How to Meditate Like a Buddhist Yogin
When Buddha began to teach, mindfulness and calmness meditation were taught separately by other teachers of that time. Buddha had noted that both where useful tools, but they did not in themselves assist in changing consciousness. Without changing consciousness in a sustainable way, the benefits of both mindfulness and calmness meditation were short-lived. There would be some residual clarity or calmness respectively, but these would pass fairly quickly upon returning to the regular activities of life. Most importantly neither removed the experiences of suffering. Suffering was the word used to describe stress, emotional pain, confusion, dissatisfaction, uneasiness, aimlessness, feeling lost, and feelings of meaninglessness and lack of fulfilment, which are all still relevant phenomenon in our age.
Buddha initiated two new action sets and put them into one practice. First, he blended calmness meditation with mindfulness in sitting practice (so as to prepare a person for sustaining calmness in daily activities). Second, he had his disciples move from sitting to standing, then walking, progressing them on to more and more complex, attention demanding activities while still holding calmness. This ensured that they could take that calmness into their daily activities in life. Mindfulness provides a means for functioning in life. Calmness creates mental space for the development of non-reactiveness, emotion-free choice making, and staying in mental clarity. Combined they create the opportunity for deep level consciousness and character change, leading to a less stressful, more skillful way of living.
Before we start examining the basis, or the practices, realize that the subconscious mind can process four hundred billion bits of sensory data in a moment, while the conscious mind may be vaguely aware of about two thousand of these bits (according to “What the Bleep Do We Know”). The conscious mind can only hold and work with seven to nine pieces of information at a time. The conscious mind can only split its focus into a few different focal points simultaneously. But for the purpose of developing mental skilfulness, this is more than enough. The important thing to understand here is that short of seven to nine units of focusing power which are often not even used, everything is done by the subconscious. Everything is automated, or habit. This is good because if it wasn’t, if you had to consciously process even a small amount of what the subconscious part of the mind does, you would not be able to survive.
The subconscious is driven to be active, to grow, to expand its functions and abilities. This is at the core of the deep drive to live. Further, the subconscious mind abhors living in voidness. It is why boredom is such an uncomfortable thing. The experience of voidness is one of the reasons why the subconscious engages in incessant chatter (especially noticeable in the early stages of meditation practice). Incessant self-talk or chatter is unconsciously learned at an early age, is reinforced socially, and is furthered by habit.
Let’s talk about practice guidelines. Practice initially is only sitting, and only for three to five minutes. Then, you take a break for a few minutes and move around before going back to practice again. You can go back and forth for as long as you decide. A short practice of three to five minutes is easy to do even in a busy schedule, and short practice of skillful meditation is better than a longer drawn out unskillful practice. You can always find a few minutes in the bathroom even in the busiest of households.
When a person is taught sitting meditation, sometimes they are told their goal is to sit in mental silence and clear their mind. This to most people means to stop all thinking. My teacher says that the mind is like a tree full of monkeys. Trying to quiet the mind is like having a tree full of monkeys chattering amongst themselves. Going over to the tree and kicking it, shaking it and yelling at the monkeys to shut up will, as you might expect, have the opposite effect. Resistance to the chatter is futile. You can not calm the monkeys by acting from frustration. Only by giving the monkeys something to do, will they settle down of their own accord focussing into the task at hand. But even so this requires gentle minded patience. After years of practise the mind can go for minutes, even for days, without a single wordy thought. Before this can happen, the practice must be both deep and functional enough to work in the midst of daily activities of life. This is key.
The aim of this form of mind training is to not just to become good at sitting meditation (which is always practiced as an important ongoing basis for deepening in calmness and/or mindfulness strength). It is to be able to sustain feelings of calmness in life, whilst being fully mentally engaged and fully functional in daily activities. This calmness in the midst of activity is then used to overcome knee jerk emotional reactiveness or negative thinking and the plethora of negative emotions and experiences that tend to follow.
In this way of meditating, we use (at least) two focal points, not just one. The first focal point is mindful observation of the details of the environment. Why the environment? So that you become accustomed to staying aware and can begin your self-training to remain functional in your surroundings of daily life (with strong calmness). Any details of the environment can be used to keep the mind actively focussed. (The reason incessant chattering occurs in the mind is because the mind needs to be either active, or strongly focussed. Incessant chatter is the former.) The second focal point is the feeling of calmness. This should be practiced with the purpose of mastering the ability to stay always or at least by choice, in calmness.
