According to Buddhism, ‘Mind is the forerunner of all states’*. Everything we experience in life is through our mind.
Buddhist Meditation aims at investigating and learning to understand the mind. These techniques aim at purifying the mind, which enables one to develop the wisdom to realise the true nature of things, namely the three characteristics of existence: impermanence or the changing nature (annicca), unsatisfactoriness (dukka) and lack of a permanent soul (anatta).
The word meditation is a poor translation of the original Pali term Bhavana meaning mental culture or development which aims at producing a state of perfect mental health, balance and tranquillity.
In Buddhist practice, two forms of meditation are prescribed. One is the development of mental concentration (samatha or samadhi) which leads to one-pointedness of mind by various methods described in the texts. These practices may lead to the highest mystic states (jhana), and were known to Yogis even before the time of the Buddha. All these states are subject to the laws of cause and effect, hence they do not last.
The Buddha taught a unique way of meditation known as vipassana, which develops insight into the true nature of things, leading to the complete liberation of mind and the ultimate truth, Nibbana. This is described in one of the most important discourses given by the Buddha, the Satipatthana Sutta, 'The Setting Up of Mindfulness'. The Buddha said that this practise is the 'only direct path to liberation' (Ekayano maggo).
Samatha meditation involves focussing the mind on a single object in order to develop stillness of mind leading to a state of tranquility. There are a number of suitable objects (kasina) described in the texts. In general, the object should be plain, which should not arouse any attachment or evoke any emotions as it will not be helpful to calm the mind. One type of traditional kasina is a clay disc about the size of a dinner plate, with or without colouring added. A suitable object would be selected by the teacher to suit the personality of the meditator. In the Buddhist practice, the recommended object is the breath as it is readily available at all times. With practice, the mind will cease to wander and a state of calmness will be experienced.
When the mind is so trained to be calm and still, it becomes sharp and clear and will be open to the development of insight wisdom (sati-panna).
Vipassana ( mindfulness) on the other hand is a form of contemplation, or investigation into the nature of the mind and involves observation of things such as parts of the body, feelings, thoughts and emotions (mental objects) etc in a detached manner. The objective is to develop pure awareness of the processes that takes place in the body and mind which leads to the realisation of their impermanent (anicca, not permanent, subject to continual change) nature.
True contemplation is hard to achieve unless the mind is calm and clear. Hence, the practice of samatha is an essential aid to vipassana. These two forms of meditation should not be regarded as two distinct practices, but as two sides of the same coin, and one should try to achieve a balance between them.
Both are necessary factors in the Noble Eightfold Path, namely Right Concentration and Right Mindfulness. Siddhartha Gotama (before he became the Buddha) had achieved the highest states in samatha meditation under his teachers, but failed to attain enlightenment. After leaving the teachers and deciding to discover the truth himself, Siddhartha realised that it is the practise of vipassana that eradicates mental defilements leading to enlightenment and release from the cycle of existence (samsara)
Samatha meditation is usually done in the sitting posture in a quiet environment, away from distractions as stillness of the body and mind is essential. Vipassana, the practice of developing mindfulness, can be done anytime, anywhere even while engaging in daily tasks - one could be mindful while bathing, dressing, eating (eat slowly with awareness), preparing food in the kitchen, sweeping the floor etc
To illustrate the meditation process with an analogy, imagine a pond with five streams (meaning the five sense organs by which we experiece the world: eye, ear, nose, tongue and touch** ) flowing into it. The water in the pond is in a state of turbulence as the result of the flow of water (meaning sensory input - seeing, hearing etc) from the streams. The disturbance also stirs up rotten debris and mud (meaning mental defilements such as anger, hatred, lustful desires, etc) from the bottom, making the water muddy and unclear. This is the normal state of the mind.
If now the flow of water in the streams is controlled and reduced, the turbulence will cease and the mud will slowly settle, leaving the water still and clear. This is similar to the state of calmness experienced in Samatha meditation. However mud and rotten debris are still present, and will make the water muddy when the streams start to flow again: the mental defilements becomes active again in the normal state.
The object of vipassana meditation is to recognise the debris and 'clean them out', by seeing things as they really are, thereby leaving the water clear at all times.
Objectives of Meditation
The Buddha has stated five clear objectives in bhavana:
1. Purification of the mind - free the mind of defilements: greed, hatred and delusion
2. Overcome sorrow and lamentation
3. Overcome pain and suffering
4. Following the Noble Eightfold Path
5. Realisation of Nibbana
The Four Foundations of Mindfulness
The contemplation of awareness of the body (Kayanupassana) is one aspect of vipassana. One then goes on to contemplate the sensations and feelings (Vedananupassana), the third is contemplation of the states of mind and conciousness (Cittanupassana). Here the mind is trained to be aware of states such as lust, hatred, and ignorance. Similarly, one is aware when the mind is free from such states.
Fourthly, contemplation of the Dhammas*** (Dhammanupassana).
