This group of eleven essays is organized as a series of questions pertaining to the meditative path.
#1—WHAT’S IN IT FOR ME?
This is the first question Westerners usually have about meditation.
There are many potential benefits of the practice, both obvious and subtle. But let’s begin with the simplest and probably most familiar.
For those keeping abreast of health news, this will come as no surprise: a daily practice of mindfulness meditation may be helpful for decreasing both anxiety and depression, at least in their milder forms. When I first began my sitting practice such findings were not much publicized. Today of course the media seems obsessed with them.
First some routine caveats. Significant mental health issues should always be addressed first with a licensed professional. And anyone experiencing adverse effects from meditation should not continue with it. But that being said, the potential benefits of the practice are not difficult to understand.
Mindfulness meditation has two components. The first is being clearly conscious, or mindful, of the present moment, whatever happens to be going on in each instant. The second is being relaxed about this process, just calmly allowing your awareness to be what it is, without interference. As one teacher phrased it, meditation consists of the "two A's": being attentive and allowing, or if you prefer, aware and accepting.
What about this process makes it helpful for anxiety and depression? Many factors are probably involved, but for simplicity let's focus on just two dimensions.
First: the element of time orientation. Depression is often focused on the past: guilt, shame, regret, and so on. Anxiety, of course, is focused on the future: real or imagined dangers that lie ahead.
The awareness in meditation, however, is by definition present centered. Thoughts of the future or past may arise, but always the focus is on gently returning to the present. In this way one steers a helpful middle course: between a sometimes depressive history, on the one hand, and an often anxious future, on the other.
Second: the element of activation. Depression tends to involve lowered activation; thoughts and actions may slow down, and concentration becomes difficult. Anxiety, on the other hand, involves heightened activation; thoughts may race, we may be physically agitated, and so on.
Mindfulness meditation tends to be corrective for both of these states. The “allowing” or “accepting” focus, of course, is inherently calming, thus becoming a balm for anxiety. The “aware” or “attentive” focus, however, can be helpfully activating. Simply remaining clearly aware of the present moment, becoming re-engaged with one's experience as it were, can itself be slightly energizing, and thus somewhat anti-depressive. Again one steers a moderate course: a livable middle path between too much activation, on the one hand, and too little, on the other.
But of course this is only a brief sketch of some of the more superficial issues. There is much more to this meditation story, so let’s continue.
#2—WHAT’S ALL THIS ABOUT SUFFERING?
Nothing dramatic, necessarily.
Let’s back up a little.
The type of meditation overviewed in the previous entry is known as Vipassana practice. "Vipassana" means “seeing into” or “seeing through”, and is usually translated in the West as “insight”. The practice is associated with the Theravada tradition of Southeast Asia, and based on what appear to be some of the earliest written records of Buddha’s teaching.
This is a teaching devoted to the relief of suffering through the letting go of desire. More specifically, through the letting go of grasping and aversion, the clinging to and pushing away of experience. In the face of an impermanent, continually changing moment, the Buddha explained, it was this experiential tug of war—-I want this, I don’t want that—-that causes our suffering in the first place.
But suffering is a strong word. Sure, it seems to fit with old age, sickness, and death. But hey, you might say, I’m young; I’m in decent health; and I don’t want to spend all day talking about death. So what’s relevant here?
The relevance is just this: even while reading this brief essay you’ve already been suffering (and not only because of the writing style). As you began reading, maybe you noticed your nose itching, and reached up to scratch it. The itch went away but then you noticed a slight discomfort in your back. Then maybe you lost focus for a moment. Maybe you began thinking about something you wished you’d told a friend. Then you realized you’d become distracted and felt a little annoyed. You began reading closely again and things went well for a while. But still, somehow, you felt less than optimal. Things just seemed a little unsatisfactory.
"Dukkha" is a term in the Pali language (in which some of the earliest records of Buddha’s teachings were written) that’s usually translated as “suffering”. It is probably better translated as “unsatisfactoriness”. This has a more mundane flavor. It better captures the continual micro-struggles that inhabit everyone’s moment to moment life, even when things are going our way. So we just saw a good movie, or had a good work out, or whatever, and now what? We’re already looking forward to this or that little thing, or worrying about something else, or trying to correct some small discomfort. In fact, this assuredly went on even during the movie or the work out. The ubiquitous, frequently subliminal nature of these micro-struggles can make them invisible.
