Cultivate Joy, It's Easy
According to Mattieu Ricard, The Art of Meditation:
Quotations from Matthieu Ricard. The Art of Meditation. appear in the above Daily Mail article of Nov. 1st, 2012.
Meditation is an essential part of all forms of Buddhism, but you do not need to be a Buddhist to benefit from it. It is not just an interval of peaceful relaxation in our hectic existence, but its purpose is to develop awareness, self-knowledge and eventually, Awakening (usually called Enlightenment.)
Therefore, H. H. the 17th Gyalwa Karmapa teaches (Bodhgaya, Dec. 2001:)
Nevertheless, as Khenpo Karthar says:
it will take some practice to recognize and then resolve the two. HH Karmapa says (Music in the Sky) that, via the practice of meditation,
Ven. Thrangu Rinpoche on meditation.
Khyabje Dudjom Lingpa on Meditation (July 1998, Tara Carreon's notes on Gyatrul Rinpoche as translated by Alan Wallace.)
As taught in the Tibetan tradition, meditation has two stages. The first is called in Sanskrit, shamata or in Tibetan, shinay. Shiné or shinay means restful or relaxed or "tranquility meditation" -- "resting in naturalness," "calm abiding."
The second is vipashyana [Pali: vipassana] which is lhatong in Tibetan. Lhatong is usually referred to as "Emptiness meditation," "insight meditation" or "analytical meditation." Generally the first kind is learned before the student is taught the second.
Progress in meditation is thought of as taming the mind.
Buddhist meditation can be quite distinct from any activity by that name as found in other contexts. Also, there are a wide variety of different approaches and techniques within Buddhism. In some schools, the preparation, posture and correct technique are of primary importance. In others, an unrestrained internal flow of thought is encouraged.
There was surprise, even shock, when some Westerners were told that the shrine room is not an appropriate place for groups to meet to practice meditation.
Meditation is not merely relaxation or sitting still, nor does it necessarily focus on the breath or on the repetition of a certain syllable or phrase. Certainly, the rigorous Zen form of sitting [zazen] is not the only Buddhist meditation technique. Its ultimate objective is the same as that of any other Buddhist method.
For Buddhists, meditation works to end suffering. We "sit" in order to solve the problem of suffering that is inherent in cyclical existence or samsara -- the first Truth. It is an essential principle of Buddhism that we are not be expected to accept the words of scripture (either as recorded in the sutras or in the oral tradition) without testing them. To do that, we have to examine our own natures before we can effect any change.
At first, we may begin to meditate in pursuit of personal goals -- to relax, to become less stressed out, or to cultivate "spirituality." The world as we know it -- called in the language of philosophy the phenomenal world -- depends on our minds in order to exist. What would the world be like with no receivers of impressions to process information, and with no minds to interpret those impressions?
There would be no sounds. Vibration? Maybe. But also, there would be neither noise, nor music nor language. Similarly for the other sense impressions.
Also there would be no concepts by which people, and other beings, organize the jumble of matter/energy radiation into what we perceive -- the world.
Once we learn to apprehend or grasp the world with our minds, how to "see" the world, we almost all learn the attitude, which is really not true, that this world causes things to happen to us. We experience suffering partly because we have these attitudes.
The world and the situation that inspires aversion or attraction is called samsara. It is a projection of our confused mind with its habitual tendency to interpret according to culture, past experience and expectations.
So the first step is to calm the mind and make it stable. This will be a gradual process because the confusion itself did not arise all at once. However, we are not trying to stop thoughts from arising altogether:
Most teachers, including the late Chogyam Trungpa (The Path is the Goal: A Basic Handbook of Buddhist Meditation,) say that the method is not as important as just doing it.
Bardor Tulku Rinpoche says "Do your practice without hope and without fear." That is, without concern for attainment or worry that you may not be achieving.
How to Meditate
The ideal position is the 7-point posture ("of Vairochana.")
