What is the most versatile tool you could think of? You may say a Swiss Army Knife, which in one package provides you with a knife, a saw blade, a pair of scissors, a bottle opener, a screwdriver and several other appliances.
There is a similar multi-purpose tool for the mind and that is meditation.
You may consider meditation mainly as a means for relaxation and focusing your mind, but it could be a lot more than that. In fact, you could find a meditation for most aspects of enrichening your life.
Building concentration. The first step in most meditation traditions is to practice how to focus the mind. This is mostly done by sitting down in a dignified position for 10 or more minutes, either cross-legged on a pillow or on a chair, and focus on a single object. It could be a phrase (mantra) or an image, but most commonly on the breath. We always carry our breath with us, and each single breath has a beautiful uniqueness that could be explored.
As easy as this may seem, it is in fact exceedingly difficult, and you will constantly find yourself drifting off in thoughts. This is the normal way for the brain to work, it’s default mode, and shouldn’t be seen as a failure in the meditation. When it happens, as it does also for seasoned meditators, you just gently redirect your mind to the breath – over and over and over again, with no regrets. Welcome whatever arises, without judgement or discrimination.
Over time with regular practice, it will be easier and easier to identify when the mind is drifting and possible to hold the concentration on the breath for longer and longer periods of time. Then, it will be possible to come back to the breath as an anchor for concentration and relaxation at any time during the day. You will find that with regular breath meditation, you will be more grounded, more harmonious, less stressed out and better able to cope with the adversities of life.
From time to time, you may also find yourself in a state of total blissful absorption where the boundaries between yourself and the outer world fades away and the sense of a separate “self” disappear. In the Buddhist tradition this state of absorption is called samadhi.
Receptive awareness – mindfulness meditation. When having cultivated the practice of concentration for some time, you could in a state of concentration start to open your mind to all the sensations within and around you.
While concentration is the yang of meditation (masculine, focused, powerful, penetrating), awareness is the yin of meditation (feminine, open, welcoming, expansive).
In a classical mindfulness meditation, you start with getting into a state of concentration through awareness of your breathing. Then, while still being aware of your breathing, you progressively scan all parts of your body starting with your feet and mentally working yourself upwards to your head, while focusing on all its different sensations, without judgement and emotions.
If you have an itch, recognise it as an itch but don’t act on it. If you experience pain, stay in the pain, explore it, identify it as pain that is there, but is not you and not part of your identity. By cutting through the emotional layers, even severe pain could be bearable.
Then, explore your feelings and emotions. Are you happy, sad or in a neutral state? Maybe, bitter or angry, or perhaps excited? Could you locate your feelings and emotions to a specific part of your body? Why do you have these feelings? Stay inquisitive, but don’t be dragged away by them. See yourself as a neutral observer, trying to understand what is going on, but not being part of the drama. Once you have identified a feeling, and observed it, let it go like you drop a pebble in the water of a pond, and then turn to next feeling.
In the final step you could do the same with your thoughts. Again, try to observe them rather than be dragged away by them. Try to see from where they are coming, and where they are going. Do this with open curiosity and without any judgement.
You could also focus on your sensory experiences; what you see, hear, smell, taste both during the focused meditation and as a practice of mindfulness outside meditation.
By regularly practising a neutral and non-judging mindful openness to your bodily sensations, feelings, thoughts and sensory experiences, you will find yourself in better command of your life. You will be less incapacitated by pain, ruled by emotions or caught in dwelling over things you can’t control. You will also be more observant on what is happening with you right now in this moment, and this openness will increase your creative abilities.
Cultivating positive emotions. Meditation could also be used for cultivating positive emotions like loving kindness (what the Buddhist call metta), compassion, appreciative joy at the success of others and equanimity. These states all lead to increased happiness and enjoyment of life.
In the Buddhist metta-bhavana meditation, loving kindness is cultivated during meditation by wishing happiness, health and freedom from suffering to all living beings, starting with yourself. This is important, because you can never open your heart to others if it is closed to yourself. It could be helpful to silently repeat phrases like: “May I be happy, may I be healthy, may I be free from suffering”, but most important is to really evoke these feelings from your heart.
The same phrases could then be used consecutively for a friend, a neutral acquaintance, an enemy and lastly expanded to all living beings. Remember that everyone, including your worst enemy, in their inner being wants to be loved and appreciated.
Instead of loving kindness, the focus on the meditation could be compassion or forgiveness
Like all meditations, culturing your positive emotions will not come naturally from the beginning. However, regular practice will open your understanding and compassion for yourself and for others, and thus greatly enhance your own personal growth and happiness. By opening your heart, you will gain energy and expansiveness, peace and well-being, better health, belonging and interconnectedness.
Contemplating the nature of existence. The fourth tool in the meditation toolbox, is the gradual unveiling of the underlying truths of all our existence. This is both a mental exercise of understanding with the intellect and to integrate this understanding in a deeper way in our being.
In the Buddhist practice, a cornerstone is the idea that everything is in a constant state of change. The full realisation of this, including ageing and eventually our own and everyone else’s death is a strong impetus to get rid of our attachment to worldly things – an attachment that is a major reason for our suffering.
We are also in much less control of our lives and what happens to us than we would wish or like to admit. We are caught in a complex web of internal and external factors, including the numerous decisions and life choices of others. Sometimes, we just need to break lose from this and do what we need to do regardless of everything else.
A deeper understanding of these truths comes from meditation on the unpredictability and impermanence of everything, also with a focus on our own ageing and coming death. This practice may seem depressing but could instead be very uplifting. A realisation that every day we wake up could be our last, makes us better appreciate what we already have. As contemplation on death requires a positive mindset, it could be good to start with a metta-bhavana meditation.
Instead of focusing on ageing and death, you could also be exploring the nature of self or your inner terrain. Who am I? Why do I react in certain ways? What is the basis of my life patterns? Who is God? What is the meaning of life? Such meditations should not be a session of “thinking”, but rather seeking insights from your inner, based on your previous contemplations and reflections outside the meditation. Again, absorb the sense of the question for a while and then let it drop as a pebble in a pond.
And next… As you can see, meditation could be a lifetime endeavour with the potential to greatly enrich your life. To some extent you could practice by yourself at home aided by meditation books or recordings of guided meditations. But to fully utilise the potential of this wonderful tool, you will need to seek inspiration and guidance and sharing experiences with others that are on the same path.
And remember, meditation is like learning to play an instrument. The benefits will not come by themselves, they need practice. And the more you practice the more advanced you will be, and you will find the efforts being less and less. And one day, you may find that you have reached a state of pure being – a state Buddhist meditator call effortless effort, which is the real point of meditation.
This blog post was inspired by:
Dharmachari Kamalashila. Buddhist meditation: tranquility, imagination and insight.