6. Meditation

QUESTION: What is meditation?

ANSWER: Meditation is a conscious effort to change how the mind works. The Pali word for meditation is bhavana which means ‘to make grow’ or ‘to develop.’

QUESTION: Is meditation important?

ANSWER: Yes, it is. No matter how much we may wish to be good, if we cannot change the desires that make us act the way we do, change will be difficult. For example, a person may realize that he is impatient with his wife and he may promise himself: ‘From now on I am not going to be so impatient.’ But an hour later he may be shouting at his wife simply because, not being aware of himself, impatience has arisen without him knowing. Meditation helps to develop the awareness and the energy needed to transform ingrained mental habit patterns.

QUESTION: I have heard that meditation can be dangerous. Is this true?

ANSWER: To live we need salt. But if you were to eat a kilo of salt it would probably kill you. To function in the modern world you need a car but if you don’t follow the traffic rules or if you drive while you are drunk, a car would become a dangerous machine. Meditation is like this, it is essential for our mental health and well-being but if you practice in the wrong way, it could cause problems. Some people have problems like depression, irrational fears or schizophrenia; they think meditation is an instant cure for their problem, they start meditating and sometimes their problem gets worse. If you have such a problem, you should seek professional help and then after you are better take up meditation. Other people over-reach themselves. They take up meditation and instead of going gradually, step by step, they meditate with too much energy or for long periods and soon they are exhausted. But perhaps most problems in meditation are caused by ‘kangaroo meditation.’ Some people go to one teacher and do his meditation technique for a while. Then they read something in a book and decide to try that technique. A week later a famous meditation teacher visits their town and so they decide to incorporate some of his ideas into their practice and before long they are hopelessly confused. Jumping like a kangaroo from one teacher to another or from one meditation technique to another is a mistake. But if you don’t have any severe mental problems and you take up meditation and practice sensibly it is one of the best things you can do for yourself.

QUESTION: How many types of meditation are there?

ANSWER: The Buddha taught many different types of meditation, each designed to overcome a particular problem or to develop a particular psychological state. But the two most common and useful types of meditation are Mindfulness of Breathing, anapana sati, and Loving-kindness Meditation, metta bhavana.

QUESTION: If I wanted to practice Mindfulness of Breathing, how would I do it?

ANSWER: You would follows these easy steps; the four Ps – place, posture, practice and problems. First, find a suitable place, perhaps a room that is not too noisy and where you are unlikely to be disturbed. Second, sit in a comfortable posture. A good way to sit is with your legs folded, a pillow under your buttocks, your back straight, your hands nestled in the lap and the eyes closed. Alternatively, you can sit on a chair as long as you keep your back straight. Next comes the actual practice itself. As you sit quietly with your eyes closed, you focus your attention on the in and out movement of the breath. This can be done by counting the breaths or watching the rise and fall of the abdomen. When this is done, certain problems and difficulties will arise. You might experience irritating itches on the body or discomfort in the knees. If this happens, try to keep the body relaxed without moving and keep focusing on the breath. You will probably have many intruding thoughts coming into your mind and distracting your attention from the breath. The only way you can deal with this is to patiently keep gently returning your attention to the breath. If you keep doing this, eventually thoughts will weaken, your concentration will become stronger and you will have moments of deep mental calm and inner peace.

QUESTION: How long should I meditate for?

ANSWER: It is good to do meditation for 15 minutes every day for a week and then extend the time by 5 minutes each week until you are meditating for 45 minutes. After a few weeks of regular daily meditation you will start to notice that your concentration gets better.

QUESTION: What about Loving-kindness Meditation? How is that practiced?

ANSWER: Once you are familiar with Mindfulness of Breathing and are practicing it regularly you can start practicing Loving-kindness Meditation. It should be done two or three times each week after you have done Mindfulness of Breathing. First, you turn your attention to yourself and say to yourself words like ‘May I be well and happy. May I be peaceful and calm. May I be protected from dangers. May my mind be free from hatred. May my heart be filled with love. May I be well and happy.’ Then one by one you think of a loved person, a neutral person, that is someone you neither like nor dislike, and finally a disliked person, wishing each of them well as you do so.

