Help | Home » Theravada Text Archives » Buddhist Publication Society » The Wheel » Lay Buddhist Practice

Daily Practice

Meditation

[ Previous section | Table of Contents | Next section ]

When the last reflection has been finished, one should change from kneeling seated on the heels to a cross-legged posture, whichever one is most suitable. Those who find it difficult to get their knees anywhere near the floor may find it useful to sit in the way illustrated, with a small hard cushion (or folded blanket) 3-6 inches thick under the buttocks. One should also sit on a reasonably soft surface, and a square of folded rug, soft carpet, etc., underneath one will make for the greater comfort of the knees.

When seated ready to meditate, one's body should be upright, and yet relaxed. Carefully notice any physical strain and try to correct it. Also one must ensure that the body is balanced and comfortable before meditating -- this can be done by moving the body around while seated -- for once started the body should not be moved. Clothes should be not moved. Clothes should be loose and not constricting in any way.

Of all the sitting positions, the lotus posture is the best and firmest. But not so many people are able to get their legs into this position without a good deal of practice; so the half-lotus posture may be tried as it also makes the body firm. Other people find the lion posture better, or where none of these can be done, just sit in the ordinary cross-legged way -- but the back must be straight.[1] If it is found difficult to keep the back straight (and drowsiness and sleep are the results of sitting hunched up), then put a cushion in the small-of the back and sit against a wall. This will help to straighten the back while it gives support to anyone who has a weak back. When all of these ways of sitting are impossible a chair may be used, although it is difficult to feel really firm on a chair.

When the legs are stiff, it will be useful to try loosening the three joints of ankle, knee and thigh with these exercises: While standing, raise one leg keeping it straight, a foot off the floor. Support the body by grasping hold of something firm with the hand on the other side of the body. Revolve the foot from the ankle in the widest possible circle while keeping the rest of the leg still. Turn the foot a number of times both clockwise and anticlockwise. Then raise the top part of the leg until it is parallel with the ground and swing the lower leg in as wide a circle as possible from the knee. Do not move the upper leg. Reverse direction of swing and repeat several times. Then straighten the leg and swing it, keeping it straight, from the thigh in the largest possible circle, in both directions. Repeat these three exercises from the other leg. The whole procedure may be done two or three times a day but do not overdo it to begin with -- the result will be a lot of aching joints! After a month or two, the joints will have become more flexible and the leg muscles more relaxed. It should then be quite easy to adopt one of these cross-legged postures for a long period of time. So much for the body.

Having quietened the body and resolved not to move it while meditating, what about the mind? Most people find that it moves much too fast for their mindfulness to catch. Usually, what is called "mind" means the present time consisting of:

  Eye-         Ear-        Nose-       Tongue-      Body (touch)-
consciousness  consc.      consc.       consc.          consc.
   |             |           |             |              |
   --------------------------------------------------------
                  |
  Past(memory) --- Mind-consciousness-element --- (hopes,fears) Future
                  |
              Mind-element
                  |
    Dhamma (mental-emotional experiences)-element
                  |
                  |
       ____________________________________________
       |                  |                       |
 Wholesome mental states  |             Neutral mental states
                          |
               Unwholesome mental states

So a "mind" may be concerned with any one of the five sense consciousness, or it may be mind-consciousness-element having as object something from the past, present or the future, or again it can be the dhamma-element consisting of the three species of mental states. It will not be mind-element, which is the passive state of mind operating in deep sleep. Now a mind, or rather a mind operating in deep sleep. Now a mind, or rather a succession of "minds," which is concerned with such highly differentiated data cannot become very concentrated. Even when "minds" are not concerned with outer sensual stimulation and only with inward reflection, they will still be discursive with words, concepts, pictures and feelings, etc. In the state of meditation we try to cut out even these inward disturbances by fixing the mind upon one subject which is not discursive. This will conduce to our "minds" being only wholesome states (kusaladhamma) which tend towards concentration and peacefulness. The mental stream of "minds" concerned with many unwholesome states (akusaladhamma -- often fed by sense-stimulation), defiled by being rooted in greed, aversion and delusion (lobha, dosa, moha), are unconcentrated. Defilements lead to mental troubles, among them distraction, dullness, boredom, drowsiness, lust, attachment and aversion. But the absence of defilements means the growth of strong wholesome states and hence of increases in clarity and concentration.

So when one has sat down already and made one's body comfortable, then reflect a little: This is not the time to think about the past or the future. Even thoughts about the present must be put down now. This is the time to quieten and concentrate the mind. To follow the Way of Lord Buddha to make the mind firm and unshakable. Now I shall only observe my meditation subject...Breathe in...out...in...

Two subjects in particular are suitable for a Buddhist who has no direct contact with a meditation teacher. One is mindfulness of breathing, the other the development of loving-kindness. There are many other subjects but these two are the most widely used and can usually be employed (given due care) without a meditation teacher's guidance. Here, each one will be treated briefly, as there are other books in which they are dealt with in greater detail.

