What is meditation?
Meditation is a technique for working with the mind. If you think of the
mind as a tool then the first step in putting it to use should be to examine it; then
reflect on how it works and its possible uses; then put it to work as efficiently and
effectively as you can. Meditation is a natural way of getting to know the mind so that we
can investigate and understand how it works and then improve it through training. It takes
a lot of practice to train the mind. How many years have you spent just basically letting
your mind do what it wants to? Can you tell your mind OK now, enough worry, just
think happy thoughts - dont wander off now. Not me. Are you the mistress or
master of your own mind?
The mind is my leader - it directs my
relationship with the world. Meditation is a way of exposing the leaders
weaknesses and enhancing its strengths. If you imagine that sending a businessman on a
management course would improve his leadership skills - then meditation is like an
(ongoing) personal leadership course.
Just as doing weights or jogging makes the body fit, so
meditation makes the mind fit. The good thing is though that you dont need any
special equipment. You dont need to be any special kind of person as long as you are
alive and have bits of your brain functioning. Thats enough to begin.
Why do you meditate?
Everything that we experience in life we experience through our mind. When we
dont understand how our minds work we can get confused and suffer. Meditation is
about investigating and learning to understand the mind. Just like anything you want to
get to know or understand, you have to study it. You stop, and you look, and then you
solve the problem. If you ever get stressed or worry a lot or just cant fit with
life or wonder who am I? Whats the point?, then meditation
is a way of preparing the mind to investigate life, or at least your experience of it.
Looking at the mind (meditation) leads to understanding (wisdom) which leads to freedom
from suffering. For this to have any meaning you need to have some insight into the nature
of suffering. If your life is all sunshine and roses, your mind clear, you get on with
everyone, then why bother meditating - just enjoy it. I meditate because I suffer - not a
lot, but enough to want it to end - for ever.
How does meditation work?
Very simple meditation is like resting. When you work your body hard you need to take a
break. The mind is not any different. All day you are processing information; sounds,
smells, feelings, etc. and your mind needs a break. Sleep takes care of a lot of stuff
but, unless you are able to fully relax, the mind holds onto things and
doesnt really rest. For example, you have an important exam, or a date, or someone
has been cruel to you and you cant let go of the worry, anxiety or fear. Meditation,
at this level, works by getting in touch, making direct contact with, the different
feelings and emotions that we experience, as a fully conscious process; as opposed to just
drifting, day-dreaming or sleeping. It is actually going right into the difficult, tense
or unpleasant mind states. Meditation is not trying to solve the problems but to relax
around them, to change the attitude to them.
On a deeper level meditation works by investigating and
understanding the nature of the mind itself. It is seen as a condition in nature, devoid
of any solid personality or lasting quality. When this insight arises one can be peaceful
with the most horrific mind states; one doesnt take it all so personally.
What are the results of meditation?
The thing you will most notice after you have been doing
meditation for a while (like at least a few weeks, or months) is a more stable, calmer
mind. Because the basic technique is staying with just one mental object (the breath for
example) this is what you learn how to do. If you are doing a maths problem you will find
you can just do that. The mind is able to focus and stay where you want it to
be - its not jumping about, getting distracted all the time. It is a lot more
content to just be with the way things are.
Another result is clarity of mind; the mind is clear and
uncluttered. Like cleaning a window - the mind is our window on the world.
Notice the difference when you look out on a sunny day. It is hard to see anything clearly
through a dirty window, everything looks a bit blurred. With a clean window all the
objects are sharp and clear - life looks crisp.
Calmness and clarity are the social or psychological
results of meditation. In relation to the religious or spiritual aspect, the (ultimate)
result is a profound insight into the nature of all things. This is the transcendence of
ignorance, knowledge of truth, the end of stress and selfishness - this is enlightenment.
Pretty amazing, huh? Like with most things it is good just to start at the beginning. I
reckon that any increase in clarity and personal well-being that results, however small,
has to be worth the work.
How do you meditate?
Mention meditation to many people and they immediately
try and bend their legs into the full lotus and posture their hands in odd ways. Not
necessary. What is important is to be physically comfortable. Keep the body erect with the
spine straight, the head balanced evenly. The posture is firm but not tense. Sitting on a
chair is OK and lying down is fine but you tend to fall asleep, so it is not recommended.
