Part Three: Practice
Establishing and Deepening Tranquillity and Insight
 
 
 
 
Part Three is generally concerned with the practicalities of deepening
your meditation practice.
 
Chapter Six is about how to create the best possible conditions for
both reflection and the dhyanas, especially on retreat.
 
Chapter Seven gives some guide-lines for meditation posture.
 
Chapters Eight and Nine offer practical hints for developing samatha
and vipassana meditation.
 
Chapter Ten is a guided tour through a number of different applications
of the principles of samatha and vipassana.

 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Chapter Six
The Conditions for Meditation
 
 
 
 
What is meant by regulating and readjusting? It may be likened
to the work of a potter.  Before he can begin to form a bowl or anything
else, he must first prepare the clay - it must neither be too soft
nor too hard.  Just as a violinist must first regulate the tension
of the different strings - they must be in perfect tune - before
he can produce harmonious music.  Before we can control our mind
for the attainment of Enlightenment, we must first regulate and adjust
the inner conditions.
 
If these lessons are learned and applied, then samadhi
35
can be easily attained, otherwise a great deal of difficulty will
be experienced and our tender root of goodness can hardly sprout.
36
 

Chi-I

 
influences
 
The way that our meditation varies from one session to another might seem strange.  How can it be so easy to concentrate one day, and so hard the next - why don't we make some tangible progress every time we meditate? This is a very good example of the `conditionedness' of human life.  We very rarely experience exactly what we would like to experience! - so much depends on the influences, the conditioning factors, that happen to be in operation at any given moment.
 
In the art of meditation it is important to understand what the main influences are and how they affect our mind.  We may not always notice it, but our mental states are strongly affected by the place where we are living, the people around us, what is happening in our life, and many other things.  All of these factors are contributing, in some way, to our ability to concentrate.
 
For example, when you are in ideal circumstances you may naturally find yourself feeling happy and in a mood to concentrate, but in other situations even relaxation may be out of the question, let alone meditation.  If possible, try to create circumstances which help your concentration, and avoid anything that you find distracting.
 
Physical surroundings can make all the difference.  Everything around you - the room you are meditating in, the house, and even the immediate locality and its inhabitants - is going to have some kind of effect.  So, if you can, put yourself in quiet, peaceful surroundings, where there is no radio, television, or traffic noise.  At least do this from time to time - it is much more likely to generate a mood of concentration.
 
It's also worth repeating what was said earlier about preparation for meditation.  What you do immediately before meditation may affect your mental state very strongly - it can often make the difference between being able to concentrate and being distracted.  But paying attention to your actions immediately before meditation is just one particular kind of preparation.
 
In a way, your whole life is a preparation for meditation.  Every action has made a certain contribution to the mental states you are experiencing at this very moment.  (Some actions, no doubt, have been less significant, while others have probably had a very far reaching effect.) So the state of your mind as you are about to go into meditation is partly a product of your life-style.  You might find that if you made one or two changes in your life-style, you would be in the right mood for meditation more often.
 
Remember that everything you do influences your mental state.  Generally speaking, whenever you act with awareness and positive feelings towards others, the overall result will be an aware and positive frame of mind.  If you are in the habit of being kind and friendly, Metta Bhavana will come more naturally to you.  If you pay attention to what you do, say, and think, you'll start the Mindfulness of Breathing practice with an edge that would not be there otherwise.
 
Increased kindness and mindfulness are, of course, effects that you want to bring about through these meditation practices.  But you can also look at it the other way round, and generate these qualities as supporting conditions for your meditation.
 
You can create what Chi-I called `external' conditions for your practice.  Most of these involve making sure that practical arrangements - for example the kind of place where you meditate - are helping your meditation.  Skilful attitudes towards other people that will tend to preserve a happy state of mind are also included in this category (see table).  There are also `internal' conditions which are essential if you are to develop higher states of consciousness (they may also be applied to meditation in any circumstances).  Success in meditation entails an understanding of how to create the best possible internal and external conditions.
 
The clear understanding that all your actions will affect your meditation is - from a certain point of view - even more important than a willingness to concentrate in meditation itself.  You may be very inspired and enthusiastic, raring to get going on your meditation practice.  But what really counts, when you close your eyes and try to concentrate, is your preparation.  If you have prepared well, your mind will be clear, flexible, and interested.  But if you haven't, then, no matter how bright you feel when you first sit down, your mind will soon become rigid and distracted and you'll have to spend your time working with that unprepared state.  No amount of good intentions can make up for a lack of preparation.
 
