Sometimes I am asked to explain something about meditation or Buddhism and more than occasionally I find it difficult to know where to begin. The explanations about what I am doing and why are always evolving. Of course, some of the reasons why I meditate remain constant. The practice itself is an endless source of learning, inspiration, clarity, and inner strength. My faith in the efficacy and necessity of this practice in my life increases. This is intended then as an explanation of what I do when I meditate and why I keep at it.
I love that this practice encourages both a beginners mind and some healthy skepticism. The Buddha when he taught this practice of meditation over 2500 years ago said in his native Pali language, “Ahi Passiko” which translates as “Come and See.” That is, he said (to paraphrase) “Don’t take my word for it – you don’t have to believe anything I say. See if it is true for you. See if you can discover if what I am teaching is true through your own experience, your own observation.”
I take as my starting place what I know to be true: that all human beings as we have known them and can know them, (including myself) will die. The conditions that support life will change and eventually – at a time that we cannot predict our body will give out and cease living. One could say then that our days are numbered – or numerable. Even though we can never know what that number will be, I can still conclude that they are precious because they are finite. This is something I know in my bones – that life is precious. This knowledge gives me perspective, a sense of balance that can help me bear with the many ups and downs that we all experience daily in our lives. It becomes easier to see how being able to be with things – the way they are – with an abiding appreciation for life is a way to cultivate an inner sense of contentment.
The question then is – how not to take life for granted. It becomes obvious pretty fast how difficult it is to actually put into practice the intention to appreciate life at every moment. (Since we have already concluded that each moment of life is indeed precious.) In reviewing my states of mind at the end of a day I can easily see places where the awareness of life’s precious nature had evaporated. I can see periods of annoyance at myself or someone else. I can see how lost I had been in that annoyance or regret or desire. I can see how justified I felt in that annoyance and how feeding or following or proliferating these trains of thought keeps me from being able to remember the perspective I had vowed to value.
It turns out that the Buddha had discovered a method, a system of training the mind and heart to address exactly this quandary. The training requires one to go back to the very beginning – to something utterly simple (but not easy) sitting and doing nothing except paying attention.
The instructions that the Buddha taught require only a mind and a body and we all have these. Immediately it turns out that these skillful instructions he gave us are most useful – not only in sitting meditation – but in every waking hour. (Perhaps some yogis can even practice in their sleep.)
So what does one do? How does one meditate?
We start by taking a seat, on the ground, in a chair, on a cushion; it doesn’t matter. We make some effort to come into an upright posture, and then we consciously relax what we can relax; our face, our eyes, our chest, shoulders and abdomen. Then we choose an object to pay attention to. This could be our breath, our body, or sound. We are instructed to rest our attention in this one-pointed way. Coming back each time when our mind wanders off to the primary object – the rising and falling of our breath, the sensations of the sitting bones on the cushion or chair, or the arising and passing away of sounds. We are at this stage of meditation developing the power to sustain our concentration. Practicing meditation in this way, which is cultivated by relaxation, a willingness to proceed, and a gentle non-judgmental attitude gives rise to a steady calmness and sense that we are making a home for ourselves in our bodies. A home that the Buddha said, “no flood can overcome.”
There is great value in learning how to relax, how to calm oneself. In cultivating a deep sustained calm during long periods of meditation there is the likelihood of experiencing profound bliss. But we are not looking for a particular blissful experience when we meditate – or we would easily be tempted to cling to that experience and to try to repeat it every time we sit. Blissful mind states are amazing, but the Buddha was very clear that this was not what he was searching for. Rather he taught how to use this calm and steadiness of heart to look into the nature of our experience to gain insight into the way things work. This learning is the work and the reward of meditation. It is indeed how we learn about the very thing that is keeping us from remembering our original intention to appreciate each moment of life.