Choose a clean and quiet place. The main thing is to keep things simple.
Mental activity and general stimulation through the five
bodily senses (eyes, nose, tongue, ears and skin) are what makes the mind busy - uptight -
stressed out. How to minimise this?
Silence is a very powerful tool in meditation; this stills
the ears. Close the eyes gently; this stills the eyes. Use a cushion to tip the pelvis
forward, it helps to keep the back straight. The beginning and the end of the day are the
best times for sitting meditation. Choose one (usually simple) thing as your meditation
object. Use this object to focus your attention on. Concentration is the key to begin
with. You can use almost anything as your meditation object - the breath, a candle or a
flower (with eyes half open), a simple phrase you repeat, the touch of moving a string of
beads. Try using the breath. If it is difficult to focus at first, try a couple of deep
breaths just to get the feel of it. Put your hand on your belly or chest and
actually feel the breath move the body. Where do you notice it most clearly? At the nose
tip? the tummy? the chest? You could make it easier by counting each in-breath. Count from
one to ten and then start again at one. Keep doing this and just relax. How long is it
before you lose count? Where does your mind wonder off to? You will probably find that the
mind will get bored and restless and start thinking about other things. Be patient.
Dont expect any special experience or signs, just practise relaxing. When your mind
wanders off, just come gently back to the breath. Again and again. Just about any other
time is also a good time to meditate - waiting for the bus - at the dentist - doing file
backups - waiting for the kettle to boil - there are lots of spaces in a day when you can
turn quietly inward.
My favourite summary on how to meditate is:
2) LOOK and
I dont know anyone who finds meditation easy, but I know for me that it gets
easier the more I practice. The result is peace in the heart. The result is feeling less
of a victim to the whims of the mind.
Which form of meditation do you follow and why - samatha or vipassana?
Samatha - tranquility, calmness (a result of samadhi -
concentration); and vipassana - insight and wisdom, are two sides of the same thing i.e.
meditation. It is like the head and tail of a coin; you cant pick up just the head
and not the tail. You need a degree of calm and concentration in the mind to be able to
investigate nature (the mind; the world). You need a degree of wisdom, reflection and some
insight into suffering (dukkha) to see that it is made worse when the mind is loose and
unfocused. The two techniques can be worked on separately, for example, you can exercise
the arms with one exercise and the legs with another. But the purpose of all exercise is
to improve general health (if you exclude vanity). I apply my efforts where I see my
weaknesses; with the aim of moving away from unhealthiness. So, if I have been very busy
and my mind is all stirred up, I begin my meditation with some samatha. Regardless of the
technique, the inclination is always toward harmony, peace, Nibbana.How does meditation
improve your samadhi?
Even if you are only using meditation for relaxation, just
stopping and being still settles the mind. With the natural restraint that arises from
meditation there is less agitation in the mind, the mind is having to process less
things. The mind is not bigger, but because there is less stuff in
it, it is more spacious, tidier. There is more clarity of mind - the mind is
sharper. Samadhi is one aspect of meditation - the mind that is concentrated,
focused on an object. Focus is not fuzzy, but clear and sharp. Practising meditation is as
much about getting concentration as it is about losing or letting go of dullness (which is
getting insight and wisdom).
How does meditation improve your samadhi?
Even if you are only using meditation for relaxation, just stopping and being still
settles the mind. With the natural restraint that arises from meditation there is less
agitation in the mind, the mind is having to process less 'things'. The mind is not
bigger, but because there is less 'stuff' in it, it is more spacious, tidier. There is
more clarity of mind - the mind is 'sharper'. Samadhi is one aspect of meditation - the
ability to concentrate, focus the mind on an object. Focus is not fuzzy, but clear and
sharp. Practising meditation is as much about getting concentration as it is about losing
or letting go of dullness (which is getting insight and wisdom).
How is wisdom used in the practice of meditation?
Samatha brings a spaciousness to the mind. It is in this
space that vipassana (led by investigation, observation and reflection) can take place.