These two focusses are worked back and forth. First, by strengthening each focus individually. Then, by working with them both at the same time until they are interactively integrated in a functional way into the busyness of life.
Sit comfortably, and in a relatively quiet space to start. As a way of directing the mind through the power of attention, focus mindfully on the smallest of details of anything that is around you. Mindfully means paying attention with great interest. Pay attention to the physical characteristics of any thing in the environment. Note where there is light or shade. What are the shapes, the indentations, the protrusions, the different observable textures along with colours? Alternatively you can listen for sounds as if you were listening to music or were paying attention because something important was going to be heard. Use one or all of your senses. Paying attention to details will minimize how the mind wanders. Mind wandering is nothing more than an unconsciously learned habit in reaction to the absence of directed, focussed activity. If you give the mind lots to do, it will wander less, and when it does wander it will be easier to refocus. Refocus as quickly as you become aware of any mind drifting. Practise of this will create a new habit of concentration.
Continue to choose with intent and with that part of you that is aware, to give the mind things to focus upon instead of falling back into the habit of mindless chatter. With direction and by cultivating a nonreactive open way of flowing with what happens, the habitual wild way of mind becomes tame and responsive. Noting details throughout the meditation engages the part of the mind that is trying to not experience voidness.
If you become distracted or anxious, do not fight or mentally emotionally resist. Instead make any distractions or anxiety a part of the mindfulness practice. Assign their details as part of what to look at with the mind.
If you find your mind still wandering off into self talk, calmly and gently refocus on your primary sensory focus. If anything external or otherwise distracts you, then add it to your planned focus. Pay attention to its sensory features, characteristics, its sounds, or smells, textures or tastes. If body sensations arise, be aware of them as if they are something you are watching. Make any and all distractions a part of the mindfulness. Take them in and embrace as if they were already part of your chosen focus.
Now begin with the second focus, which is feeling into calmness. This focussing will start with feeling into relaxation. If you have been looking at the various details in the environment, relaxation should naturally already be happening. If it is necessary, use a small part of your power of attention to take in the environment until relaxation occurs in the body. Observing relaxation will soon become the mental quality of calmness.
In the case where you are very distracted or anxious, stare at a spot on the floor and allow yourself to “space out.” What you will notice is that in amongst the spaciness, calmness as a feeling will also exist. Feel into this feeling of calmness and begin to ignore the spaciness until the calmness becomes stronger. This you can do again by briefly focusing into mindfully observing the environment. Without focussing on any details in particular in the environment, look around as a way of shifting the mind away from the spaciness. Once the feeling of relaxation arises, follow it in a soft manner and you will begin to feel the mind based phenomena of calmness.
Summarizing the stages of skillful development in practice:
• Before putting the two focusses together, we begin by practicing calmness and mindful awareness separately. Don’t do the two at the same time in the same sitting session until each focus begins to become easy to hold.
• Practice both parts individually by themselves back to back to strengthen them. Work them successively until you can switch back and forth with relative ease.
• Next begin doing mindfulness of the environment and calmness both at the same time. With a little repetition, you will make each stronger and more capable of working together. Do this until sustaining both together is accomplished over a period of several sessions.
• Now nudge an increase in the intensity of feeling into calmness or increase the complexity of attentiveness to details (mindfulness), whilst working them together. If for example one day your mind is spacey or distracted, and the mindful attentiveness is not clear, that would be a good time to work more on the mindful side whilst still mildly sustaining the calmness. If on the other hand your mindfulness of activities is good but the calmness is missing or diminished, calmness becomes the primary focus, whilst softly sustaining the mindfulness.
Continue to use sitting practice as a supplementary way of deepening and improving either side individually, or work on strengthening them together.
This strengthening work of what is called mindful absorption is a preliminary practice to more advanced skills. Skilfulness in mindful absorption is a necessary foundation for mind yoga trainings in concentration, dream yogas, for the various chi and mind energy healing practices, and for the skillful development of any of the siddhis (uncommon utilization of life energy).