature of mind and consciousness).

These varying approaches mainly differ in whether or not they should be learned both together or if one or the other should be taught first. Other differences concern what kinds of methods can be used to aid beginners and so on. It seems that all these variations are valid, and which way is best for someone depends on all sorts of things from peronality attributes to social and cultural differences. One thing is certain though; to achieve the ultimate fruit of self-realisation, you need to have fully mastered both methods because they operate together, shamatha stilling the water so it reflects the self perfectly, and vapassana being the method of inquiry into that reflection.

If someone who has reached a high level in these two forms of mediation, and also has intimate knowledge of the relationship between yin and yang and how the symbols operate over the first few levels, then one will automatically see these patterns in operation when inquiring into the nature of consciousness using shamatha and vipissana.

Other articles about meditation

See also