Until, of course, we take a break from struggling. When for a time we just let go of striving, cease the tug of war between want and not want, our continual small stresses suddenly become obvious.
Vipassana meditation—-the process of mindfulness and equanimity, or awareness and acceptance—-is just such a respite from struggling.
#3—WHAT DO I THINK ABOUT?
The good news is: you don’t have to think.
But of course you will. Over and over. So once again, let’s back up.
Vipassana practice invites you to observe your experience with clarity and calmness. What is your experience? Well, it’s everything that can go on in your mind: sensations from all of the senses, thought, and emotion.
When sitting down for the first time (more on the sitting part later) it is usually best to limit the experience on which you will focus. Eventually these limits will be transcended, but in the beginning things need to be manageable. So it is often best to begin with closed eyes in a quiet place, and to sit for twenty to thirty minutes per day. If possible, aim for thirty minutes: you’ll find it often takes fifteen or twenty minutes for your mind to even begin to settle.
Many folks find morning the easiest time of day to sit, but of course the choice is yours.
The most common recommendation is to begin by focusing on the breath: simply following the in and out flow of air. The focus can be on the entire path of the breath, or on a more limited portion of it, such as sensations at the tip of the nostrils, or the rising and falling of the abdomen. If it helps to focus, breaths can be counted up to ten, starting back again at one.
A less common initial focus, but one quite suitable and perhaps more engaging for many people, is the entire arena of bodily sensations. Here the focus is on any sensation that becomes briefly prominent: tension in the shoulders, coolness in the room, pressure on the buttocks, whatever. But the focus is also on calmly letting go of each sensation as it changes, for change it will. Let it go and become mindful of whatever arises next.
In the beginning, it may be helpful to mentally label these sensations as they arise and pass away. For example, the unspoken labels might be “top of head, chest, whole body, left arm, breathing, right wrist, heartbeat. . .” and so forth. Eventually it will become more natural to drop the sub-vocal labels and simply be aware of each sensation as it comes and goes.
Early on you may discover that what we separated descriptively as awareness, on the one hand, and acceptance, on the other, actually converge as one process. You can’t be clearly aware of something unless you fully allow it to be present.
Also early on, you’ll discover that as soon as you start this process, things seem to get in the way. And far and away the most noticeable of these is thought. We think all the time. The conscious mind evolved as a problem solving device, and that is what it tries to do, repeatedly, just about every waking moment. Now since thought is responsible for most of culture, and all of technology, it is something to which we owe a great debt. But nonetheless it is possible to have too much of a good thing. Ceaselessly pushing and pulling a thought around, always striving to think your way into getting or avoiding something, is a central part of that “unsatisfactory” feeling discussed in the previous essay.
So the strategy here is not to eliminate thought; that is impossible. Rather, it is to remain aware, to notice when we’ve become “lost” in thought. This phrase is an extremely apt metaphor. During your sits you will become lost in thought again and again. And when you do, simply note the thoughts and let them go. Initially it may help to label them with a sub-vocal “thinking”, but again this prop can be dropped later on.
The same approach holds for, say, a sound that suddenly captures your attention. Just note it and then return, gently, to your primary focus on body sensations.
Remember not to push out the sound, not to push out the thought. Just remain aware and gently let it pass. This gentleness is a crucial part of the process. Don’t condemn yourself (“why can’t I focus!”) just allow and return.
But now let’s detour to another element of the basics: posture.
#4—DO I HAVE TO FOLD MY LEGS?
But you might want to try sometime anyway.
The Buddha’s teachings were never limited to sitting. From the very beginning there were four meditation postures identified: sitting, standing, walking, and lying. In other words, just about everything you do in a typical day.
But for the beginner some postures are easier than others. Lying down can lead to drowsiness. Walking is an excellent meditation (more on this later), but sometimes the beginner can find the additional stimulation distracting. Sitting down at first is probably easiest for most folks.
But sitting how?
What’s important about the sitting posture is that it be upright, stable, and reasonably comfortable. Upright to promote alertness; stable so you don’t have to continually shift or correct your position; and reasonably comfortable so you can do it at all.
