This book is meant to serve as an introductory discourse on how to meditate for those with little or no experience in the practise of meditation, as well as those who are experienced in other types of meditation but interested in learning a new meditation technique. In this first chapter, I will explain what meditation is, and how one should go about practising it.
First, it is important to understand that the word “meditation” means different things to different people. For some, meditation simply means the calming of the mind, the creating of a peaceful or pleasurable state as vacation or escape from mundane reality. For others, meditation implies extraordinary experiences, or the creation of mystical, even magical, states of awareness.
In this book I’d like to define meditation based on the meaning of the word itself. The word “meditation” comes from the same linguistic base as the word “medicine”. (1) This is useful in understanding the meaning of meditation since medicine refers to something that is used to cure bodily sickness. As a parallel, we can understand meditation as being used to cure sickness in the mind.
Additionally, we understand that medicine, as opposed to drugs, is not for the purpose of escaping into a temporary state of pleasure or happiness and then fading away, leaving one as sick as before. Medicine is meant to effect a lasting change, bringing the body back to its natural state of health and well-being.
In the same way, the purpose of meditation is not to bring about a temporary state of peace or calm, but rather to return the mind suffering from worries, stresses and artificial conditioning back to a natural state of genuine and lasting peace and well-being.
So when you practise meditation according to this book, please understand that it might not always feel either peaceful or pleasant. Coming to understand and work through deep-rooted states of stress, worry, anger, addiction, etc., can be at times quite an unpleasant process, especially since we spend most of our time avoiding or repressing these negative aspects of our mind.
It might seem at times that meditation doesn’t bring any peace or happiness at all; this is why it must be stressed that meditation isn’t a drug. It isn’t supposed to make you feel happy while you do it and then return to your misery when you are not. Meditation is meant to effect a real change in the way one looks at the world, bringing one’s mind back to its natural state of clarity. It should allow one to attain true and lasting peace and happiness through being better able to deal with the natural difficulties of life.
The basic technique of meditation that we use to facilitate this change is the creation of clear awareness. In meditation, we try to create a clear awareness of every experience as it occurs. Without meditating, we tend to immediately judge and react to our experiences as “good”, “bad”, “me”, “mine”, etc., which in turn gives rise to stress, suffering, and mental sickness. By creating a clear thought about the object, we replace these sort of judgements with a simple recognition of the object as it is.
The creation of clear awareness is effected through the use of an ancient but well-known meditation tool called a “mantra”.
A mantra refers to a word or phrase that is used to focus the mind on an object, most often the divine or the supernatural. Here, however, we use the mantra to focus our attention on ordinary reality, as a clear recognition of our experience as it is, free from projection and judgement. By using a mantra in this way, we will be able to understand the objects of our experience clearly and not become attached or averse to them.
For example, when we move the body we use a mantra to create a clear awareness of the experience using a mantra that captures its essence, as in, “moving”. When we experience a feeling, “feeling”. When we think, “thinking”. When we feel angry, we say in the mind, “angry”. When we feel pain, we likewise remind ourselves silently, “pain”. We pick a word that describes the experience accurately and use that word to acknowledge the experience for what it is, not allowing the arising of a judgement of the object as good, bad, me, mine, etc.
The mantra should not be at the mouth or in the head, but simply a clear awareness of the object for what it is. The word, therefore, should arise in the mind at the same location as the object itself. Which word we choose is not so important, as long as it focuses the mind on the objective nature of the experience.
To simplify the process of recognizing the manifold objects of experience, we traditionally separate experience into four categories. (2) Everything we experience will fit into one of these four categories; they serve as a guide in systematizing our practise, allowing us to quickly recognize what is and what is not real, and identify reality for what it is. It is customary to memorize these four categories before proceeding with the meditation practise:
1. Body – the movements and postures of the body;
2. Feelings – bodily and mental sensations of pain, happiness, calm, etc.;
3. Mind – thoughts that arise in the mind – of the past or future, good or bad;
4. Dhammas – groups of mental and physical phenomena that are of specific interest to the meditator, including the mental states that cloud one’s awareness, the six senses by which one experiences reality, and many others. (3)
These four, the body, the feelings, the thoughts, and the dhammas are the four foundations of the meditation practise. They are what we use to create clear awareness of the present moment.
First, in regards to the body, we try to note every physical experience as it happens. When we stretch our arm, for example, we say silently in the mind, “stretching”. When we flex it, “flexing”. When we sit still we say to ourselves, “sitting”. When we walk, we say to ourselves, “walking”.
