Did Ya Mention You Can’t Meditate?
People often say that they can't meditate because their thoughts are too crazy. That’s like saying you can’t learn to ride a bike because you don’t know how to ride a bike. So here’s a really boring guide to getting started.
Why Bother Meditating?
People decide to learn to meditate for several reasons. These reasons can be spiritual, practical or a combination of both. Most people these days are looking for a combination of the two. When we say spiritual, what we are talking about, is having a curious mind. We find ourselves at the heart of something very mysterious that we call life.
To want to know more intimately about our human situation is what we refer to as a spiritual path.
Practical reasons for coming to meditation can include finding a solution for the stress that we encounter in our lives. Stress can be both physical and mental. Many people find it uncomfortable living with a mind that won’t be quiet — a mind that continues to chatter all by itself, often into the late hours. This mind can keep us from sleeping and prevent us from really experiencing our lives on a deep, intimate level.
However you find yourself meditating, the main thing is to relax and try to enjoy yourself as much as possible. Sitting in a group setting is always much easier than sitting alone, and so I recommend that you meditate in a group environment where possible.
Once you find the right path, all you have to do is keep walking
Meditation is a skill. As with any skill, it requires practice. Like learning a musical instrument, there are various stages that we go through. When we first learn the technique, many frustrating hours are necessary to grasp some of the fundamentals and get grounded in the method. Whilst this time is challenging, it is not without its small breakthroughs and rewards.
Next, there comes a period where the technique is refined and becomes sharper. This time can be rewarding (although not always), and the practitioner usually feels benefits.
Finally, there is the stage where, like the musician, you will learn to improvise. After many years of working on techniques, you finally dare to let go of all styles and improvise effortlessly. Whilst this requires no strategy whatsoever, the prerequisite for this is years of formal training for most people. However, some (rare) fortunate individuals can get a taste of this without the years of hard work.
For most of us, though, we need to be patient and progress slowly, becoming well versed in the technique over an extended period. Progress in meditation is not something that you can rush. It will advance itself in its own time, and there is very little you can do about this except apply your discipline to practice the method again and again daily. The more you try to force it, the more you will hinder its development.
In some ways, it is like a tree that grows from a seed. You begin with a seed that you plant, and you have to nurture it every day with water, sunshine and nutrients. You cannot make a tree grow faster by watering it more or feeding it more. If you try, you may destroy it. All you can do is keep nurturing it every day and watch as it grows stronger and stronger.
So despite our human habit of instant gratification, we cannot have that in meditation. The results will bloom in their own time, and that could mean two days or many years. We cannot alter that process. One thing is for sure, however, if we do not water the seed and the tree, it will certainly die, and we will have to start again from the beginning. So we have to keep watering our seed every day without going to any extremes or hoping for instant results.
According to Tibetan Buddhism, our wild thoughts and emotions are stale winds trapped within the body. In addition to this, much of our mental stress begins with physical stress within the body. For this reason, dealing with the body is extremely important in the practice of meditation.
You may come to find that the body can be one of the biggest obstacles to finding peace of mind. So there are two topics regarding the body. Firstly, how do we deal with our bodies during meditation practice? Secondly, how do we nurture our bodies outside of meditation practice?
The Seven-Point Posture of Vairocana
The following seven points on posture refer to someone who is sitting in the traditional cross-legged meditation posture. Suppose you are sitting in a chair or using a meditation stool or alternative posture that is also perfectly okay. Just apply whichever of the points are possible.
The Seven-Point posture
- The legs are crossed
- The hands are folded in the lap
- The back is straight but not tense
- The shoulders are slightly opened
- The chin is slightly tucked in
- The tongue is resting on the roof of the mouth behind the teeth
- The eyes are gazing past the tip of the nose (open or closed)
These seven points are simply a guide. You should be aware of your physical limitations and adjust accordingly. There have been many great meditation masters who could not apply this ideal posture due to their physical conditions. However, if we are reasonably healthy, we should be disciplined enough to practice these postures until we gain some strength in them.
Applying them may mean some uncomfortable times at first. Still, once we get used to sitting correctly and oxygen can flow perfectly around our body, our meditation will feel much more effective. If, however, you cannot apply these points, maintaining a straight back will suffice.
In meditation, we should keep our body very still as this will help the mind become still. We should not tense the body; it should remain relaxed yet still. It is sometimes said that the body’s skeleton is upright, but its flesh is loose. So whilst we hold the body very still, it is relaxed without any tension.