Sometimes meditators get into a habit of not preparing properly, even though they anticipate that they will be gaining insight, Enlightenment, or whatever from their meditation - perhaps quite soon! Despite these high ideals, they don't notice how their life-style is affecting their mental state.  On the whole, it isn't very helpful to meditate with the aim of creating immediate, specific results.  The important thing is to keep making sure that the conditions for meditation are as beneficial as possible.  If you do that, you will find good results arising quite naturally by themselves.
 
In making the effort to create good conditions, you also need to remember that, practically speaking, it is often impossible to create ideal conditions.  There is not that much peace and quiet available - unless you decide to live as a hermit.  You will often find yourself in situations where, because of the external conditions, your mental state is distracted.  All you can do then is acknowledge the situation and meditate as best you can.  Unless you take this attitude you may become impatient, and impatience may make you feel that you must `concentrate' in a hard and forced way.  This kind of mood is easy to get into.  It is then possible to start disregarding how you are feeling, and to ignore what is actually happening in your mind.  If you do that you will just
exhaust yourself - and still fail to achieve any calm or concentration.
 



 









     acting ethically
     freedom from guilt
     positive stimulation

EXTERNAL CONDITIONS relations with outside world as preparation for meditationINTERNAL CONDITIONS developing the dhyanas in ideal  meditation conditions
1       place1       speech
2       material needs2       food
3       freedom to engage3       rest and exercise
4       communication4       information
5       ethical foundation5       activity

 
main conditions for meditation

 
 
external conditions
 
the ethical foundation
 
The first `external' condition to consider is the ethical foundation.  There is an important connection between ethics and concentration; it is only possible to concentrate fully when you are happy.
 
But what is happiness? Happiness does not necessarily mean feeling elated with joy - it seems to have more to do with confidence in oneself, for even someone who is under great stress may still be happy underneath it all.  A person may feel great satisfaction in their life, and therefore be happy, even though there are many problems, difficulties, and pain.  One way that happiness reveals itself is in an ability to be interested.  If you are happy you will also be, to a certain extent, naturally concentrated.  `A concentrated mind is a happy mind; a happy mind is a concentrated mind.'
 
So to meditate at your best, you need to be happy.  But how do you become happy and satisfied with your life?
 
acting ethically
 
Traditional Buddhist teaching says that an ethical life-style is a necessary condition for happiness.  But for many of us nowadays the whole topic of ethics has become unclear.  It may seem full of ambiguous `grey areas'.  What does it really mean to be `good'? This word itself seems ambiguous.
 
Certainly, for a Buddhist, an ethical life is not simply a matter of doing the conventionally right thing.  It is a question of developing an awareness of the consequences of our actions.  Actions have consequences for others and for ourselves - not only material consequences, but also consequences in the form of mental states.  Just as natural laws govern physics and chemistry, a natural relationship exists between what we do and our state of mind.  An ethical life is based on the creative, beneficial use of this relationship.  Ethical behaviour is about doing things that promote positive states of mind.
 
Certain actions affect our mind in certain ways; for example, some actions (e.g.  generosity) are inherently worthwhile and satisfying.  These are ethical or `skilful' actions.  The great characteristic of such actions is that they make us and others feel happy.  There are other actions (e.g.  malicious lying) that are inherently regrettable, and somewhere in ourselves we do not feel happy when we indulge in them.  These are unskilful, or unethical, actions.
 
Such feelings of happiness or regret can provide a good `rule of thumb' for assessing the ethical value of our actions.  Generally, the more skilfully we act the happier we feel; and the more relaxed, flexible, and concentrated our mind becomes, too.
 
There are certain actions which inevitably lead to happy states of mind.  We feel at our best when we are doing things which are of benefit to ourselves and others: when we give generously, when we are sexually content, when we speak the truth, and when we are clear-minded.  Harming, stealing, sexual exploitation, lying, and muddle-headed confusion - the opposites of the above - inevitably lead to unhappiness.  These principles are set out in five traditional Buddhist precepts:
 
(1)The principle of ahimsa, non-violence, means doing what is of benefit to ourselves and others.  Negatively it is the avoidance of causing harm.  (This is the basic principle which underlies each of the other precepts.)
 
(2)The principle of dana, generosity, means developing a giving, sharing attitude.  Negatively it involves not taking others' property, energy, or time unless they have been made freely available to us.
 
