The Practice of Meditation

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We touch the depths of our being by unlearning our neurotic tendency to identify with impermanent, external phenomena.

Our state of mind is changing from one moment to the next. With the thought of something attractive we become excited. When we encounter something undesirable we become resistant. Regardless of whether the thought is pleasant or unpleasant our state of mind is affected. States of mind are like weather conditions, they are constantly in a state of fluctuation. This instability gives rise to a sense of paranoia. We feel like we have to monitor the environment for changing conditions. So, we invest a great deal of time and energy trying to avoid unpleasant situations, and seeking out more desirable ones.

This paranoia breeds aggression, and puts us at odds with our environment. We find ourselves in conflict with those who do not meet our expectations, and clinging to those relationships that satisfy our demands. Our tendency to grasp at our thoughts as solid or real is the cause of this. The problem is not the relationship itself; rather, it is our attachment to these evolving situations.

Attachment is a conceptual process. We have misunderstood the nature of thought. We relate to thought as if it were some solid-objective reality; rather than a subjective commentary on the environment. So the problem lies not in thought itself, but in the way that we relate to thought—addiction to thought, which means that we get caught up in thinking about what we think.

In meditation, we are not looking to stop our thought processes. In fact, we are not really looking for anything in particular. We are simply observing. As Thich Naht Hahn says “It is a practice of looking deeply.” We just watch. In simple observation, two developments take place. First, we change the way we relate to thought. We do this by loosening our grip on thought. When we catch ourselves clinging to thought we simply return to the breath, to the present moment. We are disengaging the tendency to cling to thought with thought, and as a result we are no longer working toward preordained conclusions, which means that we begin to discover new depths—open-mindedness.

No longer working toward preconceived conclusions opens the door to new discoveries. We now have the opportunity to see thought as it is, instead of what we thought it was. As we divest in dualistic thinking the apparent solidity of thought dissolves. This development takes place as the speed of mental activity diminishes. Ordinarily, one thought grabs a hold of the next thought at such an incredible pace that it creates the illusion of permanence or solidity. This contrived sense of permanence is the self most of us identify with, the ego. As this cognitive inbreeding is disengaged, the pace lessens. This dynamic could be compared to an airplane propeller. If the propeller is spinning at top speed it appears to be a solid disk, but when the engine is relaxed the apparent disk is revealed to be several propellers. When thought ceases to cling to itself the chaos is minimized, and the gap between each thought is discovered— the solidity of the separate self that pitted us against life is unraveled. Resting in this gap is the practice of meditation. Rather than chasing after each emerging thought, we sit in the intrinsic stillness of the gap and watch as thoughts pass by like clouds in the sky. We learn to touch the ground of being by unlearning our habitual tendency to identify with impermanent phenomena.

The path of meditation co-emerges with the path that gives rise to suffering. The path of meditation walks backwards down the path of suffering. In this case, discontentment refers to the gulf between us and content. We feel separate or apart from life, and therefore lifeless or dis-eased. There is a void or a “hole in our soul,” so to speak. This sense of division was the ego’s first words, “I am.” Shamatha {Sanskrit} meditation is the practice of peaceful abiding. Shama means “to pacify” or “peace”. Tha means “to abide.” Shamatha meditation is not about beating the mind into submission. Instead, we observe the mind, and in doing so confusion is transformed into understanding. Through this practice we discover peace in the midst of chaos, and learn how to rest or abide in these depths.

Below are the instructions for aligning the body in a healthy posture. This should be done first, and then we should align the mind by following the instructions for placing the mind. In placing the mind we are consenting to the body. If this posture is uncomfortable for you, sitting in a chair will be fine, but be sure to bring the basic principles of the posture into the chair.

Placing the Body:

1) Sit in the crossed legged position

2) Place your hands, palms down on your thighs.

3) Roll your hips forward, in order to straighten the back, and center the weight on the hips.

4) Pull your shoulders back slightly.

5) Look straight forward (forming a 90 degree angle w/ the neck & chin).

6) Allow your eyes to come to a soft gaze or close them, if you prefer.

7) Place your tongue in the roof of your mouth behind your two front teeth.

8) Take a few moments and feel your body resting on the earth. Allow your awareness to be in the body.

Placing the Mind:

1) Connect with the coolness of the in-breath at the tip of your nose. Allow the breath to guide your awareness into the body, feeling your chest and abdomen expand with the inhalation. Notice the gap between the in-breath and out-breath. Feel the stomach and lungs collapse with the exhalation. Notice the warmth of the out-breath.

2) Do not analyze the breath—simply notice it. Do not try to control the breath or breathe any certain way, just pay undivided attention to the sensation of your breath as you inhale and exhale. Feel the coolness of the inhalation and the warmth of the exhalation at the tip of the nose, and your body moving through its range of motion with the breathing cycle.

3) When you notice yourself thinking do not become frustrated. Simply return to your breath. If you catch yourself in thought and return to the basic sensation of the breath a 1000 times, that is a great practice. Do not bother yourself with thinking about not thinking, simply return to the present moment as symbolized by the coolness of the in-breath and the warmth of out-breath.