With the hectic pace and demands of modern life, many people feel stressed and over-worked. It often feels like there is just not enough time in the day to get everything done. Our stress and tiredness make us unhappy, impatient and frustrated. It can even affect our health. We are often so busy we feel there is no time to stop and meditate! But meditation actually gives you more time by making your mind calmer and more focused. A simple ten or fifteen minute breathing meditation as explained below can help you to overcome your stress and find some inner peace and balance.
Meditation can also help us to understand our own mind. We can learn how to transform our mind from negative to positive, from disturbed to peaceful, from unhappy to happy. Overcoming negative minds and cultivating constructive thoughts is the purpose of the transforming meditations found in the Buddhist tradition. This is a profound spiritual practice you can enjoy throughout the day, not just while seated in meditation.
What is Meditation?
Meditation is a practice that makes it possible to cultivate and develop certain basic positive human qualities in the same way as other forms of training make it possible to play a musical instrument or acquire any other skill.
Among several Asian words that translate as “meditation” in English are bhavana from Sanskrit, which means “to cultivate,” and its Tibetan equivalent, gom, meaning “to become familiar with.” Meditation helps us to familiarize ourselves with a clear and accurate way of seeing things and to cultivate wholesome qualities that remain dormant within us unless we make an effort to draw them out.
So let us begin by asking ourselves, “What do I really want out of life? Am I content to just keep improvising from day to day? Am I going to ignore the vague sense of discontent that I always feel deep down when, at the same time, I am longing for well-being and fulfillment?” We have become accustomed to thinking that our shortcomings are inevitable and that we have to put up with the setbacks they have brought us throughout our lives. We take the dysfunctional aspects of ourselves for granted, not realizing that it is possible to break out of the vicious cycle of exhausting behavior patterns.
From a Buddhist point of view, the traditional texts say every being has the potential for enlightenment just as surely as every sesame seed contains oil. Despite this, to use another traditional comparison, we wander about in confusion like a beggar who is simultaneously rich and poor because he does not know he has a treasure buried under the floor of his hut. The goal of the Buddhist path is to come into possession of this overlooked wealth of ours, which can imbue our lives with the most profound meaning.
What Meditation is not
Sometimes practitioners of meditation are accused of being too focused on themselves, of wallowing in egocentric introspection and failing to be concerned with others. But we cannot regard as selfish a process whose goal is to root out the obsession with self and to cultivate altruism. This would be like blaming an aspiring doctor for spending years studying medicine before beginning to practice.
There are a fair number of clichés in circulation about meditation. Let me point out right away that meditation is not an attempt to create a blank mind by blocking out thoughtswhich is impossible anyway. Nor is it engaging the mind in endless cogitation in an attempt to analyze the past or anticipate the future. Neither is it a simple process of relaxation in which inner conflicts are temporarily suspended in a vague, amorphous state of consciousness. There is not much point in resting in a state of inner bewilderment. There is indeed an element of relaxation in meditation, but it is connected with the relief that comes from letting go of hopes and fears, of attachments and the whims of the ego that never stop feeding our inner conflicts.
Benefits of Meditation
If we practise patiently in this way, gradually our distracting thoughts will subside and we will experience a sense of inner peace and relaxation. Our mind will feel lucid and spacious and we will feel refreshed. When the sea is rough, sediment is churned up and the water becomes murky, but when the wind dies down the mud gradually settles and the water becomes clear. In a similar way, when the otherwise incessant flow of our distracting thoughts is calmed through concentrating on the breath, our mind becomes unusually lucid and clear. We should stay with this state of mental calm for a while.
Even though breathing meditation is only a preliminary stage of meditation, it can be quite powerful. We can see from this practice that it is possible to experience inner peace and contentment just by controlling the mind, without having to depend at all upon external conditions.
When the turbulence of distracting thoughts subsides and our mind becomes still, a deep happiness and contentment naturally arises from within. This feeling of contentment and well-being helps us to cope with the busyness and difficulties of daily life. So much of the stress and tension we normally experience comes from our mind, and many of the problems we experience, including ill health, are caused or aggravated by this stress. Just by doing breathing meditation for ten or fifteen minutes each day, we will be able to reduce this stress. We will experience a calm, spacious feeling in the mind, and many of our usual problems will fall away. Difficult situations will become easier to deal with, we will naturally feel warm and well disposed towards other people, and our relationships with others will gradually improve.There are hundreds of different Buddhist meditation techniques, most of which are specific to a particular branch of Buddhism, or even a specific teacher. However, most of these techniques fall into one of three categories:
Some forms of Mediation
There are hundreds of different Buddhist meditation techniques, most of which are specific to a particular branch of Buddhism, or even a specific teacher. However, most of these techniques fall into one of three categories:
Tranquility or Concentration Meditation (Samatha Bhavana) – In this form of meditation, you begin by concentrating on one object of focus, attempting to slow, and eventually quiet, your mind. The most common form of this meditation is focusing on your breath – the sensations associated with your breath moving in and out of your body. Many Buddhist schools use some form of breath meditation as beginning meditation practice, before teaching other forms. In some schools, breath meditation is the only form of meditation taught, and different levels of practice, or dhyanas, are described, progressing from the beginning stages of forced concentration up to a state of pure immersion in equanimity, as the mind stills and relaxes into pure being or awareness. Breath meditation is also often taught for stress management purposes, outside of a Buddhist context.