Mindfulness of breathing[2] was, by tradition, the subject used by Gotama in his efforts to attain Enlightenment. It is most suitable for promoting calm and concentrated states and so for quelling the distracted mind. It is taught in a number of different ways but in all of them the meditator must first find one point in the breathing process where the breath can be watched. Concentration upon the breath entering and leaving the nostrils, or upon the upper lip, is good for encouraging clear and concentrated mental states, except for people who experience some tension in the head, or for those who find this subject too subtle. For both types of persons, or for people when affected in these ways, to concentrate upon the rising and falling of the diaphragm is beneficial. When one has sat down and begun meditation it is advisable not to change one's subject (except in case of fear or some other strong defilement, see below) but from time to time as the quality of meditation practice changes, for better or worse according to circumstances, the point of concentration or even the subject may be changed as it becomes necessary.

One should view the meditation subject as a medicine to cure the diseases of the mind (distraction, drowsiness, and so on), and as the symptoms of those diseases change, so the subject of one's meditation can be changed. For instance a person practicing with mindfulness of breathing may find that he is being disturbed by angry thoughts: it may become necessary then for the control of such thoughts to switch to the meditation on loving-kindness. However, before changing the subject of meditation, it is very helpful to get the advice of someone who is well-established in meditation practice.

Having fixed upon one point for watching the breath, keep the mind there. You can judge for yourself how successful you are by what happens after this. If the mind is continuously just fixed on "breathing-in-out" with no other sense-objects, not even of other parts of the body, and no discursive thought, then one is doing well, for meditation is fine and calm. If you do perceive other sense-objects, for instance, loud or soft noises from outside, but your mind is not shaken from the concentration, on breathing-in-out, merely having awareness of them which returns immediately to the breathing when they cease, without discursive thought, concentration is good. If the mind is mostly fixed on breathing-in-out but also strays to body (touch) consciousness elsewhere round the body but still without discursive thoughts, then it is not so bad. But if one's breathing-in-out-mind is frequently disturbed by other mental states consisting of ideas, pictures, etc., then there is still a lot of work to do. Even if one's meditation is up to the first standard, there is no need for complacency as there is plenty more to do. The more advanced aspects of meditation do require guidance and one should make every effort to get in contact with a reliable source of teaching.

The time that one gives to meditation must depend upon the individual although less than 15-20 minutes is of little benefit unless the mind is very well concentrated. Also, it is a good discipline to resolve to practice every day and at the same time (in so far as outside circumstances like work allow). One should not practice on some days but not on others. This shows a wavering mind and cannot accomplish much. And when one has determined to meditate every day one should also resolve to practice for the same length of time each day, not one day twenty and next only five minutes. If one's practice is not regular then this shows weakness of the mind and such a mind is good at suggesting "Today it is too hot," "Today I am too tired..." and a thousand and one other excuses. The best time for meditation is early morning when everything is quiet and while the mind and body are rested. If one meditates once a day then this is the best time to do it. Some people like to meditate twice and do some practice also in the evening. However personal experience will soon make it clear that while hunger is not conducive to meditation, neither is a full stomach. Tiredness may also be a limiting factor in the evening.

The Development of Loving-kindness[3] is another very valuable practice. It aims at the dissolution of angry, averse states of mind and the increase of that kind of love which is cool, capable of extension to all and non-possessive. A word here about love. In English we have only this one word which has to describe a great range of emotions, whereas in Pali there are several words describing three levels.

The lowest is the one we share with the animals: lust, which is based on powerful desires for pleasant feelings and is completely selfish. This kind of love does not consider others at all and cares only for self-gratification. In Pali its name is kama (a word which has the wider, meaning also of the objective stimulants of the senses and the defiled sensual stimulation in the heart). When there is no kama, deliberate sexual intercourse is impossible (as for the Arahants). Kama causes sex to appear attractive and is strengthened when the senses are not guarded. Hence the Buddha's injunction for bhikkhus to restrain their senses, to some extent (for instance, limiting the amount of television that he watches, and other distracting amusements), and this will help to limit the arising kama making for greater peace of heart. Second is sneha, the viscous attachment which holds families together. This love is not totally selfish but rather regards the attachment as a bargain out of which oneself and others get something. For instance, the husband gets home cooking while the wife obtains security to rear a family. The terms of this bargain, of course, may differ quite widely. But sneha is only capable of being extended to a few people who are involved in this bargain. By contrast, metta or loving-kindness, is a love not hot with lust nor sticky with attachment: it is cool and does not consider personal benefits. The person who has metta is concerned with the happiness of others before he thinks about himself. No human relationship can last long and be of great benefit if it is not founded on metta, for only such love can be extended to other beings generally and without limitation to some group. Usually our relations with other people are made up of kama sometimes, sneha frequently, with a sprinkling of metta now and again. From the point of view of meditation practice, kama hinders it while metta helps it.