The result of observing things - life, feelings, other people, nature, etc., - with a mind
that is clear and uncluttered gives rise to wisdom, insight. Wisdom is the result of
considering something and reflecting on it. Why is it like this? How
come? Why do I … ? This process can be brought to bear in all
situations, not just formal sitting or walking meditation. There are a few classic
suggestions for investigation in Buddhism. Have a go at: “All things are
impermanent.” And the follow on from that is: “Because they are impermanent,
believing that they will bring long lasting happiness only brings suffering.” Or, “The
cause of all suffering is desire.” And, how about the biggie of Buddhism - “All things
are not what I am.” Wisdom is not about intelligence or getting straight As, it is
about understanding nature - especially human nature. Ideally wisdom comes with the
experience that age brings, but meditation gives you a bit of a jump start on things.
How useful have you found the technique of anapanasati?
Mindfulness of breath, anapanasati, has been my most useful foundation for practice. As
a tool it is portable, free of charge, and always there (if you havent
got breath, you havent got a problem - youre dead). Above all it is natural,
and as such, simple. As an object for developing calm and concentration it is brilliant.
Focusing the mind on the natural rising and falling of the breath brings a lot of calm.
However, anapanasati can be a bit subtle sometimes, so I either sharpen my concentration
or use another object. Sometimes the mind is just too dull so I do walking meditation.
Do you find it easy to clear the mind for meditation?
This is a little like asking do I wash my clothes to get ready to do my laundry?
Meditation (at least samatha- calming concentration) is the process of clearing, or
stilling the mind. Maybe the question would be better phrased as Do I find it easy
to meditate? In a word, no! The mind is like an untrained, well-greased snake -
difficult to get a handle on. It takes practice to train the mind. How many years have you
spent just basically letting your mind do what it wants to? Can you tell your mind
watch the breath for half an hour and dont wander off. Are you the
mistress/master of your mind? I dont know anyone who finds meditation easy, but I
know for me that it gets easier the more I practice.
How does meditation restrain the senses?
Through the practice of meditation you become very aware of mental processes. You see
that strong sensual activity generates strong mind states. The immediate experience may be
pleasant but processing them can be quite tiring. With increased mental sensitivity the
short-term pleasure often seems less and less worth the frequent bad side-effects (have
you ever seen anyone with a bad hangover?). It is not so much that meditation
restrains the senses but more that one feels less inclined to be bothered with
the work of sensual over-stimulation; one sees the pain resulting from sensual
indulgence and more and more appreciates the peace of a simple lifestyle.
How does meditation help to stop the five hindrances?
Also see above. It is not so much stopping the hindrances as seeing the pain involved
around them and so feeling more inclined to overcome, avoid, transcend them. With
increased awareness of the mind you begin to see cycles of reaction - habit patterns. The
framework of the five hindrances can help you to identify your character type
or highlight certain personality weaknesses. There is a simile in the scriptures that
compares the hindrances with various types of water: Sense desire is compared with water
mixed with manifold colours, Ill-will with boiling water, Dullness & Drowziness with
water covered by mosses, Restlessness and Worry with agitated water whipped by the wind,
Sceptical doubt with turbid and muddy water. Just as in such water one cannot perceive
ones own reflection, so in the presence of these five mental Hindrances one cannot
clearly discern ones own benefit, nor that of others. Fancy having a mind
covered with moss? Having reflected on the hindrances, even memorised the list, when you
sit in meditation past actions bubble up and you can more clearly see patterns
which once noticed can more easily be avoided.
What are the purpose and importance of posture, chanting & mantra in meditation?
Posture, chanting and mantra are all things that we do. Because we have a
body we do all sorts of things. There is some choice in this. We can use our
posture to be sexually provocative, or to give a suggestion of humility, or of arrogance,
or whatever. Its not that any posture is so special but we notice and reflect on how
different postures affect the mind. How does it feel to bow to your friend? How does it
feel to shake your fist at your friend? In relation to the question, we generally use
postures that are gentle and modest; these tend to have a calming effect. Similarly with
chanting, the use of words of kindness, compassion, generosity, love etc. tend to produce
those kinds of feelings both in the listener and the speaker. Mantra is usually a simple
sentence or phrase with some meaning. It works on two levels: firstly, the meaning is
mentally absorbed through repetition (try using Love as a mantra for half an
hour) and there is some reflection on the meaning. Secondly, it functions as a meditation
object - like the breath, it is simple and when repeated calms the mind.