(3)The principle of santutthi,
contentment, means developing sexual self-control and contentment with any sexual partner we have (or don't have!).  Negatively, it means not harming through sex, and trying not to have sexual matters as the central factor in our life.
 
(4)The principle of sacca, truth, simply means being truthful.  Negatively, it means not telling lies and correcting our own wrong thinking.
 
(5)The principle of sati, mindfulness, means developing awareness of our world, ourselves, and others, and trying to maintain a bright, clear, state of mind.  Negatively, it means working to avoid clouded, confused, or intoxicated states - which also means avoiding intoxication through alcohol or other drug abuse.
 
freedom from guilt
 
We'll probably find that our happiest times are when we live according to principles like these - when we genuinely feel no guilt, no regrets.  When we experience such freedom we can be completely wholehearted in everything - no part of ourselves is held in reserve.  This is the essential reason why ethical living makes such a difference to meditation.
 
But for most of us, most of the time, such clarity of conscience is rare.  We may have to acknowledge that we don't act in accordance with these principles at all times.  We may need to recognize that there is guilt in our mind, and that often we are not quite happy enough to concentrate with our whole being.  Parts of us are preoccupied elsewhere; there are inner knots which need loosening.
 
This honest recognition is an essential first step towards ethical growth.  We need to recognize what we are really doing, what is really happening.  It is essential to recognize the subtle signs that tell us when we regret an action or when we are pleased about one.  Recognition of guilt feelings can then become an ethical tool for spotlighting those areas we want to change.
 
irrational and rational guilt
 
But we can sometimes feel guilty even when we have done nothing regrettable! So to use this tool properly we need to be able to discriminate healthy from unhealthy guilt feelings.
 
We can sometimes experience irrational guilt feelings.  These are often stimulated when some `authority' seems to dislike our action - or at least when we feel that they do.  We feel disapproved of, unworthy, and probably sinful.  People often feel this kind of guiltiness in connection with their sexuality - when there is nothing at all harmful in what they have thought or done.
 
There is of course such a thing as an appropriately uneasy conscience.  We all act unskilfully in all kinds of ways.  But harbouring irrational guilt is yet another form of unskilful action.  Our first task is therefore to pick out this false kind of guiltiness, and - if we can - banish it from our heart.  When we notice guilt arising, we should check what action it is connected with and see whether we truly regret that action.  If it really does seem regrettable and harmful, then we must acknowledge that we are responsible for its effects, and try to learn from the experience.
 
The sorrow or regret that we feel when we have harmed someone or lowered our standard of behaviour is a rational feeling of guilt.  We take the blame cleanly - in this case it's appropriate to feel regret.  But if we feel `bad', yet can find nothing truly regrettable in our actions, we should recognize that our guilt feelings have no basis.  There is no real cause for concern and we should try to let go of the irrational emotion.  It may well be difficult to do this in practice, since deeply ingrained habits are usually involved in these matters - but we shall certainly be doing ourselves some good if we try to clarify what is going on.
 
past ethics, present emotions
 
It is clear that meditation is directed towards happiness and the development of joyful mental states.  But when we are actually practising it, we usually experience rather a mixture of emotions - we frequently experience the hindrances and other negative emotions standing in the way of our concentration.  Where have they come from?
 
According to Buddhism all our moods, positive and negative, have been conditioned, at least partially, by our actions in the past, and future moods are conditioned by our actions in the present.  As an example, let's say you give something to a friend, a gift they are delighted to receive.  This act of generosity delights them - and it puts you in a good mood too! Moreover, the memory of your action brightens your mental state for some time afterwards.  You may even remember it many years later, and feel `I'm so glad I did that.' Even if you never think about it again, this action will have had a generally good effect on you.
 
In this way, each action somehow affects our state of mind.  Whether we speak kindly or harshly to someone, that speech affects us, the speaker, at least as much.  We may not be able to see any obvious connections between past acts of speech and our present feelings, but the link surely exists, and if we observe more closely we may recognize some of the processes that go on.
 
If we observe ourselves over a long period we may notice that our actions sometimes affect us more deeply than just for a few hours or weeks afterwards.  Some actions carry a great deal of emotional power and may penetrate deeply into our mind, even into our unconscious mind, where they become part of a whole complex of unconscious and semi-conscious attitudes and emotions.  This process of outer (and relatively conscious) action stimulating deep (and relatively unconscious) inner reactions is basic to Buddhist psychology.  Buddhism clearly distinguishes the second part of this process, known in Sanskrit as karma-vipaka (effect of volitional action), from the initial karma (volitional action).  The ceaseless interplay of karma and karma-vipaka, action and result, is the cause of all the mental states which arise so mysteriously both inside and outside our meditation.
 