How does one deal with such negative states? If feelings of anger or hatred arises, be aware that feeling of anger, hatred and the fear has arisen and observe it objectively without dwelling on it. Try to isolate such feelings from the cause and just observe them in a completely detached manner. In other words, realise that 'there is anger' rather than 'I am angry'. With some practise, these emotions will loose their power and quickly fade away. Note that it is not an act of suppressing such emotions, which may be psychologically harmful.
With the development of mindfulness, one will realise that pain and suffering experienced in life is a result of how one's mind reacts to the situation.
The practise of Vipassana is to merely observe in a detached manner the object (feelings, emotions, etc) in the present moment, as they arise and pass away, leading to the realisation of their impermanent nature. This realisation comes when the mind is clear from defilements and reached a pure and a very subtle state: it is beyond the normal thought process.
The 'Buddhist way' is a very effective form of meditation taught by the Buddha, the 'Mindfulness or Awareness of in-and-out Breathing' (Anapanasati).
Here, one's awareness is focussed and sustained at a point where the breath enters and leaves the body: the tip of the nose. One should find out exactly where the sensation of the breath is felt when it enters and leaves the body. This tend to vary from person to person: some may feel it at the nostrils, the tip of the nose or the upper lip.
The Buddha recommended the breath as an ideal object of meditation, being a neutral object (not arousing any attachments or emotions) and is conveniently available at all times.
Note that the breath itself is of no importance and it is only used as an object of meditation. No effort should be made to follow the passage of the breath into the body, control or interfere with its free flow: it must flow naturally. It is not a breathing exercise as in some yoga practices.
To start, select a quiet place, away from distractions. Set aside a period of time for meditation with the firm determination not to be distracted during this time. Use a meditation posture that is most appropriate, comfortable, but not too comfortable which may cause sleepiness. A mat or a cushion may be used to sit comfortably on the floor, with the spine upright, allowing for the natural curvature of the spine. The seat should be at the level of the knees or a little higher which helps to keep a good balance and the mind alert. For those who find it difficult to sit on a cushion, a straight back chair may be used.
See Meditation Postures
Avoid leaning against a wall or some other object. Rest the hands on the lap with the palms turned upwards, right over left, with the thumbs touching. Keep the eyes closed lightly to prevent visual distractions.
It will be conducive for good meditation if the body is in a relaxed state, so spend a few minutes relaxing the body. Take a deep breath by expanding the abdomen (abdominal or diaphragmatic breathing), hold for a couple of seconds and exhale slowly, taking slightly longer time than the in-breath with a feeling of 'letting go'. Do this three or four times.
Now continuing to breathe normally, bring the attention to the point where sensation is felt when the breath enters or leaves the body (nostrils). This is the object of meditation. The mind may wander off, which is the nature of the mind. As soon as you realise that the mind has wandered, gently (without being annoyed) bring the attention back to the object (breath). This may require repeated effort many times. At the start, this may seem very difficult and will require some patience and effort. Be assured that after some practise, the wandering mind (called the 'monkey mind'-like the monkey who keeps jumping from one branch to another) will settle down and focus on the object of meditation.
As one progresses in meditation, the thought process slows down and the sensation of breath itself becomes more and more subtle, leading to awareness becoming 'one-pointedness', meaning the mind will become highly focused at one point. At this stage the normal thought process is absent.
In Vipassana, breath is also used as the object of meditation. The difference is, instead of focusing the awareness at one point as in Samatha meditation, one pays attention to the details of the breath:
breathing normally through the nose, when inhaling, one is aware that the breath is going in. Similarly. when exhaling, one is aware that the breath is going out. One is also aware if it is a short or a long breath and when a pause occurs between in and out breath, as described in the Satipatthana Sutta.
The essential technique in Vipassana is to observe and be aware of the object of meditation in the present moment, and in a completely detached manner, without allowing the mind to get involved in the process. One should not push away or suppress emotions as they arise because this may be psychologically harmful. The changes that takes place with practice are very subtle and may only be noticeable over a long period of time, hence one should not expect quick results.
Regular practise for at least twenty minutes a day is highly recommended at the start, which can be extended as one progresses. If sitting for long period is difficult, beginners may find short sessions of say 10 minutes several times a day helpful to improve concentration. A little skill acquired at each session will add up over a period of time.The best time of the day might be first thing in the morning, when the mind is free from the day's worries, but this will depend on the individual.
It is recommended that sitting meditation is followed by walking meditation. Alternatively, try starting with walking meditation if the mind is restless.
Sitting down on a cushion and meditating may be regarded as a training exercise. The experience of mindfulness gained should be applied to daily life: physical activities such as eating or walking can all be done with mindfulness, being aware of any attachments or other negative states that may arise. One could take the opportunity of watching the breath while seated in a bus or a train.
Distractions and Discomfort
Beginners may experience some discomfort sitting in the meditation posture. It may be easier to practise for about 20 or 30 minutes sitting at a time, followed by standing or walking meditation to ease any discomfort. If a leg becomes too stiff and extremely uncomfortable, shifting the position may provide some relief, but do it mindfully. Avoid shifting around at the slightest discomfort. Try observing the sensation of pain; it will increase to a maximum level and then fade away. After a while when the body gets used to the sitting posture, these discomforts will ease and it will be possible to hold the concentration for longer periods.
