Developing concentration and insight
In Tibetan, the word “meditation” comes from the same verbal root as “to habituate” or “to familiarize.” Thus, in meditation we endeavor to habituate ourselves to valuable ways of viewing the world. We also seek to familiarize ourselves with an accurate view of reality, so that we can eliminate all wrong conceptions and disturbing attitudes.
Meditation isn’t merely chasing all thoughts out of our minds and abiding in a blank state. There’s nothing spectacular about a blank mind. Skillfully directed thoughts can help us, especially at the initial levels of meditation. Eventually we need to transcend the limitations of concepts. However, doing so doesn’t mean entering a lethargic blank state. It means clearly and directly perceiving reality.
First, we must listen to instructions on how to meditate and what to meditate on. Meditation isn’t just sitting with crossed legs and dosed eyes. It’s directing our minds to a positive object and cultivating beneficial attitudes. We need to listen to instructions from an experienced teacher in order to know how to do this properly.
Second, we think about the instructions: we must understand a subject before we can habituate ourselves to it. This reflection can be done by discussing the teachings with our Dharma friends and teachers. It can also be done alone, seated in meditation position.
When we have some intellectual understanding of the subject, then we integrate it into our minds through meditation. Through familiarizing our minds with certain attitudes and views - such as impartial love or the wisdom realizing reality they gradually become spontaneous in us.
There is a classic meditation position: we sit cross-legged on a cushion, with the backside higher than the legs. The shoulders are level and the back is straight, as if we were being pulled up from the crown of the head. The hands are placed in the lap, just below the navel. The right hand is on top of the left, with the thumbs touching. The arms are neither pressed against the body nor sticking out, but in a comfortable position. The head is slightly inclined, the mouth closed, with the tongue against the upper palate.
The eyes are slightly open in order to prevent drowsiness, but they aren’t looking at anything. Rather, they’re gazing downward, loosely focused at the tip of the nose or on the ground in front. Meditation is done entirely with the mental consciousness, not with the visual consciousness. We shouldn’t try to “see” anything with our eyes during meditation.
It’s good to meditate in the morning before beginning the day’s activities as the mind is fresher then. By focusing on beneficial attitudes in our morning meditation, we’ll be more alert and calmer during the day. Meditation in the evening also helps to settle the mind, and “digest” what happened during the day before going to sleep.
Meditation sessions shouldn’t be too long at first. Choose a time that’s reasonable for your capacity and your schedule. It’s important to be regular in meditation practice because regular repetition is necessary to familiarize ourselves with beneficial attitudes. Meditating fifteen minutes every day is more beneficial than meditating three hours one day and then sleeping in the rest of the week.
Because our motivation determines whether what we do is beneficial or not, it’s extremely important to cultivate a good motivation before meditating. If we begin each meditation session with a strong motivation, it’ll be easier to concentrate. Thus, for a few minutes prior to putting our attention on the object of meditation, we should think of the benefits of meditation for ourselves and others.
It’s very worthwhile to generate the altruistic intention thus: “How wonderful it would be if all beings had happiness and were free of all difficulties! I would like to make this possible by showing others the path to enlightenment. But, as long as my own mind is unclear, I can’t help myself let alone others. Therefore, I want to improve myself-to eliminate my obscurations and develop my potentials - so that I can be of better act service to all others. For this reason, I’m going to do this meditation session, which will be one step more along the path.”
But within Buddhism, there are many meditations. Basically, they’re divided into two categories: those to gain samatha or can calm abiding, and those to develop vipassana or special insight.
The Buddha said in the sutra Revealing the Thought of Buddha:
You should know that although I have taught many different aspects of the meditative states of hearers (those on the path to arhatship), bodhisattvas and tathagatas (Buddhas), these can all be included in the mist two practices of calm abiding and special insight.
Calm abiding is the ability to hold our minds on the object of meditation with clarity and stability for as long as we wish. With calm abiding, our minds become extremely flexible, giving us the liberty to focus on whatever virtuous object we wish. Although calm abiding alone can’t cut the root of the disturbing attitudes, it drastically reduces their power. Gross anger, attachment and jealousy don’t arise and consequently one feels more in harmony with the world.
