Meditation Series: Technique and Setting

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[Miracles do happen. Here I was, feeling bad because I couldn’t write this post yesterday, as announced… and I end up being freed from my day job with just enough time to do this project some justice. So, on a rare Monday afternoon, we can talk about skillful meditation after all….]

When talking about “skillful” meditation, the following statement may sound a little strange: Technique is beside the point, to the point where it is almost irrelevant.

Why?

Because whatever meditation technique you use — and there are hundreds — the point is to exercise your mind in such a way as to move into and out of focus (or concentration), and then back in, so that, in time, characteristic signs of meditative absorption begin to arise. Only at that point does the word “skillful” come into the picture. Whether you’re chanting a mantra, watching your breath, visualizing a golden eagle on the top of your head, counting beads or saying the names of God… it all leads to the same place. It all leads to a stilling of the thinking processes, a calming of the physical being, and many other meditative states that are increasingly conducive to deepening absorption.

That said, I will talk a little about technique, beginning with the setting within which you may begin to meditate.

Where to meditate?

Everyone is different, so you’ll have to find out for yourself just how much quiet solitude you require, at least during the beginning stages. Early mornings are good for meditation because, not only will you most likely be the only one in the house who is awake, but the whole world is at its calmest. The “vibes” upon just waking are also conducive to skillful meditation, because your head hasn’t had the chance to start spinning its wheels. I would just suggest finding the place in your dwelling (or outside your dwelling) where you feel the most comfortable and at ease, and where you’re least likely to be interrupted. You may want to set up a little altar with spiritual implements that make sense to you, according to the tradition to which you belong, etc. Some find incense to have a calming effect on the physical being, while others find it disturbing. For some, it’s important to be conscious of which direction you’re facing, while for others it makes no difference.

Later on, when you are saturated and suffused with meditative absorption 24/7/365, you’ll be able to meditate in a crowded bus station, or in a football stadium filled with screaming fans. In fact, your whole life will be “meditated,” and you won’t be able to stop it even if you want to. Something to consider….

How to sit?

Again, there are countless postures for meditation. In the East, there is the full, half and quarter “lotus” position, which correspond with the “Indian Style” of crossed-legs with which we’re all familiar. Many Zen practitioners kneel on their knees, with an elevated wood-plank under their rear end. Michael Tamura, who founded the Berkeley Psychic Institute, teaches a form of “running energy” that requires the practitioner to sit in a regular chair, back erect and feet planted firmly on the floor, in such a way that will allow for comfortable sits no matter how long or short.

If you choose to sit cross-legged in any but the “full” lotus, you’ll want some sort of cushioning that will elevate your hips above your knees. Theravada monk Bhante Gunaratana recommends at least three inches elevation. Many yoga stores sell different styles of meditation cushion, and you may want to visit a couple of these establishments in order to test them out. There are hundreds of Tibetan merchandising stores out there these days, and most carry meditation equipment that’s available for testing. Personally, I bought a cheap, oversized pillow at Target, on which I arrange a small bean-filled cushion (handmade by a local artisan) on top of a folded Mexican blanket, which elevates my hips to the desired height. I’ve been using this outfit for over ten years and have been very happy with it.

The “full” lotus is generally recognized as the most stable and effective sitting posture, but for most Westerners (including me), there’s just no way to torture our knee ligaments enough to hold it for the time-lengths required to give rise to meditative absorption. The “full” is so stable that hip elevation is not required, as the posture itself is “locked-in” in such a way as to give excellent spinal support without having to shift around all the time. My sense is that this posture is meant for youngsters, yoga practitioners and yogis who’ve been doing it since they were three years old.

Hands: in the Buddhist tradition, we place our right hand in our left, palms up, and we rest them somewhere on our lap. The image above shows another possibility. My teacher, when his back’s giving him trouble, grabs both knees in order to form a sort of “triangle” that offers added support. Again, it’s whatever makes you most comfortable, so that you don’t have to think about it.

At most Theravada meditation retreats, “walking” meditation is taught and practiced. This is a form of “mindfulness training” that seeks to bring the meditative state away from the cushion and out into the world. It also is conducive to becoming mindful throughout the waking state, which helps us in our sitting practice. Walking meditation is a beautiful thing, but in terms of working with the deeper absorption states, it’s not something I’ll be talking about here.

Finally, there is “shivasana,” or laying-down meditation. While very easy on the body, you can immediately imagine that laying down may lead to falling asleep, so this one may take some getting used to. If you are already activated through meditative absorption, you can do shivasana at midday, when the body most needs to rest, and you can “ride” the absorption all the way through the sitting period, without the mind falling asleep. It’s my habit to do my midday session laying down, and it’s always interesting to observe the body starting to snore at about the half-hour mark — though I am completely awake, experiencing deeper and deeper states of bliss, joy and ecstasy as I go.