Basically it comes down either to sitting on the floor with a cushion or a small bench, or sitting in a chair. Postures on the floor are done with the help of a zafu and zabuton, both Japanese inventions that can be ordered online. The zabuton is a large thick mat and the zafu is a round firm cushion placed on top of it. A folded blanket can be substituted for the zabuton. If you’re going to substitute something for the zafu, however, make sure it is thick and very firm; the point is to raise your behind off the floor to ease the pressure on your back.
The classic floor posture is the so-called half lotus, in which the behind is on the cushion and both knees are down on the floor. Sit so that your buttocks are on the front third of the cushion. One foot is pulled in to rest against the inner thigh of the opposite leg. The other foot is pulled up to rest on top of the inner thigh of the opposite leg. In this and in all other sitting postures, the hands are brought together in whatever way is comfortable and are then rested on the lap. The back is held straight but not rigid, with the lower back slightly arched.
The half lotus has great stability, and that is the whole point. There is nothing holy or religious about it. It’s a technology. The knees and buttocks form a stable tripod. As mentioned previously, stable is helpful because you don’t have to keep correcting your position.
Trouble is, it can be painful, especially at first. If you have no medical complications you know of, it is probably worthwhile to keep trying for a while. Most younger folks, at least, are able to do it eventually. But sometimes not. A modification is the so-called Burmese posture. In this the second foot is not brought up on top of the thigh, but instead placed on the floor in front of the first leg. The two legs in this posture are both completely on the floor and form parallel lines.
Sometimes even this is not possible and you may wish to consider a meditation bench. A variety of these are available online. They are generally about eight to ten inches high and about eighteen inches wide. A zabuton or a folded blanket is used with these, but of course not a zafu. You kneel on the pad, lean forward, place the meditation bench against your behind, and then hold it in place as you sick back down. Then instead of sitting on your heels, you’re sitting just a little bit higher up on the bench. Not quite as stable as the other floor postures, but more comfortable for many people.
Then, finally, there is just plain sitting in a good old fashioned chair. Nothing wrong with it. If you do meditate this way, keep your back off the back of the chair. This will help alertness. And keep your feet flat on the floor. This is the least stable of the sitting postures, but clearly the easiest.
Besides stability, there is an additional advantage to what might be called the “special” postures, i.e., those using a zafu or a bench. That advantage is the specialness itself. Sitting in a different way than usual sets the activity apart in your mind. Merely bringing out the zafu or the bench becomes a cue for meditation, and only meditation. This in turn can help you remain focused on the task. A subtle effect, but perhaps more powerful than you think.
But it is important also not to become attached to a special position. After all, in the long run the whole point is to become mindful as much as feasible throughout the day (more on this later). Every ordinary position you assume, every typical movement you make, is potentially a garden for mindfulness.
#5—IS THAT ALL THERE IS TO IT?
Eventually it comes time to let go of limitations, and open up to a wider range of experience.
We’re now getting to some of the more subtle aspects of meditation. The limiting of focus discussed previously is helpful for beginners (and for all of us at times), but also, in a subtle way, a disturbance. A disturbance of equanimity. Let’s unpack that.
Consider, for example, what happens when you’re focusing on your body or your breath and, say, there’s a noise in the distance. You’re a little startled, you focus on it and perhaps wonder where it came from. Then, good meditator that you are, you gently let it go and return to your focus. But wait, stop right there.
No matter how gentle you were, no matter how accepting of meditation’s little ups and downs, there was still an element of “no, not this” in your response. It had to be that way; otherwise, you wouldn’t have intentionally returned to something else.
Now of course you weren’t doing anything wrong; after all, you were just following directions. Fair enough. But it’s time for some new directions.
So here it is: let your focus be anything that arises. Anything you can experience: sights, sounds, smells, tastes, touch, any other feelings within the body, thoughts, moods, and emotions.
To open up to sight, of course, you need to open up your eyes. But not all the way, that’s too much strain. Rather, leave them about a quarter open, and look down at about a 45 degree angle, a few feet out in front of you. But don’t really look; don’t examine closely for details. Rather, maintain a soft focus; let your vision just rest there.
Sometimes your eyes may feel like closing again, and that’s fine; at a later point they may drift open again, and that’s fine too. The only time you need to make an effort to keep them open is when you feel yourself drifting off into drowsiness. Then intentionally keeping then open (and perhaps taking a deep breath and straightening your back as well) can be a great help in maintaining alertness.