So the instruction shifts at this point – on day number four of an eight-day retreat, or halfway through a daily sitting practice. As this is no longer just a calming/concentration practice we now widen the field of attention to include whatever has become predominant in our attention and observe it with the same mindful non-judgmental interest that we used in attending to our primary object. What is predominant will be constantly changing, (first maybe our breath – then a noise – then a strong sensation in the body – or a little one like an itch – then a desire for lunch – then the breath again – then the memory of an old regret). It is not that we need to go out looking for anything to learn from – these things just appear. But as the meditation is evolving into an awareness/wisdom practice, it will require great skill and patience to be able to observe what is predominant without getting lost and absorbed into it. We have been training the mind to pay attention in the present moment to the breath or body or sounds and we need to keep this allegiance to the present moment to keep ourselves from getting swept away in thoughts, plans, memories, fantasies or judgments as they become predominant. We can do this over and over by just trusting that awareness is always present if we call on it: awareness that sitting is occurring, awareness that planning is happening, awareness that we have been in a conversation with someone in our minds – and that someone is 1000 miles away. That awareness brings us back to the present. As our trust in that awareness grows we understand that by being able to be aware of the present mind/body experience, (where we are and what is happening in the present moment) we have a much better chance of being able to be- with whatever is predominant in an interested, non-judgmental way, so that we can learn from what is arising and respond to it with wisdom and compassion.
Practicing in this way – we begin to see how reactive we usually are and how lost in our reactions we so easily and habitually get. The question in this type of meditation becomes, “How am I relating to what is occurring?”
If a pain in the shoulder is occurring are we observing the sensations of that pain coming and going – or are we blaming ourselves for it. Are we thinking, “This pain shouldn’t be happening to me.” “If I was a better meditator this wouldn’t be happening.”
If a desire is occurring – are we lost in scheming how to fulfill it or are we aware that we are sitting and that a desire to be somewhere else, doing something else is occurring? Can we come back? Can awareness allow us to see in that very moment of life – right there – that we can unclench our hearts and see that what is happening is already precious enough?
If we want to get up and do something else, can we learn something about restlessness and our aversion to it. Is it possible to see it as a conditioned thing arising and passing away as conditions change? Can we sense it in our bodies – the discomfort of restlessness – and watch it as it changes with interest.
This is where we learn about freedom because we see how we do not need to get pushed around by these reactions when we can remember to bring awareness to them. But we have to be able to remember the question, “How are we relating to what is coming up?” With practice we can do this off the cushion as well.
At first the insights we gain in meditation are personal. We start to learn how to care for our minds and bodies and how not to be swept away by emotions. We learn how to use language more effectively in a kinder and more connecting way. We learn how a foundation of ethics provides safety and stability and how to gain an allegiance towards calm and stability in our hearts and minds.
As we gain confidence in our ability to learn and to put into practice what we are learning we find that our trust in our own wisdom grows and allows deeper less personal insights to be discovered and worked with. These include seeing the impermanent nature of all conditioned things, seeing that no conditioned thing can ever provide lasting happiness, and seeing how we ourselves are conditioned things – and how these conditions change every moment. We see that we are not separate independent entities – but as nature – part of nature – we are connected inseparably from all the conditions that influence our minds and bodies in each moment of our lives. These insights allow us to soften our attachments to our strongly held agendas and find more acceptance, more equanimity in the flow of the events of our lives.
It is certainly not as if there becomes less passion or juice as we become better observers. We are more available for all experiences when we aren’t lost and pushed around. A more intimate connection with every moment of our life becomes possible. Joy accompanies us.
Meditation, which is this training of the heart and mind to be present and calm in the midst of everything, is not possible without patience. And if we define patience as – sustaining a loving attention – then all the attention and interest that we practice in meditation can help us to grow kinder towards ourselves and towards others and more patient as well.
The attention that we learn to pay to everything – the gentle effort to bring awareness and wisdom to our inquiry into our reactions – allows the space for softening those reactions and for appreciation to flower. We find more and more that we are indeed living our lives in appreciation of each precious moment.
And as Narayan Liebenson Grady, the teacher I study with in Cambridge Massachusetts at the Cambridge Insight Meditation Center, the place which she helped found 23 years ago says, “It is from inner peace that peace in the world begins.”