Chapter Three
Establishing a Meditation Practice
 
 BuildAPractice_small
 
 
If we are practising right dhyana , there will come into
development and manifestation all kinds of meritorious qualities.
The body will become bright and transparent, fresh and pure; our minds
will become happy and joyous, tranquil and serene; hindrances to our
practice will disappear and good thoughts will spring up to help us;
our respect for the practice will increase and our faith in it will
deepen; our powers of understanding and wisdom will become clear and
trustworthy; both our body and mind will become sensitive and flexible;
our thought will be less superficial and more profound.
12

 

Chi-I

 
The first few months after taking up a meditation practice are often characterized by a general `freeing up' of energy.  You will probably enjoy a general sense of calm and clarity, and feel inwardly refreshed.  You may experience a happy, confident feeling of `being yourself' and find that you are able to approach life in a more open-hearted, creative way.
 
Other people, also, will notice that you are changing, and (provided all this does not go to your head!) they will enjoy your company more, since you will tend to be more communicative and friendly.
 
daily practice
 
These improvements are the direct result of meditation, so they depend on our actually doing it.  To experience lasting results, we really do need to meditate regularly.  It is best to practise every day and build up a routine.  Then our practice will develop a momentum of its own, the positive benefits of meditation will stand out more clearly, and we'll generally feel more like doing it.  Motivation is important.  If we are to keep up our interest, we need to see that our meditation practice is effective - something that is working for us.  All this regular meditation is going to require a little self-discipline, but that doesn't mean forcing ourselves - it just means finding ways to make regular practice enjoyable and satisfying.  We need to look for creative approaches to our meditation.
 
making regular practice enjoyable
 
One simple idea is to make a habit of meditating at the same time every day - any part of the day or night will do for a start.  Think of that time as your meditation time.
 
For many people the early morning is the best part of the day for meditation - the mind feels more calm and peaceful.  I have known people who always get up before the rest of the household, being careful not to wake anyone, in order to meditate.  They find that practising at this quiet hour gives them a fresh start to the day, whereas there may be disadvantages to meditating later.  In the evening they may be tired, or people may want to visit; there may be other distractions too, like television.
 
Others will find it impossible to get any peace in the morning at all.  They find that everyone around them is usually in a rush, and at that time of day all they can think about is what they have to do later on.  For them, the evening can be an excellent time to meditate: the day is over - they can relax peacefully and forget about their work.  In the city it can also be pleasant to meditate very late at night, when everyone is in bed and the street noises die down.
 
meeting other meditators
 
If you do decide to meditate regularly, it's a commitment, and that needs support.  Meditation practice benefits from the encouragement and inspiration that you can get from others.  I hope that reading this book will give you some confidence, but it will not be enough, on its own, to support your practice.  This is why some teachers say that meditation cannot be learned from a book.  I agree with them.  Live instruction is far more meaningful than the printed word - it is easier to grasp the essentials when you see the manner in which someone is teaching.  A meditation class provides an opportunity for discussion and questions.  Meditating with others now and again is also stimulating and inspiring.  If you only practise on your own, the way you assess your meditation may lack perspective.
 
Contact with more experienced meditators can show more clearly what is happening in your practice.  Most people have occasional periods when their meditation seems to be getting nowhere.  At such times, contact with more experienced meditators is very helpful - they can provide inspiration and vision just by `being themselves’ - you can learn something important from them even if you don't have any particular questions to ask.  It also helps to make friends with other new meditators, because you can see how meditation is changing them, and see that they sometimes experience similar difficulties.
 
So if you like the approach of this book, try to find a Buddhist centre near you that teaches these basic practices.  If you live too far away, it could be worthwhile making contact by letter or telephone.  Simply making a connection could make all the difference to your sense of engagement with meditation.  And you may discover that a teacher is visiting your area, or that a meditation weekend or a longer retreat is available.
 

 
meditation retreats
 
A retreat involves going somewhere quiet, getting away from the bustle of day-to-day life, and spending more time meditating.  Once you have been meditating for a month or so, an event like this will give you a deeper experience of what meditation can be like, and so help you to establish your practice on a firmer footing.  The retreat will be organized by a local Buddhist centre.  It may be of any length, ranging from a day or a weekend to a fortnight or more.  Different kinds of retreats cater for different levels of experience and needs.  But the essential point of all retreats is to provide a complete break in order to concentrate on meditation practice.  The improved conditions will allow you to connect more deeply with your meditation.  The event will be held in the country, or at least somewhere fairly quiet, and the opportunity to meditate undisturbed can make a very great difference.  On retreat you can meditate at your best and experience your mind at its best.  It is worth making the effort to get to one as soon as you feel ready.
 
getting in the mood
 
preparation for meditation
 
Sometimes we seem to be in the mood for meditation, and at other times we don't.  But there are ways of encouraging a more meditative frame of mind.
 
Preparation can make all the difference to our ability to concentrate.  If you leap enthusiastically on to your meditation cushion immediately after a lively conversation, or directly after work, or last thing at night when you are tired, it will probably be much more difficult to meditate than usual.  If you try to meditate with a full stomach, or straight after a physical work-out, you will not be properly ready; the result, again, is likely to be a difficult meditation.You can only meditate properly if your state of mind enables you to put aside the rest of your life and concentrate just on the present moment.  You need to be able to `let go' unfinished tasks, matters you want to discuss with people, and preoccupations of every kind.  Unless you can let those things go, they will linger in your mind and interrupt you when you are trying to concentrate.  So every time you sit, you need to be able to isolate yourself - as much as possible - from your current preoccupations.  You need to create something of a `gap’ - a space between the ordinary activities of your life and your meditation practice.  This can be achieved through taking a break with a cup of tea, or going for a brief walk - anything that you find calms you down and brings you `back to yourself'.  During this period, try to become as aware as possible of your body, your feelings, your emotions, and your thoughts, so that when you actually start to meditate you are fully present and in harmony with yourself.  If you always make some space of this kind, you will find that when you sit to meditate, your energies will be more available for the practice.
 
finishing a meditation session
 
The way you say `goodbye' to a friend can affect the whole future of your relationship with them.  Similarly, the way you leave a meditation session can have a strong effect on your overall practice.  It matters that you finish off a session of meditation properly.
 