The rest of the experiential field pretty much takes care of itself. Engaging in this type of meditation is a slide from one thing to the next. But as some teachers have phrased it, it’s not your mind that moves; rather, only the contents of experience. So it might go something like this: the sound of traffic, then (without any resistance) a thought about how congested the roads are becoming, then (without any resistance) a thought about how much you think, then a feeling of tightness in the chest, then the look of the carpet out in front of you, a floater drifting through your field of vision, a comfortable feeling throughout your whole body . . . you get the point.
No labels need be applied. Rather, just awareness. That, and an attitude of noninterference.
We could describe this Vipassana practice as "observation of all experience with mindfulness and equanimity." That’s accurate, but also a mouthful. In Zen it’s called "shikan taza", or "just sitting". That’s simpler, but also rather cryptic. Krishnamurti referred to it as “choiceless awareness”. That’s probably best; it sums it up perfectly.
When you start to do this meditation, subtleties of your experience will become evident. First and most important: there is a difference between thinking, on the one hand, and observing thoughts, on the other. This is often perplexing to beginners, but actually it is very simple. By thinking is meant the active manipulation of thought: pushing and pulling thoughts around, usually to attain or avoid something. This is effortful and full of the micro-suffering described earlier. However, observing thoughts is entirely different. This is simply watching thoughts with awareness and acceptance, not trying to hold on.
When the thoughts shift, as inevitably they will, they are allowed to pass away, like clouds in the sky or driftwood on a stream. As you become more centered in this meditation, the “arc” of thoughts, the time of their arising and passing away, tends to become briefer; sometimes thoughts may die almost as soon as they arise. But note: they will never extinguish, at least not for long, and that is fine. And when you find yourself lost in thought, not merely observing but pushing and pulling, what do you do? You don’t try to shift to something else. Rather, just become aware of it, and accept it. It will change.
Yet another discovery may lie ahead for you. As you become somewhat detached from your thoughts, as your own thoughts become “objects” for your observation, patterns in your thinking may become evident. Some will be familiar, but probably some will be new. This is at least a small part of what is meant by “insight” meditation. The trick, however, is not to become attached to your of knowledge of these patterns. Such knowledge is itself just another passing thought; encounter it with clarity and calmness.
The “choiceless awareness” described here helps to clarify the difference between mindfulness and concentration. This is sometimes confusing to beginners, but actually is not complicated. Mindfulness is simply awareness. Concentration is limiting the field of awareness, keeping it steady it within a small range. So, for example, focusing on the breath at the tip of your nose is a fairly concentrated awareness. Focusing on all bodily sensations is less concentrated. Choiceless awareness is the least concentrated, the least limited or the most open, of all. Of course the more concentrated techniques are helpful for training, which is why we began with them. But they are also like doing stretches at the bar. Choiceless awareness is the dance.
#6 DO I HAVE TO BELIEVE IN ANYTHING?
Just your own experience.
Vipassana practice does not require any dogmatic beliefs. There is no need to believe in a supernatural deity. There is no requirement to believe in reincarnation.
The appeal of Vipassana for Westerners is its low-key approach and its inquiring, almost experimental nature. If you wish, you may try the mindfulness practices described here. If you find them helpful, great. If you don’t that’s fine also. Meditation is not for everyone, and there are many different paths.
Many people who have had a sitting practice for years describe similar types of conclusions, and a few of those conclusions will be described in this section. Some are more obvious and more universal than others. But regardless of the specifics, there is no need to believe in them as some type of dogma. Rather, just view them as something you might consider, and perhaps explore in your own practice.
We’ve already talked about the difference between concentration and mindfulness. We’ve also mentioned the difference between thinking a thought and merely observing a thought, and how the “arc” of a thought tends to be a little briefer when it is passively observed. These distinctions are so easily understood and so commonly experienced as to be virtually universal, at least among those who persevere with their sitting practice.
Since we spend so much of our time watching thoughts, subtleties in their construction often become evident. Particularly when our eyes are closed, we may notice how thoughts do not have to be words; they can also be images. These images might be called “internal video”, and they can occur in isolation or in combination with anything. When experiencing body sensations, for example, it is not uncommon for meditators to have a succession of internal images corresponding to various parts of the body.
Another experience very common to meditators concerns the nature of moods and emotions. We all know that emotions come and go, that they can have a pleasurable or painful quality, and that when present they tend to “take over”. What many meditators describe, however, is a gradual change in their relationship to emotions.