For the mind to abide in a calm state, we must free it from all worries, preconceptions, anxieties, and distractions. Thus, for the development of calm abiding, we do stabilizing meditation in which we train our minds to concentrate on the object of meditation.
The Buddha gave a variety of objects upon which we can focus to develop single-pointed concentration. These include meditating on love as the antidote to anger and on ugliness as the antidote to attachment. We could also meditate on the clear and aware nature of the mind. The image of the Buddha could be our meditation object, in which case we visualize the Buddha in our minds’ eye and hold our concentration on this. One of the principal objects used to develop calm abiding is the breath.
To meditate on the breath, sit comfortably and breathe normally. Don’t do deep breathing or force the breath in any way. Breathe as usual, only now observe and experience the breath fully. Focusing the attention at the tip of the nose, observe the sensation of the breath as you inhale and exhale.
Most of us are surprised and even alarmed when we start to meditate. It seems as if our minds resemble a street in downtown New York - there is so much noise, so many thoughts, so much push and pull. Meditation isn’t causing our minds to be this cluttered. Actually, our minds are already racing around, but because our introspective awareness is weak, we aren’t aware of it. This internal chatter isn’t a hopeless situation, however. Through regular practice, our minds will be able to concentrate better and the distractions will diminish.
Laxity and agitation are the two principal hindrances to developing concentration. Laxity occurs when the mind is dull, and if it’s not counteracted we can fall asleep. When the mind is sluggish, we should apply the proper antidotes to uplift it. We can temporarily stop focusing on the breath as the object of meditation and think about something that will raise our spirits, such as our perfect human rebirth or our potential to become a Buddha. It’s also helpful to visualize clear light filling the room or bright light flooding into the body. This will enliven the mind and dispel the laxity. Then return to meditating on the breath.
For beginners who get sleepy when meditating, it’s helpful to splash cold water on the face before sitting down. Between meditation sessions, looking long distances helps expand and invigorate the mind.
Agitation is the other chief obstacle to developing calm abiding. It occurs when the mind is attracted towards something we’re attached to. For example, we focus on the breath for thirty seconds, and then, unbeknownst to us, our concentration strays to food. Then we think about our loved ones, and after that where we’ll go on the weekend. These are all instances of agitation.
Agitation is different from distraction. The former is directed towards attractive objects that we’re attached to, while the latter takes our attention to other things as well. For example, thinking about the insulting words someone snarled at us five years ago is an example of distraction. So is straying to thoughts of the Buddha’s good qualities when we’re supposed to be concentrating on the breath.
Agitation indicates that the mind is too high and excited. Thus, the antidote is to think about something somber. We can temporarily reflect on impermanence, the ugly aspects of whatever we’re attached to or the suffering of cyclic existence. Having made our minds more serious, we then return to meditating on the breath.
Mindfulness and introspective alertness are two mental factors enabling us to prevent and counteract distraction, laxity then and agitation. With mindfulness, we remember the object of meditation: the breath. Our memory or mindfulness of the breath is so strong that other distracting thoughts can’t enter.
To ensure that we haven’t become distracted, lax or agitated, introspective alertness is used to check whether or not we’re still focused on the object of meditation. Introspective alertness is like a spy - it occasionally arises and quietly observes whether our mindfulness is still on the breath or whether it has strayed elsewhere. Introspective alertness also notices if our concentration is lax and not clearly focused on the breath.
If introspective alertness finds that we’re still concentrating, we continue doing so. If it discovers we’re distracted, lax or agitated, we then renew our mindfulness, bringing the mind back to the object of meditation. Or, we apply the antidotes to laxity and agitation described above.
Patience is another necessary quality for the development of calm abiding. We need to accept ourselves the way we are, and to have the confidence and enthusiasm to make our minds more peaceful. If we push ourselves and expect to receive immediate results, that attitude itself hinders us. On the other hand, if we’re lazy, no progress is made. We need to cultivate relaxed effort.
