Friday, June 11, 2010

Quieting the Mind for Meditation

Dustin Ruther, Ashley Wells, Seven Jaini (Wisdom Quarterly)

What is Buddhist meditation (bhavana)? It is development, cultivation, or bringing into being skillful qualities while putting away unskillful ones. In short, it is progress in virtue, serenity, and insight.

In Buddhism meditation, as understood in this way, is the main practice. One may never cross one's legs and sit as the Buddha sat. But in making an effort to hear or read the Dharma, learn, improve, and practice, one is "meditating." Meditation is a process used to rest, taking the mind to a serene (calm, undistracted) yet fully aware state. For it is only in this state that liberating insight and wisdom can do their job of freeing one.

"Be easy with yourself. Meditation is not about getting it right or wrong. It is about letting your mind find its true nature." - Deepak

Counting the breaths is a traditional focusing technique used in intensive sitting meditation. One begins by slowly counting each breath cycle up to ten. One might be aware, or even mentally note, "in-out one," "in-out two," and so on. Or do some variation, as long as one is consistent, such as counting after each inhalation and exhalation, feeling more relaxed with each count. One simply comes back -- without self-judgment or criticism -- as the mind drifts from its object.

The object of applied-attention is the breath, never the counting. So anything used to keep attention on the breath is simply a tool or technique to be used gently. The labor of bringing attention back again and again whenever it drifts off the object (without any annoyance or frustration but instead with a great deal of gentleness and self-love) is the process.

The purpose of counting as one breathes is turning away from thoughts, distractions, and mental hindrances giving them no further energy. All of these dissipate the natural power of the mind and hinder insight. Relaxing more with each breath, the mind becomes very serene and happy. The body may feel blissful, lighter, freed, yet attention remains on the natural cycles of breathing. It is that calming process that is producing these other effects.

Siddhartha was focusing on the breath, progressively entering and emerging from the jhanas (which temporarily purify the mind) on the night of his Great Enlightenment (maha-bodhi). It has therefore become one of the most popular forms of meditation for those seeking tranquility and wisdom. But there are other techniques that are also necessary.

Visualization is one technique to help calm an overactive mind, which is causing itself pain and problems. One might use it with each inhale and exhale. Dhammakaya (Dharma body), a large lay meditation organization that began in Thailand, promotes a simpler technique: one starts by visualizing a small crystal entering the nostril and moving through seven points in the body on its way to just above the belly button. This is accompanied by a kind of mantra, samma arahan (roughly, "right enlightenment") resonating from the crystal ball of light as it moves along its way. This visualization helps keep a busy mind focused and is inherently relaxing.

Another even simpler method of keeping the mind quiet in meditation is to listen to a guided meditation program. Guided meditations are great for those just starting out. In this way, someone else is suggesting the scene, the sights, sounds, and feelings.

A very loud or unruly mind may need more. Mantra meditation is the repetition of a simple syllable, word, or phrase until the restless mind is pacified. The most famous sound is the universal "Om" (aum), a sound that when done correctly starts at the back of the throat and moves through the whole mouth ending with the vibration of closed lips (ah-oh-um). It is repeated silently in place of discursive thinking and other mental distractions. (Remember, there's plenty of time to think in every moment of life if one wishes. But meditation means outer and inner silence, the inner-silence being the more important of the two).

Meditating in this way the mind will become bored with the repetition if it is thinking. But eventually the freedom from thinking is the fruit of peace. Freedom from thinking is a direct knowing free of unreal proxies for knowledge like thoughts, ideas, concepts, definitions, and all that discursiveness represents. Boredom is never the goal; inner-peace is the rare and precious thing being cultivated. Boredom is a byproduct of expectations and results from craving, aversion, and delusion. If there's boredom, one can soon expect restlessness or sleepiness.

Happiness is possible under any circumstance when one is freed of thoughts, delusions, worries. And there is great protection in it. Many may think thoughtlessness is fearful. But it is mindfulness -- bare awareness of what is without judging, evaluating, adding, or detracting. It is the path to wisdom beyond thought, reasoning, and arguing.

The mind may wander and one may be distracted when starting off. But you soon one gets past it and the techniques and methods drop away as unnecessary and cumbersome. When the mind can rest on the breath, undistracted, there is no need to use a tool. One may again pick up the tool, but it is only in the service of getting to that calm, inner-silence, and peace.

With great serenity, with the purification of mental-unification (the calm, collected mind) that absorbs with the object, one is ready to undertake insight practices (vipassana) such as those taught through the Art of Living, that lead to permanent purification and wisdom. Until then, continue in happiness. Because as it is famously explained, "One should not ask, 'What is the way to happiness?' Happiness is the way!"

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