It is also possible to sit upright in a chair with your feet comfortably apart and planted firmly. (This is the posture of the Future Buddha Maitreya.) All these positions afford stability for long periods of "sitting."
You could meditate lying down (the water buffalo position) but that tends to lead to sleep which is not a desirable goal since we want to remain alert.
4. The eyes are open but downcast, focused about 4 hand-breadths away from the feet (or lap, if you are on a chair.) We live in the world and most of us cannot shut it out completely; we also can use the bit of visual stimulus to prevent drowsiness, and to assist with attention or mental focus.
Now, watch your mind. Let the thoughts arise spontaneously and let them go. See if you can catch a glimpse of the space between your thoughts.
The lower body should be grounded, stable, "heavy," but the upper body should feel light, loose and relaxed.
The Kagyu Mahamudra tradition (see Thrangu Rinpoche's Oct. 2000) teaches that we should not worry about what comes up in our mind nor how fast or slow it seems to be working.
Elephants, Oxen and Monkeys
It seems that the stiller the body, the more active the mind. It may even behave in a highly erratic fashion. It has been compared to a stubborn ox, a drunken monkey or an elephant in the state of masth.
Gently or Firmly?
Generally, we find that the mind is full of neurotic, even obsessive, thoughts. This is especially true if we have problems in our daily lives. Your mind and its memories may seem as if it is purposely trying to distract you from your goal. Songs and lyrics may intrude; all sorts of physical sensations tend to demand attention. (That's why it is a good idea to use the toilet before "sitting.")
In the shamata [Tibetan: shinay ] tradition, we deal with very uncomfortable physical sensations by adjusting the body. If you feel itchy, scratch; if a joint hurts too much, shift your position. If you need to cough, do so. Perhaps you can try gradually to overcome these sensations with patience and practice over a few sessions.
Just sitting still is not meditation (although it constitutes a preparation.)
Attention and alertness are required. Don't just "zone out."
Following the Breath
Sometimes we need a support for our practice -- for meditation or for any of the other techniques such as visualization.
Traleg Rinpoche says that it is important ". . . to find comfort being able to be in oneself, with oneself. Normally what do we do? We look for comfort elsewhere, through somebody or something else! Our arrogance, our egocentricity, our selfishness, all of that is based on what we have, what we think we have, but never on what we really are."
He, like all other Kagyu teachers, whose learning comes from the Buddha as confirmed by means of personal experience, says we can find our true nature -- our Buddha Nature -- through meditation.
Vipassana [Pali pron.]
Getting into the nature of the thoughts is the second kind of Buddhist meditation called Emptiness meditation or in Sanskrit, vipashyana.
When thoughts arise, as they always do, recognize them for what they are -- they are not your mind, but only products of it. The mind, as you probably know already, is quite able to play tricks on us. It often creates illusions, sometimes of things that have very little foundation. Think of the cinematic experience, for example, in which a series of still images seem to possess movement - - when we seek out that as entertainment, we say we are "going to the movies." Think of a magician's performance. In the traditional description, a rope becomes a snake.
Getting Past the Monkey
The most usual way to calm the mind and quiet the monkey or get around it, is to follow the breath. The breath is considered sacred, in the yogic tradition generally. It is the essence of life, among other things. But it also can provide a powerful a focus for the mind. When you find that you are paying attention or are absorbed in a thought, direct yourself to your breathing: Now I am breathing out, now I am breathing in. Follow the breath. Do not alter your normal, relaxed breathing, though. This may take a little practice.
Ven. Traleg Rinpoche, one of Karmapa's teachers, again:
In some traditions, a chant or mantra is used. But when there is singing or mumbling going on, it increases sensory input among other things, and even done silently, it requires some attention and serves to add a sound-memory to the breath, and that can unduly complicate the process of simple, relaxed meditation.