Much of our stress and anxiety is due to the way we look after our bodies. To some degree, if we can take care of our health and engage in some physical exercise and stretching, this will significantly benefit our meditation practice and our general health.
Yoga is the ideal way to keep the body in shape. Tibetan Yoga also deals with the breath in powerful ways. Essentially we should try and maintain a healthy diet as much as possible and exercise regularly. If we can make our lungs strong, this will allow for greater relaxation during the meditation process.
There is no better practice I know for making the lungs strong than Tibetan Yoga.
“Focusing on the outer breath is simply a way of re-discovering our inner breath.”
Working with the breath is essential in meditation. When people first meditate, they are taught how to focus on the breath to calm the body and mind very quickly. When you practice meditation on the breath regularly, the mind can become very relaxed.
At the start of my meditation practice, I do a breath purification exercise which involves taking three deep breaths and breathing out with a loud ‘HA!’ sound, which comes from deep within the belly. In Tibetan Medicine, this HA sound is said to relieve pressure from around the heart. This theory explains why laughter is good for the heart, as this HA sound is really at the core of laughter. Also, when somebody has had a long day and slumps down in their favourite chair when they get home, they make a natural ‘HAAAA’ sound. ‘HA’ is a raw sound we make to relax the heart.
So when we yell HA as we breathe out three times at the beginning of meditation, it relieves pressure around our heart, which helps us relax and clear some of the stale winds from in the body.
On the third HA, we remain on the empty breath in stillness until the body breaths in by itself. We should try not to breathe in prematurely but allow the body to take a breath when it is ready. We should rest our minds in this space on the end of the breath as much as possible. The more we practise this exercise, the more the HA and the opening at the end of the breath become meaningful.
We also focus our gaze on the space before us, allowing the outer space to bring forth the inner space. There are more extensive breath purification practices available. Applying at least some kind of breath practice (pranayama) before you meditate can be very helpful.
“Why try and cover the world in leather when you can just buy yourself some shoes?”
The mind is the endpoint in meditation. The mind is the source of all of our perceived problems, so to tame the mind, it would seem, would be to tame our stress and suffering. We often think that if we can change our external world in this little way or that way, we will be happy. We seem to have been at this for a long time throughout our lives, constantly looking to make this external world fit with our ever-changing needs and wants.
But when we look at our lives, whether we are twenty years old, forty years old or one hundred years old, we will see that our entire lives, our circumstances have gone from good to bad, to good, to bad, back and forth endlessly.
Never have we succeeded in putting an end to the bad. Never have we succeeded in extending the good indefinitely, yet despite this, we still believe that we can achieve this impossible task.
Rumi tells the story of a man sitting on the side of the road eating chillis. He is sweating, and his whole body is burning. Another man asks him why he is eating the chillis. The man tells him that he is waiting for a sweet one.
We are like the man-eating the chillis. If he knew the nature of chillis, he would not keep looking for the sweet one. Perhaps, if we too learn about the nature of this life, we may stop endlessly seeking material satisfaction.
Trying to extend the good and destroy the bad permanently is, according to the Buddha, like trying to cover the world in leather. The Buddha suggested that if we make some shoes (or purchase them), we can protect our own feet, so wherever we walk in the world, it is like that place is covered in leather.
From that perspective, we can see that good and bad events and phenomena have continued to manifest in our whole lives. We can even see those prosperous people who have lives of great luxury are often miserable. This proves that what happens externally cannot be the source of happiness. The Buddha said that everything is fundamentally pure and that both bad and good are ultimately in the mind. This means that rather than trying to purify the world if we can refine our minds, it is as if we have purified the world.
Anyway, purifying the mind may seem like an impossible task right now, but as it is said, every incredible journey begins with a single step. That first single step is learning meditation practice.
Meditation with Effort
So like budding musicians, we have to begin by learning a technique. There are two types of meditation. There is meditation that requires effort and meditation that requires no effort.
If we look at our mind streams right now, for most of us, we will see that there is a raging torrent of thoughts, one after the other, and these thoughts seem so powerful and real that in every moment of every day, we are swept up in the raging river of mind.
We can see that our thoughts go their own way; we do not direct them as we think.
Imagine sitting at your desk at work, and you think, ‘I feel like some chocolate’ then you get up and buy a bar of chocolate from the vending machine. You feel like you made a solid decision to purchase chocolate yourself.