It is important, for example, to conserve any calm and clarity which you gain in a session by leaving gently and quietly.  Getting up abruptly, and immediately involving yourself in some stimulating activity, will at once scatter the concentration you have developed.  Of course, if you have a busy schedule it may be more difficult to avoid this sort of thing.  But if you really want to, you can always avoid haste - it’s just a matter of commitment and clear time-management.  If you plan things that way, you can always leave your meditation cushion gently, with time to spare before the next activity.  You could perhaps make a habit of spending a few minutes quietly, uninvolved, before entering into the hustle and bustle of the day.
 
Leaving meditation abruptly can have a jarring effect which can create a feeling of resistance to further meditations.  But if you take care to leave with a good feeling towards your practice, you will find it a pleasure to return for the next session.
 
enjoyment and inspiration
 
Meditation practice is a living thing that needs your care and protection.  A caring attitude will help to avoid arousing too much resistance to the meditation.  There may often be a certain amount of resistance to be overcome, especially at the beginning of a meditation - this isn't normally a big problem, but when the resistance becomes strong it can be difficult to deal with.  Remember that, as a general rule, you should be enjoying your meditation.  Apart from the occasional `write-off' something is amiss if you are consistently not enjoying meditation, and you need to redress a balance somewhere.  Perhaps it is the way you are working in the practice, or perhaps it is a lack of preparation, that is to blame.
 
Such a difficulty could have something to do with the environment in which you meditate.  External conditions can make an considerable difference to your concentration, so make sure you give yourself the best conditions available.  If your surroundings are very noisy, making it difficult for you to get concentrated, it is worth doing something about it - if you can.  Perhaps you could try talking to your neighbours; consider ear-plugs, double-glazing your room, or even moving house! You could perhaps spend more time at meditation classes and retreats, where it will be quiet and where other people will be supportive.
 
If you can, set up your sitting cushions and blankets permanently in a special meditation place - a corner of your bedroom, perhaps.  A permanent spot can give you a sense of stability in your practice, and will remind you about meditation.  It can help if you decorate this area in a way that evokes a peaceful atmosphere.  You might arrange a few house-plants, interesting pebbles, driftwood, or other objects.  You could place anything in this space that inspires you - I have an image of the Buddha on my small shrine, with candles and sometimes a few flowers.  When you actually sit down to meditate, fresh air, and the fragrance of smouldering incense or essential oils, can produce a serenely calming effect on the mind.  Setting up an environment in this way prepares the mind for concentration.
 
giving more time to meditation
 
If you give your practice the conditions it deserves - both internally and externally - it will begin to flourish.  You can help this process further by giving more time to meditation.  When it is going well - and you can sit fairly comfortably - try meditating for longer periods.  Meditate for as long as you feel creative in the practice you are doing.
 
There are a number of benefits to be had from extending the length of your meditation sessions.  Giving yourself a longer time-span may enable you to be more relaxed and therefore capable of putting aside distractions.  It can often take a long time to become fully absorbed in the concentration - and even to get in touch with your feelings.  Don't force yourself beyond your limits, but when you do feel like it, meditate for a little longer.  Over a period of time, gradually extend the duration of your sittings.  If, after a month or two, you are able to sit - and sustain your interest in the practice - for forty minutes or more, you will be doing very well.
 
mindfulness
 
are you ready?
 

`There is a poem', said Mr Chen [the yogi], `where preparation
is mentioned before eating'.  He smiled and referred to his notes,
and then began to read.  After hearing the first line, the listener
and the writer also smiled, for this is what they heard:
`"A loaf of bread," the Walrus said,
Is what we chiefly need:
pepper and vinegar beside
Are very good indeed.
Now if you're ready, Oysters dear,
We can begin to feed.'
13
 
Mr Chen laughed heartily, an infectious laugh in which we
both joined.
 
`But', he continued seriously, `a question is here being
asked: are you ready? Upon examination, our whole life seems
to ask this question.  Even in very hurried moments, as with a boy
crouched on the grass before a race begins, what question is asked? - are
you ready? - Even in a moment like that there is preparation.'
14

 
 
Are you ready to meditate? If you haven't prepared for a meditation session - if you haven't managed, for the time being, to put aside the rest of your life - you may find yourself spending the greater part of that session coping with the consequences.  All the energy that you could have been using for concentration may get caught up amongst all the ideas and emotions you are still holding on to in your mind.
 
Most people experience this pattern time after time.  We spend our meditation period planning what we are going to do today, working out `what really happened' yesterday, or mentally continuing the conversation we were engaged in five minutes before.  Eventually, we have to acknowledge how important it is to make ourselves ready.  We may also look at our life more broadly, and realize that being fully prepared for anything at all - let alone meditation - is a stage we still have to reach.  This is why each moment of our life is asking the question, `Are you ready?'
 
