WHAT IS MEDITATION?
The word meditation is a much used word these days, covering a wide range of practices. In Buddhism it designates two kinds of meditation — one is called ‘samatha’, the other ‘vipassanä’: Samatha meditation is one of concentrating the mind on an object, rather than letting it wander off to other things. One chooses an object such as the sensation of breathing, and puts full attention on the sensations of the inhalation and exhalation. Eventually through this practice you begin to experience a calm mind — and you become tranquil because you are cutting off all other impingements that come through the senses.
The objects that you use for tranquillity are tranquillising (needless to say!). If you want to have an excited mind, then go to something that is exciting, don’t go to a Buddhist monastery, go to a disco!… Excitement is easy to concentrate on, isn’t it? It’s so strong a vibration that it just pulls you right into it. You go to the cinema and if it is really an exciting film, you become enthralled by it. You don’t have to exert any effort to watch something that is very exciting or romantic or adventurous. But if you are not used to it, watching a tranquillising object can be terribly boring. What is more boring than watching your breath if you are used to more exciting things? So for this kind of ability, you have to arouse effort from your mind, because the breath is not interesting, not romantic, not adventurous or scintillating — it is just as it is. So you have to arouse effort because you’re not getting stimulated from outside.
In this meditation, you are not trying to create any image, but just to concentrate on the ordinary feeling of your body as it is right now: to sustain and hold your attention on your breathing. When you do that, the breath becomes more and more refined, and you calm down… I know people who have prescribed samatha meditation for high blood pressure because it calms the heart. So this is tranquillity practice. You can choose different objects to concentrate on, training yourself to sustain your attention till you absorb or become one with the object. You actually feel a sense of oneness with the object you have been concentrating on, and this is what we call absorption.
The other practice is ‘vipassanä’, or ‘insight meditation.’ With insight meditation you are opening the mind up to everything. You are not choosing any particular object to concentrate on or absorb into, but watching in order to understand the way things are. Now what we can see about the way things are, is that all sensory experience is impermanent. Everything you see, hear, smell taste, touch; all mental conditions — your feelings, memories and thoughts — are changing conditions of the mind, which arise and pass away. In vipassanä, we take this characteristic of impermanence (or change) as a way of looking at all sensory experience that we can observe while sitting here.
This is not just a philosophical attitude or a belief in a particular Buddhist theory: impermanence is to be insightfully known by opening the mind to watch, and being aware of the way things are. It’s not a matter of analysing things by assuming that things should be a certain way and, when they aren’t, then trying to figure out why things are not the way we think they should be. With insight practice, we are not trying to analyse ourselves or even trying to change anything to fit our desires. In this practice we just patiently observe that whatever arises passes away, whether it is mental or physical. So this includes the sense organs themselves, the object of the senses, and the consciousness that arises with their contact. There are also mental conditions of liking or disliking what we see, smell, taste, feel or touch; the names we give them; and the ideas, words and concepts we create around sensory experience. Much of our life is based on wrong assumptions made through not understanding and not really investigating the way anything is. So life for one who isn’t awake and aware tends to become depressing or bewildering, especially when disappointments or tragedies occur. Then one becomes overwhelmed because one has not observed the way things are. In Buddhist terms we use the word Dhamma, or Dharma, which means ‘the way it is’, ‘the natural laws’. When we observe and ‘practise the Dhamma’, we open our mind to the way things are. In this way we are no longer blindly reacting to the sensory experience, but understanding it, and through that comprehension beginning to let go of it. We begin to free ourselves from just being overwhelmed or blinded and deluded by the appearance of things. Now to be aware and awake is not a matter of becoming that way, but of being that way. So we observe the way it is right now, rather than doing something now to become aware in the future. We observe the body as it is, sitting here.
It all belongs to nature, doesn’t it? The human body belongs to the earth, it needs to be sustained by the things that come out of the earth. You cannot live on just air or try to import food from Mars and Venus. You have to eat the things that live and grow on this Earth. When the body dies, it goes back to the earth, it rots and decays and becomes one with the earth again. It follows the laws of nature, of creation and destruction, of being born and then dying. Anything that is born doesn’t stay permanently in one state, it grows up, gets old and then dies. All things in nature, even the universe itself, have their spans of existence, birth and death, beginning and ending. All that we perceive and can conceive of is change; it is impermanent. So it can never permanently satisfy you. In Dhamma practice, we also observe this unsatisfactoriness of sensory experience. Now just note in your own life that when you expect to be satisfied from sensory objects or experiences you can only be temporarily satisfied, gratified maybe, momentarily happy — and then it changes. This is because there is no point in sensory consciousness that has a permanent quality or essence. So the sense experience is always a changing one, and out of ignorance and not understanding, we tend to expect a lot from it. We tend to demand, hope and create all kinds of things, only to feel terribly disappointed, despairing, sorrowful and frightened. Those very expectations and hopes take us to despair, anguish, sorrow and grief, lamentation, old age, sickness and death.
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Sean Fargo is the Founder of Mindfulness Exercises, a former Buddhist monk of 2 years, a trainer for the mindfulness program born at Google, an Integral Coach from New Ventures West, and an international mindfulness teacher trainer. He can be reached at [email protected]
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