White Heron Sangha

Meditation: Some Basics 


What is Meditation?
Meditation has many definitions and meanings. In the West, it often refers to thinking something over or reflection. For Buddhists, meditation is a spiritual discipline that utilizes the power of attention to help us along the path of awakening. 

Before You Start: The Importance of Sila (Virtue)
Stealing, lying, and cheating are not compatible with the spiritual life, and such unethical activities are great barriers to progress in our meditation. Such virtues as compassion, loving-kindness, and generosity, on the other hand, invariably promote our progress. If you make an honest effort to lead a more virtuous life, you and those around you will reap innumerable benefits.

On the other hand, however, you should not delay the start of your meditation practice until you improve your life. Now is the time to begin. Meditation can be a great help in leading a virtuous life by showing us things the way they really are, free of our self-delusions and our rationalizations.

Two Key Elements: Tranquility and Insight
Traditionally Buddhist meditation is divided into two types. In what is known as "calm abiding" or tranquility practice, the meditators focus their attention on a single object reaching deeper and deeper states of tranquility and absorption.

In insight practice, meditators do not concentrate on a single object but carefully observe the specific components of their immediate experience, such as bodily sensations, feelings, emotions, and thoughts. They may focus their attention on the arising and passing away of their perceptions and thoughts or observe particular phenomena outlined in Buddhist teachings, such as the absence of self, emptiness or the impermanence of things. The goal of such practice is not tranquility and the bliss that often accompanies it, but the wisdom that sees the world as it is.

Some Preliminaries: Where, When, and How Long
Beginning meditators often wonder about where, when, and how long they should meditate. Although teachers and more experienced meditators can offer some guidance, there are no right or wrong answers to such questions.

It is often recommended to find a calm quiet place to meditate, perhaps with flowers, a statue, or some other object symbolizing our spiritual quest. Soft lighting is often best because darkness may be conducive to sleep while bright lights can be stressful for the eyes. It is important, however, not to become too dependent on outside conditions since an ideal environment is not always available.

Many people find that making meditation part of their morning routine is the best way to insure that they find the time everyday, but everyone's daily rhythms and schedules are different. Some people prefer several short periods of meditation to one or two longer ones. Most people start off with relatively short periods when they are first beginning and gradually do longer and more extended practice. We sit for half an hour at our Sunday meetings, but some practice centers have longer meditation periods. Meditation retreats usually have alternating periods of sitting and walking meditation.

Making meditation a regular daily practice works best for most people, even though the pressures of modern living can make this a challenge.

The First Step: Posture
Although some traditions place more emphasis on posture than others, it is important to put your body in a comfortable pose before actually beginning meditation. Traditionally, there are said to be four good meditation postures: sitting, standing, lying down, and walking. As you can see that doesn't leave out much! In practice, most formal meditation is done in the sitting position with alternating periods of walking meditation. However, supine meditation is an excellent alternative provided, of course, that we don't simply fall asleep. It is particularly useful for the sick and dying and those with serious back problems.

Whatever the posture, balance and relaxation are the keys. If you need to clench your muscles to hold a particular posture, it is bound to cause pain and discomfort in longer periods of meditation, but if you are balanced and relaxed you are free to focus on the meditation itself. The classic texts recommend the lotus or half lotus position, but this cross-legged stance is often difficult for Westerners who grew up sitting in chairs and not on the floor. Meditating in a chair is perfectly acceptable. Westerners who do choose to sit on the floor usually use a round meditation cushion called a zafu. There are many alternative positions for the legs in sitting meditation including the use of a meditation bench, which facilitates a kneeling position. You need to experiment to find the best position for you.

An upright posture that avoids slouching and balances all the different parts of the body helps avoid drowsiness and lethargy, whereas a "lazy posture" can contribute to a dull mind. It is highly recommended that you have someone look at your posture and make suggestions. As in many parts of our lives, it is far easier for a friendly observer to see the mistakes we are making than it is for us.

Some Meditation Techniques
There are a bewildering variety of meditation techniques used around the world. Of all the world's spiritual traditions, Buddhism may well employ the widest range of approaches, and different lineages within the Buddhist tradition emphasize different techniques.

The most commonly recommended techniques for beginners involve focusing our attention on the flow of breath that gives us life and sustains our being. One instruction that is often given to beginners is to count their in-breaths or out-breaths from one to ten over and over. Other instructions recommend focusing on the passage of the breath through the tip of the nostrils or on the energy center in the belly just below the navel.

Focusing awareness on the sensations in the body is another common approach. More advanced techniques involve watching our thoughts without becoming involved in them. Sometimes meditators are encouraged to briefly label the events that occur. Another method is "just sitting"--watching whatever presents itself arising and passing away in our awareness without attempting to focus on anything in particular.

Some meditations attempt to facilitate the development of a beneficial state of mind such as loving-kindness, and may be guided by instructions from a leader during the actual meditation period.

Whatever technique you use, don't be discouraged if you are constantly distracted. The key for even advanced meditators is to recognize when our attention has drifted away and gently return to our meditation without passing judgment on ourselves. We recommend that beginners get some personal guidance to help them decide which approach is likely to be best for them.

Getting Some Guidance
The Sangha will normally offer meditation instruction on the first Sunday of each month at 5:00pm, but be sure to check the schedule, because it may occasionally change. Once you have had meditation instruction, we may be able to provide you with a mentor who can help you work with problems and questions that arise in your practice.

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