One Saturday morning I make a decision.  I decide that it is high time I went into town to buy that special part for my bicycle.  It has been on my mind for weeks, but so far I have done nothing.  The local bike shop closes at one o'clock every Saturday afternoon, and today is my only opportunity, since on weekdays I work in another town.  But still, it's early and there is plenty of time - I sit down to watch some morning television.  The programme is not very interesting, but somehow it holds my attention for a whole hour - in fact I am pulled away only by the sound of the telephone ringing in the hall.  On the other end of the line is a friend who I have not seen for some time, and there is a lot to say.  Half an hour goes by very quickly, and by the time I replace the receiver I have completely forgotten about the trip into town.  So, not knowing what to do with myself (and with a nagging feeling that there was something I had meant to do), I wander aimlessly into the kitchen.  Standing there, in a state of bewilderment, I come to the conclusion that I ought to do something, anyway.  Eventually, inspiration comes - I decide to make a cup of coffee.  I fill the kettle with water and put it on the stove to boil.  Then I hear a faint sound coming through the wall.  It is a human voice.  A shiver goes down my spine.  Who can be in there? Then I realize that the television set is still on in the living room.  I go to switch it off.  However, this time the programme really is interesting, and I stay watching, my attention glued to the screen.  Some time later - I could not say exactly how long - my concentration is violently interrupted by a loud knock at the front door.  It is a friend, who offers to take me out for lunch.  I am pleased and become very excited.  Before we set out, I offer her a cup of coffee.  But all at once I remember, with growing apprehension, that the kettle was put on some time ago.  My mind races.  How long ago was that? And is it really lunch time already? Confused and in a mild panic, I quickly enter the steam-filled kitchen.  I furtively replace the water in the kettle, which has boiled almost completely dry.  My friend, probably noticing the expression on my face, has insisted on following me into the kitchen.  She sees what has happened and laughs.  I laugh at the joke too - but somewhat embarrassedly.  I am too ashamed to admit what her arrival has forced on my attention: the fact that it is one o'clock, that I had meant to go into town this morning - and that the bicycle shop is now closed.
15
 
This (somewhat exaggerated) account may illustrate how much our lives consist of distractions from yet more distractions! If we are not `ready', we'll have to deal with the consequences of distraction when we sit for our meditation practice.  But we don't have to be distracted - if we really want to, we can be mindful and aware much more of the time.
 
foundations for mindfulness
 
It seems that it would help us to be `ready' if we brought more concentration and purpose into our lives.
 
The idea of mindfulness certainly sounds good - if we could be less distracted, our minds would be clearer and we would be better prepared for our meditation practice.  That would tend to make the meditation itself more concentrated and the concentration would carry over into our actions outside meditation.  Generally, we would be more effective people - indeed, our whole lives would be transformed.
 
But when we actually try to be mindful of what we do, we may become uncertain.  Of what, exactly, should we be mindful? After all, so much goes on, even in a single second.  Out of all the events taking place in our mind and body - not to mention the world around us - to which of them are we supposed to pay attention? The problem is that our experience is too complex to grasp all at once.  We need to know - in immediate, practical terms - how mindfulness is to be developed.
 
The Buddha isolated four key aspects of human experience which he called the `Foundations of Mindfulness'.  They are the body, feelings, emotions, and thoughts.
16 Applying our awareness in these four areas of experience is like laying the foundation for a building: we are constructing a new kind of life, based on awareness.
 
the body
 

The expression of a well-made man appears not only in his face,
It is in his limbs and joints also…it is curiously in the joints
of his hips and wrists,
It is in his walk…the carriage of his neck…the flex of his waist and knees…
dress does not hide him,
The strong sweet supple quality he has strikes through the cotton and flannel;
To see him pass conveys as much as the best poem…perhaps more
17
 

Walt Whitman

 
Some people behave as though their bodies did not exist.  They ramble around preoccupied by their thoughts like so many absent-minded professors.  Yet it can be such a joy to be physically aware.  If we concentrate on what we are doing physically even the simplest sensations - our feet on the ground, the air on our skin - can become rich and absorbing.  Indeed, experiencing the movements of walking can become a form of meditation (which we'll explore later on).
 
When we bring awareness to the body, our actions begin to assume a certain harmony.  Our bodily expressions gain grace and dignity.  We become calm and relaxed - our whole approach to life slows down.  But though we slow the pace, we don't get less done - in fact we achieve more, because this is a more efficient way of working.  Paying attention to `the basics' makes us effective; it puts us more in control.  Bodily awareness brings us into the present moment.  It allows us to address ourselves more fully to what is happening, right now.  So it makes all our time available for use.
 
Whenever we lose this sense of `being in the present', our bodily movements become clumsy and muddled.  Sometimes children are delightful examples of this.  We may see them chattering, standing on one leg, the other curled around it, writhing their hands or rubbing their ear at the same time.  Running headlong through a room in pursuit of something, they may suddenly stop in mid-flight as a new idea occurs to them.  They may even trip over themselves, attempting to do two things at once.  They hardly seem to know what they are doing with themselves physically.  (Adults are not so different; we are often just better at disguising our confusion!)
 
Without losing our natural spontaneity, or becoming robot-like, we can aim to cultivate deliberate, clear movements in all our everyday actions.  Awareness of our physical movements can bring a more aesthetic sense into anything we do.  Whether we are opening a drawer, closing a door, rising from our seat, picking something up or putting it down, physical awareness produces a calming, maturing effect on the mind.  We can always choose to act in this clear way if we want, even if we are very busy.  Mindfulness of our body will enable us to develop bodily skills - postural awareness and ways of moving - that will preserve our health as well as our state of mind.  In some circumstances, such skill could even save our life.  Unawareness can be dangerous - accidents are usually caused by unawareness of one kind or another.  Through mindfulness, we can avoid straining our back by thoughtlessly trying to lift a heavy weight; we can save ourselves from catching a chill through not noticing that we are feeling the cold.
 
Body and mind are of course closely linked; we can learn something about our mental life simply through observing our bodily movements.  Our body has its own `language’ - its physical expressions communicate directly how we are emotionally.  Perhaps facial expressions give out the most obvious messages, the ones we are most likely to notice.  But the way people hold themselves physically can also communicate moods - we immediately sense their joy, their affection, interest, uncertainty, or aggression.  If we see the joyful spring in someone's step we know instinctively, without thinking, that they are happy.  We immediately sense that something is wrong when a friend is bowing his head and rounding his shoulders.  Sometimes we `don't know what to do with our hands', feeling restless without knowing why.  So we may put our hands in our pockets, strike a `cool' pose, or fidget.  We don't usually notice these things consciously, but if we observe ourselves, we may begin to see that our body language is expressing feelings and emotions that we had not even realized were there.
 