None of us can be free from the effects of our past.  However, we do have a certain degree of freedom to initiate more skilful actions in the present - and we can develop our initiative further.  In skilful living, as in life generally, `the more you do, the more you can do.'
 
stimulation
guarding the gates of the senses
 
We often go around in a whirl of general impressions, hardly aware that we are using our eyes and ears.  Yet all these sense experiences can affect us very strongly indeed.  Everything we smell, taste, see, hear, and touch affects our mental state.  This is obviously important for a meditator trying to create good conditions for practice.
 
If we wish we can choose, to some extent, the objects that we encounter.  We can learn to monitor our sense experience and become more discriminating in our choice.  We can look for the kind of stimulation which will help our meditation, and avoid whatever confuses, irritates, or unduly excites us.
 
This kind of practice is sometimes known as `guarding the gates of the senses'.  Here, `guarding' doesn't mean being over-fastidious and `precious' about preserving our fragile states of mind at all costs, afraid to put our head out of doors in case we see something shocking.  It simply means that we care about our state of mind and take responsibility for it.
 
Naturally, each of us is affected differently by different experiences; what is helpful to one person could possibly even be harmful to another.  Many people would find their meditation somewhat improved after spending time in an art gallery, but some might not.  (No doubt it would depend on the art.) Many people are inspired by contact with their friends, but others need more time to themselves.  Without the conditions that suit them, neither type of person can settle into meditation.  As ever, the real test is the effect of these sense experiences on our mental states.
 
We must take responsibility for the consequences of our actions and decide what is best for us.  This can take time to learn, and decisions are not always easy.  Perhaps one weekend we start wondering whether we could attend a late night party and meditate the next day.  Well, perhaps we could! Honest reflection might reveal, however, that this could have some detrimental effect on our practice.  We have to be careful of the tendency to rationalize weaknesses, to make good-sounding excuses to ourselves.  Our reasoning might be `If I go to that party, I shall meet people - that’ll be an opportunity to put my Metta Bhavana into practice!' or `If I go, it'll be a good test of my mindfulness.' The party could possibly be very testing indeed.  But do we genuinely `need to test' our mindfulness, or do we simply want to go to the party regardless of its consequences for our meditation? For the sake of our own clarity, it's better to be honest.  Though such reasons can sound very plausible when they arise, it may be that we are finding ways of obscuring, perhaps `spiritualizing' our real motive.
 
nourishing the mind
 
Exposing ourselves to the right sort of stimulation is at least as important as avoiding exposure to the wrong sort of stimulation! The mind is always on the look-out for stimulation, and, up to a point, it's a genuine need.  Like a child who will stuff itself with sweets and junk food unless its mother provides regular nourishing meals, our mind will become interested in any old rubbish unless we provide it with intake of some quality.
 
Cultivate whatever tends to put you in an inspired, positive mood.  There are probably people who inspire you, and with whom you could profitably spend more time.  If you also spend more time looking at paintings, reading poetry, listening to beautiful music, or out of doors among greenery and flowers, your meditation practice is very likely to improve.  A lot of people find that they are happier if they have a certain amount of physical exercise every day.  All these activities make a very good counterbalance to the often dull, tense, and noisy city environment where the majority of us must live and try to meditate.
 
a simple life
 
As well as being discriminating about the quality of what you take in, you can also usefully reduce the quantity.  Otherwise you can become so saturated with experiences that you get overstimulated.  This is particularly likely in the city.  Some symptoms of overstimulation are a continual feeling of restlessness, and a `hangover' of dullness.
 
To simplify your experience you could perhaps avoid looking distractedly here, there, and everywhere as you walk to work, and instead try to remain mindful of your body, feelings, emotions, and thoughts.  You could also seek enjoyment in simple pastimes, rather than complex activities that only dissipate energy.  Most people living busy lives will know how easy it is to lose sensitivity and interest when there are too many events, too many experiences, jostling for attention.  If you mindfully observe your sense-experience, however, you will become more sensitive to what is affecting you.  And as you get to understand your needs better, you will become less enslaved by the pressure of external things.
 
on solitary retreat
 

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately37

 
Henry David Thoreau

 
The value of meditation retreats in general has already been referred to several times.  Getting away from it all occasionally is really an indispensable aspect of meditation practice.  It is a good way of reviving your meditation when it has become a little run down.  Going on retreat is a way to give yourself good meditation conditions.  It provides a wider context, and allows you to forge deeper links both with your practice and with other meditators.Once a regular meditation practice has been established, say over a year, this idea of `getting away from it all' can be taken even further.  At some point you may also find it extremely valuable to spend some time completely alone.
 
