Understanding Meditation
by Venerable Thubten Chodron

DEVELOPING CONCENTRATION AND INSIGHT

In Tibetan, the word “meditation” comes from the same verbal root as “to habituate” or “to familiarise.” Thus, in meditation we endeavour to habituate ourselves to valuable ways of viewing the world. We also seek to familiarise ourselves with an accurate view of reality, so that we can eliminate all wrong conceptions and disturbing attitudes.

Meditation isn’t merely chasing all thoughts out of our minds and abiding in a blank state. There’s nothing spectacular about a blank mind. Skilfully directed thoughts can help us, especially at the initial levels of meditation. Eventually we need to transcend the limitations of concepts. However, doing so doesn’t mean entering a lethargic blank state. It means clearly and directly perceiving reality.

First, we must listen to instructions on how to meditate and what to meditate on. Meditation isn’t just sitting with crossed legs and closed eyes. It’s directing our minds to a positive object and cultivating beneficial attitudes. We need to listen to instructions from an experienced teacher in order to know how to do this properly. Second, we think about the instructions: we must understand a subject before we can habituate ourselves with it.

This reflection can be done by discussing the teachings with our Dharma friends and teachers. It can also be done alone, seated in meditation position.

When we have some intellectual understanding of the subject, then we integrate it into our minds through meditation. Through familiarising our minds with certain attitudes and views ౼ such as impartial love or the wisdom realising reality ౼ they gradually become spontaneous in us.

HOW TO BEGIN YOUR MEDITATION

There is a classic meditation position: we sit cross-legged on a cushion, with our bottom higher than the legs. The shoulders are level and the back is straight, as if we were being pulled up from the crown of the heads. The hands are placed in the lap, just below the navel. The right hand is on top of the left, with the thumbs touching. The arms are neither pressed against the body nor sticking out, but in a comfortable position. The head is slightly inclined, the mouth closed, with the tongue against the upper palate.

The eyes are slightly open in order to prevent drowsiness, but they aren’t looking at anything. Rather, they’re gazing downwards, loosely focused at the tip of the nose or on the ground in front. Meditation is done entirely with the mental consciousness, not with the visual consciousness. We shouldn’t try to “see” anything with our eyes during meditation.

It’s good to meditate in the morning before beginning the day’s activities as the mind is fresher then. By focusing on beneficial attitudes in our morning meditation, we’ll be more alert and calmer during the day. Meditation in the evening also helps to settle the mind, and “digest” what happened during the day before going to sleep.

Meditation sessions shouldn’t be too long at first. Choose a time that’s reasonable for your capacity and your schedule. It’s important to be regular in meditation practice because regular repetition is necessary to familiarise ourselves with beneficial attitudes. Meditating 15 minutes every day is more beneficial than meditating three hours one day and then sleeping in the rest of the week.

Because our motivation determines whether what we do is beneficial or not, it’s extremely important to cultivate a good motivation before meditating. If we begin each meditation session with a strong motivation, it’ll be easier to concentrate. Thus, for a few minutes prior to putting our attention on the object of meditation, we should think of the benefits of meditation for ourselves and others.

It’s very worthwhile to generate the altruistic intention, “How wonderful it would be if all beings had happiness and were free of all difficulties! I would like to make this possible by showing others the path to enlightenment. But, as long as my own mind is unclear, I can’t help myself let alone others. Therefore, I want to improve myself — to eliminate my obscurations and develop my potentials — so that I can be of better service to all others. For this reason, I’m going to do this meditation session, which will be one step more along the path.”

Within Buddhism, there are many kinds of meditations. Basically, they’re divided into two categories: those to gain samatha or calm abiding, and those to develop vipassana or special insight. The Buddha said in the sutra, Revealing the Thought of Buddha:

You should know that although
I have taught many different
aspects of the meditative
states of hearers (those
on the path to arhatship),
bodhisattvas and tathagatas
(Buddhas), these can all be
included in the two practices
of calm abiding and special insight.

CALM ABIDING

Calm abiding is the ability to hold our minds on the object of meditation with clarity and stability for as long as we wish. With calm abiding, our minds become extremely flexible, giving us the liberty to focus on whatever virtuous object we wish. Although calm abiding alone can’t cut the root of the disturbing attitudes, it drastically reduces their power. Gross anger, attachment and jealousy don’t arise and consequently, one feels more in harmony with the world.