A technique.

Probably the most common form of meditation may also be the easiest. It involves watching your breath as it enters and leaves the nostrils, without attempting to control the breath in any way. While it sounds easy and is no problem to engage, it does take some getting used to, and there are dozens of issues that crop up almost immediately — issues that form the subjects of future posts in this forum.

The Buddha was good enough to discuss this technique, called Anapanasati in the Pali, multiple times throughout his recorded discourses. The entire technique is laid out in the Anapanasati Sutta, which is found in Majjhima Nikaya 118. In the section that describes the most effective way to watch the breath, the Buddha goes into some pretty intricate detail, but mainly he’s encouraging his monks to grow their awareness of the mind, body and emotions, even while increasing focus on the object of meditation, the breath. The idea is to “activate” or “sensitize” the entire being through this process, and in this way give rise to the characteristic manifestations of absorption, which are the “jumping off” point into skillful meditation.

So, go read the Anapanasati Sutta — especially the section that gives specific instructions on watching the breath with sensitivity to mind, body and emotions — and find within yourself a commitment to practice for some period of time each day. This could be ten or fifteen minutes first thing in the morning (my recommendation), dedicating yourself to two solid weeks without missing a day, just to show yourself that you can do it. The first few days are always the most challenging, in terms of getting yourself onto the cushion. During your ten or fifteen minutes, begin with a few deep breaths to relax the body. Then just watch your breath, sticking to it as best you can. If and when your mind drifts away from the breath, you’ll catch it at a certain point — don’t be discouraged, but gently return to the breath. When thoughts arise, note them before letting them go, and return to the breath. When pain arises in the body, note it, and gently go back to the breath. During a fifteen minute sit, the pain should never be so great as to dissuade you from remaining still and calm — the pain is a manifestation of ego, and it wants you to race back to your comfort zone, which is typically a zone filled with all kinds of neurosis. These are your fifteen sacred minutes, and your mission is to simply observe what arises in the silence, all the time remembering to return your focus to the breath.

Personally, I’m not big on ritual. My attitude is that this may be my very last meditation session, so I’m going to put myself all the way into it just in case. I’m going to get down to business. I’m going to situate my cushion the way I like it, I’m going to bow to whatever altar is in front of me, I’m going to get into my posture, I’m going to close my eyes while breathing deep… and I’m going to put everything I have into my practice for the next hour, if not longer. I’ve found that this attitude is very good for meditation, since it sets an intention from the outset, and from this intention good things happen every time.

From the beginning, many of you will notice interesting phenomena that are known as “jhana nimittas,” or manifestations of absorption. You may want to review this article to gain an idea as to what that’s all about. Hint: it’s good, it’s desirable, it’s a sign that your being wants to go deeper with this thing called meditation.

In future posts I’ll deal with how to work with the nimittas, but for now it’s good to be sensitive to them. They can be kinesthetic, auditory, olfactory or visual, and they generally are a sign that the transformative energy of meditative absorption is trying to forge a pathway out of the depths and into your consciousness, so that it can engage the work of guiding you Home.

Next post: sleepiness, boredom, wandering-mind — how to use these things to deepen your meditation, how to see these things as guides.

In the meantime, you are to be congratulated for availing yourself of the silence. In your own way, you are contributing to peace on Earth. Someone has to do it, and you’ve chosen to volunteer. I am here to say that you will not regret it.

And please, hit me with any questions you may have, either in comments or through email, which is listed in the “Talk To Me” section at the top of the left sidebar.

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10 thoughts on “Meditation Series: Technique and Setting

  1. Hawk Sr says:

    Okay, Mike. Tomorrow morning early. Breathe. Watch my breath. My altar is in my office — a weather beaten picture of a Nicaraguan boy holding a white dove over the subheading that says in Spanish: “The most beautiful victory will be the war that we avoid.”

    Talk to you tomorrow.

  2. adreampuppet says:

    Go get ’em, Hawk.

    I have a feeling you’re one of those people who, after the dam breaks (i.e., after you’ve meditated the first time or two), it will be as though you’ve been doing it a thousand years.

  3. Hawk Sr says:

    From 5:05 to 5:24 a.m., I did the breathing. Over the years, I have used this technique for relaxation and, if needed, taking a nap in the middle of the day. So my deep relaxation has a tendency to put me to sleep. Thus, your next post will be relevant.

  4. adreampuppet says:

    Three quick responses to your moving toward sleep, Hawk.