The most important experience a solitary retreat provides is an undiluted experience of yourself.  This can be even more useful than the opportunity it gives for meditation.  How often in your life have you spent time completely on your own, without seeing anyone at all? Even to the extent that you have, it probably wasn't by choice.  It seems fairly natural that many people avoid solitude, associating it with loneliness.  Yet loneliness can sometimes stem from a negative state of dependence on others - we are developing insights, through our meditation, that can free us from such dependence.
 
Imagine arriving at some isolated cottage and experiencing the thrill of knowing that you are going to be entirely alone - for a week, a fortnight, a month, or perhaps even longer.  You are completely free to do what you like, to think what you like, without ever having to take others' needs into account.  Whatever you choose to do with your time, you can count on never being interrupted by other people - even your thoughts will be uninterrupted.  What a rare and precious opportunity this is in our crowded, timetabled society! It's a time for reflection, readjustment of perspectives, and meditation.
 
the place
 

The third external condition that one must possess if one
is to hope for success in the practice of dhyana, relates to shelter.
A retreat  to be satisfactory must be quiet and free from annoyances
and troubles of any kind.  [These kinds of places] are suitable for
dhyana practice: a hermitage in the high and inaccessible mountains,
[or] a shack such as would serve a beggar or a homeless monk.  These
should be at least a mile and a half from a village where even the
voice of a cowboy would not reach and where trouble and turmoil would
not find it.
38

 
Chi-I

 
The place you choose for your period of solitude - which could be a cottage, a caravan, a camping site, or even (if you're keen) a mountain cave - could make a considerable difference to the extent to which you can concentrate.  First of all, the retreat place needs to be quiet - ideally somewhere completely silent.  The fewer disturbances there are, the easier it will be to become concentrated.  The two main distractions to avoid are traffic noise and people nearby (who may be talking, working, playing radios, etc.).
 
The need to be undistracted means that you must go as far away from other human beings as possible.  For a solitary retreat, it is ideal if you don't even see anyone else.  This obviously means that your place of retreat has to be in the country.  When choosing a site for a solitary retreat you should make sure you are happy with its atmosphere.  You should find the place attractive, and feel inspired by the thought of staying there.  This is quite important because, once you settle into your meditation, you will become more than usually sensitive to your surroundings.  So if possible it's best to inspect a place personally before committing yourself, especially if you are planning a long retreat - it could eventually become a source of strain if you find, say, the interior furnishing of the house jarring, or the local countryside unattractive.
 
material needs
 
Nowadays there are places where all the facilities for solitary retreats, including food, are provided.  Otherwise, if you are completely on your own, the availability of supplies is an important consideration.  Walking several miles to get food may be acceptable to some, but once you have established a meditation practice you might prefer to remain undisturbed for the whole of the retreat.  It is a pity to have to break a good retreat just because you have run out of some basic necessity.  Meditative states can rely on a delicate balance of factors, and once those factors are disturbed it can take days to restore the balance.  If you plan carefully, you should be able to avoid leaving your place of retreat.  So during the weeks before you go, monitor your use of foods, drinks, and cooking materials, so that you can buy with confidence the exact amount that you will need.
 
freedom to engage
 
Once these basic needs are provided for, you need to ensure that you really do have the freedom to concentrate.  If there is any unfinished business left over from your life outside the retreat, it will plague you whenever you try to meditate.  It is therefore important that you deliberately tie up all such loose ends before you go away, and if necessary ask others to manage your affairs during your retreat.  You can take similar steps to avoid letters arriving that might distract you.  In fact, it might be best not to tell too many people where you are!
 
communication
 
Another factor that affects one's ability to engage with a solitary retreat is the state of one's communication.  Away from people, you will become more sensitive to your relationships with others.  It is wise to patch up any quarrels or misunderstandings before you go, because any unresolved tension will play on your mind and could possibly obstruct your practice.  You may also feel sensitive to anyone who lives in the neighbourhood of your retreat place - it’s a good idea to create some basis of communication with them at the beginning of your stay.  Speculation could be running rife in the locality - what can she be getting up to, all on her own?’ - or (more to the point) you may imagine that it is.  You could introduce yourself and let someone know roughly what you are doing.  In my experience, most people seem well-disposed towards Buddhists, and may even offer to help now and again with provisions.
 
internal conditions
 
Now you have set up all the external conditions.  You are prepared for meditation.  You've been trying to act more ethically, found a quiet, isolated, inspiring place for meditation, sorted out your material needs, made sure you are on good terms with people, and taken a break from your life outside the retreat.
 