For the mind to abide in a calm state, we must free it from all worries, preconceptions, anxieties, and distractions. Thus, for the development of calm abiding, we do stabilising meditation in which we train our minds to concentrate on the object of meditation.

The Buddha gave a variety of objects upon which we can focus to develop single-pointed concentration. These include meditating on love as the antidote to anger and on ugliness as the antidote to attachment. We could also meditate on the clear and aware nature of the mind. The image of the Buddha could be our meditation object, in which case we visualise the Buddha in our minds’ eye and hold our concentration on this. One of the principal objects used to develop calm abiding is the breath.

To meditate on the breath, sit comfortably and breathe normally. Don’t do deep breathing or force the breath in any way. Breathe as usual, only now, observe and experience it fully. Focusing the attention at the tip of the nose, observe the sensation of the breath as you inhale and exhale.

Most of us are surprised and even alarmed when we start to meditate. It seems as if our minds resemble a street in downtown New York — there is so much noise, so many thoughts, so much push and pull. Meditation isn’t causing our minds to be this cluttered. Actually, our minds are already racing around, but because our introspective awareness is weak, we aren’t aware of it. This internal chatter isn’t a hopeless situation, however. Through regular practice, our minds will be able to concentrate better and the distractions will diminish.

HINDRANCES TO MEDITATION

Laxity and agitation are the two principal hindrances to developing concentration. Laxity occurs when the mind is dull, and if it’s not counteracted, we can fall asleep. When the mind is sluggish, we should apply the proper antidotes to uplift it. We can temporarily stop focusing on the breath as the object of meditation and think about something that will raise our spirits, such as our precious human life or our potential to become a Buddha. It’s also helpful to visualise clear light filling the room or bright light flooding into the body. This will enliven the mind and dispel the laxity. Then return to meditating on the breath.

For beginners who get sleepy when meditating, it’s helpful to splash cold water on the face before sitting down. Between meditation sessions, looking long distances helps expand and invigorate the mind.

Agitation is the other chief obstacle to developing calm abiding. It occurs when the mind is attracted towards something we’re attached to. For example, we focus on the breath for 30 seconds, and then, unbeknownst to us, our concentration strays to food. Then we think about our loved ones, and after that where we’ll go on the weekend. These are all instances of agitation.

Agitation is different from distraction. The former is directed towards attractive objects that we’re attached to, while the latter takes our attention to other things as well. For example, thinking about the insulting words someone snarled at us five years ago is an example of distraction. So is straying to thoughts of the Buddha’s good qualities when we’re supposed to be concentrating on the breath.

Agitation indicates that the mind is too high and excited. Thus, the antidote is to think about something sombre. Thus, we can temporarily reflect on impermanence, the ugly aspects of whatever we’re attached to or the suffering of cyclic existence. Having made our minds more serious, we then return to meditating on the breath.

Mindfulness and introspective alertness are two mental factors enabling us to prevent and counteract distraction, laxity and agitation. With mindfulness, we remember the object of meditation — the breath. Our memory or mindfulness of the breath is so strong that other distracting thoughts can’t enter.

To ensure that we haven’t become distracted, lax or agitated, introspective alertness is used to check whether or not we’re still focused on the object of meditation. Introspective alertness is like a spy — it occasionally arises and quietly observes whether our mindfulness is still on the breath, or if we’re thinking about what we’re going to do tomorrow. Introspective alertness also notices if our concentration is lax and not clearly focused on the breath. If introspective alertness finds that we’re still concentrating, we continue doing so. If it discovers we’re distracted, lax or agitated, we then renew our mindfulness, bringing the mind back to the object of meditation. Or, we apply the antidotes to laxity and agitation described above. Patience is another necessary quality for the development of calm abiding. We need to accept ourselves the way we are, and to have the confidence and enthusiasm to make our minds more peaceful. If we push ourselves and expect to receive immediate results, that attitude itself hinders us. On the other hand, if we’re lazy, no progress is made. We need to cultivate relaxed effort.

Developing calm abiding is a gradual process that takes time. We shouldn’t expect to meditate a few times and have single pointed concentration. However, if we receive proper meditation instructions and follow them under the guidance of a teacher, and if we persist with joy and without expectation, we’ll attain calm abiding.

Thubten Chodron 28.

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