All three - posture, chanting and mantra - set up
boundaries, restraints on physical action, which help contain the mind and this helps the
Do you meditate alone or in groups?
We do both. Even though I may be sitting in a group the work of meditation is very
personal. The advantage of group sitting is that one feels supported - others are making
an effort and one is less inclined to fidget or get up to do something else. Also I follow
the group leaders direction rather than just follow my own preferences. The
advantage of being alone is that when I am by myself I can set a schedule to suit my
needs. If I want to sit for two hours I can, if I want to sit for half and walk for half,
I can. I can chant a mantra, without disturbing others. In both situations the idea is to
watch the mind. Do I resent being told when to sit and when to walk? Do I just waste my
time reading a magazine when I am left to set my own schedule? It is important to accept
personal responsibility for ones practise, whether in a group or alone. We have a
nice expression in the monastery using the image of the donkey - No carrot, no
stick. There are no special prizes for being diligent in your meditation and nobody
telling you off if you are slack. If you are honest and mature you see that you experience
the results of your practice.
How long do you spend meditating
Usually we have a group meeting at 5:00 in the morning and chant for about half an hour
and then meditate for an hour. Sometimes I am not busy in the morning and I will sit for a
while (an hour or two) in my room on my own. We have another group meeting in the evening
when there is more chanting and another hour of meditation. We occasionally have retreats
(for a week or two) when we will do about eight hours a day - walking and sitting
meditation. However, meditating is ideally not something that you divide up into slots,
pick it up at 9:00 am and put it away at 5:00 pm. A large part of the practice is the
cultivation of mindfulness - being awake and aware in all situations. How do I feel now?
What is my reaction to this loud noise? How do I feel being with this person? If you
cant see or be aware of the mind, how can you hope to train it or change it in any
way? For example, if I am unaware of a negative attitude to sweeping leaves in the Autumn,
and just sweep and whinge, then my life will always be full of sweep and
whinge. First I must see the process, the connecting conditions - sweep followed by
whinge - and then investigate. What is the problem? Is it valid? Yes or no or whatever;
but if these mind states are never noticed, acknowledged and investigated then what else
can I expect but a life full of sweep and whinge. So meditation is a full time
affair where formal practice flows into everyday life.
Do you think anyone can meditate or must they know all about Buddhist belief before they
can do it properly?
Buddhism is just one path to freedom - some people find it useful, some not. Other
paths will suit different temperaments. Generally, if such paths have a moral foundation
they will naturally lead to contemplation, meditation - to asking questions beyond the
usual whats for dinner? or how can I get more sense
pleasure? Enlightenment is a natural aspect of human consciousness - no particular
religion has copyright. You just have to stop, look and listen. If you have a guide to
give you a few tips then you are bound to see more. This is the advantage of a traditional
form like Buddhism.
Did you have to be taught to meditate or did it come to you naturally?
The body and mind know how to survive; they have an instinctive, animal nature. Human
beings have the capacity to reflect on their circumstances that I dont think animals
have. We have a natural tendency to wonder - Why was I born? How does this work? What
happens when I die? This is natural but for most of us the development of intelligence and
contemplation - beyond just plain survival - is a learned thing, especially these days as
we are quite removed from nature. I learned how to meditate partly from books and partly
What feelings or experiences do you achieve when meditating?
The whole idea of achievement is not really relevant to meditation. It is more a
letting go of tension than a getting of relaxation; more an understanding of ignorance
(letting go of delusion) than a getting of wisdom. There are many types of experiences
that some people have (lights, sounds etc.), but the important thing to remember about
Buddhist meditation is that its sole purpose is freedom from suffering. Freedom is way
beyond experiences which just come and go. Once it has been realised and understood, it is
It is difficult to measure progress in these kinds of
things. Have you ever learned the piano, or even to ride a bicycle? Sometimes it seems as
if its all going nowhere, just a waste of time. And then somehow, something changes
and you think: hey, doing all right.
