THE FIRST PEACEFUL ABIDING MEDITATION TECHNIQUE
Hello, I’m Lama Karma Chötso and I will be your guide during this Wisdom of Inner Silence course.
By now you have read or listened to the introductory information and understand that this course is about meditation but it’s also good to understand that you can think of meditation in various ways. Over the many years I’ve been practicing meditation, I’ve found that in the experience of meditating, different aspects stood out. Sometimes the meditation session was just sitting with myself in silence. At other times, the emphasis has been on a disciplined, one-pointed focus of concentration, maintaining quietude in my mind. All began to lead to the sessions becoming a time of settling my mind in a state of undistracted peace.
Whichever emphasis might be uppermost, all of these meditations included simple, repetitive activity that slowly built a new muscle – you could call it a muscle of the mind – through exercising this new habit of meditating.
It’s likely that all these aspects and others will end up informing your practice at different times. Spending time alone in silence daily may become a sacred time for you and the techniques you’ll learn will help you make the most effective use of that time. These techniques will be used to settle your mind; they will help you find ways to take breaks in between what might be stress-related thoughts or strong emotions; they will assist you in becoming aware of more subtle aspects of your mind and anything that arises in your mind.
One of the things you may notice in the first few weeks is how you’re relating to your experience of meditation, how your relation to it changes and evolves over time, and how the way you relate to your experience changes the meditation itself. All of this is really about heightening awareness and you may find that your meditation becomes more about the awareness of what is going on than it is about the details of the mental or physical events you experience.
From beginning meditators to those who have practiced meditation for a long time, if you’re going to take on a daily practice, you’ll find that your ability to practice can be supported by your intellectual understanding about this type of meditation so throughout you’ll find explanations of the meaning of words. You can refer back to the introduction if you’d like to review what you might expect and/or how you’d like the meditation to work for you.
In Sanskrit, the word for this meditation is shamatha; in Tibetan, the word is shiney. The word shi or shi-wa means peace; the second syllable, ney, is from ney-pa which means to abide or to dwell. In English then, calmly, peacefully or tranquilly abiding. This doesn’t refer to worldly activity. What is referred to here is the mind settling into a state of peace or calm.
The difference between that way of mind abiding and the way our minds might be experiencing the world today is not necessarily that extreme. It isn’t as if our minds are constantly engaged in the opposite, in other words, continually experiencing turmoil. It can be more subtle than that. Still, when we take the time to look at what’s going on in our minds, we probably don’t find a peaceful state happening often nor for very long. So what is going on instead? Instead we may find distracted thoughts, or a strong emotion like anger. We may find a constant low-level agitation or a subtle state of anxiety. We might find a fierce desire.
In Buddhism, these are referred to as afflictive states simply because while they are being experienced, you’re not in a state of calm and peace. In Sanskrit the term for these states is kleshas and in Tibetan, nyon mong. What does that literally mean? The Tibetan word means ‘that which makes you stupid’. In English, these could simply be called disturbing emotions, although not all of them are emotions as such and may not seem to be disturbing you. But whether you call them disturbing emotions or mental afflictions or give them another label, again, while you’re experiencing them, calm and peace is not being experienced at all.
There are five main disturbing emotional states. They are: ignorance or unawareness, desire/attachment, anger or aggression, jealousy or envy, and pride or arrogance. You can see from these five that when any one of them is the overriding influence of your experience, your mind won’t be resting in a state of peace. You won’t be calmly centered and because of the confusion these states produce, you’re also not in a place of clarity. Without clarity, so in other words, in confusion, your actions will not be determined by reasoning but rather by the emotion. At that point, it’s difficult to ensure that your actions are positive rather than negative. Being able to abide in a calm and silent space promotes clarity and when that clarity continues to be fostered through meditation, there’s a far better chance of experiencing the wisdom already in your own mind.
Another way to explain this is that a distracted mind is the opposite of a calm, peaceful mind. The distracted mind is constantly flitting from one thing to another, finding no rest anywhere, while the calm mind has the ability to settle on any one particular thing at a time. Once settled, the mind can then experience a state of rest wherein external worldly activities are no longer the objects of a myriad of thoughts. Without a strong involvement in thoughts, it is more difficult for emotions to disturb you or gain precedence over your own clarity. Knowing this can make it easier for you be enthusiastic about meditating. Then, the longer you practice, your enthusiasm should grow as you begin to experience the benefits of daily meditation.