Developing calm abiding is a gradual process that takes time. We shouldn’t expect to meditate a few times and have single-pointed concentration. However, if we receive proper meditation instructions and follow them under the guidance of a teacher, and if we persist with joy and without expectation, we’ll attain calm abiding.
Special insight is the correct discernment of the object of meditation coupled with the single-pointed concentration of calm abiding. To train in it, we need to develop the ability to analyze the meditation object. While stabilizing meditation is emphasized in the development of calm abiding, analytical meditation is instrumental to gain special insight. However, analytical meditation may also be used in the development of calm abiding, and stabilizing meditation contributes to special insight. In fact, special insight is a combination of analytical meditation and calm abiding.
Analytical or discerning meditation doesn’t mean that we’re constantly conceptualizing, thus getting lost in mental chatter. Rather, by understanding the object of meditation well, we’ll be able to experience it fully. We aren’t necessarily involved in discursive thought during analytical meditation. We may use more subtle thought to help us correctly discern the object. Then we concentrate on what we’ve discerned to make it firm and to integrate it with our minds. Eventually, our conceptual understanding will turn into direct experience. Thus the end product of analysis is non-conceptual experience. In The Sutra Requested by Kasyapa, the Buddha said:
O Kasyapa, just as fire arises when two pieces of wood are rubbed against each other, so analytical wisdom arises from the conceptual state. And just as the fire increases and burns away all the wood, analytical wisdom increases and burns away all conceptual states.
There are two basic types of analytical meditation. In one we aim to transform our attitude. For example, when meditating on love, we change our attitude from anger or apathy into genuine affection. In the second, we analyze the meditation object in order to understand and perceive it. The meditations on impermanence and emptiness are examples.
In the first type of discerning meditation, we seek to transform our attitude. When meditating on love, the object of meditation is other beings. We consider their kindness towards us in the past, present and future. Letting ourselves absorb the profound implication of the fact that all others want to have happiness and avoid suffering as intensely as we do, we then reflect on how wonderful it would be if they could truly have happiness.
When these thoughts become strong our minds are filled with deep and impartial love for all others. A powerful feeling - the wish for others to have happiness - arises inside us. Having developed a loving attitude by using analysis, we then maintain this deep experience of love using stabilizing meditation. Some people may continue to meditate on love and develop calm abiding on it.
In the meditation on impermanence, analysis helps us to understand the transitory nature of our world. We can take something we’re attached to - music, for example - and contemplate its quality of change. A melody has a beginning, middle and end. It doesn’t continue forever. Even while it lasts, it’s continuously changing. Each sound lasts a split second, and even in that short moment, it too changes.
When we consider impermanence deeply, we’ll understand that our universe is always in motion. Although it appears firm and stable to our ordinary perception, in fact it’s transient. Understanding this helps us avoid attachment and the pain and confusion which accompany it. Recognizing impermanence, we’ll be able to appreciate things and experience them fully while they last. When they disappear, we won’t mourn them. This automatically soothes mental turmoil in daily life.
When meditating on emptiness, we analyze the ultimate nature of people and phenomena. As described in the chapter on wisdom, we investigate whether our ordinary assumptions about how people and phenomena exist are correct. When we analyze carefully, we find that they are empty of all false projections of inherent existence. At this point, we’ve correctly discerned emptiness.
To attain special insight on emptiness, we conjoin our correct understanding of emptiness with calm abiding. This allows our minds to remain focused on emptiness for a long time. By concentrating on reality in this way, our minds are purified of obscurations.
All of the topics discussed in this book are topics for meditation. We can do analytical meditation on rebirth and cause and effect to understand how they function. Contemplating the kindness of others and the disadvantages of selfishness, we’ll generate love and the spontaneous wish to benefit others. In short, everything the Buddha taught is food for meditation.
Both calm abiding and analytical meditation are important. If we just have the ability to concentrate, but we can’t correctly analyze meditation objects such as emptiness, then we lack the ability to cut the root of ignorance. On the other hand, if we correctly understand emptiness but are unable to maintain our concentration on it, then our understanding won’t have a deep impact on our minds and our ignorance won’t be totally abolished. When we’ve conjoined calm abiding and special insight, then we’re firmly on the path to freedom.