A technique from a tradition in which the eyes are closed during meditation, is to search for "the bright light" in the mind. But this may create worry in people who have difficulty finding that particular sensation. Therefore, following the breath is a good option.
We have seen that the Tibetan tradition uses images of taming the wild elephant, while the Zen tradition has a series of ox-herding pictures to illustrate progress in meditation.
Thich Nath Hanh (Venerable Guru/Lama Hanh) said that learning to meditate is like walking across a field of tall grass. The first few times, it is difficult ~ there is no path, but after we have passed through a few times, the way is clear and the going is easy.
"Last October, when this column excerpted a book I co-wrote, The Mind and the
Brain, many readers asked whether the kinds of alterations in brain wiring described there could be induced by meditation. Practicing the violin, for instance, or
exercising a stroke-impaired arm both alter connections among brain neurons, producing exceptional musical skill or a return
of mobility. But no one had systematically examined whether meditation can kick-start such "neuroplastic" changes.
Early research suggests that daily meditation can alter the physical structure of the brain and may even slow brain deterioration related to aging.
The study showed that parts of the brain known as the cerebral cortex were thicker in 20 people who meditated for as little as 40 minutes a day, compared with 15 people who did not meditate.
The region plays a critical role in decision making, working memory, and brain-body interactions, researcher Sara Lazar, PhD, tells WebMD.
Lazar is a research scientist at Harvard Medical School's Massachusetts General Hospital. She presented the study at Neuroscience 2005, the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience. It also appears in the latest issue of the journal NeuroReport.
The findings are not the first to suggest that meditation can change the way the brain works and that this change can be measured through brain imaging. Recent studies involving Buddhist monks in Tibet suggest that meditation alters key electrical impulses within the brain.
But the monks in the study had devoted their lives to the practice of meditation. The 20 people who meditated in the latest research did so for an average of about six hours a week, with some meditating for as little as four hours weekly.
"Our findings provide the first evidence that alterations in brain structure are associated with Western-style meditation practice, possibly reflecting increased use of specific brain regions," Lazar says.
Specifically, brain regions associated with attention, sensory processing, and sensitivity to stimulation originating within the body were thicker in the meditators. There was also some suggestion that meditation may protect against age-related thinning of this specific region of the brain.
"We are talking about a small but important region involved in working memory, which has been shown to decrease rapidly during aging," Lazar says.
Dalai Lama Weighs In
The study is one of several exploring the potential impact of meditation on the brain presented at the Society for Neuroscience meeting. The topic was widely covered by the media, thanks to the presence of the Dalai Lama at the meeting.
In a speech to the group on Saturday, the Tibetan spiritual and political leader told the gathered neuroscientists that they should increase their efforts to understand how meditation and similar practices affect brain activity.
The question is getting a lot of attention from the media, but Harvard Medical School professor of psychology Stephen Kosslyn, PhD, tells WebMD that the hype is getting ahead of the science. Kosslyn moderated a seminar in which the new studies on meditation and brain activity were presented. "These studies show that it is possible to do science on this topic, but it is much too early to conclude anything at all from them," he says.
Prayer and Meditation
Some traditions appeal for support or blessings from those who have been successful.
Confusing Meditation with Other Practices
People do confuse the term meditation with other techniques, as in #6 above.
In 1974, Lawrence LeShan wrote a popular short manual called How To Meditate which was reprinted several times. It served to draw attention to the fact that meditation is practiced in many cultures and religious traditions, but that book mainly concerns the mental activity called contemplation.
In contemplation, an image or idea is evoked from the short- or long-term memory, or an object is used upon which the gaze rests. Associated ideas in the form of events in a life or in symbolic associations are used to motivate the person or to draw them close to a being or an ideal. A flame or a sacred image, prayers said with the beads of a rosary, repetitions of a phrase of the "human potential" type, eg. I am beautiful; I deserve wealth, are examples of this form of mental activity. They may be beneficial in various ways, but this is not what is generally meant by "meditation" in the Buddhist sense.
