“Meditation is the art of focusing 100% of your attention in one area.”
Meditation for Beginners: 20 Practical Tips for Quieting the Mind
Meditation in Buddhism is where the rubber hits the road. Reading this book, or any book, on Buddhism is helpful insofar as it gives you some idea of what Buddhists are up to and lets you think with better information about whether you want to be Buddhist or not. But, as we suggested before, book learning is useful, perhaps necessary, but it is less than half of the whole deal. If you decide that you do want to be Buddhist, and you keep hearing people like me and Buddhist teachers talking about “the path,” you may wonder, how do I travel this path? Is it a literal path somewhere that I have to travel to India or Nepal to find?
It is not. You can travel the path in your own house. The way you travel the path, primarily, is to meditate. Meditation, like all of Buddhism, is really very simple. It might not seem that way to you now, mostly because it may be new and strange, but as you get to know it better, it should look ever more simple. This is an important point to keep in mind, especially if, like me, you have a tendency to make things too complicated. The good/bad part of meditation is that it allows you to start seeing your own mental habits, good and bad.
When you first start meditating, you may think your situation is getting dramatically worse, and you may be horrified at some of the things you notice about yourself. You’re not getting worse, you’re just noticing for the first time things that have been going on in your head that you had never noticed before. The choices are not whether to have bad mental habits or not to have them, the choices are to notice them and try to eliminate them, or ignore them and let them continue to run your life from your subconscious. Again, our most important and influential thoughts are subconscious, but you can bring them into conscious awareness by meditating, which is just choosing to pay attention to your own mind in a way you likely have never done before.
We’ve discussed the concept of precious human birth, that Buddhists see being born a human as a great opportunity, but it’s a great opportunity in the sense of getting early parole from prison for good behavior. If you’re here, reading this book, you are stuck in samsara and should want to get out. (I have a hard time imagining why a fully realized individual would bother to read this book, but if you’re out there, welcome, and please forgive me my solecisms.) Again, at this exact moment, you may be pretty happy. You may have a decent job and enough money in the bank and a nice place to live and a running car and a reasonably happy relationship, etc. May it be so. Congratulations. But remember, all is impermanence. This ain’t gonna last forever. You never know when you’re gonna come down with some dread disease, and even if you avoid that, you’re going to get old, and as the old saying goes, old age ain’t for sissies. And you know you’re going to die eventually. We all do. Even the historical Buddha died, after his awakening.
Meditation is a skill. That means you can learn to do it, and you will improve with practice. The term the Buddha used was “bhavana,” which means cultivation. Cultivation is a useful metaphor for meditation. Your mind before you meditate is like an uncleared field, quite fertile, but untamed, with a random array of plants growing willy-nilly. Your goal in meditation is to exert some control over the fertility of your mind, certainly not killing off all that grows there, but pulling the weeds to encourage the growth of flowers and crops.
Consistent with this metaphor, the great thing about meditation is that, in the long run, if you keep it up regularly enough long enough, it just makes everything better. It allows you to realize that happiness comes from the inside and does not depend on external circumstances. Look at the Dalai Lama. Any time you see him, he is smiling and looks pretty happy. Yet he had to escape his homeland after the Chinese invaded and knows that the Chinese continue to oppress his people, who mostly make the world news these days when they catch themselves on fire in protest. The point is not that he doesn’t care about his people. He cares deeply. He just realizes there is nothing he can do to change the situation right now, and most of his peeps are Buddhist, too, so they share his worldview and see their current plight as part of a big, impermanent world, such that their suffering is finite.
The Dalai Lama still meditates several hours every day, as he has done since childhood.
Sounds good, you may think. But how do I do this? Again, it’s simple. There are many meditation techniques, and you should feel free to shop around a bit if you like to look for one that suits you, but the basic concept boils down to focusing your attention deliberately for a period of time in order to increase your ability to concentrate and turn down both the speed and volume of your inner chatter. People often like to draw the analogy to muscles when they discuss meditation. Your mental faculties are like your physical faculties in that they will grow stronger if you exercise them.
So, pick a quiet place where no one will disturb you. You can buy a meditation cushion if you like, but you don’t need to. You can use a pillow if you like. The big square thingys are zabutons. The smaller, block-like thingys are zafus. There are also meditation benches, which you sit on with your legs tucked back underneath the bench. In sitting, the rule is to get your knees below your hips. Spend as much or as little as you like, but be aware that, the more you meditate, the less important your apparatus will become. In general, the apparatus should not be your focus. Another way in which Buddhism can seem strange to modern Americans is that things don’t really matter very much, being impermanent and all. If you drop a wad on a designer meditation cushion, I won’t say you’re doing it wrong — you can and should still meditate (boy should you meditate), but you are kinda missing the point. This is not a contest.
