One last post before getting into the nuts and bolts of meditation.
I want to address a few issues that may prevent a person from starting out in the first place, or that muddy the process of getting started.
There are probably as many answers to this question as there are meditators. Some hear that meditation is good for stress, and their physician/therapist may even prescribe it for a few minutes a day. Some go at it from a spiritual angle, having heard or read that meditation is somehow integral to the gaining of enlightenment. Some are just drawn to it for no explicit reason, and when they finally sit down for their first session, it’s as though they’ve been doing it all their life.
If there’s a common motivation, it may have something to do with a sneaking suspicion we all have that silence is good, that there’s something in the absence of engagement that is beneficial to our wellbeing. Giving ourselves the opportunity to close our eyes, turn our attention inward, and do absolutely nothing — it’s got to be worth something, right? Sleep is good that way, right?
At the most basic level, meditation offers a shift in perspective, away from the rat race of life, toward that which is devoid of all entanglements. Intuitively, we know that there’s something to this offering that we would be wise to accept.
At a deeper (or more advanced) level, meditation opens a whole universe of experience to us. Things happen in the meditation space that we could not even imagine when our minds are wrapped up in the drama. Sights, sounds, tactile sensations, involuntary movements — these are the things that begin to manifest the more we meditate, and these are the things that lead us deeper into what can be described as our “ultimate nature” — beyond the body, beyond physical “reality,” beyond the separateness that results in unhappiness, discontentment, depression, and everything else under the general category of “suffering.”
The Buddha, whose meditation model I’ve adopted (see the previous post), came up with the Four Noble Truths to acknowledge and work with humanity’s perpetual state of suffering. The fourth Noble Truth is simultaneously the Noble Eightfold Path… the eighth of which is Right Absorption (samma-samadhi in the Pali), which is the key to ultimately transcending the state of wretchedness that humans — who are almost always cut off from their Source — typically endure throughout their entire lives.
While traditional Buddhism stresses the need to master each of the first seven elements of the eightfold path before even beginning to think about gaining absorption, the truth is that it works in both directions. It’s important to lay an ethical baseline within which to practice meditation, so it’s imperative that we seek to integrate the Buddha’s instructions found in the first seven of the eight points. Meditative absorption can (and usually does), however, begin to manifest long before such mastery is complete. Why? Because meditative absorption is the transformative energy that literally “burns up” those aspects of our being that prevent mastery of the path. Meditative absorption is also our internal guidance along the path, working in the background to adjust our behavior in ways that clear the path of potential hazzards.
Thus, in answer to the question “Why meditate?”, we can say that if we are serious about transcending our experience of suffering in this world — really healing it, really dealing with it once and for all — we need to activate, cultivate and saturate ourselves in meditative absorption, so that we don’t spend our entire contemplative lives treating meditation as a dreaded chore, but rather something we look forward to throughout each and every day. To activate it, it makes sense that we need to take the time to actually meditate, even if it’s just 15 minutes a day to begin with. Once meditative absorption starts, our heads are then firmly “in the tiger’s mouth,” and there’s no going back. Once we become saturated in meditative absorption, we have gained the greatest Friend we could ever desire — a Friend who will take us all the way Home, no matter how far away we may have drifted.
Who am I to contemplate enlightenment?
This one takes care of itself, and I personally don’t spend a lot of time or emotional energy on it.
“Enlightenment” means different things to different people, and it’s hard to get any of the “authorities” out there to agree on anything. Let them talk past each other — it’s got nothing to do with us, at least in terms of getting started as daily meditators.
For our purposes, however, it’s good to know that the Buddha defined enlightenment in terms of the various stages of meditative absorption (there are eight in all, or possibly nine if you count the ultimate, Nirvana/Nibbana — which means “to burn out” or “extinguish” in Pali). This is what I mean by this idea of enlightenment taking care of itself: if we gain meditative absorption (and we will gain it if we avail ourselves of skillful meditation), and we put the practice of meditation at the center of our daily life (this is a process, no need to throw ourselves into the full practice before we’re ready), tossing in a decent meditation retreat or two every year… we will give to ourselves experiences in the deeper absorption states, where the greatest amount of “burning off” takes place. Then, and only then, will the question of enlightenment have any meaning. Whatever we say beforehand is just a bunch of words, and they’re usually not particularly helpful.
What if I’m too busy to meditate three hours a day?
Yikes! Did he just say “three hours a day?”
But once again, I’m not advocating that the beginner jump right into a three-hour-a-day meditation practice.
For one thing, the beginner usually has not experienced strong signs of meditative absorption — or if she/he has, she/he has not worked with them enough for them to truly bless her or him with a level of saturation that makes meditation a desirable pursuit. The idea is to commit to a short amount of meditation at the beginning, perhaps 10 or 15 minutes first thing in the morning, then gradually work up to longer and more frequent sessions. If there’s a meditation group in your area with which you feel comfortable, it can be helpful to meet weekly to sit in the group, which usually sits for up to an hour. Eventually you’ll want to do a short retreat, perhaps over two or three days, during which you’ll have the chance to sit longer periods of time amongst experienced meditators who can give immediate feedback to your questions and issues.
I will, by the way, address in my next post some typical issues that arise for the beginner.
The point is, in the beginning you’ll want make a small commitment to daily meditation, and you may need someone with whom to discuss the things that confront you in these early sits. My email address is posted in the “Talk To Me” section at the top of the left sidebar, and I would be happy to work with anyone who is serious about getting started in their contemplative practice. My goal is to help everyone who is interested to activate meditative absorption within themselves, so that meditation becomes a joyful experience, which in turn makes it easier to begin arranging our daily schedules around more sitting time (eventually, as I say, a minimum of three one-hour sits each day, with more when we can manage it). It may take a solid period of time to work up to the kind of meditation schedule I’m talking about here. It took me a full year after meeting my teacher to even make the commitment to sit every day for an hour — but once I made that commitment, it only took a month to get to three hour-long sits a day, and I’ve been there ever since.
So what I’m saying is, take it slow for now. Just open to the posts that follow, check in with yourself, and if it makes sense for you at the right moment, we’ll talk about a migration toward the life of an ecstatic contemplative.