The painful sensations are usually caused by pressure on the nerves (unless there is a medical condition), therefore it is not harmful.
Disturbance may be caused by some external sounds, such as a passing vehicle or a bird. Be aware that a sound is heard and without attempting to identify or labeling it, bring the attention back to the object of meditation (the breath).
This is a form of mindfullness meditation in which awareness is directed at the movement of the feet, allowing breathing to continue normally.
Select a quiet place with space for about 20 to 30 paces.
If doing sitting meditation, stand up slowly and mindfully. Stand with the body relaxed, keeping the spine erect and feet together. The hands may be kept dropping down on the sides or held together in front or the back, whatever is comfortable. Keeping the eyes half closed and lightly focused about 10 feet (3 m) on the path, lift one foot slightly, move forward and replace it on the ground: there are three movements involved in walking. Be aware of the foot lifting, moving forward and coming to rest on the ground, and noting the sensation of the foot touching the ground. Now lift the other foot, move forward and replace it on the ground. Repeating, continue to move forward.
When you reach the end of the available walking space, turn around slowly with awareness and continue as before.
Alternatively, one could go around the room.
At the start, don't be too concerned about being aware of every movement of the feet. Walk normally and slowly at first when learning the technique after which the speed of walking may be increased.
It is recommended that walking meditation is practised in addition to sitting meditation. One could spend 20 minutes in sitting meditation followed by 10 minutes or longer in walking meditation and get back to sitting mediatation.
Standing meditation is recommended if there is not enough space to do walking meditation, eg in a room with limited space.
To do standing meditation, get up slowly and mindfully, holding the concentration. Stand with the feet apart at shoulder length, keeping the spine straight (allowing for the natural curveture), shoulders relaxed and knees bent slightly in a relaxed manner. The hands can be either hanging loosely at the sides or held together in front. Bring awareness to the point of contact between the feet and the ground.
If the mind is wandering, you could try tilting the body very slowly and slightly to one side and feel the change in the sensation of pressure in the foot. Repeat tilting the body slightly to the other side, feeling the change in the sensation of the foot.
Do this meditation for about 10 minutes and continue with sitting meditation.
Metta has been translated as 'loving-kindness'. A more appropriate meaning is 'loving-friendliness'. It is also known as unconditional love or universal love. This is a mindfulness meditation on based on the Karaniya Metta Sutta. The practise of metta meditation leads to the alleviation of ill-will, anger, unpleasantness and improve human relationships. The word 'love' here does not imply any attachment as it is commonly understood. Loving-kindness is an altruistic and friendly feeling without expecting anything in return (unconditional love) and entirely free from any lustful or selfish desires.
You could spend ten minutes or so preferably after Samatha or Vipassana meditation to generate thoughts of Metta. It is prescribed that metta should first be practised towards oneself, by bringing into mind positive thoughts of peace and happiness. If the mind is restless, some may find it beneficial to start meditation with the practise of metta.
Mindfully say the words (mentally or verbally):
May I be well, happy, and peaceful
May I be free from anger, hatred and ill-will
May I be free from suffering, worry and anxiety
May no difficulties or problems come to me
May I have courage, determination and understanding to overcome difficulties of life
If the formal words above do not have the appropriate effect, they may be changed to words that are more meaningful to you.
It is important to realise that the above is not a chant or a recitation of words. What matters is the development of the appropriate wholesome thoughts associated with the words.
Mentally say one phrase, pause and mindfully develop the relevant feelings of metta before continuing on to the next phrase.
When you have sufficiently developed this state of mind, free from anger and hatred, it is easy to radiate thoughts of metta towards others.
Next, bring someone you respect into mind, such as a parent, a relative or a good friend with whom you are not too emotionally involved (which might cause attachment). Then send them blessings as before:
May you be well, happy, and peaceful
May you be free from anger, hatred and ill-will
May you be free from suffering, worry and anxiety
May no difficulties or problems come to you
May you have courage, determination and understanding to overcome difficulties of life
Some may find it difficult to start the practice with metta towards oneself, then start with the above step.
After some practise when metta is well developed, it may be directed towards an unfriendly person whom you have some difficulty or dislike.
The concept can be gradually widened to include whole groups and even all beings in the entire world:
May all beings be well, happy and peaceful...
The benefits of meditation may not become apparent for some time, and beginners are cautioned not to expect quick results, because such expectations may result in disappointment.
Regular daily practice is recommended to gain good results.
* The Dhammapada
** In the teachings, the mind is classed as the sixth sense organ-receptor of thoughts
***Here the Dhammas means the Five Hinderences, Five Aggregates etc
Note: The words shown in italics are in the Pali language in which the ancient teachings are written. It is similar to the language spoken during the time of the Buddha. Similar words also appear in ancient Sanskrit language, as such concepts were known before the Buddha's time.
Eg. Nibbana, Kamma, Dhamma (Pali)
Nirvana, Karma, Dharma (Sanskrit)
Mindfulness in Plain English
More advanced reading:
Beyond Mindfulness in Plain English
The Four Foundations of Mindfulness
By Bhante Henepola Gunaratana