So next comes the actual meditation practice.  Now that you are here, you need to pay attention to conditions that will encourage the dhyanas to arise.  These `internal' conditions mainly consist of methods of working in meditation, such as those introduced in Chapter Three (and explored in detail in Chapter Eight).  But also included as `internal' conditions are those subtler aspects of preparation which can only be fully created on retreat.
 
On retreat you are able to meditate several times a day; you're never far away from a period of meditation, so you need to be continually prepared for it.  It is especially important to be mindful of your actions between sessions of meditation.  Sometimes this is called `in-between practice'.
 
If you maintain your preparation, then you will retain what you gain during each session of meditation.  Your concentration will steadily accumulate, so that instead of taking a whole meditation session to get into a state of preliminary concentration - only to run out of energy as soon as you get there - you may be able to begin most of your meditation sessions already in a concentrated state.
 
You'll probably find that your awareness of what you need to do in preparation for meditation is especially keen on a solitary retreat.  When you have been on your own for some days (the change may not show itself at first, since it takes time to adjust and relax) you are likely to find yourself in a very different realm of experience.  You may notice how rich and alive everything seems.  This is because your life is simpler; you have created a space in which you have no responsibilities other than being yourself and thinking your own thoughts.  You may be less preoccupied by distractions, and the workings of your inner life may show themselves far more than usual.  You may find it easy to maintain mindfulness continually - you’ll probably experience all your feelings, thoughts, and inner motivations quite clearly.
 
Life in this realm of `being yourself' is a kind of meditative state in itself.  You'll want to maintain this state, and to do so there are two factors which need to be regulated.  There are factors which tend to dullness (a sleepy mind), and factors which tend to excitement (a disturbed mind).  As we'll see in a later chapter, finding ways to transcend these two extremes is the principal method of working in meditation.
 
On retreat (it's also the case outside, but on retreat you experience it more clearly) you will find some conditions dulling your mind and others exciting it.  When you find yourself going to one extreme you need to learn how to get yourself moving in the opposite direction.  As an aid to reflection, here are some typical causes of dullness and excitement which were compiled by the late C.M.  Chen.  Mr Chen was a renowned Ch'an Buddhist hermit who practised for many years in Kalimpong, West Bengal.
 



(sloth, sinking)

(restlessness, drifting)


earth element (potatoes, etc.)
much meat

fire element  (chilli, pungent food)
just vegetables





rain

strong sun



























condition

sleepy mind

disturbed mind

Food

a lot

a little

Drink 

milk

coffee, tea

Weather

hot

cold

Season (chinese)

spring, autumn

summer, winter  

Light level 

low, or darkness

very bright

Clothes

too many

 too few

Colour    

green, blue, black

red, orange, yellow

Eyes 

closed

open wide

Circulation

quietly

excitedly

Mode of action

tired

wide awake

Mental poison

ignorance

greed, hatred

Body 

fat

thin

List Of Factors Leading To Dullness Or Excitement (C.M. Chen)[1]

 
 
One or two of Mr Chen's correspondences may seem odd at first glance, but you'll probably get the idea.  At least you can see from the table the sheer variety of factors that can affect your mental state under retreat conditions.  You might find it worthwhile to draw up such a list for yourself.  You could add, for example:
 







Sleep

too much

 too little

Exercise

too little

too much

 
 
Take a look now at some of the main internal conditions.  The most important areas which will need your attention on retreat are speech, food, rest, exercise, and information.
 
speech
 
Unless you often talk to yourself, you aren't likely to find speech upsetting the balance on your solitary retreat! But on retreats generally - and many of these tips are just as useful on a group retreat - you may be surprised to discover how powerfully speech affects your practice.
 
A really good communication may have an inspiring effect which strengthens your ability to meditate, while a disharmonious exchange can disturb you and prevent you from settling down and concentrating.  So if you pay attention to what you say, how you say it, and the effects of your speech on your mental state, you can maintain your inspiration and prevent unsettling disturbances.
 
