Exploring meditation in practice
In this section we will explore a meditation technique. This technique is plenty enough to take you a long way into the heart of the meditation experience.
This and other techniques may be capable not just of gathering your attention, integrating your energies, and clearing your mind, but also of taking you beyond its own framework to the unbounded, expansive states of awareness, known as self transcendence, that lie behind meditation technique.
It is important therefore, whilst taking the specific aims of the meditation techniques seriously, to remember that they are ultimately pointing to awareness beyond isolated frameworks, thought constructs, aims and ideals. The Buddha taught many types of meditation to many types of people, so that each would be guided from where they are towards this ‘letting go’, a release to reveal the real nature of this experience beyond the ‘veil of grasping’.
Let’s start by taking a more detailed look at posture (asana) and its importance in meditation practice.
The Buddha taught that the state of meditation can be practiced while standing, sitting, laying down or walking, but for our purposes we are only going to look at sitting, as laying down may cause associations with slumber, we may not have the space for walking, and standing is likely to leave us tired and unable to ‘loosen the mind’.
The Buddha listed the mediation positions above in the Satipatthana sutta, or foundations of/attendance on mindfulness/recollection (Sanskrit- smrti). The list in fact includes mindfulness in every possible circumstance of human activity. The Buddha is most frequently heard advising others to, or going himself to, sit at the root of a tree, or to go into ‘the forest’ or an ‘empty hut’, to sit down, fold ones legs crosswise, set the body erect, and ‘set mindfulness up in front of oneself.’
Indeed one of the earliest ‘yogic’ images there is, is that of a man in lotus position (on a 5000 year old coin), this is the ‘ideal’ posture for meditation, as it: settles the limbs; releases the hips; and frees the spine, by elongating the psoas muscle. It also promotes a free flow of balanced energy around the body.
‘Ideal’ however is not always the best. In the West, particularly in the Northern hemisphere, people tend to spend much of their day to day life sitting on chairs high off the ground, whereas in the East, low seats and various crossed legged postures have been more widely favoured. No doubt these differences in culture are due to many factors, and the climate has to be one of them, after all who wants to sit on a cold wet floor?
The chair sitting method creates considerably less movement in the hips, and is more likely to cause slumping and the muscular atrophy that follows, specifically in the erector spinae group on the back of the body. For this reason, although many will find classical postures for sitting in meditation comfortable, there will be just as many for whom they are anything but.
Sitting in tension with tired aching limbs might be akin to the stoic practices of the Greeks and their more austere Indian counterparts, but for the insightful meditator such practices have as much to do with meditative awareness as fighting a war! One should therefore find a comfortable position to sit in.
Of course those who already have a regular yoga asana practice will find they have a good starting point to sit comfortably for longer periods of time. There are some in the Hatha yoga movement who say that the Hatha yoga practice (originally cleansing practices ‘shatkarmas’ -six actions, and then later including asana) was developed for this aim alone. This assertion, though, somewhat undermines, meditation in asana and asana in meditation.
Here, then, is a list of do’s and don’ts when selecting your seated position for meditation, whether you are in a chair or in one of the various cross-legged, or kneeling variations of floor sitting.
- The knees should not be higher than the hips (the lift underneath you can be raised to bring the knees down, the knees can be supported or a kneeling variation can be taken)
- Use a cushion or seat that is firm but not too hard. (Too soft and your back may sag and start to ache, too hard and you may cause numbness due to poor circulation)
- Position the pelvis upright (the seat or cushion can be raised or slightly tipped forwards, and the buttock flesh can be drawn out and back to accomplish this)
- Have a soft base for the whole posture, but not unstable (not a bed or a hard floor)
- Keep the hips warm ( a blanket around the waist can help)
- Be warm generally but not to the point of making yourself sleepy.
- A time or space (or both!) where you will not be disturbed (turn mobiles to silent!)
The mindfulness-of-breathing is an excellent place to start ones exploration of meditation.
This technique has been a consistent feature of the meditation landscape for thousands of years, and remains a prominent feature for meditators from many different denominations.
We will look briefly at some of the different ways in which this practice has been approached, but first a short synopsis of why the breath is such a useful point of engagement for the mediator.
- The breath is simple
- The breath is tangible
- The breath is subtle
- The breath takes care of itself
- The breath has a rich character
- The breath is directly connected to the nervous system
- The breath can be perceived by the body, ears and mind
- The breath is ungraspable
- The breath is tranquilising
- The breath is always present
The breath is always there. It is a continuum, but not an exactly repeating loop. Consequently it works perfectly as a field in which to develop ‘light easy’ concentration. It also provides an easy back drop for spaciously noticing everything that is not the breath.