QUESTION: What is the benefit of doing this type of meditation?

ANSWER: If you do Loving-kindness Meditation regularly and with the right attitude, you may notice very positive changes taking place within yourself. You will find that you are able to be more accepting and forgiving towards yourself. You will find that the feelings you have towards your loved ones increases. You will find yourself making friends with people you used to be indifferent and uncaring towards, and you will find the ill-will or resentment you have towards some people will lessen and eventually be dissolved. Sometimes if you know of someone who is sick, unhappy or encountering difficulties, you can include them in your meditation and very often you will find their situation improving.

QUESTION: How is that possible?

ANSWER: The mind, when properly developed, is a very powerful instrument. If we can learn to focus our mental energy and project it towards others, it can have an effect upon them. You may have had an experience like this. Perhaps you are in a crowded room and you get this feeling that someone is watching you. You turn around and, sure enough, someone is staring at you. What has happened is that you have picked up that other person’s mental energy. Loving-kindness Meditation is like this. We project positive mental energy towards others and it may gradually transform them.

QUESTION: Are there any other types of meditation?

ANSWER: Yes. The last and perhaps most important type of meditation is called vipassana. This word means ‘to see in’ or ‘to see deep’ and is usually translated as insight meditation.

QUESTION: Explain what insight meditation is.

ANSWER: During insight meditation a person tries just to be aware of whatever happens to them without thinking about it or reacting to it.

QUESTION: What is the purpose of that?

ANSWER: Usually we react to our experience by liking or disliking it or by letting it trigger thoughts, daydreams or memories. All these reactions distort or obscure our experience so that we fail to understand it properly. By developing a non-reactive awareness we begin to see why we think, speak and act the way we do. And of course more self knowledge can have a very positive effect on our lives. The other advantage of practicing insight meditation is that after a while it creates a gap between our experience and ourselves. Then, rather than automatically and unconsciously reacting to every temptation or provocation we find that we are able to step back a little, thereby allowing us to decide whether we should act or not and if so, how. Thus we begin to have more control of our lives, not because we have developed an iron will but simply because we see more clearly.

QUESTION: So am I right in saying that insight meditation is to help to make us better, happier individuals?

ANSWER: Well, that is a start, a very important start. But meditation has a much loftier aim than that. As our practice matures and our awareness deepens we start to notice that our experience is rather impersonal, that it is actually happening without a ‘me’ making it happen and that there is not even a ‘me’ experiencing it. In the beginning the meditator might just have occasional glimpses of this but in time it will become more pronounced.

QUESTION: That sounds rather frightening.

ANSWER: Yes, it does, doesn’t it. And in fact when some people first have this experience they may be a little frightened. But soon the fear is replaced by a profound realization – the realization that they are not what they have always taken themselves to be. Gradually the ego begins to weaken and in time it dissolves completely as does the sense of ‘I’, ‘Me’ and ‘Mine.’ It is at this point that the Buddhist’s life and indeed their whole outlook really begins to change. Just consider how many personal, social and even international conflicts have their origins in the ego, in racial or national pride, in the sense of being wronged, humiliated or threatened and in the shrill cry, ‘This is mine!’ ‘That belongs to us!’ According to Buddhism, real peace and happiness can only be found when we discover our true identity. This is what is called enlightenment.

QUESTION: That’s a very attractive idea but at the same time it’s a rather alarming one too. How does an enlightened person function without a sense of self or without a sense of ownership?

Well, an enlightened person may well ask us, ‘How can you function with a sense of self? How are you able endure all the unpleasantness of fear, jealousy, grief and pride, your own and other people’s? Don’t you ever get sick of the endless scramble to accumulate more and more, of the need to always be better than, or ahead of, the next person, of the nagging feeling that you might just lose it all?’ It seems that enlightened people get along quite alright in life. It’s the unenlightened ones, you and I, who have all the problems and who cause all the problems.