Because words have so much influence over our consciousness, many meditation retreats incorporate an hour or more of verbal silence into their daily programme - often it's much more.  Verbal silence is something most people hardly ever experience.  Yet it can be deeply relaxing - and even a profound relief after the continual chatter which our minds so often have to cope with.  One's thoughts become clearer when they are not subject to interruptions, and so it becomes possible to experience oneself more deeply and continuously.
 
Deliberately refraining from speech can be a very beneficial preparation for meditation, as well as a way of absorbing its effects.  This can be useful for your practice at home too.  For example when you get up in the morning it can help to be silent before you meditate; a very good way of preparing is to dress and wash silently, with awareness, perhaps sitting by a window for a few minutes.  A quiet period afterwards also helps.  Silence before meditation helps to prepare your mind for concentration, and the silence afterwards helps you absorb its effects.
 
food
Food is an important consideration; both the type and quantity of food will affect your sensitive mental state on retreat.  The type of food you choose depends on what you like, your constitution, and the climate.  As a general rule it is best to avoid heavy, fatty foods, while making sure you have food that you can enjoy.  There is no need to make life difficult by enforcing an ascetic diet on yourself.  Sometimes people place retreats in the same `purificatory' category as health cures and giving up smoking, and so go in for fasting and special diets.  This can be all right, even a good idea, if you know yourself well.  Just remember that on retreat you will find yourself becoming generally rather sensitive, and that details like food may have quite an influence on your mood.  And when you discover you need something, the shops may be miles away! Regarding quantity, it is best to avoid eating too much or too little.  If you eat too much, your meditation is likely to suffer from dullness and drowsiness.  If you eat too little, you'll be faint, low in energy, and restless.
 
rest and exercise
 
Rest and exercise is another basic area for attention.  You need to take sufficient rest, and also to maintain a certain level of fitness.Once you have recovered from the upheaval of getting away and travelling to your retreat, you will probably need an hour or so less sleep than usual (though needs vary).  Once you have settled into the retreat it is necessary to establish a sleeping pattern.  If you are on your own it can be tempting to stay up unduly late, or over-indulge in sleep.  As a general rule, you should not sleep too much or too little.  Too little sleep results in sleepiness and dullness, and perhaps also tension.  Too much sleep results in sleepiness and dullness too, as well as wasted time.
 
That said, sleep and dreaming are necessary and valuable activities.  On retreat you are likely to experience deeper levels of your mind in dreams, some of which may be very intense and colourful.  This kind of dreaming often reflects inner changes caused by your efforts in meditation, so you'll probably need to experiment to see what `too much' and `too little' really means for you.
 
You need some physical exercise on retreat.  As there isn't usually much practical work to be done, you can easily become inert and sluggish.  This will eventually cause the energy that is available for meditation to run down.  Most people need some specific kind of exercise, though a daily walk may be all you need.  But beware of spoiling your meditation through overdoing exercises to the extent that the mind becomes restless and the senses coarse.  For some reason it seems easy to go to extremes with one's physical energy.  Many people take no exercise at all for a week, by which time they are so sluggish that they are forced to do something about it.  Then they go to the opposite extreme with an intense physical work-out which is so stimulating that they lose their sensitivity in meditation.  No doubt the best answer is to have a little exercise every day.
 
information
 
We are living in the middle of an information explosion.  We have become so used to the media giving us scores of new facts to digest every day that it's really no surprise if we end up a little addicted to information.
 
After a few days on retreat, you will probably find that you have a lot of extra energy available - and since the mind always wants something to occupy it, you may find yourself on the look-out for interesting objects of distraction.  In such a mood it is very easy indeed to pick up a magazine or a book, or even an old newspaper which happens to be lying around, and become engrossed in it for hours on end.  The trouble is that this kind of reading squanders the energy which you could otherwise be putting into your meditation.
 
New information always has to be assimilated, and the assimilation process seems to use a surprisingly large amount of energy - more than you might think.  So if you take in too much new information it can temporarily interfere with your ability to concentrate.  Your mind may get `tied up' in a process of assimilation - either consciously reflecting on some reading matter, or unconsciously digesting it.
 
