Saturday, January 9, 2016

What is Buddhist meditation?

"It doesn't matter who you used to be. What matters is who you become."
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." [Literally, it means "to bring into being, to make become."]
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 s/he is impatient with a spouse and may promise, "From now on I am not going to be so impatient." But an hour later one may be shouting again simply because, not being aware of oneself, impatience has arisen without one knowing it. 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 we were to eat a kilogram of salt it would kill us. To live in the modern world we may need a car, but if we do not follow the traffic rules or if we drive while we are a little intoxicated, a car becomes a dangerous maiming machine. Meditation is like this, it is essential for our mental health and well-being, but if we practice in a foolish way, it amy cause problems. Some people have problems like depression, irrational fears (phobias), or schizophrenia, and they think meditation is an instant cure for all problems. So they start meditating, yet sometimes their problems get worse. If we have such problems, we may want to seek professional help or therapy and after we are better then take up meditation. Other people over reach; they take up meditation and instead of going gradually, step by step -- making the gradual progress the Buddha advised -- they meditate with too much energy, effort, and exertion for too long, and by going out of balance they are soon exhausted and discouraged.
  • [Siddhartha failed and failed due to over-exertion. Then he relaxed effort to a point of balance by pursuing the blissful and increasingly more refined meditative absorptions (jhanas).
  • This gave rise to temporary purification, which served as a strong basis for cultivating insight (vipassana). Trying to practice "insight meditation" without a solid foundation of concentration is almost certain to fail and leave us disappointed and discouraged.
  • Siddhartha succeeded, he later explained, with the paradoxical statement that he neither pushed forward nor stood still, that is, neither he overexerted himself into a fruitless frenzy nor sank into laziness from a lack of effort. The key to success in meditation, therefore, is balanced-effort, persistence, strong-soft (sthira-sukha) cultivation.]
As Siddhartha eventually realized, Too much exertion is as bad as not enough exertion.
But perhaps most problems in meditation are caused by ''kangaroo meditation."
[Most are actually caused by Monkey Mind, but the venerable is making another good point.]
Some people go to one teacher and do that meditation technique for a while, then they read something in a book and decide to try this technique, then a week later a famous meditation teacher visits town so they decide to incorporate some of those ideas into their practice, and before long they are hopelessly confused.
[Hopping around like a marsupial when it gets tough is no way to "meditate." Pick a technique, learn it well, practice it for long enough to see if it works.]
Jumping like a kangaroo from one teacher to another or from one meditation technique to another is a mistake. But if we do not have any severe mental problem and we take up meditation and practice sensibly, it is one of the best things we can do for ourselves. 
If the heart/mind is settled and purified, one begins to see things as they really are -- including sensing the many kinds of unseen beings that live alongside us and often impact us.
Question: How many types of meditation are there?
Answer:The Buddha taught many different types of meditation, each designed to overcome a particular problem [he detected in the person he was instructing] or to develop a particular psychological state [hidden strength in the person]. But the two most common and useful types of meditation are "Mindfulness of Breathing" (anapana sati) and "Loving-Kindness Meditation" (metta).
[The two broad classes of meditation are the cultivation of concentration and calm and the development of insight and wisdom, known as samatha and vipassana.]
Question:If I wanted to practice Mindfulness of Breathing, how would I do it?
Answer:Follows these easy steps known as the Four P's: place, posture, practice, and problems.
  1. First, find a suitable place, perhaps a room that is not too noisy and where you are not likely to be disturbed.
  2. Second, sit in a comfortable posture. A good posture is to sit with your legs folded, a pillow under your buttocks, your back straight, the hands nestled in the lap and the eyes closed. Alternatively, you can sit in a chair as long as you keep your back straight. 
  3. 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 [just under the nostrils]. This can be done by counting the breaths or [alternatively being mindful of the grosser] rise and fall of the abdomen. 
  4. 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, keep the body relaxed without moving. Keep focusing on the breath. You will probably have many intruding thoughts coming to mind and distracting your attention from the breath. The only way to deal with this normal occurrence is to patiently keep 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. [Remembering the breath, and bringing it back to mind, is said by some to be the definition of "mindfulness," known in Pali as sati and in Sanskrit as smirti.]
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, there are fewer distracting thoughts, and you have moments of real peace and stillness.
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.
  1. First, 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. May my mind/heart be free of hatred. May my heart be filled with loving friendliness. May I be well and happy." 
  2. Then one by one you think of a loved and respected living person of the same sex (like a teacher), a neutral person, that is, someone you do not know and 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 will find 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 will increase. 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. [These and the benefits the Buddha mentioned are more likely to result from practicing metta meditation to the point of absorption or jhana, a deep calm and concentration that brings about the benefits. It is not positive or wishful thinking, but an awakening of the heart/mind's latent powers to make our reality.]
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. 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 gradually transforms them.
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 monastics and laypeople set themselves up as meditation teachers and gurus when they simply do not know what they are doing. Search and pick a teacher who has a good reputation, a balanced personality, and who adheres closely to the Buddha's teachings. More

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