Thursday, July 10, 2008

Everybody Can Meditate

This is an edited post of mine from another discussion list. In response to a comment on meditation one of the other people on the list commented that he couldn't meditate because his mind was too active. I've run into a few friends who say the same thing, but the fact is that the "taming of the mind" is a result of sustained meditation practice, not the practice itself. There are people for whom meditation won't work as well, but most people will get some positive results and anyone can do the actual practice.

"Clearing your mind" is not how you meditate. The idea that you turn your mind into some sort of a blank slate devoid of any thoughts or content when you sit down on a cushion is something that I've seen in fiction a number of times, but the only spiritual tradition I know of that has ever taught it that way is Aum Shinrikyo. They were a small new religious movement in Japan that went on to launch a nerve gas attack on a Tokyo subway, which I think is pretty clear evidence that they were doing it wrong. And even in their system the "blank mind" was viewed as the end goal of the process, not the beginning.

According to the Buddhist teachings that I've studied (Tibetan Vajrayana and Zen), basic sitting meditation is done like this:

(1) Find a comfortable place to sit with your spine straight and eyes softly open.

Keeping the spine straight is common to all the schools of Buddhism and Hinduism. You can meditate lying down, in my experience, but you tend to get sleepy and that can interfere with the effect. You can also sit up in a chair if the cross-legged sitting posture is uncomfortable.

Eyes open versus eyes closed is one of the differences between Buddhist and Hindu meditation techniques. The Buddhists do it eyes open, which is how I learned it. Again, one of the advantages of eyes open is that it helps keep you from getting sleepy. There's also a study quoted in James Austin's Zen and the Brain that seems to indicate closed-eye meditators reach the meditative state more quickly but have more difficulty integrating the meditative state of mind into their daily lives.

As far as looking at specific things goes, Zen teaches that you should be looking at a blank white wall. Tibetan Vajrayana teaches that you can also meditate on specific deities while looking at certain images of them - that's what they use the thangkas with the different deity images for.

(2) Direct some of your attention to your breath as you breathe evenly and deeply.
(3) As thoughts arise in your mind, simply observe them and let them follow their natural course.
(4) When you notice your attention leaving your breath, bring it back.
(5) Do this for about twenty minutes. Then you're done.

I'm convinced that anyone can do this. You only need to keep some of your attention on your breath, not all of it. It doesn't matter how many thoughts arise in your mind or how quickly they appear as long as some of your attention remains on your breath. As far as technical advice goes, sitting lotus is great but cross-legged works if you aren't that flexible, and you should set a timer for your twenty minutes so you aren't constantly checking the clock.

So how do you know whether or not you're successfully meditating? One of my Vajrayana teachers summed it up this way: Are you doing your daily meditation practice? If the answer is yes, you're being successful.If the answer is no, you are not. It sounds flippant but the changes in thinking that meditation can produce take time to develop. Practically, what you do is keep at it for a sustained period of time (say, a month or two) and see if it produces benefits in your life.

I'm not necessarily advocating anyone taking up meditation, but I will say that I've found it to be a useful technique and there a number of benefits of the practice above and beyond expanded awareness. Too many Western people seem to dismiss the idea as something they just can't do for one reason or another and that's not correct. If you want to meditate, believe me, you can.

Technorati Digg This Stumble Stumble

No comments: