Why meditate?

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 true nature of things which leads to the attainment of Nibbana. The path through this practise is described in the texts as the 'direct path to liberation'.

Apart from this, the beneficial effects of meditation in relieving stress related problems and the resultant feeling of well-being are now well established.

How does Buddhist meditation differ from other forms of meditation?

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). This technique was well known long before the time of the Buddha.

The other form known as vipassana, translated as 'mindfulness meditation' is unique to Buddhism. This practise develops insight into the true nature of things, essentially their impermanent nature. The Buddha described the development of mindfulness as the 'only direct way' leading to the complete liberation of mind and the ultimate truth, Nibbana.

Both forms of meditation should be practised. Samatha meditation is an essential tool in developing mindfulness. Developing concentration is essential to discipline the mind, and prevent it from wandering, jumping from one thought to another.

Therefore 'Buddhist meditation' can be regarded as the practise of samatha-vipassana.

Which form of meditation should I follow?

A good starting point 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 – tip of the nose or the the nostrils. The breath is an ideal object of meditation, being neutral (not arousing any attachments or emotions) and is conveniently available at all times.

The breath can be used as the object of meditation for both Samatha and Vippassana. In the practise of Samatha , the concentration is focused at a single point, namely the point at which the breath enters and leaves the body. With practise, the mind will gradually stop wandering and focus on the object of meditation.
In Vippassana (mindfulness), the meditator's attention is directed to the details of the breath. That is, when the breath enters or leaves the body, the meditator is aware that the breath is entering or leaving the body. The meditator is also aware if it is a short or a long breath etc. The important thing is, this is a process of pure awareness of the process in a detached manner.

Sitting down in meditation may be regarded as a training excersice. One should extend the practice of mindfulness to everyday life, eg being aware of thoughts that arise in the mind, bodily sensations and movements etc.

In Buddhist meditation, eradication of defilements of the mind (such as anger, hatred etc) and the path leading to release from the cycle of exsistance is vipassana. Samatha is a useful practice to calm the mind which will be helpful in developing mindfulness.

In the initial stage, regular practise for about twenty minutes a day is highly recommended, which can be extended as one progresses.

What is Metta meditation?

Metta has been translated as meditation on ‘loving-kindness', or 'universal love’. Another appropriate meaning is 'loving-friendliness'. This is an important meditation based on the Karaniya Metta Sutta. It has been developed to alleviate ill-will, anger, unpleasantness and to improve human relationships. The word ‘love’ here does not imply any attachments as commonly understood.

Loving-kindness is an altruistic and friendly feeling without expecting anything in return and entirely free from any lustful or selfish desires.

How can one judge the progress of meditation?

The objective of achievement does not apply to meditation - it is more of a matter of letting go. In fact, striving for achievement is likely to cause feelings of desire which will be a hindrance.

The degree of concentration will vary from day to day, which is quite natural. On certain days, especially after a hard day’s work, one may not achieve the degree of relaxation normally experienced. The important thing is not to be deterred - be aware of the feelings and carry on. The best time of the day is early morning, when the mind is fresh and is least agitated with the days activity.

The changes that take place with regular practise are subtle and may take weeks if not months before they become noticable.

Some indications of progress are if one feels increased states of peace and calmness, and feels less agitated, worry and anxiety.

When one has reached some degree of practice, the guidance of an experienced teacher is recommended.

I find it hard to sit cross-legged – is the posture important?

A cross-legged posture is not essential, but has the advantage that it provides a good balance in which the meditator will neither topple over nor drop off to sleep. For anyone used to sitting in a chair it will be very uncomfortable at the start, but will improve as the joints become more flexible. A cushion may be used to sit on, with the legs resting on the floor. A rug or carpet will ease the pressure on the legs, as a hard floor will cause some discomfort.
Alternatively try a chair with a straight back. The important thing is that the posture in which you meditate should be comfortable and conducive to an alert state of mind. The spine should be kept upright and avoid leaning against the wall.

Meditation Postures

Can meditation be used to develop mystic powers?

The object of Buddhist Bhavana is not to develop mystic powers (known as supernormal powers in the texts), but to cleanse the mind of defilements and develop insight which enables one to see the true nature of things. When meditating, some may experience images of bright lights, unusual sounds etc, but these are not to be considered important. It is important not to get 'hooked' on such experiences.

The Visuddhimagga, a text on meditation, describes the methods used to cultivate the states of mind in order to develop the jhanas (absorptions - a high state of concentration). It is said that when one achieves state of 4th jhana, one may also develop the five supernormal powers: divine eye (clairvoyance), divine ear (clairaudience), being aware of others thoughts (telepathy), recollection of past lives, and various other powers such as levitation, disappearing and appearing at a distant location instantly etc.

These powers are difficult to achieve and may hinder the path to enlightenment. They should only be regarded as mere by-products of the meditative practice.

Under the vinaya (the code of discipline) the Buddhist monks are prohibited from displaying any supernormal powers (if they acquire them).

When one is reading an interesting book or engaged in intense concentration when playing a game of chess, is this a type of meditation?

Definitely not! The concentration and awareness in meditation is achieved by focussing the attention exclusively on the object of meditation (eg the breath).
This has the effect of slowing down and calming the active thought process. In deep meditation, the thought process ceases and a state of pure awareness is experienced.

When absorbed in reading a book, the thought process is involved in appreciating the story line, and similarly when concentrating on playing a game, the thought process is very much active in working out how to defeat the opponent and win the game.

Is Meditation safe?

Meditation is quite safe for normal persons.
In fact, Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) used in medical care to treat conditions such as anxiety and depression is a secular form of Vippasana.
When one reaches higher states of meditation, it is recommended that it should be done under the guidance of an experienced teacher.