What is Meditation?
Meditation is a way to make the mind more stable and clear. From this point of view, meditation is a practice that anyone can do. It doesn’t tie in with a particular spiritual tradition. If we want to undo confusion, we’re going to have to be responsible for learning what our own mind is and how it works, no matter what beliefs we hold.
Meditation practice predates all of the world religions. It has lasted through the centuries because it is direct, potent, and effective.
The word for meditation in Sanskrit is “shamatha” which means ³peacefully abiding.² Peacefully abiding describes the mind as it naturally is. The word “peace” tells the whole story. This doesn¹t mean that we¹re peacefully ignoring things. It means that the mind is able to be present, without constantly leaving.
In meditation, what we¹re doing is looking at our experience and at the world intelligently. We can use the natural clarity of our mind to focus on anything we want. But first we have to tame our minds through shamatha meditation.
Meditation is based on the premise that the natural state of the mind is calm and clear. It provides a way to train our mind to settle into this state. Our first reason for meditating might be that we want some freedom from our agitated mind.
We want to discover the basic goodness of our natural mind. To do this requires us first to slow down and experience our mind as it is. The untrained mind is like a wild horse. It runs away when we try to find it, shies when we try to approach it. Meditation is a way to slow down and see how our mind works.
The trained mind is strong, flexible, and workable. Because it can stretch beyond where it feels comfortable, it¹s responsive‹not reactive‹to challenges. Through shamatha we can train our mind to be flexible and tuned in to what¹s happening now. We can apply this workable mind in all aspects of our lives.
How to Get Started
One of the simple things that we can do is to create a good environment for practice‹a place that is comfortable, quiet, and clean. A corner of your room that feels uplifted and spacious and private is a good enough place.
Planning is another element. It¹s better not to just sit down and hope for the best. If you¹re agitated, a slow walk might be in order. If you¹re drowsy, a cool shower before beginning the session might help. It can be inspiring to read a little about meditation first as a reminder of why you¹re practicing. Working with ourselves in ways like this is intelligent and honest and can create the proper mind and body for good practice.
Technique of Meditation
When you sit down, take a balanced, grounded posture to allow the energy in the centre of your body to move freely. If you¹re on a cushion, sit with your legs loosely crossed. If you¹re in a chair, keep your legs uncrossed and your feet flat on the floor. Imagine that a string attached to the top of your head is pulling you upright. Let your body settle around your erect spine.
Place your hands on your thighs, in a place not so far forward that it begins to pull your shoulders down, nor so far back that the shoulders contract and pinch the spine. The fingers are close and relaxed‹not spread out in a grip, as if you can¹t let yourself go. Tuck your chin in and relax your jaw. The tongue is also relaxed, resting against your upper teeth. Your mouth is ever so slightly open. Your gaze is downward, with the eyelids almost half shut. The eyes aren¹t looking; the eyes just see. It is the same with sound, we aren¹t listening, but we do hear. In other words, we¹re not focusing with our senses.
The basic technique is that we begin to notice our breath. Using the breathing as the object of meditation is especially good for calming a busy mind. The steady flow of the breath soothes the mind and allows for
steadiness and relaxation. This is ordinary breathing; nothing is exaggerated. One simple technique is to count the in-and out-cycles of breathing from one to twenty-one. We breathe in, and then out‹one. In and
then out‹two. Place your mind on the breathing and count each cycle of breath. You can drop the counting when your mind is settled.
As you focus on the breath, you¹ll notice that various thoughts and emotions arise. When this happens, acknowledge that you are thinking and return your focus to the breath. You are centering yourself in your mind and placing that mind on the breath. When you first begin to meditate, the movement of
thoughts may feel like a rushing waterfall. But as you continue to apply the technique of recognizing thoughts and returning your focus to the breath, the torrent slows down to a river, then to a meandering stream, which eventually flows into a deep, calm ocean.
Gathering the Mind
The practice of mindfulness is the practice of being alive. When we talk about the techniques of meditation, these are techniques of life. Meditation is not about something that is separate from us. We are not trying to get into some kind of higher state of mind. The present situation is completely available, spontaneous and unbiased, and that we can see it that way through the practice of mindfulness.
When we begin to meditate, the first thing we realize is how wild things are-how wild our mind is, how wild our life is. But once we begin to have the quality of being tamed, when we can sit with ourselves, we realize there¹s a vast wealth of possibility that lies in front of us. Discovering that richness is a moment-to-moment process, and as we continue to practice our awareness becomes sharper and sharper.
This mindfulness actually envelopes our whole life. It is the best way to appreciate our world, to appreciate the sacredness of everything. We add mindfulness and all of a sudden, the whole situation becomes alive. This practice soaks into everything that we do; there¹s nothing left out. Mindfulness pervades sound and space. It is a complete experience.
Happiness and Compassion
For the movement of the mind to slow down like this takes long, consistent practice. A good practice is one that we keep doing ten minutes a day, year after year. Through ups and through downs, slowly we become familiar with the natural stability, strength, and clarity of the mind. We begin to let this natural state of basic goodness infuse our entire life. Having a mind that is at peace with itself, a mind that is clear and joyous, is the basis of happiness and compassion.
If meditation becomes part of your life, please consider seeking further instruction from an experienced meditator. It might also be helpful to become part of a community of practitioners.