You may also create an altar if you wish. If you choose a specific school and practice at a center, they may have opinions about what an altar should have on it, but pretty much anything that is consistent with your practice is fine. A statue or other representation of the Buddha is an obvious choice. If your school has a specific person identified as its founder or lead teacher, you might want to have a photo of that person as well.
If you can sit comfortably on the floor, do so. Cross your legs easily. Do NOT bother trying to get into full lotus unless you can do so comfortably. Since Americans rarely sit on floors these days, doing so at all is likely to cause you some measure of discomfort. Attempting full lotus, with one foot on each thigh, as opposed to half-lotus, with one foot on the opposing thigh and the other foot on the floor underneath the upper leg, is just asking for pain. The goal is to minimize distractions and full lotus will certainly be a huge distraction if you’re not accustomed to sitting that way. You may sit in a chair if you like. You can actually meditate in any posture, standing, lying down, even walking, but start out sitting. Again, if you’ve picked a school and a center, do what they tell you to do. Most places will teach you their basic meditation technique for free.
Once you’re seated comfortably, notice your whole body. You can do a mental catalog, starting at the top of your head and working downward through each body part to your toes. For some teachers, this is meditation, the whole deal, and it’s not a bad thing to do. In particular, notice if there are any parts of your body that you have difficulty bringing to conscious awareness. We mostly don’t pay too much attention to our bodies these days, unless we’re an athlete or have some specific health problem. Note that, just as the point is not to have the most fashionable meditation cushion, the point is also not to have the most buff body. This is not a contest.
The Buddha observed that mindfulness starts and ends with the body, because the body is always with you. The absence of mindfulness is a greater or lesser situation of daydreaming, in which your mind, as we say, is elsewhere. Mentally, you can go anywhere, to Paris, or Istanbul, or Alpha Centauri, all while sitting in your office or living room or on your meditation cushion. But no matter how far your mind goes away, your body is always right here, wherever here is. Starting with a body scan is thus a good way to bring you to presence at the outset. If you’re noticing your body, you have to be present because that’s where your body always is.
The Buddha identified four foundations of mindfulness. One could reasonably capitalize that: The Four Foundations of Mindfulness. Buddhist teachers can go on at length about The Four Foundations of Mindfulness. The first Foundation of Mindfulness is mindfulness of the body, as above. I’ll intersperse explanation of the other three Foundations of Mindfulness throughout the remainder of this chapter.
To begin meditating, you need something to focus your attention on. You can use anything, a pebble, a pattern in the wall paper, anything will do, but most meditation techniques rely on the breath. The breath is a great thing to meditate on because you always have it with you. If you stop breathing, you need to stop meditating and seek medical help. If you’re very into yoga, you know that there is a vast array of highly specific breathing practices you can do. We are not doing any of those in this meditation practice, although if you do them as part of some other practice, you may continue to do them at other times. While you’re meditating in Buddhist mode, however, just allow your breath to do its thing without any interference from you. Notice your inhale and your exhale. Obviously, breathing is a bodily function, so if you focus on the breath, you are focusing on part of your body, and you always have to be present to do that.
There is a sutra, or discourse of the Buddha, called the Anapanasati Sutra, or the Sutra on the Full Awareness of Breathing, in which the Buddha explained how careful attention to the breath can provide the basis for complete enlightenment or awakening. That requires a level of sustained attention that likely none of us will be able to achieve very soon, but it does give you something to shoot for.
The key point is just to pay attention. Paradox alert: it really is that simple, except that you’ll find it’s actually quite difficult. When you sit down to meditate, you’ll get yourself all situated and start paying attention to the breath, and before long, you’ll suddenly realize you’re thinking about what to have for dinner, or what color to repaint the walls, or where to go for vacation, in short, you’re not paying attention, or you are paying attention, but not to your breath.
Note: this is not bad or wrong. It will happen to you millions of times. As a good Buddhist, you should be very patient with yourself. Everyone’s mind wanders. The Dalai Lama’s mind wanders. When you notice that your mind is wandering, just return your attention to your breath. Then, when you notice that your mind is wandering, just return your attention to your breath. Lather, rinse, repeat. Repeat, repeat, repeat. This is actually the way humans learn everything, we just don’t usually notice. If you’ve ever spent much time around a toddler and like to read to them, you’ll notice they like to read the same book over and over. And over and over. And when they’re done, they’ll want to read it again. And again. You get the point. My nephew literally wore his copy of Elmo Says out. His parent had to buy him a new one. That’s because learning language is a highly complex task and the only way to do it is by repetition.
One goal of Buddhist meditation is to develop equanimity, to accept whatever arises. So even if you find yourself thinking really rancid thoughts, thoughts you would never utter to another human being, like the desire to mutilate puppies or strangle small children, just allow them to arise, know that they are merely thoughts and that you do not have to act on them, and let them go. This is the fascinating insight that comes from meditation: how wispy your thoughts are. On the one hand, human motivation grows out of thoughts. Nothing can fire humans up like a big, juicy idea. So thoughts are incredibly powerful. Until you sit still and start noticing them systematically. Then you see them for the ephemeral, insubstantial occurrences that they are.