 

Know Thyself.

 

Inscription, Temple of Apollo, Delphi.

 
feelings and emotions
 
It is through exploring our feelings and emotions that we really start getting to know ourselves deeply.  We looked at ways of doing this before, in the chapter on Metta Bhavana.  We saw there that the key is to acknowledge what we actually feel.  Feelings are simple - just pleasure or pain, strong or weak.  Our emotions are responses to feeling.  Emotions can be more difficult to observe since they are so often complex, not to say complicated! But if we carefully watch our inner reactions to things, we'll see all the habitual tendencies operating - the continual pattern of feeling - response, feeling - response, feeling - response.  We'll see the basic attraction to whatever gives us pleasure.  Then we'll see our joyful (or perhaps greedy) response to the pleasurable thing.  (That is, if we can have it! - If we can't have it, we might start getting grumpy or depressed.) We'll see our basic repulsion from anything that gives us pain, and then maybe experience hatred - or perhaps a more serene, detached response.  Attraction and repulsion, then, are the basic emotions - they are `motions', urges to move either towards or away from an experience.
 
The human tendency is to `cut off' if we feel inadequate to deal with an emotion.  It is natural to feel uncomfortable with strong emotions like anger or sexual desire, and we may sometimes even pretend to ourselves that we do not experience them.  Sometimes people become chronically distanced from their experience in that kind of way.  Few of us are fully aware of our emotions.  Each of us has a great deal of potential energy that is lying dormant, trapped in a web of unacknowledged emotions, energy that could be made available by `owning' what we feel.  But, liberating though it can be, experience of emotion is not enough on its own.  The purpose of this kind of mindfulness, apart from simply getting more in touch with ourselves, is to cultivate skilful, creative responses.  Through awareness, we can learn how to develop love and compassion in all that we do, and how to avoid the impulse towards negative emotions like craving or hatred.  We can't change our feelings - pleasure and pain happen to us whatever we do - but we can learn to change the way we respond to our experiences.
 
thoughts
 
One way that we can learn to be more emotionally creative is through awareness of our thinking.  Thoughts and emotions are inseparable; each is a key to the other.  And thoughts are far more than just ideas:
 
 

Thought, I love thought.
But not the jiggling and twisting of already existent ideas
I despise that self-important game.
Thought is the welling up of unknown life into consciousness,
Thought is the testing of statements on the touchstone of the conscience,
Thought is gazing on to the face of life, and reading what can be read,
Thought is pondering over experience, and coming to a conclusion.
Thought is not a trick, or an exercise, or a set of dodges,
Thought is a man in his wholeness wholly attending.
18

 

D.H.  Lawrence

 
Where do our thoughts come from, where are they going - andwhat are they? Very often we do not know what we are thinking, even though we spend long periods of time in thought.  Thoughts are elusive things.  They seem to come and go as they please, sometimes billowing forth like majestic clouds across the sky, or darting past us like tiny fish in a stream.  With mindfulness practice, however, we can develop our ability to know what we are thinking - to spot specific thoughts, and know the direction our thoughts are pursuing.  We can also learn to see how our thoughts are based in emotional attitudes - see how often, for example, our opinions are rationalizations of desires.  This is what Lawrence means by `testing statements on the touchstone of conscience'.
 
The clarification of ideas is vital to anyone's spiritual development.  Because it develops our faculty of concentration, meditation practice brings us into closer contact with the ideas that already exist in our mind.  We can then ask ourselves what we really think.  When we observe our thoughts deeply, we will probably find that most of them are second-hand - they are a mishmash of other people's ideas (which are mostly second-hand too).  We all take ideas from our parents, personal contacts, and from the media.  Being aware of the `mishmash' is the first step towards thinking more clearly and independently.
 
tuning in to mindfulness
 
This description of the Foundations of Mindfulness has had to be brief, but at least we now have some principles for creating better conditions for meditation.  If we are aware of ourselves, we shall always be ready to meditate - in fact, we shall be ready for anything! And when we do sit to meditate it will be easier to establish concentration, because we will be in touch with our experience right from the beginning.
 
In practice, though, our experience can often seem `all of a piece', and at first it isn't that easy to distinguish the different aspects of body, feeling, emotion, and thought.  So a good method is to start with the most concrete part of ourselves - our body - and work `inwards' to the subtler aspects of mind.  Try the following, just as an exercise.
 
Take a little of your attention away from this reading, and focus it on your body.  Take your awareness through the different parts of your body and experience whatever sensations you find there.
 
Feel the skin on your face, and the variety of different physical sensations there.  You will probably find tensions and tinglings.  Experience these sensations for a while, in a general sort of way.  Then allow your attention to shift from the sensations in the eyes to those at the lips, then to the forehead and scalp in turn.  As you do this, you may feel other parts of your body relaxing `in sympathy'.  Next, move down to your shoulders, upper arms, forearms, wrists, palms, fingers and thumbs.  Then take your attention minutely down through the rest of your body - first the chest and abdomen, then round to the back and down the spine, then the hips, buttocks, thighs, knees, calves, ankles, feet, and toes, experiencing the sensations right down to the tingles on the soles of your feet.
 
Bodily awareness provides a `way in' to awareness of feelings, emotions, and thoughts.  When you are in touch with your body you are much more able to experience what you feel in terms of pleasure or pain.  The physical sensation of sitting here, for example, may be quite pleasant.  See whether it is or not.  We also experience mental feelings - we find ideas pleasant or painful.  You could ask yourself what feelings you are getting from reading this.
 