A Christian person can be conscious of the significance of the sacrifice of self for the sake of others by contemplating the life of Jesus. There is no doubt that to do this is a powerful and up-lifting experience, it is not meditation. Perhaps the better expression is "contemplating the Example," even if some people in so-doing may experience an actual identification with Christ.
Overview of Meditation in the Western* World
With the publication in 1946 of The Autobiography of a Yogi by Swami Paramahansa Yogananda (of the Self Realization Fellowship) the genuine yogic tradition became less a part of the romantic fantasy sometimes known as Orientalism, and more an acceptable, though eccentric, option for ordinary people. In the 1950's and '60's, many books and a few television series, especially Lilias, Yoga and You made for PBS, appeared.
When it became known that The Beatles had traveled to Rishikesh in the foothills of the Himalayas to study with the jolly-looking Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, further attention was drawn to meditation. Transcendental Meditation or TM made famous by the Maharishi, and to which Swami Shyams is said to have contributed, became the most common system outside Asia, with the Zen form of sitting practice [zazen] possibly next in popularity.
Now the more relaxed Tibetan form, shinay, is gaining in popularity.
Extract from Tenzin Gyatso the 14th Dalai Lama's "The Monk in the Lab," that appeared April 26, 2003 in The New York Times:
" . . . I visited the neuroscience laboratory of Dr. Richard Davidson at the University
of Wisconsin. Using imaging devices that show what occurs in the brain during meditation, Dr. Davidson
has been able to study the effects of Buddhist practices for cultivating compassion, equanimity or
mindfulness. For centuries Buddhists have believed that pursuing such practices seems to make people
calmer, happier and more loving. At the same time they are less and less prone to destructive emotions.
In traditional Kagyu retreats, a meditation session (Tib. t'hun) is
from 2 1/2 to 3 hours long. The day is structured around 4 of them. The first session
runs from about 4 - 6 am, the second from about 9 to 12 noon, the third
from about 1 to 3:30 pm, and the fourth from about 6 to about 9 pm.
Other denominations of Buddhism also observe these kinds of retreats. People in the Zen tradition can do seshin lasting for 7-10 days, with a 24-hour "sitting" on special occasions such as Shakyamuni's Birthday, Rohatsu.
Tips intended for older, less flexible persons as submitted to the Kagyu email list:
1. [If you suffer from chronic pain] take your medication a little before you start.
2. Use a decent cushion; those round things [zafu] you see everywhere are not for me. I use a cushion that is "smile shaped" and pitched to be a bit higher in the back than the front. It is manufactured by Cosmic Cushion . . . .
3. Put a little something under your bottom ankle. Or better yet, use a nice cushy zabuton.
4. Do some light stretching after sitting.
5. Put a zen [shawl, outer upper garment] or a light blanket on your legs to keep them warm. Make sure your feet are warm enough.
6. Get up when you start to get uncomfortable. Lengthen the time you sit gradually.
7. Most important of all: Keep your back straight, not arched, not slumped . . . . Your bones should be supporting you, not your muscles. If your muscles are complaining, you are not sitting in balance. I had a friend check out my alignment at first. Sitting out of balance is going to really hurt.
Alternative? Sure. Sit up straight in a chair.
Whatever the position, the bottom half of the body should feel solidly stable, but the upper should feel light and loose. Meditation is an activity of the mind -- you can do it anywhere, at any time, in any position.
Western is a convenient term for predominantly Euro-American in culture or life-style.
drugs: Here's an interesting article in which 2 Zen teachers comment on the use of "ecstasy" (MDMA) http://csp.org/practices/entheogens/docs/saunders-ecstasy_rel.html
masth: mature male elephants can behave wildly and aggressively at the time of rut or sexual excitement, a time during which they also secrete special hormones from their facial ducts. Buddha Shakyamuni's presence is said to have brought such a dangerously charging beast to its knees.