In this way it is an excellent tool for developing insight (vipassana) or direct seeing into the way things are, as when observing the impermanent nature of these ‘distractions’ and the constant flowing nature of thoughts, sensations and emotions. This seeing of the impermanent, and yet causally linked, nature of our experience, funds a letting go of ‘being’; releasing the sense that these ‘things’ that arise and pass in awareness are somehow the identity of something that we call ‘me’. This letting go allows us to be less attached to the conditioned fluctuations of the mind, and the breath becomes a more natural object to settle on, in the breath there is a sense of continuity without any ‘thing’ to identify with.
In this way, awareness may become as subtle and organic as the breath, and as it becomes increasingly fluid it starts to feel the pull of even more subtle sensations that it was previously unable to feel. These subtle sensations give way to even more subtle sensations until the breath itself starts to feel like a gross occurrence somewhere on the distant outer layer of our awareness, and eventually the mind will dwell in pure awareness itself, which has no name, identity, label or limitation. This is variously known as emptiness, Buddha-mind, blue-sky mind, the seat of the self, and so on. Of course once you start to name it or rather try to posses it through naming and defining, then you lose connection, as concepts are far grosser than the experience that they are trying to describe.
A practice in Mindfulness of breathing
As there are several different ways to approach this practice we will approach it in a rudimentary form.
- Sitting yourself in a comfortable position (use check list above), sit your spine upright, staking the bones naturally and comfortably on top of each other.
- Allow a lightness to lift the spine and allow easy release in the legs so that the spine has a sense of ‘roots from which to grow’ (there is often a direct correlation between the legs releasing and the spine ascending.)
- Place your hands one on top the other (right resting in left with thumb tips lightly touching) on your lap or tucked into a blanket for support, so that here is no pull on the shoulders. Sit up light and buoyant.
- Balance your head lightly on your neck.
- Close your eyes (or keep them half open)
- Scan through your body recognising tension and relaxing about it. This way tensions which are the result of habitual gripping, the modus operandi of the nervous system, will naturally release. (Return to this stage at any point if your concentration becomes hard to maintain, it will be easier to return to the breath if the body is relaxed).
- Feeling a sense of your whole body, allow the physical sensations that arise from the natural movements of the breath. This is a good way to start as we are not looking directly at the breath which can make it act up.
- Continue in this way and eventually your breath and awareness will get used to each other.
- As with any relationship move closer to your breath naturally, with love and trust.
- Relax and let your mind move with the breath like a blade of grass in the wind.
- Continue in this way, enjoying this relaxed relationship, and creating space around ‘distractions’. Allow your mind to lose itself in the breath.
- As the mind relaxes in this way it will naturally become more subtle and joyful.
- Allow this subtle attention to move to where the breath is felt most subtly (around the nose)
- Explore this subtle, explorative interest in the breath.
Note -you may find your consciousness moving in and out between formless and formed states of mind, that correspond to the terms with and without seed (sabija, nirbija). This can be deepened by such reflections as ‘space is infinite’, ‘consciousness is infinite’, though these kinds of reflections should be dropped-in without pressure of force but with full attention. These states are sometimes known as jhanas (dhyanas in Sanskrit); they are tremendously refreshing, cleansing, healing states of mind, the experience of which will radically change your life by making it more rich and vital. These jhanas do not lead to complete liberation however, this must be done in tandem with them and the cultivation of wisdom, itself attainable through daily mindfulness (relaxed attention) of ‘the way things are’.
- When the time feels right towards the end of one’s allocated time for the practice, gradually allow yourself to draw outwards again by bringing a broader awareness to the breath in its wider physical context.
- Expanding to the body sensations, softly allow light and colour back into your eyes.
- When ready, gently stretch out your limbs. Do not rush straight back into business. Spend a while gathering yourself; you could stare out of a window, sip a cup of tea, or something similar to bring yourself round slowly.
The two words in the subtitle above could be seen as interchangeable. As we practice meditation, it is likely that we will experience other stuff apart from our meditation object. This other stuff is sometimes categorised as hindrances: sloth and torpor/dullness and lethargy; restlessness and anxiety/agitation and remorse; ill-will and aversion/avarice and repulsion; craving and lust/hankering and greed; doubt and mistrust/ uncertainty and fear.
These hindrances can arise as
- Simple playbacks from your day
- Misunderstanding of the purpose of your practice (trying too hard can cause any of the above five)
- Not preparing yourself properly beforehand. Maybe you just haven’t had enough sleep, or maybe you are really hungry, or perhaps you should have paid that bill if the bailiffs are about to knock!