So let's say, to continue the exercise, that you are sitting here, aware of your body.  This awareness leads you to realize that you are hungry - not ravenously so, but you are definitely a little peckish.  There is almost no feeling connected with the hunger, but you can recognize a subtle unpleasantness.  As you acknowledge this unpleasant feeling, you may also notice that you have a definite emotional response to it: one of easygoing contentment.  Despite the slight discomfort you feel, you are quite happy to continue reading.  Perhaps in other circumstances you might have responded with craving and thoughts of food.  Or, unaware of your basic feeling, you might have become confused without knowing why, and lost your concentration on the reading.  But, right now, you're perfectly happy to continue.
 
So the fact that you are in touch with your body allows you to tune in to your feeling; the fact that you are in touch with your feeling allows you to tune in to your emotion; the fact that you are in touch with your emotion allows you to tune in to your thoughts.
 
Mindfulness of emotions is intimately connected with mindfulness of thoughts.  You might tend to regard thoughts as existing in their own purely rational sphere, but that is not so.  According to the Abhidharma (the ethical psychology of Buddhism) our thought always has some emotional connection.  When we get angry, we have angry thoughts.  When we are greedy, we have greedy thoughts.  When we are hungry, we tend to have thoughts about food.  If we are relaxed and patient, the mind is flexible, and we are able to choose our thoughts.
 
Awareness of our emotions and thoughts are the two most important Foundations, because emotions and thoughts are the parts of our experience that we can change.  We cannot change the fact that we have a body, or the nature of the body we have.  Nor can we change our feelings.  (We can choose what to experience through our senses but we can't determine how those experiences will feel.) But we can change our responses and we can clarify our thinking.  Since our thoughts are themselves emotionally toned, it is emotion that provides the main working ground of mindfulness practice.  Awareness of emotion teaches us how to respond in new ways, ways that promote our happiness and our development.
 
how to work in meditation
 
appreciating concentrated states of mind
 
We have considered some external factors that will help you establish an effective meditation practice.  Now it is time to consider the meditation itself.
 
the nature of concentration
 
Even if you have only tried the Mindfulness of Breathing once, you will probably have discovered something about the nature of concentration.  Even if it was just for a split second, you probably experienced some clarity of mind.  You therefore know what it means to be undistracted - what it is like to be without all the distractions, images, and thoughts which usually clatter away in the mind.  A concentrated mind is happy; it is clear, like a blue summer sky.  The more concentrated you become in meditation practice, the more you will find these distracted thoughts dissolving away.  In fact when one is very absorbed in meditation there may be almost no thought at all.
 
We usually identify mental experience with thoughts.  But the experience of meditation shows us that thinking is not necessarily the most important activity that happens in our mind.  We may discover that our mind can be at its clearest, richest, and most refined when there is virtually no thought at all.
 
Sometimes when people with no experience of meditation hear of this they jump to the conclusion that it must be some kind of vacuous, blank state.  A popular myth about meditation is that it involves `making your mind go blank'.  But thought-free awareness is a very positive and natural thing.  It is certainly not confined to meditation - people sometimes experience it in activities which they love doing.  Take gardening or painting, for example, or simply looking at something beautiful.  We can get so happily absorbed, so `wrapped up' in an activity, that thoughts simply do not arise - or, at least, very few thoughts arise.  Our attention is partially withdrawn from the outside world, to the extent that we may not even notice when someone speaks to us.  Awareness and thinking are distinct processes: we can be intensely aware of what we are doing, but hardly thinking at all about it.  The same happens (in a more direct way) in meditation: we may be closely aware of the object of the practice, yet not be thinking about it.
 
the elements of meditation
 
This aspect of meditation has led to another myth - that it is about `getting rid of thoughts'.  It is true that irrelevant thoughts often distract us.  But trying to get rid of thoughts, as a deliberate method, is not usually effective.  There are many better ways of dealing with distractions.
 
But before we start looking at possible distractions and hindrances, it is useful to know roughly what we are aiming for.  When we meditate, we should be looking for an absorbed, balanced, happy, concentrated state of mind.  And it's helpful to have some expectation that this happy state of concentration is somewhere `just round the corner', or `just beneath the surface'.  We may not actually come across it all that often - our mental states may be rather unpredictable - but nevertheless concentration is always there potentially.  In fact there is always some degree of concentration present, even when we are distracted! If we have this attitude it is much more likely that deeper concentration will arise.
 
Meditation is like flying a glider, sailing with the wind, or surfing.  We need to take the opportunities offered by the elements of meditation.  We need to ride the warm air currents, use the power of the wind, launch ourselves skilfully in and out of the waves.  And if we are to do so, we must be on the look-out for the wind and the waves.  In other words we need to be aware of the positive potential of the states that arise in our mind.  We need to be ready to `ride' our mental states as they arise.
 
One example is pleasure and enjoyment.  If we notice that we are experiencing a pleasant state of peacefulness - even if it is very slight - in the midst of an otherwise dull or distracted state of mind, this feeling is to be encouraged.  We can allow this feeling to continue, and simply experience and enjoy it, as we concentrate on the object of our meditation.  We should avoid getting distracted by the feeling - perhaps `hooking' it on to some pleasant fantasy - and simply use it as a support for our concentration.  There is a bright energy in pleasure that we can learn to channel into our practice, rather than allowing it to divert our attention.
 
Similar to this is inspiration - the deep joy and excitement we feel as a result of developing through meditation - which can even be felt physically, in the form of `goose-pimples' and `rushes' of pleasure.  Again, we can encourage this, include it as an aspect of our concentration.  Another kind of recollection that can aid our concentration is the more sober, patient kind of determination - we feel deeply that we want to meditate, that we don't want to be distracted, that we want to grow and develop.  This kind of motivation can be profoundly moving.  Another such aid can be the sense of concentration itself.  As they grow, concentration and clarity of thought have their own distinct feeling-tones which we can learn to recognize and encourage.
 