This will mean that the mind is not free to be deeply involved in meditation; instead, there is just a certain amount of restlessness or dullness.  If there is a constant surfeit of information, you may find yourself spending entire sessions just getting to a point where you can concentrate, never able to go deeper.  So once you are on a retreat, experiment with the quantity of your information intake - try stopping reading for a while, and see if there is any difference in the quality of your meditation.
 
These remarks especially apply if you are trying to develop the dhyanas.  Of course, there may be other reasons for going on retreat.  Even on a meditation retreat you may need to focus on study or reading for a while.  A small quantity of inspiring reading material can really help.  So it isn't simply a matter of `no reading', it is a matter of applying the principle of guarding the gates of the senses.  Only you can judge how much, and when, to read.
 
self-discovery
 
But it needs to be pointed out that people's reading habits can sometimes be a little neurotic.  We can pick up the old newspaper and start reading mainly to stave off some unwanted emotion, not because we want to find out about something written in it.
 
This serves to introduce a very important point about retreats.  We have already seen that meditation brings about increasing self-awareness, a discovery of new feelings, emotions, and motivations - new sources of happiness, and also new knowledge about your weaknesses and limitations.  Sometimes it is rather a surprise to discover that you are not the person you thought you were.
 
On a retreat when you are doing more meditation than usual, this process of discovery can happen very quickly.  Your previous image of yourself may be uprooted and turned upside down - and your immediate response may be to want to stop all this meditation, abandon the retreat, and go home! Don't do it.  Resist the temptation.  Just as omelettes cannot be made without breaking eggs, you cannot make progress without readjusting your self-image from time to time.  This is actually a crucially important realization.  It is a realization that you can congratulate yourself on, and even (on reflection) take comfort from.  Even though you may feel exposed, and find your ideas about yourself turned upside down, this is the beginning of the possibility of real development.  Without true self-knowledge there can never be self-transformation: you can embark on the spiritual path only if you first acknowledge yourself as you truly are.  Anyway, other people have probably known that you are like this for years! Nothing is to be gained by running away from yourself.  You would do best to let go your doubts, take heart, and be pleased that something so promising is happening.
 
activity
 
If you are spending a lot of time on your own with little to do - when normally you have plenty to do - the obvious temptation is to fill your time with activities.  Your energies will be looking for an outlet.  You may start to notice that several little jobs need doing around the cottage you are in; you may remember several letters that you meant to write, you may start several writing or study projects, you may spend hours creating elaborate meals for yourself out of a cookery book.  But this is probably a cover-up; most of these activities are probably unnecessary, and wasting this precious time.
 
If you usually live a fairly active life, you are likely to discover that to some extent you are attached to activity for its own sake.  You may not be used to doing nothing, and may, in fact, find it mildly threatening simply to experience yourself.  You will therefore need to beware of your activity becoming a substitute for experience, a way of covering up or hiding from a new depth of awareness.
 
You may not be quite ready to do absolutely nothing.  Of course, it could be beneficial, even therapeutic, to do a little simple work like housework or gardening - but you will benefit greatly by spending at least an hour or so every day doing nothing but experiencing yourself.  If you refrain from unnecessary activity, you can break through to a deeper level of mindfulness.  Instead of doing this or that, you should simply sit in a comfortable armchair and relax, watching your mind.  It is right here, in `doing nothing' and simply experiencing yourself here and now, that some of the most important fruits of meditation may be realized.  Your mind can become very clear and rich in these circumstances, like a treasure house full of jewels.  You will find out what an enormous amount can happen when you are `doing nothing', and see how much significance there can be in small, everyday things.  Your thoughts, over the weeks, will become stronger and more productive.  It can be useful to keep a diary of your experiences - your thoughts, dreams, and meditation experiences.
 
slowing down
 
The `inner' conditions you set up while on retreat - monitoring your speech, food, rest, exercise, and reading - are a way to `tune yourself in' with the higher states of consciousness that you are developing.  By regulating your behaviour and attitudes in all these areas, you will not waste the energy you need for meditation, or go to such extremes as too much or too little sleep.  You'll be able to maintain a balanced, clear, and often joyful state of mind.
 
Maintaining the best internal conditions for meditation involves all the foundations of spiritual practice which have been mentioned in the preceding chapters.  You need awareness, positivity, and purpose to accomplish this `fine tuning', this continual state of readiness for meditation.  You need, above all, to be mindful.  To establish yourself in mindfulness it is a good practice - especially during the early days of your retreat - to do everything at a deliberately unhurried pace.
 


[1] Samatha, Chen's Booklet series XIV, Kalimpong 1963. (some changes)