Whatever position the body is in we simply recognize that posture for what it is and whatever movement we make we simply recognize its essential nature as well, using the mantra to remind ourselves of the state of the body as it is. In this way, we use our own bodies to create a clear awareness of reality.
Next are the feelings that exist in the body and the mind. When we feel pain, we say to ourselves, “pain”. In this case, we can actually repeat it again and again to ourselves, as “pain … pain … pain”, so that, instead of allowing anger or aversion to arise, we see it merely as a sensation. We learn to see that the pain and our ordinary disliking of it are two different things; that there is really nothing intrinsically “bad” about the pain itself, nor is it intrinsically “ours” since we can’t change or control it.
When we feel happy, we acknowledge it in the same way, reminding ourselves of the true nature of the experience, as “happy, happy, happy”. It is not that we are trying to push away the pleasurable sensation. We are simply insuring that we do not attach to it either, and therefore do not create states of addiction, attachment, or craving for the sensation. As with the pain, we come to see that the happiness and our liking of it are two different things, and there is nothing intrinsically “good” about the happiness. We see that clinging to the happiness does not make it last longer, but leads rather to dissatisfaction and suffering when it is gone.
Likewise, when we feel calm, we say to ourselves, “calm, calm, calm”, clearly seeing and avoiding attachment to peaceful feelings when they arise. In this way, we begin to see that the less attachment we have towards peaceful feelings, the more peaceful we actually become.
The third foundation is our thoughts. When we remember events in the past, whether they bring pleasure or suffering, we say to ourselves, “thinking, thinking”. Instead of giving rise to attachment or aversion, we simply know them for what they are – thoughts. When we plan or speculate about the future, we likewise simply come to be aware of the fact that we are thinking, instead of liking or disliking the content of the thoughts, and thus avoid the fear, worry, or stress that they might bring.
The fourth foundation, the “dhammas”, contains many groupings of mental and physical phenomena. Some of them could be included in the first three foundations, but they are better discussed in their respective groups for ease of acknowledgement. The first group of dhammas is the five hindrances to mental clarity. These are the states that obstruct one’s practise: desire, aversion, laziness, distraction, and doubt. They are not only hindrances to attaining clarity of mind, they are also the cause for all suffering and stress in our lives. It is in our best interests to work intently to understand and discard them from our minds, as this is, after all, the true purpose of meditation.
So when we feel desire, when we want something we don’t have, or are attached to something we do, we simply acknowledge the wanting or the liking for what it is, rather than erroneously translating desire into need. We remind ourselves of the emotion for what it is, thus: “wanting, wanting”, “liking, liking”. We come to see that desire and attachment are stressful and causes for future disappointment when we cannot obtain the things we want or lose the things we like.
When we feel angry, upset by mental or physical experiences that have arisen, or disappointed by those that have not, we recognize this as “angry, angry” or “disliking, disliking”. When we are sad, frustrated, bored, scared, depressed, etc., we likewise recognize each emotion for what it is, “sad, sad”, “frustrated, frustrated”, etc., and see clearly how we are causing suffering and stress for ourselves by encouraging these negative emotional states. Once we see the negative results of anger, we will naturally incline away from it in the future.
When we feel lazy, we say to ourselves, “lazy, lazy” or “tired, tired”, and we will find that we are able to regain our natural energy in this way. When we are distracted, worried or stressed, we can say, “distracted, distracted”, “worried, worried”, or “stressed, stressed” and we will find that we are more focused. When we feel doubt or are confused about what to do, we can say to ourselves “doubting, doubting” or “confused, confused”, and likewise we will find that we are more sure of ourselves as a result.
The clear awareness of these four foundations constitutes the basic technique of meditation practise as explained in the following chapters. It is therefore important to understand this theoretical framework before beginning to undertake the practise of meditation. Understanding and appreciating the importance of creating a clear awareness about the objects of our experience as a replacement to our judgemental thoughts is the first step in learning how to meditate.
(1) According to etymonline.com, both words come “from PIE base *med- ‘to measure, limit, consider, advise’”.
(2) These four categories are called the “four foundations of mindfulness” in Buddhism, and are explained in greater detail in Buddhist texts. For the purpose of this introductory treatise, however, a simple understanding of the outline is enough.
(3) The word “dhamma” is best translated in this context as “teachings”, since it encompasses many groups of teachings or “dhammas” of the Buddha. In this short treatise, however, the focus is on the basics of meditation, and so I will limit the discussion to the first set, the mental hindrances.