We shall be looking at these elements in more depth later on.  We need to get to know these allies of meditation - to anticipate them, to utilize their aid, and to ride upon their positive influence.  The more use we make of these allies, the less we shall have to be concerned with the hindrances to meditation.
 
hindrances to meditation
 
Paying attention to just one thing, as we do in meditation, is not always easy.  There is often a semi-conscious resistance from those parts of ourselves which want to stay in the ordinary sense-world and do other things.  There are five recognizable kinds of hindrance to concentration, and everyone experiences all of them from time to time.  If you know what they are, you can recognize them when they arise - perhaps before they take you over!
 
The five hindrances are: (1) desire for sense experience, (2) ill will, (3) restlessness and anxiety, (4) sloth and torpor, (5) doubt and indecision.
 
(1) desire for sense experience
 
Desire for sense experience is the most basic kind of distraction.  We aren't particularly interested in the meditation, and so our mind keeps getting drawn back to the sense-world.  We haven't yet learned how to find pleasure in concentration, so we can't help looking for it in pleasurable sense experiences.  If we hear a sound, it seems so interesting that we start listening to it.  We may open our eyes and start looking at all the amazing colours and textures on the wallpaper, or start stroking our limbs, enjoying the sensations.  If an idea arises, it fascinates us and we want to explore it more.
19 We may have many pleasant thoughts about our world - about what we could be doing this evening, about what we could have to eat, or ideas we have recently read about.  These impulses are perfectly natural in themselves - but they make concentration impossible.
 
(2) ill will
 
Ill will is a variant of the previous hindrance: this time our interest is stuck in some painful experience.  We are irritated - by something or someone - and we really can't let it go.  We can't stop thinking about the way we have been mistreated and about what we'd like to say, or do, to even the score.  Or maybe there is some external sound, or smell, which irritates us so much that we cannot stop thinking about it.  Perhaps some idea or opinion has struck a wrong note, and we feel we must analyse all its faults in detail.  So long as this is going on, it is impossible to concentrate our minds on anything else.
 
(3) restlessness and anxiety
 
Restlessness and anxiety gives us no peace - we cannot settle down and concentrate our mind.  We need to slow down.  We are `speedy', going too fast.  Either the body is restless and fidgeting, or the mind is anxious - or both are happening at the same time! A restless body and mind might be the result of insufficient preparation.  Maybe we sat down to meditate too soon after some stimulating activity; or maybe there is a lot on our mind at present; perhaps there is something weighing on our conscience.  If we can work patiently with this situation, meditation practice itself will eventually harmonize such conflicts.
 
(4) sloth and torpor
 
With sloth and torpor the hindrance to our concentration is dullness of mind.  We feel tired, and our body feels heavy.  There is vacuity in the mind (that's the torpor) and heaviness in the body (sloth).  Sometimes physical sloth can be so overwhelming that our head nods or we start snoring! The causes for this hindrance may lie simply in physical or mental tiredness, or our digestion may be coping with the onslaught of a recent meal.  But it sometimes seems that psychological factors may be involved - perhaps the resistance has arisen due to some unacknowledged emotion.  Again, it could also be a reflex of the previous hindrance, restless mental activity leading to exhaustion! We may sometimes alternate between restlessness and dullness, both in and out of meditation.  If so, this demonstrates a need to find some new kind of balance.
 
(5) doubt and indecision
 
Can I, with all my problems, hope to get anywhere with meditation - especially with this meditation? Is this kind of meditation practice really any good? - Can it actually do anything for me? Is this teacher any use? - Does he really know what he's talking about? And how would I know, anyway?
 
All this is doubt - and it is also indecision, since in this state of mind we cannot make up our mind and get on with the concentration.  We end up prevaricating, `sitting on the fence’ - we lose our motivation.  Doubt, in this sense, is a very serious hindrance to meditation.
 
There is nothing wrong with the sincere doubts that we are sure to have about meditation and its effects.  There is bound to be a degree of uncertainty in our mind; some things can only be found out from experience.  To a certain extent we have to take what we are told on trust and discover the truth through our own experimentation.  But we can do that only by giving ourselves wholeheartedly to our experimenting.  The doubting, over-sceptical frame of mind might often stem from self-doubt, or a rationalization of self-doubt.  We can hardly expect to concentrate without some confidence that we will be able to do it - at least eventually.
 
balancing effort in meditation
 
learning from the hindrances
 
These five hindrances are a useful checklist for assessing how a session of meditation is going.  Unless we are in a fully concentrated state, we can be certain that one or more of the hindrances is present.  The most important thing is to recognize the hindrance as a hindrance, for once it is recognized as such we can take some action to counteract it.
 
Very often the act of recognition will itself weaken the hindrance, because it immediately reminds us that the aim of the meditation is to concentrate.  However, there may be some tendency to avoid the recognition.  Most people's hindrances have their own style of `protection' built into them.  Sloth and torpor, for example, may succeed in completely walling itself off from our recognition.  It's like when we don't want to get up in the morning: our mind firstly doesn't want to know and, secondly, can keep finding good `reasons' for lying in, just for another five minutes.  When we're taken over by ill will, we probably won't want to stop picking on faults and running our minds over all the painful, unpleasant things that have happened to us.  And our doubts can immediately fulfil their own prophesies: `I can't do it'  `There.  I knew I wouldn't be able to do it!'
 
We need to recognize clearly that we are entertaining a hindrance to concentration.  There are many `tricks and tips' that can help us re-engage with the meditation - not to mention the earlier advice about looking for the positive qualities of concentration.  You can read about these in detail in the Appendix, but the basic principles are as follows.
 
principles for working against the hindrances
 
ACKNOWLEDGEMENT
 
The first principle is acknowledgement that the hindrance is actually there.  It's no good carrying on meditating regardless, trying to ignore it and wishing that it would go away.  That approach just leads to headaches and sloth and torpor! You need to take responsibility for the hindrance.  You should accept that for the time being this is your hindrance and that you need to do something about it.
 
In meditation, you need to acknowledge each new mental state as it arises.
 