There are dozens (if not hundreds) of other forms of concentration meditation taught in various Buddhist schools. In the fifth-century Theravadin text the Visuddhimagga, over 40 different objects of focus are described, and the text suggests which types are best for each individual based on certain personality traits. Tibetan Buddhist schools incorporate external objects of focus such as mandalas and mantras, some of which are described later in this article.
Insight meditation (Vipassana Bhavana) – Sometimescalled mindfulness meditation, these forms of meditation are not just about stilling the mind, but about observing it. Although instructions differ by school, the general idea is to note sensations, emotions and thoughts as they arise, but to let them pass through your mind without attaching to them. The goal is to experience direct knowledge of impermanence (anicca). Both moving and sitting forms of Insight meditation are taught.
Lovingkindness meditation (Metta Bhavana) – Also sometimes called compassion meditation, these forms of meditation are sometimes classified as Concentration forms, because they initially involve focusing on sending feelings of compassion or love towards other people and beings. This is usually done in a progressive fashion, starting with directing these thoughts towards yourself, then towards family and friends, and eventually to all beings. This form of meditation is prevalent in Mahayana Buddhist traditions as part of Boddhisattva practice.
Although most meditation forms can be categorized as one of these three, some techniques crossover, and many Buddhist schools teach more than one, or combine them. Some schools require that novices perform preliminary practices, and develop knowledge of fundamental Buddhist principles, prior to learning to meditate, while others do not. Buddhism is usually taught in a teacher-student relationship, so most Buddhist teaching centers have classes specifically on meditation. Although anyone can begin meditating on their own, especially with simple concentration forms such as breath meditation, as a student progresses a teachers guidance is often helpful in helping him or her sort through the various distraction that can arise.
Since Zen and Tibetan Buddhism are so popular in the West, here are some forms of meditation common to them:
Zazen Mediation – This is the Zen term for meditation, and zazen is central to Zen practice, because Zen emphasizes direct realization or satori. There are variations on how zazen is taught, but the two main forms are koan meditation, associated with Rinzai Zen schools, and ‘whole-hearted sitting’ or shikantaza, associated with Soto Zen schools. In koan meditation, a practitioner contemplates a seemingly non-sensical statement or story given to them by their teacher, in order to experience a level of awareness beyond rational or linear knowledge. Shikantaza practice is similar to Insight meditation, with a practitioner attempting to observe and settle into a level of awareness untouched by surface activity and categorizations. One unique mark of zazen in some schools of both branches of Zen is that the eyes are kept open during practice.
Mantra Meditation – Mantras are sacred sounds and words repeated in a chant-like fashion. This form of meditation is common in Tibetan Buddhist schools, but other schools also incorporate it. A common Buddhist mantra is ‘Om Mani Padme Hum’, which cannot be literally translated, but is associated with the Buddha of Compassion, Chenrezig. Here’s an article on more Buddhist mantras.
Mandala or Yantra Meditation – Mandalas and yantras are both forms of religious art that employ sacred geometry to create representations of Buddhas and the states of realization they are associated with. By meditating on them through gentle gazing, a practitioner can merge with this awareness and directly experience these states him- or herself. Here’s an article on Buddhist mandalas.
Chakra Meditation – While chakra meditation is more commonly associated with Hindu-based kundalini yoga, some Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhist schools do have their own related chakra system, and utilize chakra meditation. The goal is to experience and merge with universal energies available through these chakras, transforming mind, body and spirit into a vessel of pure enlightenment. (See this article for more info on chakras in Tibetan Buddhism.)
Guru or Deity Meditation – Also most frequently found in Vajrayana Buddhist schools, guru or deity meditation involves initially visualizing a Buddha or teacher external to oneself, and then imagining oneself as that Buddha or teacher. Like mandala meditation, the purpose of this is to experience the enlightened mind of this teacher or being directly for oneself, through the highest state of meditative dyhana.
When we practise meditation we need to have a comfortable seat and a good posture. The most important feature of the posture is to keep our back straight. To help us do this, if we are sitting on a cushion we make sure that the back of the cushion is slightly higher than the front, inclining our pelvis slightly forward. It is not necessary at first to sit cross-legged, but it is a good idea to become accustomed to sitting in the posture of Buddha Vairochana. If we cannot hold this posture we should sit in one which is as close to this as possible while remaining comfortable.
The seven features of Vairochana’s posture are:
(1) The legs are crossed in the vajra posture. This helps to reduce thoughts and feelings of desirous attachment.
(2) The right hand is placed in the left hand, palms upwards, with the tips of the thumbs slightly raised and gently touching. The hands are held about four fingers’ width below the navel. This helps us to develop good concentration. The right hand symbolizes method and the left hand symbolizes wisdom – the two together symbolize the union of method and wisdom. The two thumbs at the level of the navel symbolize the blazing of inner fire.
(3) The back is straight but not tense. This helps us to develop and maintain a clear mind, and it allows the subtle energy winds to flow freely.
(4) The lips and teeth are held as usual, but the tongue touches against the back of the upper teeth. This prevents excessive salivation while also preventing our mouth from becoming too dry.
(5) The head is tipped a little forward with the chin slightly tucked in so that the eyes are cast down. This helps prevent mental excitement.
(6) The eyes are neither wide open nor completely closed, but remain half open and gaze down along the line of the nose. If the eyes are wide open we are likely to develop mental excitement and if they are closed we are likely to develop mental sinking.
(7) The shoulders are level and the elbows are held slightly away from the sides to let air circulate.