QUESTION: So it would be right to say that meditation is the most important aspect of Buddhism?

ANSWER: If I asked you what was the most important component of a car you might say the engine. But then I might point out that no matter how well-tuned the engine was the car wouldn’t move without the wheels. Or you might say the battery. But I might mention that even a new battery would have no effect without the spark plugs. So the reality is that every part of the car is essential; they all work together as a whole. If one part is missing the rest will not function, or not function properly.

The practice of Buddhism is contained in the Noble Eightfold Path; Perfect Understanding, Perfect Thought, Perfect Speech, Perfect Action, Perfect Livelihood, Perfect Effort, Perfect Concentration and Perfect Mindfulness. The last two steps pertain to meditation. Meditation is very important, but so is having a clear understanding, ethical behavior, putting forth effort, and so on. The Buddha did not teach the Noble Onefold Path, Perfect Meditation. He taught the Noble Eightfold Path. This path is like a rope made up of eight strands. If one strand is missing the rope’s strength is diminished. If two are missing it is even weaker. And if three or more are missing it is in danger of breaking. The steps of the Noble Eightfold Path work as an integrated whole. Each step is as important as all the others.

QUESTION: I see your point. But how long do you have to meditate for before you become enlightened?

ANSWER: It is impossible to say and perhaps it doesn’t matter. Why not start meditating and see where it takes you? If you practice with sincerity and intelligence you might find that it improves the quality of your life considerably. In time you may wish to explore meditation and Dhamma more deeply. Later, it might become the most important thing in your life. Don’t start speculating about or worrying over the higher steps on the path before you have even begun the journey. Take it one step at a time.

QUESTION: Do I need a teacher to teach me meditation?

ANSWER: A teacher is not absolutely necessary but personal guidance from someone who is familiar with meditation is certainly helpful. Unfortunately, some monks and lay people set themselves up as meditation teachers when they simply don’t know what they are doing. Try to pick a teacher who has a good reputation, a balanced personality and who adheres closely to the Buddha’s teachings.

QUESTION: Why is it that some people who seem to be genuinely religious sometimes fail to practice what their religion teaches? I see people preaching love one minute and then being unloving the next, praising patience now and being impatient later?

ANSWER: You might compare the human mind to a room full of people discussing what to do about a certain situation. Each person has a different personality. Some are assertive, others gentle; one is stubborn, another compliant; two or three always insist on getting their own way, while a few others are usually happy to go along with the majority. How they eventually decide to act will depend on who is most assertive, determined or persuasive.

Our minds are likewise full of different mental states. When a situation or an incident requires us to speak or act some or all of these mental states start to interact with each other. If kindness or patience are strong they might cancel out any spite or impulsiveness we may have so that we act in a kindly or patient manner. If anger or ego are dominant they might prevent our patience or generosity from asserting themselves. Sometimes two opposite qualities are of equal strength and we are “in two minds” about what to do. At other times a positive mental state is not as strong as its negative opposite but it is reinforced with several other positive states and together they cancel out the negative one. Because our minds have these competing and contending qualities at different strengths, it can mean that although we know what is right and wrong, good and bad, we do not always speak or act in a right or good way despite our beliefs.

This is why meditation is so important. If we develop awareness we will notice what is actually going on in our mind, we will notice which mental states need strengthening and which need to be weakened. Meditation also offers practical ways of strengthen positive mental states and weakening negative ones.

QUESTION: I have heard that meditation is widely used today by psychiatrists and psychologists. Is this true?

ANSWER: Yes, it is. Meditation is now accepted as having a highly therapeutic effect upon the mind and is used by many professional mental health workers to help induce relaxation, overcome phobias, and bring out self-awareness. The Buddha’s insights into the human mind are helping people as much today as they did in ancient times.