Note that this account of mindfulness suggests that you have two minds, or that your mind has two distinct components. There is what some call “monkey mind,” which, as the name suggests, is the part that jumps around and is easily distracted. There is also what we may call “Buddha mind,” which is the part that is always abiding, always present, that brings you ever back to presence, to mindfulness, to focus on the breath. As we’ve noted repeatedly, most of the time, we are on autopilot, meaning that our subconscious is controlling what we’re doing and we notice when something odd happens, or when we need to for some reason, but most of the time we’re more or less checked out, with our automatic filters on. We’ve also noted that our brains automatically process all inputs before presenting a coherent, usually expertly produced, film of “reality” to our conscious awareness. Part of this process is what Buddhists call vedana (which we pronounce “vay-dna”), a term that denotes the instantaneous reaction to any sensory input as positive, negative, or neutral. This is the basis for the Buddhist account of human identity as being mired in constant reactions of craving, aversion, or indifference. Once you’re aware of this concept and start meditating, you’ll start to notice that the moment any sensory input comes to you, you evaluate it automatically as pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. This is the first step in the process of cataloging it according to your experience and expectations. Mindfulness of vedana is the second Foundation of Mindfulness.
When you meditate, you can keep your eyes open or close them, as you prefer. Again, if you go to a center, they may tell you to do one or the other. Do what they tell you to do. The various schools are usually pretty coherent packages and you’ll get the best results if you buy the whole thing. The amount of time you spend meditating in any given session is not terribly important. Consistency is. Better five minutes per day every day than thirty minutes one day, then two days off and another day of thirty minutes. The old Zen saying is that you should meditate for 30 minutes every day, unless you are short on time, in which case, you should meditate for 60 minutes. Generally either first thing in the morning or just before bed are good times, because most people have a routine at those times of day anyway, so all you have to do is incorporate a new element into your routine. The very early morning (like 4:00 a.m.) is considered a highly auspicious time to meditate because your mind is still fuzzy at that hour and thus less resistant to what you’re doing. But don’t start getting up at 4:00 a.m. to meditate unless that just works for you (hint: it doesn’t for me).
The main message is consistency is key. It takes effort. Another way in which Buddhism is inconsistent with modern America is that modern Americans want everything to be fast and convenient. Meditation is neither. You should start to notice some small changes pretty quickly, but to get the most out of it, you need to settle in for the long haul. It ain’t gonna happen over night.
We have identified the first Foundation of Mindfulness as mindfulness of the body, and the Second Foundation of Mindfulness as mindfulness of vedana, or the instantaneous evaluation of all sensory inputs as pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. The third Foundation of Mindfulness is mindfulness of the state of mind. This is very important because the state of your mind has a profound influence on the fourth Foundation of Mindfulness, the contents of your mind, or the specific types of thoughts you’re having at any given moment. A worried state of mind will produce worried thoughts (hint: Buddhists are not too into worrying. The Dalai Lama says that, with respect to any situation, if you can do something about it, then do it. If you can’t, then there’s no point in worrying about it). A grateful state of mind produces grateful thoughts. A peaceful state of mind produces peaceful thoughts.
The goal of mindfulness is to achieve an empty state of mind. Sogyal Rinpoche, in The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, tells the story of another student of his senior teacher whose personal style was to persistently ask the same question over and over. One day he was pursuing this strategy with the senior teacher while the senior teacher was trying to pay attention to something else. Finally, mildly exasperated (even senior teachers get exasperated sometimes), the senior teacher said to the student, “You know that space between one thought and the next? Expand that.”
I can see modern Americans eyebrows arching as you read this. Since when is having an empty mind a good thing? When we say someone is “empty headed,” it is not a compliment. But think of it in terms of silence. Depending on your age and how many children you have, you should be able to appreciate the virtue of silence. External silence — true silence — is very difficult to achieve in the modern United States. There is almost always some lawnmower noise or traffic noise, or birds singing, or some sound audible as you sit still and stop making your own noise. But insofar as meditation helps turn down, ultimately turn off, your mental chatter, you can more easily produce internal silence, and it is glorious. The Talking Heads were right. Buddhists don’t use the word, “heaven,” but the concept is the same. “Heaven, heaven is a place, a place where nothing, nothing ever happens….It’s hard to imagine that nothing at all could be so exciting, could be this much fun….”
Everyone is busy, and, as we noticed, Americans tend to be suspicious of sitting around apparently doing nothing. But I promise you, if you can get a regular meditation practice going, you will find yourself with more time because you’ll start using all of your time more efficiently.
And that really is all there is to that.