FAITH IN ONE'S POTENTIAL
 
Guilt can be a problem for some of us.  Many people don't like to think that they could experience emotions like hatred, or animal-like cravings for food and sex.  Yet when their meditation experience forces them to acknowledge that in fact they do, they may feel unduly bad about it.  Such an attitude is not only extreme and unrealistic; it also blocks the possibility of progress.  In meditation, particularly, we need to cultivate a positive view of ourselves, to have faith in our spiritual potential.  This may require some reflection on our part.  But since we have the power to understand life and to choose how to act - at least potentially - then how can there be any real doubt that, with the right kind of effort, we can make spiritual progress?
 
WORKING FROM THE GROUND UP
 
The principle of working from the ground up is connected with preparation - we can never make progress without having established a basis for that progress.  If we want to concentrate our mind, we need to have established a general awareness of ourselves before we can generate a particular, more intense awareness of the meditation object.  Then, if we lose our single-pointed concentration, we can establish it again by reconnecting with the more generalized mindfulness of body, feelings, emotions, and thoughts.
 
CREATIVE USE OF ANTIDOTES
 
There are a number of ways in which we can work against the hindrances.  The first is to consider the consequences of allowing the hindrance to increase unchecked.  What if we simply did nothing about our tendency to distraction, to hatred, or to doubt? Clearly, it would increase - our character would become progressively dominated by that trait.  If we reflect on this, the importance of what we are doing may once again become clear, and the mind will be more inclined towards concentration.
 
The second is to cultivate the opposite quality.  If there is doubt, cultivate confidence.  If there is sloth, cultivate energy.  If there is restlessness, cultivate contentment and peace.  If the mind is too tight, relax it; if it is too loose, sharpen it.  In other words, whenever a negative mental state gets in the way of our concentration, we try to cultivate some positive quality that overcomes or neutralizes it.
 
The third antidote is to cultivate a sky-like attitude.  Sometimes the more we resist a particular mental state, the stronger it seems to get.  If the previous two methods don't work, try the `sky-like attitude': the mind is like the clear blue sky, the hindrances are like clouds.  With this way of working, we accept the fact that the hindrance has `got in', and simply observe it.  We watch it play itself out in our mind - we watch the fantasies, the worries, the images - we watch whatever arises.  We watch closely, but we try not to get involved.  Getting involved only feeds the hindrance.  If we observe patiently, without getting involved with the hindrance, it will eventually lose its power and disperse.
 
Fourthly, there is suppression.  This is something of a last resort: we just say `no' to the hindrance, and push it aside.  This is most effective when the hindrance is weak, and when we are quite convinced of the pointlessness of playing host to it.  If the hindrance is very strong - or if there is an element of emotional conflict - we may find that using this method creates unhelpful side-effects.  Tension, lack of feeling, and mental dullness commonly result from an over-forceful approach.  The best rule of thumb is therefore to use suppression only with weak hindrances.  If we are in a positive, clear state of mind, it can be quite easy to turn such a hindrance aside.
 
Finally, there is Going for Refuge.  Sometimes, we completely fail to deal with the hindrances; we spend the whole of a meditation session, or part of it, in a distracted state of mind.  When this happens, it is important not to lose heart.  We need to see that session of practice in the perspective of our overall development.  Unconscious tendencies are strong in all of us, and sometimes there is bound to be struggle.  We may need to remind ourselves that we did the best we could, that we made a sincere effort.  Some good effects are certain to result from that effort, even though we didn't experience its fruits in that meditation! Going for Refuge is not so much a way of working against the hindrances as an attitude with which we try to connect after a meditation session.  We need to reaffirm our commitment to our practice - in traditional terms, we need to go for Refuge - to our development of higher human qualities in the direction of Enlightenment (symbolized by the Buddha), to his teaching (the Dharma), and to all those who practise it (the Sangha).
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balancing your efforts
 
You will find more information later about ways of working in meditation.  In the Appendix, for example, there is a detailed list of ways of counteracting specific hindrances.  But you already have plenty of information to use.  Just remember the basic points: recognize which hindrances are present, and when you work on them, do so in the spirit of the principles that have been mentioned, like acknowledgement and faith.
 
A MIDDLE PATH
 
You should make all these efforts in a balanced way - you need to tread a middle path between too much and too little effort.  If you are too easygoing and lazy - if you don't make any particular effort to become concentrated, don't encourage positive qualities, don't bother to avoid the hindrances - you will tend to drift in a hazy, unfocused state of mind.  That is one extreme.  On the other hand, if you force yourself too hard you will tend to become rigid and inflexible.  Later on, there will probably be some kind of reaction: force can lead to dullness or headaches.  You can find a middle way between these two extremes by ensuring that there is just enough tension, and just enough relaxation.  We need to sharpen our attention at some times, and relax it at others - relaxing when our mind feels too tight, sharpening when it feels too loose.
 
When we get beyond these hindrances and achieve a steady stream of balanced concentration, we will become especially relaxed and especially energized, both at the same time.  When these two states - the bright, joyful energy, and the deep calm - arise together, we enter a state of absorption.  This is a state of consciousness known traditionally as dhyana (Sanskrit, jhana in Pali).  We shall be exploring the various levels of dhyana over the next few chapters.
 
some auspicious signs

 
Those who accomplish such good things as these
In every place unconquered do abide,
Moving in perfect safety where they will
Theirs are the most auspicious signs of all.
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The Buddha

 
If we practise regularly we will soon notice the benefits our meditation is having.  We will probably see some signs of progress during our meditation itself - perhaps feeling unaccountably happy and peaceful.  Ecstatic sensations of bliss may sometimes arise.  We will also find outside meditation that we are happier, that our life seems to carry on more smoothly, more under our control.  We will probably find that our thoughts and ideas are clearer, and that our outlook is more expansive and creative.  We may even find that our dreams have become unusually vivid and colourful.  These are all typical results of meditation.
 