Having practised meditation for some years I average it out
and figure I am more relaxed with life, its not such a big chore. Im not
trying so hard to be anything or anyone special. Im still quite busy and have quite
a lot of responsibility but its more just doing what needs to be done rather than
trying to be successful, achieve or prove anything.
Do you feel you will ever reach Nibbana?
The first thing to do before answering this question is to define Nibbana -
not an easy thing to do. One definition is: freedom from suffering. Another is: cessation
and absence of greed, aversion and confusion. Nibbana is the goal of Buddhist practice ,
so I guess thats what Im after. Sometimes it seems like such a difficult and
long way to go. Sometimes, sitting still, a clear mind after a day of good effort in
practice, it seems to be right next to me. I always try and keep in mind that now, this
present moment is the only reality, it is the only time and place where there is
enlightenment. Being fully present in just this very moment, when there is no desire
beyond this - this is enlightenment. Conditions will change but, right now, if I can be
with that, then hey - thats it - Nibbana - bingo! (My theory number 16a.)
Generally I see that the more I live this life, and
practise in this way, the less I suffer, the less greed there is, less anger, less
confusion. As far as Nibbana as an experience - not just a theory - this is something one
realises directly. For now I just hope to be able not to take myself too seriously or do
anything too stupid.
What problems did you face when you first started the practice of meditation?
One of the main problems I had when I began meditating was restlessness. My mind had
been trained, in youth, to be busy and active, seeking (sense) objects in the world. I had
not been encouraged to contemplate the space around and between these objects. I had been
encouraged to get what I didnt have rather than be content with how things already
were; the grass is always greener. Sitting in meditation is practising
contentment with this present moment, being fully content with just this. The busy mind
tends to find peace a bit boring. Sitting still is not always easy.
Does meditation involve extreme introversion?
Buddhism is often referred to as the middle way so anything extreme should be regarded
with caution. The Buddhist eight-fold path is often summarised as sila (morality), samadhi
(concentration) and paa (wisdom). All three need to be developed in equal
measure to attain enlightment. There is a nice story exemplyfying this about three boys
going to visit a temple. On the way they pass a flowering tree and think how nice it would
be to offer some of the flowers at the temple shrine. The blooms are too high on the
branches for even the tallest of the boys to reach so they agree to work together. Sila
kneels down on the ground to form a strong base - morality is always the foundation of any
activity. Paa stands on his back as he is the tallest but still has to stretch
to the limit of his reach and feels a bit unsteady. Samadhi is very strong and holds
Paa firmly. With the combined efforts of the three it is finally wisdom that
reaches out to pick the beautiful flowers.
Introversion is a tricky word as it has two meanings -
psychological and pathological. I often wonder, not settling for thinking of it as the
brain, where is the mind? Is it inside, outside, both inside and outside,
everywhere, is it universal, individual? Generally meditation is thought of as going
inward but if I am not this body then what is going where? It is good to keep a
sense of the cosmic or spiritual in mind with meditation as this helps not to take any of
it too personally. I think introspection might be a better word than introversion.
What are the dangers regarding Buddhist meditation?
Meditation is about working with the mind and there is much about the mind that is
unknown - thats why we meditate. Intense development of concentration can result in
the release of certain energies or bring about unusual states and if one doesnt have
a well-balanced lifestyle this can be difficult. It is not recommended that people with
psychological problems take up meditation without suitable guidance.
The process of meditation entails an opening up of
consciousness. Many memories are not available to the conscious mind because of
repression, avoidance (because of the pain such memories hold), denial, lack of time etc.
With the relaxation that comes through meditation, often old or long forgotten memories
and feelings pop up. If these are particularly powerful they can be a bit
overwhelming. This is not unnatural, and is more a difficulty than a danger. The danger is
not really with the meditation but with moving into a neglected or abused mind. Like a
machine that has been badly used and poorly maintained, when you start it up there is a
worry that something might fly off in your face. Contact with an experienced teacher,
especially to get started, is always helpful.