    1) It’s okay and natural for sleepiness to assert itself when you’re first beginning to meditate. It makes sense that this would happen, since you’re consciously calming the body, mind and spirit, setting the stage that would normally lead to sleep.

    2) Go ahead and let yourself fall asleep, if that’s what wants to happen. If you end up sleeping through the whole period, so be it. Come back for another session at the appointed time, and start the routine all over again. The effort to follow the breath will eventually become more energized, and you will have no trouble staying awake and clear throughout.

    3) If falling asleep becomes a distraction, try standing up for a minute or two, continuing to watch the breath. Then sit down and let yourself “drop” again. Repeat if needed.

    I Googled around to see what other instructions mention about getting sleepy during meditation, and there’s all kinds of advice out there. I resonate with those who encourage us to be gentle with ourselves, to not pathologize what is actually a very natural thing. The important thing is to avail yourself at regular intervals, to note the (often subtle) changes that happen along the way, and to welcome the inevitable deepening of the experience.

  5. seekingfor says:

    Thanks for the advice. It was really helpfull.

    I’m going to go dig into the Anapanasati Sutta right now.

    A question on the nimittas, i have experianced some very intense ones in the past and was a little shaken by them. Are they the same thing that the Zen tradition refers to as maykyo.

    I look forward to reading the article you suggested.

  6. adreampuppet says:

    Hello seekingfor, and welcome to my blog. Thanks so much for diving into the dialogue.

    You asked: A question on the nimittas, i have experianced some very intense ones in the past and was a little shaken by them. Are they the same thing that the Zen tradition refers to as maykyo.

    The jhana nimittas come in many forms, and I’m not sure exactly how they manifested with you, but I can say that it is a boon for them to have arisen. The reason is, they are there to guide you deeper into the meditative absorption states, known in Pali as the “rupas” (the physical absorption domains) and arupas (the trans-physical states of absorption). When they first begin to arise, you’ll want to remove your attention from the object of your meditation (i.e., the breath), and place it onto whatever nimitta you wish — the ringing in the ear, the spontaneous mudras, the “halo” around your head, etc. Typically, switching attention to a nimitta will cause it to amplify, move about, and ultimately transform as you ascend through the various jhana stages. The Buddha was very explicit in instructing his monks to follow the nimittas, and to allow jhana to pave the way toward Nibanna. Simply thank them from the bottom of your devotional heart, and say, “Please take me, I am ready.”

    Unfortunately, since the time of the Buddha’s physical existence, various Buddhist orthodoxies have followed a commentarial assault on meditative absorption (jhana), as is expressed in the Japanese Zen concept of “makyo,” which can be translated as “ghost cave” or “devil’s cave.” All I can say is, the Buddha himself taught (in the Sutta Pitaka of the Pali Canon, which is the oldest and most direct record of what the Buddha really taught) that a skillfully-led contemplative life is one that is saturated in meditative absorption, such that the ONLY acceptable attachment is to the pursuit and cultivation of jhana. Why? Because it makes everything else along the Noble Eightfold Path automatic; it burns away our resistances and leads to the “joyful way Home.”

    Regarding jhana nimittas, please check out this essay.

    Regarding makyo, here’s another excellent article.

    It is common to experience fear, doubt and self-judgment around the spontaneous arising of charismatic phenomena, known as jhana nimittas. My sincere hope is that you work through any misgivings you may have about them, come to a place where you can embrace them, and allow them to guide you all the way Home in this very lifetime. They are a central pillar in the meditation technology that the Buddha taught, and despite the subsequent subjugation and repression of this aspect of his teaching, we may rely on his words preserved in the Sutta Pitaka as an authoritative encouragement to surrender to the grace that is bestowed on dedicated contemplatives like yourself.

    I hope this helps.

    Oh, and you have a beautiful blog, my friend.

  7. seekingfor says:

    Mike,

    Thank you for the advice and encouragment. I will take your words to heart and study the articles that you reccomend.

    I really appreciate your kind words about the little notebook of a blog that I have going on.

    Namaste

  8. adreampuppet says:

    I noticed that you added me to your blogroll, seekingfor — thanks so much. I just added you to mine.

    Blessings to you on your journey.

    Mike

  9. Sadiq says:

    great! (this blog rocks!)

    i am happy this series is going on. Let me know dear friend when you think the posts have “the zen circle completed”.

    i will ask my visitors to pay respect to this post as well then.

    may the inner peace of Buddha Nature manifest inside of you dear friend.

  10. adreampuppet says:

    Thanks for the kind words, Sadiq. You inspire me to write the next installment in the meditation series. I hope to get time this weekend, though we have company over for the Holidays and I’m finding it difficult to write. We’ll see how things go….

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