Metta must be practiced first towards oneself. That is to say, one cannot love others unless first one has established love in one's own heart. To try spreading metta to others before strengthening it in oneself is like a poor man who proposes to give out money for others" benefit. To have metta for oneself means a relative absence of conflicts in oneself, to be at peace with oneself. So the first thing to do in sitting meditation is to repeat over and over again: "May I be at peace." When the mind becomes calm and one can feel about one's heart the brightness of metta then it is possible to start practicing it towards other people. Having cultured loving-kindness in one's heart, one may next picture any person whom one respects deeply and constantly wish for that person "May he (or she) be happy!" Having developed towards that person the same, or greater intensity of metta, then go on to see in the mind a person with whom one is just friendly, and after that a neutral person. Only then may one consider a person who is disliked or even one who is hated. In each case, the emotional tone accompanying the mental picture should be the same and only when it has reached the same intensity should one move on to the next person to be considered. It is useless to begin with those one dislikes as such practice is merely the extension of what is already there -- aversion -- rather than the development of something new -- metta. To begin with the disliked just wearies oneself and gets one nowhere. In this meditation, thoughts of loving-kindness must be backed up by the emotional feeling associated with loving-kindness, if they are to be really effective in ridding oneself of aversion.

This power of metta is used to break down the "walls" which we erect around ourselves, the walls of aversion and dislike, so that metta, properly practiced, becomes by deep meditation not only widespread but infinite in extent. One to whom each person and each living being are equally dear, who wishes happiness for all sentient beings, visible and invisible in every direction and state of existence, whose heart is "endued with loving-kindness, abundant, exalted, measureless, free from enmity and free from affliction" has truly succeeded with this practice.

But metta fails when it falls into either of two extremes. The first of these is called "the near enemy," that is, selfish physical desire or kama. So one should not attempt to practice metta in meditation towards a person for whom one has kama. The second is known as "the far enemy" and means the opposite of metta -- ill-will, anger and so on. So much for the practice of metta as a meditation.

Besides mind, a human being has two other channels of communication -- speech and bodily action. Therefore, digressing again from what is done in the shrine-room, one should make efforts to express loving-kindness in these two ways as well. As far as speech is concerned, make an effort to cut out sharp or harsh words when they are spoken in anger, while trying to cultivate kindly speech. And as speech to be convincing has to be backed up by bodily action, one's body should express loving-kindness too. See that it performs acts of helpfulness and service. See that one is "clean-handed" -- that is, that things which could be given do not "stick" to one's hands, for generosity is a companion and supporter of loving-kindness. If one makes an effort like this with one's speech and body, it will be helpful to one's meditation on metta, while that in turn will ensure that one's good actions are not just an empty facade.

The subject of meditation is vast, as the mind with which it deals is intricate and there are many different methods suited to different minds with their defilements. In this brief section only two methods have been mentioned and their development has only been outlined upon the side of calm. The development of calm is very necessary before going on to the development of insight, in which impermanence, unsatisfactoriness and non-self are investigated, as the mind must be strong and undistracted for insight to penetrate towards enlightenment. The development of calm, cannot be dealt with here and no book, however extensive, can replace the advice of a meditation master.

It is possible that if the mind becomes deeply concentrated and states quite new to the meditator are suddenly experienced, that fear may arise. Fear can also be troublesome if an object of mind comes up, a mental picture, which is horrible to the meditator. If such fear should arise then the meditator should leave that object and turn to the Recollection of the Three Treasures, mentally repeating: "Indeed the Exalted One is thus: The Accomplished destroyer of defilement..." If the fear is banished by the first Recollection then one's meditation can be resumed, otherwise one should go on to recite "The Dhamma of the Exalted One is well-expounded..." and "The Sangha of the Exalted One's disciples who have practiced well..." until all fear is cured in the mind. This is sure to be dispelled as the Buddha has said, in the Dhajagga Sutta (The Discourse on the Foremost Banner), because one is recollecting the qualities of Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha which are "free of greed, free of aversion and free of delusion" and are therefore free from fear. This is where strong and sure Refuge in the three Treasures is shown to be so valuable, for if strong confidence in them is present fear has no chance. But the mind in which there are many doubts is easily shaken and fear can get a hold there. Well-balanced Dhamma practice should dispel the causes giving rise to fears, but if these persist it is necessary to ask someone competent in meditation how they should be treated.

At the conclusion of meditation, one should gently bring the mind back to its usual state of engagement with the senses. During this time the limbs should not be moved quickly but gently rubbed if they are cool or have "gone to sleep." when one is quite ready, then it is time to chant the Anumodana.


Notes

1. The lotus posture is made by placing the feet, soles up, on the opposite thighs. In the half-lotus one foot is on the opposite thigh, the other under the opposite upper leg. In the lion posture, one lower leg lies over the other, the foot on the knee, or slightly behind it. [Go back]

2. For this in greater detail, see: "The Path of Purification," Ch. VIII, para 145ff, and "Mindfulness of Breathing," both translated by Venerable Ñanamoli Thera (from BPS, Kandy). [Go back]

3. For this in greater detail, see: "The Path of Purification," Ch. IX; "The Practice of Lovingkindness," Wheel No. 7; and "The Four Sublime States," Wheel No. 6. [Go back]


Revised: Tue 2 November 1999
http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/bps/wheels/wheel206/meditation.html