[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.
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.
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.