But when that thought arose, ‘I feel like a bar of chocolate’, you did not choose to have that thought. If you had chosen it, your previous thought would have been:
“Now I am going to think: ‘I feel like a bar of chocolate.”
If, however, you did not have this preceding thought, it means that the thought rose by itself from out of nowhere, and as the wave pulled you into the raging mind river, you were swept along by it under the impression that it was ‘your thought’.
Much of our thought happens like this. It simply arises, and we get caught up in it, creating a chain of thoughts based on the first and then carrying out a collection of actions that generate stronger habitual impressions in our mind and body and which are the source of those thoughts in the first place. In other words, the thought is born out of our habits. The thought leads to actions that strengthen those habits, which ultimately lead to more potent thoughts.
This mental cycle is like a whirlwind in which we cannot escape. We wonder why we keep executing the same patterns again and again in our lives. Ultimately, we believe so much that we are in control, but, in reality, we have very little control over our minds.
Our mind is like a crazy minister that is dictating our lives and at the same time convincing us (the true monarchy) that we are the ones making things happen.
The good news is that according to Buddhism, this stage of mind is not necessarily the way things need to be. The Buddha likened this whirlwind state of mind to a mental disease, and in fact, he gave his first teaching in the style of a medical diagnosis for the underlying cause and cure of a disease.
SO the first stage in dealing with our raging inner river is to slow down the flow.
For those seeking respite from the constant flow of thoughts, this practice brings some degree of peace.
For those with the ‘curious’ mind seeking insight into our fundamental human condition, this slowing down of thoughts also allows us to examine our inner world closer without being swept away by the river.
So meditation with effort will help turn our inner river into more of a stream or a brook. Ultimately the flow of thoughts can slow down, and in addition, the gap between thoughts will also open up.
So what is this effort?
This first stage of meditation is entirely about learning to concentrate. The fundamental technique here is to place your mind on a single object and train it to stay there, bringing it back again and again through sustained discipline and practice. This practice is sometimes referred to as Shamatha practice or in Tibetan Shi-ney.
We can use breath as the object in our practice, but any object will do the job — a pebble, sound, body, or picture. We are simply learning to focus the mind single-pointedly on a thing, and the side effect of this is that the thought flow slows down.
The mind in its current state has been likened to an untrained monkey running around the jungle. But as we don’t have monkeys in Australia, I’ll say it is like an untrained puppy dog.
When we train a puppy, we first tell it to sit and stay, but it jumps up immediately and starts running around. It is like this for a while. We can feel like we are getting nowhere, constantly pushing the puppy’s backside down and saying sit, but it never does.
Then, one day something amazing happens. The puppy’s backside stays there for two whole seconds before jumping up again. If you keep going, the puppy will sit for three seconds, then four. The puppy will sit for longer and longer periods until it can sit for a whole minute. Ultimately if you keep going, the puppy, which may now be a fully grown dog, will sit for an indefinite amount of time until told that it can move.
Our mind is like this puppy dog. With consistent but not necessarily forceful training, we can learn to focus the mind in powerful ways. Some effort is necessary for the beginning, but training becomes easier as you go.
In the beginning, we sit and bring our minds back to the object, in this case, the breath. We do this repeatedly. This method will get tedious, but we will soon start to see some results if we persist. The body and mind become more relaxed, we become more effective at whatever we do, and we generally become happier as our thoughts slow down and the gaps between them open up.
Meditation without effort
Once the mind starts to slow, and you look at the mind, you will see that you are not necessarily your thought. There is an awareness that perceives things.
A knife cannot cut itself, no matter how sharp it is. An eye cannot see itself without an external mirror. Think about this.
In the same way, if you can perceive your body, how can the body be you? If you can observe your thoughts, how can they be you? Who is the one that is looking at the body, the thoughts?
In our current state of mind, we identify with the thoughts and the body so much that we don’t have a moment to consider who or what is aware.
This identification with things is known, in Buddhism, as ‘attachment’, ‘grasping’ or ‘clinging’. However, once the mind slows down, this gap begins to open up more and more. As a result, we can nurture this constant and free awareness rather than encouraging our habitual thoughts, which are constantly changing.
For now, this is just food for thought. Someone starting meditation should not focus on this stuff too much. It is better, for now, to give yourself entirely to the practice of nurturing your concentration.
Get in touch with any questions.
Mindfulness in Plain English by Henepola Gunaratana
No Self, No Problem by Anam Thubten
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