When an emotion arises during sitting, sometimes it is possible to maintain at least some detached awareness of it, to observe the push and pull of it, as it is going on. As you might imagine, this becomes a little easier the longer you have had a sitting practice. And when you are able to maintain this awareness, even a little bit, you may find the emotion tends to pass more quickly. You come to realize how emotions are very much like little storms (Buddhists, as might be expected, are fond of nature analogies). Emotions gather, they roil, and they pass. But when you become somewhat of a storm watcher, rather than solely a storm rider, they tend to be briefer events. They come and go more quickly. As you might have recognized, this is very much the same dynamic as described previously with thoughts.
Another aspect of emotions that some meditators describe is an understanding of them as merely composites. That is, as composites of various bodily sensations and thoughts, rather than as some special mental quality in their own right. This may or may not be true. The reported experience is a little more variable across meditators. Again you are invited to explore whether this is valid in your own practice.
Another meditative “finding” of potential pragmatic importance concerns the nature of pain. Many meditators find that when experiencing minor pain, at least, the intensity of it can be reduced through mindfulness. That is, going into the center of the pain with accepting awareness, staying with the details of the pain as it changes and flows, can reduce the pain itself. Stated another way, it seems that much of the suffering associated with pain is simply a product of one's resistance to it. See if this is true for you. But remember also to listen to your body—intense and/or chronic pain is a signal that something needs to change.
#7 NO SELF? REALLY?
Let’s continue this survey of meditative “findings”.
Perhaps the easiest matter for meditators to grasp is the observation of impermanence ("anicca" in Pali). This is easy to grasp because we see it all around us in daily life. And it certainly becomes noticeable during meditation.
All things come and go. All things are made up of parts, and the parts are in constant change, arising and passing away. It seems no matter how thin we slice the moment, there is always some kind of change going on during every split second. Eventually all things we recognize dissolve completely: you, me, the thought or feeling you had a moment ago, the tree outside, the stars, and the chair you’re sitting on.
Of course, sometimes we don’t notice impermanence. Words, nouns in particular, help to convince us of stability. For us a chair is a chair, not a “chair about to be kindling”. Also, change can sometimes be, for a time at least, invisible to the naked eye. In the case of the chair, for example, we would need special equipment to detect electrons flowing off the surface. But of course if we just waited long enough eventually changes to the chair would be easy to see.
The notion that nothing has a permanent essence may be easy to accept for things. But not so when we’re talking about the self. When that subject comes up things get complicated.
The observation of “no self” ("anatta" in Pali) is probably the most puzzling bit of wisdom in the Theravada tradition. Yes, we all understand that we grow old, get sick, and die. Our physical impermanence is obvious. But that’s not what anatta refers to. It refers to a mental or psychological matter: the proposed absence of a permanent self, separate and in control.
At first glance this seems absurd, just Eastern mumbo jumbo. What do you mean “no self”? I’m right here! I’ve been here all these years. I have detailed memories. If you don’t believe me, ask my friends and family. Are you trying to suggest I don’t exist as a person?
Absolutely not. The existence of a psychological pattern I know as “me”, recognizable not only to myself but to others, is not in dispute. What is in question is whether or not this self-pattern really exists as a permanent thing.
Buddhism suggests that what we call “self” is actually impermanent, that it changes continuously over time. Evidence for this is not too hard to find. After all, psychologically we are not the same at fifty as we were at fifteen; most of us would agree with that. There might be broad similarities across the two ages—-we might have been outgoing then and still outgoing now—-but clearly considerable change has occurred.
There is a metaphor, again drawn from nature, that describes well this impermanence of self. Consider an eddy, a small whirlpool that forms at the edge of a stream. Looking down on it, it has a recognizable pattern. If you look away and then look back down again, you will recognize it as the same eddy. But if you continue to look at it for a while, you will see that it stays the “same” only in a general, abstract way. The swirls are actually changing their shapes in little ways all the time. And then, before you know it, the eddy breaks up completely.
“Yes”, you might say, “I’m changing in little ways all the time. But I still feel like the same self across the years. That’s the point.”
The Buddhist response is that this feeling is a kind of illusion. Let’s explain with a modern example. Say you’re driving at night and you see a warning light. It seems to be one light moving from left to right. When you get closer, however, you see that there are many lights, rapidly blinking in succession from left to right, creating the illusion of only one light moving.