Here are some suggestions that can assist you in your quest to experience a peaceful state of mind.
We’ll start with SACRED SPACE:
Finding a quiet place for meditating isn’t always easy. In our homes we are surrounded by things we have accumulated, many of which bring up thoughts that we tend to fixate on, or memories that either bring up or heighten our emotions. So it’s always helpful to create a sacred space for yourself. Sacred space is pretty bare of objects, sounds, smells, etc., that can cause distractions. It can be a very small space, though, just part of a room that allows you the floor space for your cushion or for a chair. And if you live with other people, your sacred space will need to be a place where no one is allowed to interrupt you once you’re there even if they think you’re sitting and doing nothing.
Second is SACRED TIME:
This is also not an easy thing to carve out of our day, but it is important to have. Certainly, no one beginning meditation will be expected to sit for a solid hour every day but most of us can find 10 or 15 minutes here and there that can, very slowly, over the first 6 or 8 weeks become altogether, one hour per day. So start in a slow and undemanding way. Build up your confidence before you consider building up your time.
In my experience, my meditations worked best when I practiced at the same time every day. After only a few weeks, my mind seemed to be preparing for a meditation session by slowing down or becoming calm quite a while before the meditation even began! So, if you find 10 or 15 minutes every morning and every evening at the same time, after a few weeks you might notice this happening to you also. And those 10 or 15 minutes should be more than enough to begin with. You can gradually build on that until you reach either ½ hour in the morning and in the evening or 20 minutes in the morning, 20 minutes in the evening with an added 20 minutes at some point during your day. But even if it takes you more time to build up, don’t rush! You’ll want your meditation time to be something you look forward to, not something you dread.
ATTITUDE: when we take on a new training, just as when we take on a new job, we tend to have a pretty serious attitude toward what we are doing and that’s fine as long as it doesn’t bring tightness to your mind. The determination to learn and train to the best of our ability may be necessary but it’s also good to let a sense of humor lighten our way. Wanting to do our best in every 10-minute meditation session isn’t a difficulty in itself, but if you find it makes it more difficult to relax into settling the mind, then relax into the session leaving your expectations behind.
Our attitude informs our experience in many ways and with meditation, a relaxed but determined approach – neither too tight nor too loose – can be a great help.
Now let’s get to your first technique.
There are various techniques used to cultivate peaceful abiding or tranquility meditation and during this course on the Wisdom of Inner Silence, four different techniques will be taught. You will use each of the four for three months. But whichever technique you are using, it’s important that your body maintains as good a posture as it can. While few of us can take a perfect meditation posture at first, the following is what you can work towards. Again, take this slow. Let your body become used to the posture rather than forcing it because what that could accomplish is that you simply give up meditating at all!
This posture is called the 7 points of Vairocana:
- The first one refers to the position of the LEGS: If you are able to sit on a meditation cushion on the floor, then your legs can be crossed at the ankle or one leg from the foot to the knee can rest in front of the other leg, both legs on the floor (you may want to have a rug or a mat under them). When using a meditation cushion, make sure that your bottom is up higher than your knees. If your legs are long, the meditation cushion(s) should be fairly high as this will help the spine to remain straight without discomfort. If you can’t use a meditation cushion, sitting on a chair is fine. Your legs can either be crossed at the ankle or both feet can rest flat on the floor. If your feet don’t reach the floor, place something under them so they aren’t dangling free of support. (As far as the legs go, it is often it is taught that the legs should be in vajra posture, or full lotus, however, it can be very difficult to arrange your legs in that posture and then even more difficult to hold that posture for even a few minutes at a time. Rather than be distracted by this, or rather than experiencing pain while you’re trying to meditate, it’s best to use one of the postures explained above.)
- SPINE: Your spine should be as straight as an arrow. When beginning, just straighten up as much as you can. It might help you to think of the vertebra as if they are arranged like a stack of coins would be arranged in order to not fall over. Be careful not to have an arched back as this is not the same as a straight spine.
- MUDRA: Mudra is a Sanskrit word which means ‘hand gesture’. Our mudra for peaceful abiding is called the Mudra of Equanimity – which is something we’re aiming to attain. Place your right hand on top of the left hand, palms up. Rest the middle knuckle of the middle finger of the right hand on top of that same knuckle of the left hand. The tips of the thumbs should lightly touch and the hands, right on top of the left, rest relaxed on your lap. Sometimes it’s a good idea to place a cloth across your lap for your hands to rest on so that they aren’t much farther than 4 finger-widths below your navel.
