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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Bhante Suddhāso http://www.bhantesuddhaso.com