Our progress may also show itself in less definite ways.  We may simply notice that there seems to have been some kind of change, that an indefinable `something' is happening.  It may even be the response of other people that brings it to our attention - we may find people are more attracted towards us than before.  Perhaps they can sense that we are more inwardly free and content.
 
These inner changes may also present us with some challenges.  Meditation can stir up a wealth of rich new feelings and emotions, and we may be unsure of what to do with them.  We may well start seeing our life very differently and may feel like making some fundamental changes.  Such experiences are to be welcomed; they show us that we are breaking through some of our basic psychological limitations.  It is important, though, that we understand what is happening.  Meditation really can change people's lives, and we need to participate willingly and actively in the process of change - if that's what we want.  If we don't actually want to change - perhaps we just wanted something to help us relax after work - no harm is being done, but we should be aware that the meditation we are practising is essentially about spiritual transformation, and that its effects will go deep.
 
some experiences
 
A book about meditation might be useful, but it's no substitute for a teacher.  So it seems a little hazardous to write about the variety of experiences that may arise in the course of taking up meditation.  It could be rather like thumbing though a medical textbook.  You might seem to have some of the symptoms - and you might then, perhaps, arrive at some rash conclusions! When you encounter something in your practice that you don't fully understand (which you will, sooner or later), it is best to consult someone who is more experienced.
 
But books, like this one, do have their uses.  So as you read, just bear in mind that each person is unique, and that general statements can apply only in a general way.
 
What does it mean, for example, if we find ourselves experiencing beautiful colours, marvellous patterns, voices, or other sounds in our meditation? The general term for such experiences (which are common - especially for new meditators) is samapatti.
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Experiences like these can certainly seem very mysterious and exciting.  Yet they are of no great significance.  What seems to happen is that we achieve a good level of concentration, so that we are no longer aware of our body and sense-impressions.  But it is as though our senses still insist on trying to operate, in spite of the fact that they are now disconnected from the physical world.  So we experience strange distortions of sight, sound, smell, touch, or taste, as the sense-organs reel, deprived of their normal place in the world.  Since there are many kinds of sense experience, there is a huge variety of these samapatti experiences.  You may feel as though your body has become enormous - as large as a house, a mountain, or even a galaxy.  Or you may feel tiny, microscopic.  You may feel as though you have been turned upside down, or that you are now sitting facing the opposite way.  Or you may experience your body in terms of some totally indescribable physical sensation.  Usually these experiences are pleasant, if rather odd.
 
A samapatti experience like this is generally a good sign.  At least it shows that your concentration has become independent of your sense experience - though you may equally well not experience any samapattis at that stage.  Eventually these signs will pass, as you enter a smoother phase of the concentration.
 
For new meditators, the natural tendency is to get rather excited and think that they are about to gain some amazing spiritual insight.  Perhaps this is Enlightenment! But actually they are experiencing a very ordinary stage of concentration.  So acknowledge - and enjoy - the experience, while continuing to focus on the object of the practice.  The occurrence of samapattis is a matter of temperament - many people never experience them at all.  Apart from showing that a certain level of concentration has been reached, they are no indication of spiritual progress.  So don't think in terms of encouraging them - or discouraging them.
 
some difficulties
 
Sometimes people can lose interest in meditation - even though the practice seems otherwise to be going well.  Let's say that your Mindfulness of Breathing meditation is fairly concentrated - you manage to count from one to ten every time, you never lose touch with the breath, even in the later stages - yet you don't actually enjoy it much - you don't find it particularly inspiring.  In fact, you have started to find it rather boring - you practise harder and harder, but nothing ever seems to happen.  You may feel both sad and irritated about this, because you really want to meditate, want to make progress - but it is all starting to become a chore.
 
This sort of difficulty can occur if you tend to see your practice rather narrowly in terms of concentration, and it has become merely an exercise in `staying with the breath'.  Or it may have nothing to do with the Mindfulness of Breathing practice specifically.  It may be that your approach to any meditation practice has become somewhat dry and lacking in feeling - it’s concerned with `getting results' rather than engaging in the moment-by-moment process of the practice.  At such times you need to appreciate the emotional side of concentration.  You need to involve yourself in the concentration with more feeling - the Metta Bhavana practice could possibly help.  Or maybe you need a retreat.  You may simply need to talk to someone about your meditation.  But however you do it, inspiration is what is lacking, and that is what you somehow need to regain.
 
Another common difficulty occurs if you start to view the meditation object as though you were an outside observer, thus distancing yourself from the process of meditation.  Instead of the object itself (the tactile sensation of the breathing, for example) we experience only a thought about it.  This is rather a dead-end, and a clear case for `cultivating the opposite'.  You need to concentrate on the experience, not the thought, of the breath.  Perhaps you have uncovered a general tendency.  Ask yourself whether this happens outside meditation as well.  It may be that you are generally in the habit of mediating your experience through thoughts.  Of course, in itself there is nothing wrong with thinking, but in this case the thoughts seem to be obscuring other aspects of your experience.  So you need to develop more awareness of the basics - your bodily sensations, feelings, and emotions.  Don't get stuck in your head! A little physical exercise can often help reassert this kind of balance.  More contact with others, and Metta Bhavana meditation, will probably help too.
 
beginner's mind
 

A man never flies so high as when he knows not where he is
going.

 

Oliver Cromwell

 
This has been a practical chapter.  In getting down to the `nuts and bolts' of meditation practice it is possible that we could get lost in techniques and miss the essential spirit.  While it is important to clarify what we are trying to achieve in the practice, at the same time it will help if we can retain our `beginner's mind'.  A newcomer to meditation often has an attitude of openness and faith which enables them to make very rapid progress.  He or she has no preconceptions about what they are likely to achieve through meditation.  Even advanced meditators need to find this kind of freshness in their approach - we all need to remain capable of learning something completely new.
 
 

If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything; it
is open to everything.  In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities;
in the expert's mind there are few.
 
When we have no thought of achievement  we are
true beginners.  Then we can really learn something.
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Suzuki Roshi