- The shoulders are relaxed and slightly pulled back. What I usually suggest is to let the shoulders float until you find a position that supports the back in staying straight. This might mean that the shoulders are raised up a bit and as long as this is comfortable for you, it’s fine. If during the meditation you feel the need to move the shoulders, do so quickly without much thought and go back to meditating. Check that your arms are not drawn tightly into the body.
- The chin is slightly drawn in toward the neck. When doing this, to ensure that your head isn’t turning down, look straight ahead and then gently pull the chin in toward the neck.
- Mouth: The teeth should not touch so that the jaw is fairly relaxed. The tongue rests on the palate, its tip behind the front teeth. The lips are closed.
- The eyes are open, however, they are not wide open. What you want to have here is the ability to gaze steadily at a point in space or on the floor or table or whatever is in front of you. Your eyelids do not have to be opened very much to do this. For tranquility meditations, the gaze is directed downward from the tip of the nose. Once the gaze is comfortable and steady, turn your attention to your mind’s focus and try not to be distracted by what the eyes perceive nor give the eyes much more attention. If you find yourself constantly engaging in what your eyes are seeing, that is distraction. You can work with that by closing the eyelids for a short period of time or by just reminding yourself to return attention to your focus.
So those are the seven points of physical posture. If as a beginner, any part of this posture causes pain, simply move that part of your body until it is comfortable and go back to meditating. Again, if the open eyes become too much of a distraction then for a while work with them closed, then open them and focus the gaze, then close them again. The point is to work up to being comfortable with the physical posture. Don’t be discouraged if that takes some time or if your body for whatever reason can’t do some parts of the posture at all. Do as much as you can physically and then turn your attention to the techniques for what we could call the posture of the mind.
When your body is in a good position for you, turn your attention first to the sound of the gong in the audio recordings supplied here. (Or, you can find meditation apps, many of which are free, to supply you with a beginning and an ending sound.) When the gong is sounding or when the bells are ringing, keep your focus on the experience of the sound, nothing more. Then, when the sound has completely stopped, turn your attention to your breath. At first count 21 cycles of breathing with inhalation and exhalation counting as one breath cycle. When you have finished 21 breaths, drop the counting but continue to settle your mind on your breath. You can follow the expansion of your chest as the air moves in and out or follow the movement of air at your nostrils. You can switch between these two or add others. What you want is to have a central focus for your mind to settle upon and to return to when distractions have come up. You might follow a thought, feel an emotion, or be distracted by a sound. Then just remind yourself to return your attention to your breathing.
Remembering to return to the breath once a distraction has come up might be a little difficult in the beginning, but each of you will have a different experience with it and each meditation will be just a little different, too. Distractions are to be expected and nothing that should cause concern. You simply want to remain aware of what’s going on in your mind and this is fairly easy to do – actually it’s easier to do when you don’t respond to mental events with emotions but view thoughts and feelings dispassionately and simply return to your breath. So when you find you’ve been distracted just drop the thought or the sound or the itch, whatever has caused the distraction, and go back to settling your mind on your breath.
Now, to say all this in a concise manner:
- Place your body in the physical posture but without strain or pain – so only as close to the seven points as your body can sit now
- listen to a sound, letting your mind settle on the experience of the sound
- turn your attention to your breath and count 21 breathing cycles
- drop the counting when you’ve reached 21 and rest or settle the mind on the experience of breathing
- when you recognize that your mind has been distracted, return to the breath
- end the session with a gong sound or a bell – a sound that isn’t too harsh on the ears
The audio you’ll find here for a 15-minute session of meditation will begin with 3 strikes of the gong with another one every 5 minutes. This inter-session gong can be used in two ways. One, when it sounds, if you’ve been putting effort into settling on the breath, completely relax that effort until the sound disappears. Then go back to putting effort and discipline into settling the mind on the breath. A second way this gong can be helpful is to bring you back in case your mind has been distracted for some period of time. Then its sounding will be your reminder to settle again on the breath.
With these instructions in hand, you can now begin your first meditation session.
AUDIO FOR 15 MINUTE SESSION:
A REMEDY FOR DISTRACTIONS (First Peaceful Abiding Meditation Technique):
First let me explain that what constitutes a distraction is anything that takes your attention away from what you have chosen to focus on during your meditation. One thing that needs to be said here is that whatever distracts you is neither good nor bad in itself, nor is distraction itself good or bad. It’s simply that in this particular type of meditation, our task is to settle our attention one-pointedly on one focal point so here we may want to be careful of our attitude toward our distractions because we will be really hard pressed to work with them in a positive way if we demonize them and that won’t help us to reach the goal of being at peace.
