I suppose, I should firstly say that we should not be characterising our meditation practice as good and bad, even though comparisons come easy to us. What I am actually talking about here are seven ingredients that will make your practice more productive and make it easier, and more enjoyable, for you to sit down on your meditation cushion.
The first ingredient is effort. Meditation doesn’t come naturally to most people, so we need to make an effort just to start a practice. When we first start meditating we are doing it because we have heard of the benefits; we do not have any personally experience. So, it takes a small amount of faith and belief. But once we have started, this faith and belief is replaced with experience. At this point, meditation starts to get a little bit easier. So, until we reach this point, a lot of effort is required.
In Buddhism, there is a teaching called The Five Hindrances. These are five obstacles we encounter when doing a meditation practice. The first one is desires. This is when our mind is more focused on what we want than on meditation. Every time we single pointedly focus on our practice, this hindrance may pop up and distract us. We get stupefied by these sense objects, and we start to crave them and feel attachment towards them. The antidote to this is to contemplate impermanence.
The second hindrance is ill-will, and it is when we have angry, unkind or destructive thoughts towards someone. It can make you burn inside, and you are unable to concentrate on anything else but your destructive emotions. It is usually driven by resentment, jealousy, pride or anger. The antidote is to reflect on compassion.
The third hindrance is apathy and laziness, this will make our mind numb, so it is virtually impossible for us to concentrate. The first one makes it difficult for you to arouse any interest; the second makes you lethargic and sleepy. They both make it very hard for you to do any practice. The antidote for apathy is to understand the benefits of meditation, and for laziness is to find ways to wake yourself up, such as take a few slow, deep breaths, open a window, splash water on your face and so on.
We start to look for something that will bring us lasting joy. This leads us to meditation.
The fourth hindrance is anxiousness and is when we are feeling tense and irritable. It could be that we are stressed from work or the journey home. You may have money problems, be worried about the future or your mind is just overloaded. This hindrance makes you overexcited and emotionally troubled. You are not able to concentrate on anything for any length of time. Anxiety is base in the past or the future, so the antidote is to do a breathing exercise that will being you back to the present moment.
The fifth hindrance is doubt and is when we have a lack of confidence. It could be we don’t understand what we should be doing, or we don’t trust that it works, or we think we are not doing it correctly. All of these make us wonder if what we are doing is benefiting us. The most simple and effective antidote to clear up doubt is to ask questions, read books or surf the Internet for answers.
So, whenever these hindrances appear, we need to put in a lot of effort and overcome them.
Joy is the second ingredient. Meditation is a spiritual path and often begins when we realise that we have spent our lives trying to buy happiness, and let’s be honest, it hasn’t worked. So, we start to look for something that will bring us lasting joy. This leads us to meditation. We begin to understand that real joy arises from what we do and not what we own. This is because joy is an inner phenomenon and cannot be bought. Outside things may give us short term joy, but they are impermanent and so won’t last. When we understand this, we become contented and grateful, this leads to real joyfulness. We spend more time meditating and less time craving. When we are excited about meditating, and not forcing ourselves to sit down on the meditation cushion, we are using the factor of joy.
We cannot force tranquillity, it arises naturally from effort and joy
Tranquillity is the third ingredient, and this refers to our ability to relax. This is important for any meditator because if we have anxiety about the meditation, it may end up causing us problems, or at the very least, stop us doing our practice. So, tranquillity represents our ability to manage our stress and anxiety.
Tranquillity here means relaxation of both body and mind. While the previous factor is joyous, this factor is more like the contentment and satisfaction of someone who has finished what they had to do and are now resting. We cannot force tranquillity, it arises naturally from effort and joy.
Focus is the fourth ingredient. Here we need to focus all of our mental faculties onto one physical or mental object, such as breath, body sensations, a statue or visualisation of a deity.
It’s a slowing down of our mental activity through single-pointed focus. In this state, all sense of a solid, independent, permanent self disappears, and subject and object are completely absorbed into one.
Focusing is our ability to keep awareness on a single thing, without distraction. When we count our breaths during meditation, that is focus. We are trying to keep our minds on our breathing and stopping them wandering off. When we really strengthen our ability to focus, it gives us real insights into the true nature of our mind.
It is only the tranquil mind that can easily focus on a subject of meditation
The fifth ingredient is investigation. There are two different types of meditation; stabilising and analytical. Stabilising meditation, which seeks to focus one’s attention on a chosen object, such as the breath, mantra/japa or statue. Anapanasati is a form of this meditation. Stabilising can be classed as a mindless meditation, in the sense that it doesn’t use the thinking mind.
Analytical meditation, which is an intense investigation into the nature of reality and into our own mind. Vipassana is a form of this meditation. This intense investigation can improve positive states of mind and overcome the negative attitudes, thoughts and emotions that lead to mental suffering. In analytical meditation, one brings about inner change through systematic investigation and analysis.
We always start our meditation practice with a stabilising practice and then move on to an analytical type meditation.
Equanimity is the sixth ingredient. In the Buddhist sense it is about walking the middle path between the extremes of aversion and desire. In other words, it is not letting your mind be pulled this way and that by what you like and dislike. It is sometimes referred to as an evenness of mind or a non-dual mind.
During meditation, equanimity helps us see phenomena arise and then pass away with a calm and tranquil mind. We don’t see good and bad, like and dislike; we only see non-dual awareness. A thought may arise, you may be distracted by a sound or body sensation, whatever distraction arises, you simply watch it arise and go. This is equanimity.
Do not think equanimity means indifference, it doesn’t. In fact, it is opposite to that and the less we judge, criticise and conceptualise the more compassionate we are.
Equanimity is the neutrality that is born of a tranquil and focused mind
The final ingredient is mindfulness. This can be divided into two parts; mindful meditation and daily mindfulness.
Buddha taught the fourfold foundations of mindfulness, which are meditations on body sensations, feelings, mind and mental objects.
However, what I want to focus on here is daily mindfulness. We may spend one or two hours a day meditating, but if we do not take what we learn on the meditation cushion out into our daily lives, what is the point of meditating? We will just be wasting our time.
Mindfulness needs to become an extension of our meditation practice. This means we will be training our mind throughout our waking hours, and not just on the meditation cushion.
So, what is mindfulness? It is about being fully present in the moment, without any judgement or conceptualisations, and not getting lost in daydreams, indulgences, anxiety or worry. It is simply an awareness of what is going on in that very moment. Not wishing to change the moment or blindly react to it, but to face it and responded in the most helpful, or at least, the less harmful way.
It is an awareness that the moment is simply the moment, not my moment or a good/bad moment, just a moment. When we are being mindful of the breath, for example, it is just breath, not “my” breath, only breath.
I want to finish with this story.
Buddha was once asked by a man, “What form of meditation do your monks use?”
Buddha responded, “We sit. We walk. We eat.”
The man said, “We all sit, walk and eat!”
Buddha replied, “Yes, I know. But when we sit, we are fully aware of sitting. When we walk, we are fully aware of walking. And when we eat, we are fully aware of eating.”
This is mindfulness.
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You say here that “We always start our meditation practice with a stabilising practice and then move on to an analytical type meditation.”
Is that why your guided meditations always begin with deep in-breaths followed by a pause and then a long out-breath? I’ve wondered what the purpose of those exercises was.
Thank you as always, so much.
Yes, that is why I start with three calming breaths.