One of the best ways to deal with these hindrances is to welcome them! You can see them as opportunities to practice ‘recognition and relaxation’ and feel how you can release back to the breath through this non-violent approach.
Recognition is often difficult because of a lack in adequate or appropriate terms. The satipatthana sutta has simple categories that one can fit just about any possible conditioned experience into. For instance it says ‘here a bhikkhu understands mind affected by lust as mind affected by lust or mind unaffected by lust as mind unaffected by lust’, and so on for mind affected by hate...mind affected by delusion. He understands contracted mind as contracted mind and un-contracted mind as un-contracted mind and so on for exalted mind, surpassed mind, and concentrated mind, culminating with liberated mind and un-liberated mind. The equanimous attitude to all these states alike is made clear through part of the introduction to the text, which reads, ‘putting away covetousness and grief for the world’ and by part of what follows each section of the sutta, which reads ‘he abides independent, not clinging to anything in the world, that is how a bhikkhu contemplates mind as mind’
It is this attitude of relaxed attention (not clinging to anything in the world) that allows the mind to directly perceive the changing nature of moods, thoughts, feelings; which in turn triggers this ‘letting go’, this sense of recognising the non-personal nature of our conditioned life (the life of thoughts, feelings, moods, etc.). It is how hindrances turn into guides. The challenge then is not to successfully think of ‘not clinging to anything in the world’ but to manifest that as an experience. Words like: Embrace! Let go! Allow! Laughter; Non-violence; Joy; and Good humour, all point to this kind of experience. In this way, the awakened mind is said to transform poison into food and is compared in the text The Wheel of Sharp Weapons to a peacock who eats poisonous plants for its nutrition.
Other methods for practicing anapanasati
In the anapanasati sutta the Buddha describes the practice of mindfulness of breathing quite spaciously:
"Now how is mindfulness of in-&-out breathing developed & pursued so as to be of great fruit, of great benefit?”
"There is the case where a monk, having gone to the wilderness, to the shade of a tree, or to an empty building, sits down folding his legs crosswise, holding his body erect, and setting mindfulness to the fore. Always mindful, he breathes in; mindful he breathes out’’
The simple format describes being aware when the breath is long or short, being aware of the whole body and being aware of calming (samatha) the bodily formations. There is talk of satisfying, steadying and releasing the mind and being aware when there is rapture and pleasure; there is also awareness of the impermanent nature of phenomenon. It is worth remembering, however, that these techniques are just pointers, and that the satipatthana later re-states that it is also fine just to be aware in a very simple way ‘’or else mindfulness that there is a body is established’’
Some 913 years after the Buddha’s death Acariya Buddhagosha describes a system of ‘tagging’ the breath with a number, in order to ‘steady the mind’ if ‘it is in a swift current’. The system he wrote down in 430 CE is simple. To give the breath more gravity so it has a chance of being noticed among ‘all the other stuff’, one tags it with a count (say up to ten). This is first done after each breath cycle, or late. Acariya Buddhagosha illustrates this by someone counting handfuls of grain from one bag to another as each handful is released one counts ‘1’, ‘2’...etc. This is done for the first few minutes of the practice (say ten for instance); then, as a way of shifting the mind so that it becomes neither mechanistic or lethargic, the count is swapped to the beginning of the breath, i.e., just as the breath is about to come in. Counting early in this way is compared to ‘a skilled cowherd counting each cow as it reaches the gate of its pen on its way out after a cramped night touching it with his stick just as it is about to pass through the gate and dropping a pebble into bag and counting ‘1’. The number of counts is arbitrary (although in some versions it is emphasised that one should not stop short of five or it will cause mental agitation just like a herd of cows shut up in a cow pen, and one should not go past ten or else the mind will start thinking about the counting more than the breath), the point of the practice is not to improve one’s counting skills! After spending a similar time on both counting placements, one is encouraged to drop the counting and ‘pursue the breath’.
The time on these first two counting phases should constitute roughly one quarter of your practice time, after this one proceeds as in the first method described above.
Other tags can also be used, such as placing two syllable mantras onto the breaths natural rhythm, mantras such as bud-ho for instance. The well known and respected Theravada monk the Venerable Ajahn Sumedho has even spoken of using the mantra ‘let go!’
Hopefully from this information you will have understood enough of the flavour of meditation practice to get one going, it’s an incredible gift and has an amazing overall effect on one’s life, even if you practice only 10 or 15 minutes a day!
There are many other practices apart from anapanasati, but some of the principles described here can be applied with equal success to other practices too.