To explain this a little more, if you have been distracted by a thought, the thought itself is not the difficulty. What’s happening is that your mind is doing what it is used to doing and that is, following thoughts. This is the habit we all have and it’s one we can work with very skillfully in meditation.
Earlier I talked about how thoughts can lead to emotions that prevent our minds from experiencing a state of peace, and that these were called afflictive or disturbing emotions. While that is true, if because of that we label all thoughts and all emotions as negative, it will make it more difficult for us to continue with our meditation. We can end up falling into a negative reactive pattern and that will not help us attain a peaceful state of mind at all.
So, during your meditation, the technique teaches to simply recognize that a thought or an emotion has distracted you and return to your breath, or any other focus that you’re using, without adding more thoughts about how bad it was that you were distracted.
For example, if you are distracted by a sound, the sound in itself isn’t a hindrance to your meditation – it’s the tendency to follow the sound experience with thoughts about it that lengthens the distraction. Rather than that, simply return to your meditation immediately upon hearing or recognizing the sound. The same applies to a thought or an emotion that distracts you. Rather than considering the thought or the emotion as negative or bad, simply recognize it for what it is and return to your breath. You will get used to this over time and the remedies we use facilitate us in keeping our concentration and returning over and over again to the breath. So this becomes a repetitive action, this constant returning, and this is building your muscle for meditation, or your muscle of the mind.
So these are some of the challenges in meditation. It can be challenging to remain aware when it seems that thoughts are going through your mind faster than you ever imagined they could. The trick there is to stay with the awareness and not follow the thoughts. It can be a challenge to return to your focal point when you can’t let go of one of those thoughts. And when a thought brings up an emotion like anger or jealousy and you get lost in an imagined situation, it’s challenging to return to your breath.
Luckily for us, human beings have been meditating for thousands of years and meditators have discovered ingenious ways to handle obstacles to meditation, or we could call them the challenges of quietude.
The first remedy I’ll explain is one I like because it prompts a new perspective on thoughts themselves. We might experience our thoughts as if the content of the thought is everything and then get so caught up in that content that it becomes our inner reality. With this remedy, however, we take a look at the content of the thought and examine that rather than engage in it. So, when you find that you are caught up in a thought, you can ask yourself these questions: Is this thought about the past? Is this thought about the future? Is this thought about trying to assess my practice now?
Instructions for peaceful abiding meditation often tell us: don’t worry about the past; don’t anticipate the future; without anxious concerns about your practice, remain in the present moment of awareness. Leave the mind alone.
This gives us a new perspective and a totally new way to work with distracting thoughts. Rather than engaging in what the thought is about, look at its content and ask, is this thought about the past? Well, since the past is already gone and seeing that’s the content of the thought, can make it easier to release and return to focusing on the breath.
If the thought is not about the past, is it anticipating the future in some way? If that is the case, that future has yet to come about so, again, one can release that thought and return to the breath. There have been many times when I’ve caught myself using my meditation time to make plans for an upcoming event or a teaching but when I recognize this is all anticipating the future, it makes it easier for me to let go of the thought and return to my focus.
If during your session you’re sitting with an underlying concern about how the meditation is going, that’s also a distraction from the focus. Releasing concern about the practice will help you relax the mind into simple awareness or recognition of what’s come up without following it. Recognizing a thought when it appears and returning to the breath is the training in meditation and will facilitate your mind in settling one-pointedly on a focus. And this can be applied to any other kind of distraction. As you accumulate time in meditation, this underlying concern about how you’re doing during a session will become easier to spot and when you do, you can release it with an inner smile and return to your focus.
Now let’s talk about being distracted by a physical experience like a sound. Right on the heels of that sound comes a thought about the sound. You might think, “That’s an awful sound!” or “That sound has disturbed my meditation!” or “Maybe I need to go check on that sound.” But, since the sound is already gone at this point, you can see that a thought about it is then a thought about the past. Recognizing that the sound has come and gone, you can again simply release thoughts about it and return your attention to the breath.
There are different remedies to use in meditation but for these first 6 weeks, try working with what I’ve explained here. During your personal conversation with me, we’ll check in on how the technique and how the remedy are working for you.
I look forward to meeting with you then.