So too, the argument goes, for the sense of a historically continuous self. In this case the “rapidly blinking in succession” is accomplished with the help of memory and imagination. Rapid shifting between memories, perceptions of the present, and imagined scenes of the future is sufficient to create an illusion. A tenacious, illusory sense of an unchanged self moving continuously through time.
“OK”, you might say, “I understand that changes occur in some parts of what we call the self. But what I’m really talking about is me the thinker, the presence I feel just behind my eyes. This is my self and it directs my thoughts.”
Does it? Here is where meditation can have a strong impact on your view. You might come to view the "self" as lacking not only stability, but also control.
Recall what was discussed in a previous essay: when you’re meditating skillfully, you are not thinking; rather, you are just passively observing thoughts. And what happens? Thoughts still occur, over and over and over, about all sorts of things. You are not thinking, you are not calling the thoughts up or pushing them around. You are just aware. But still thoughts arise, coming out of nowhere. Who is thinking them?
As folks go on in meditation, having longer and longer periods of skillful practice, they tend to have the same answer to this question. They tend to stop identifying so much with their thoughts. The meditator is simply awareness; thoughts are something else, and they arise and pass away on their own. The meditator is simply awareness; personality is something else, and it arises and passes away on its own.
Stated another way, from the Buddhist perspective there is no thinker separate from thoughts. We no more “think our thoughts” than we beat our hearts; rather, thoughts just arise, and our hearts just beat.
As always, this view should not be accepted as dogma. Rather, you are merely invited to consider this understanding of “no self” in relation to what you experience in your daily practice.
#8 WHAT ABOUT THE REST OF THE TIME?
As mentioned before, meditation was never intended to be limited to the sitting posture, and the whole point of the practice is to increase mindfulness (and thus reduce “unsatisfactoriness”) throughout the day.
Let’s begin by considering walking meditation. The description of this practice was postponed until now, but that doesn’t mean you have to postpone it in your own work. In fact if you go to a meditation group, or attend a meditation retreat (more about these later), you will likely be called upon to do walking meditation in alternation with sitting. The rationale for this is not only to stretch tired legs and enliven the sleepy (although these are important!) but also to help you spread out mindfulness across more facets of your life.
As with sitting practice, it is probably best to begin walking meditation with a relatively limited focus and then as you grow more skillful to expand your range. Choose a short path, maybe ten feet or so, where you can walk back and forth without interference. There will be no destination. Walk slowly, and focus attention on the movement of your legs and feet. The typical advice is to begin with sub-vocal labels to focus your attention: lifting, moving, placing. Maintain your gaze on the path in front of you. As other things clamor for your attention, be they thoughts, sounds, or whatever, gently let them go and return to a focus on the movement. After a while you may want drop the labels and open your focus to all body sensations, not just the legs and feet.
As this practice becomes more comfortable it will be time to open up to a wider range of experience: choiceless awareness in motion, as it were. Instead of focusing just on the body, make your focus whatever experience arises, just as you did in the sitting practice. Of course there will be more stimulation in walking, but the technique is otherwise identical. Eventually, adopt a normal pace and walk a greater distance. A path with a few obstacles is fine; that’s life, after all. However, for obvious reasons, it’s important to avoid areas where you will be a pedestrian in traffic.
If feasible, try to do the walking practice for a least twenty minutes or so at a time. You may also find that walking is especially helpful in certain situations. For example, restlessness is a common hindrance in sitting meditation, but it tends to dissolve into the background with walking.
Consider the remaining two classic postures: lying and standing. Lying in bed after a good night’s rest, just before arising, may be a good time to practice. Slipping back into sleep isn’t such an issue then. Focusing either on the body, or on whatever experience arises, can be a wonderful way to start the day. As for standing, the queue can be your friend. At the theater, at the supermarket, wherever it may be, standing in line can be an excellent place to practice.
And of course sitting doesn’t have to mean only sitting during your daily mediation period. There are two common situations in modern life that seem tailor made for meditation: sitting in a waiting room, and being a passenger in a car, plane, or train. In both cases you’re going to have to sit there awhile, and you’ve got very little to do. Consider making a radical move: put the smartphone away. Try mindfulness instead.
As you can probably sense, this business of “everyday mindfulness” is wide open to your own creativity. Say you’re at work, sitting in front of your computer. You’re about to get up to for a drink of water. Why not wait? Sit quietly in the chair for a few moments, doing whatever practice you wish. Then maintain that mindfulness as you walk down the hall toward the water fountain. Possibilities like this are endless.
The problem, as you might also have sensed, is remembering to do it. We tend to get caught up in the day, and mindfulness gets relegated exclusively to that half hour in the morning. The challenge for more practice throughout the day becomes, to some extent, finding reasonable mnemonic devices. Maybe it’s a note on the bathroom mirror or the refrigerator. Then again, maybe notes aren’t your style. Experiment a bit.
At the time of this writing I've had a daily sitting practice for some 25 years, but still I find new ways to invent reminders throughout the day. Recently I put up a new wind chime in the garden. I decided whenever I heard it ring I would open up to mindfulness. Now I find I’m inventing excuses to be out in the garden.
#9 ARE TEACHERS IMPORTANT?
Sooner or later, yes.
Teachers are important not only for themselves, but also for what comes with them.
For obvious reasons, teachers are usually part of a group. In Buddhism this community is called a "sangha". The members usually meet, or reside, in either a meditation center or a monastery. Many Westerners are more at ease in the secular setting of a meditation center than in a monastery with traditional religious trappings, but this is not always the case. An online search will usually yield the groups closest to you. You are recommended to experiment and see what fits.
Like all groups, there is usually a somewhat fluctuating membership, with some folks attending more than others. Activities usually include regular meetings for meditation in the group setting, as well as talks by, and/or individual meetings with, the teacher or teachers.
Also usually included are residential retreats of various length. These are silent meditation retreats where the participating members temporarily reside at the center. The retreats are typically in the range of one to ten days in length, but they can be much longer, particularly in monastery settings. The structure is usually an alternation of sitting with walking meditation, broken up a bit by teacher talks and individual meetings with the teacher. This continues over the whole day and early evening. Silence and mindfulness are maintained even at meals.
Why silence? Ordinary speech tends to disrupt mindfulness. More than just about anything else, it invites us to start actively thinking: to anticipate what’s coming next, to push and pull the ideas around, to agree and disagree. Skillful practitioners are often able to let speech simply wash over them without clinging to it, but it tends to be a challenge even for them.
So, all this having been said, you might well ask: “Why go to the trouble of aligning with a group?” There are three reasons.
First is social support. Some beginners dismiss this as unnecessary, but often change their mind as time goes on. Meditation is, after all, a rather odd thing to do. Despite the exponential increase in recent publicity, those with a daily sitting practice still constitute a distinct minority. And meditation can sometimes be frustrating. It’s common to hit what are perceived as roadblocks, and to wax and wane in one’s motivation. Being part of a meditation group can support one through the more difficult times. Just hearing others discuss the same problems you have faced can be enough to keep you going.
Second is the opportunity for retreats. If your practice is a half hour once or even twice per day, that’s great, but you can only go so far. The impact of a meditation that is continuous over a series of days is qualitatively different. It’s not just that your mind has more time to fully settle, although that’s certainly true. It’s also that you develop over that prolonged period what might be called a momentum of mindfulness. You will notice that for some time after a retreat, the “everyday mindfulness” we discussed previously comes easy. It is not difficult to remember to do it because you tend to slip into it naturally. And the longer the retreat, the longer this momentum tends to last.
Third, of course, is the teacher him or herself. And here is where the matter sometimes becomes complicated.
The teacher is likely to be a meditation master who has devoted his or her life to the practice. This means many thousands of hours spent in meditation. It means many retreats, including ones that are several months, or sometimes even a year or more, in duration. It means having a long relationship with his or her own teacher(s), and having encountered just about every problem in meditation one can imagine. There is help to be found here.
To use the phrase introduced above, meditation masters have developed a strong momentum in their mindfulness. And of course this shows. They tend to be calm. They tend to be caring (more on this later). And after countless hours spent not identifying with their thoughts, they tend not to take themselves so seriously.
The words you hear from a teacher about meditation are likely to be at least similar to the ones you’ve read in these essays. The words are perhaps less important than the teacher him or herself. You should be guided by your reaction to the teacher as a person. Not necessarily little habits or quirks of personality, but more fundamental issues. Is there mindfulness here? Is there a greater freedom from suffering?
And one other important question: which way does the power flow? The whole purpose is for you to decrease the “unsatisfactoriness” of your life, not to meet the teacher's needs. If you get the feeling that the teacher is more interested in gaining something than giving something, head for the door.
#10 AREN’T THERE MORE IMPORTANT THINGS TO DO?
A criticism sometimes made of meditation is that it is selfish. After all, the argument goes, we are facing a wide range of global crises. And even closer to home there are the often serious problems of family members or people at work. How can one simply withdraw into meditation? There is more important work to do!
There is indeed important work to do, but meditation probably won’t interfere with it. Rather, most people with a daily Vipassana practice tend to find that their engagement with, and positive impact upon, the people in their life tends to increase over the years.
The reason for this is not difficult to discern. We often treat others the way we treat ourselves. When we bring awareness and acceptance to ourselves day after day, we eventually begin to bring it to others as well. We approach others a little less as abstractions, a little more as living beings.
And because we have grown a little more skillful in allowing our thoughts and emotions to simply arise and pass away, we are also a little less likely to inflict our petty dramas on other people.
But the effects of a regular practice go beyond this. Often we become not only more aware and accepting of others, but in an active sense more caring and compassionate as well. This is especially true for meditation masters, but it is something that most daily meditators experience to some degree.
In fact part of the Theravada tradition is to include something known as "metta" ("loving kindness") meditation in conjunction with mindfulness practice. Metta meditation is structured. The exact details differ slightly from teacher to teacher, but it involves thinking benevolent phrases such as “may you be happy, may you be healthy, may you be free of suffering”. These thoughts are typically directed first to the self, then to loved ones and friends, then to strangers, to enemies, and eventually all sentient beings.
Metta meditation is often included at group meetings and retreats, but of course it is also something you can do alone.
One of the more interesting aspects of practice is how metta and mindfulness are related in a circular, mutually reinforcing way. As the momentum of our mindfulness grows, so too does our caring. But it works the other way as well. When we focus directly on caring, our mindfulness tends to grow. It is as if metta “softens the heart”, making us more receptive to all our experience.
It is recommended that you give metta a try and see if it fits for you. Don’t be surprised if the very first step, loving kindness toward the self, turns out to be the hardest. Frequently we are our own worst critics. But if eventually we are able to bring at least some loving kindness toward the self, the rewards can be substantial. Not the least, it turns out, for our mindfulness practice. Kindness to self brings with it acceptance of self. That in turn helps us to fully allow the ebb and flow of our experience, whatever that might be.
#11 WHAT ABOUT THE LONG HAUL?
One thing you can be sure of: your practice, like all things, will change over time.
If meditation is going to become part of your life, it probably will not take long to know. You’ll know because it just feels right. Of course there may be struggles with posture, that’s common in the beginning, but these tend to smooth out over time. What’s left is the practice itself. And you may find, like many others, that you keep at the practice simply because it is, well, a relief. It is, in itself, a brief daily respite from suffering.
But that doesn’t mean that there won’t be ups and downs in your practice over the years. There will be times when the motivation to sit arises easily, and other times when it does not. There will be days when you enjoy reading about meditation, and other days when you wouldn’t even consider it. There will probably be periods when you are associated with a teacher and a sangha, and other periods when you are practicing alone.
Most notably, there will be many times when the quality of your meditation seems unsatisfactory in some way, such as scattered or obsessive. If possible, don’t attempt to chase the objectionable quality away. Rather, just let that quality itself become the focus of your accepting awareness. And try to remember this common bit of wisdom in Buddhist circles: the good meditation is the meditation you did.
Remain wary of long term “goals” for your practice. Such goals are antithetical to the mindfulness process. They are a reaching for something not present, rather than a simple awareness of the present. And such goals can be insidious. For example, some meditation masters have written or spoken about the sense of “no separation” from the environment, a sense that can develop in experienced practitioners. This is not a speculation, not a conception, but a feeling, a feeling "in the bones" as it were. Can such a feeling arise? Absolutely. And if so, will it also pass away? Without doubt. But even practitioners who know this will sometimes harbor, in the back of their minds, a subtle ongoing striving for the feeling, a striving that shades their practice with a vaguely unsatisfactory tone. Avoid this trap.
Destinations are not the point.
The path is the point.
And the path is here now.