A Beginning Meditation Method

We’ve all heard that while meditating you’re supposed to concentrate on something like a mantra or the breath. Indeed, based on many teachers’ descriptions, it would appear that concentration is the central procedure of any practice of meditation. However, this can be highly misleading.

The problem is that the word “concentration”, with its implications in English of effort and striving, can give the wrong idea, especially to beginners, of what’s happening during meditation. Some teachers, trying to correct this impression, will instead use a phrase like “effortless concentration.” But while real, “effortless concentration” can only be accomplished after many months or even years of daily practice. Hence it is unhelpful telling beginners that in order to meditate they need only to “effortlessly concentrate”.

Rather than concentrating on an object during meditation, we can think of what we’re doing as remembering it. And the act of remembering it helps us further to recall the specific state of mind called meditation.

Now if you want to learn meditation specifically in order to improve your concentration, you may be wondering if the kind of meditation taught here is for you. Rest assured, this kind of meditation creates the conditions in which improvements in concentration can take place. It may seem paradoxical, but in order to concentrate better, you need first to know how to relax your mind, making it receptive to the focused direction of attention that constitutes concentration. Effortful concentration in which you are trying to keep the mind focused on one object to the exclusion of all others is far less effective than the kind of concentration that can naturally arise within a relaxed mind. And the first step towards successful concentration is remembering.

By remembering, we aren’t talking about the effortful kind of remembering associated with recalling an address or phone number. These are objects you are striving to rediscover in your memory. Instead, the kind of remembering we’re talking about here is similar to how a mental image of a friend’s face comes to mind upon hearing her name. You don’t have to sit and think about what your friend’s face looks like – it just comes to you automatically. The image of your friend’s face is a memory that has become associated with the name.

In the same way, during your meditation you begin by associating a particular object (like a mantra or the breath) with the meditative state of mind. This particular object can be thought of as an anchor insofar as you are anchoring your mind into the meditative state of mind, allowing it to stay there without any effort on your part. You won’t be concentrating on this anchor, trying to keep it in mind to the exclusion of everything else, but merely remembering it whenever your mind strays too far from the meditative state of mind. This remembering of the anchor, in turn, helps you to return to the meditative state of mind.

For example, if you use a mantra as your anchor, you start your meditation practice by relaxing for a few moments, settling into the awake, non-striving, relaxed and meditative state of mind described in the article What is Meditation? It doesn’t have to be a perfect state of relaxation, just relatively relaxed compared to your state of mind before you started the session. It also does not need to last long, just enough for you to silently say your mantra to yourself three or four times. This creates the anchoring effect, associating the mantra with this state of mind. Once the anchor has been created, you simply continue as you are, doing nothing else but relaxing awake.

Of course, that’s easier said than done. Because once you’ve started relaxing, your mind will start presenting you with a rich variety of sensations that we’ll call here “impressions”. An impression is any sensation, feeling or thought – in sum, any experience – that arises in the mind.

Now, there are two different ways you can treat impressions: either they can come and go while you, simply and in a relaxed way, watch and let them come and go, or else you can get caught up in them. Getting caught up in impressions is the work of the striving state of mind associated with waking. Letting them come and go is – you guessed it – characteristic of the non-striving meditative state of mind.

It’s important to recognize that impressions in and of themselves are not bad. Having them arise during meditation is perfectly natural. It does not mean at all that you are meditating wrongly or with less effect. Impressions will arise whether you want them to or not. It is what you do or don’t do with them that is important – and we’ll get back to that in a moment.

But first, it’s important to stress the naturalness of impressions. In fact, we actually want them to arise during meditation, because it is through discovering our relation to them that the lasting and important effects of meditation come about. This is because impressions offer the perfect reflection of the make-up of our conscious and subconscious minds. Indeed, lacking them, we cannot be said to be conscious. Lacking impressions, we lack experience because at the heart of any conscious state of mind is the experiencing of experiences. And whatever impressions arise to us reflect perfectly the contours of our minds – what they are capable of experiencing as well as, unbeknownst to us, what they are incapable of experiencing. Our particular set of impressions can be thought of as a kind of map of reality that the mind produces – not the actual territory, but what the mind is capable of representing at the particular scale at which it draws its map.

It is true that at certain stages of meditation the arising of impressions can slow down because the mind becomes fixed upon one object to the exclusion of all others or even stops experiencing any impressions whatsoever. But these are not, in and of themselves, particularly desirable states of mind to cultivate. Impressions by their very nature are impermanent. They come and go – sometimes quite quickly in fact. Becoming fixated upon one impression such that it appears to gain permanency in the mind belies the true, impermanent nature of impressions. Once such a meditation is done, the mind returns to the same reality we all experience, with its constant flux of impermanent impressions arising and disappearing. The sense of having created permanence within this flux is but an illusion – the creation of something out of nothing.

So, back to what to do and not to do with impressions. You are sitting there relaxing, just watching impressions come and go. You are, in effect, doing nothing with them. This is meditation. Now every so often, perhaps even every few seconds, you are likely to cease from doing nothing with the impressions and instead latch onto one impression in particular and start doing something with it. You start thinking about it, wondering about it, examining it, pursuing it. That impression, in turn, carries you along to a wealth of other impressions, a rich tapestry of sensations, thoughts and feelings, each of which forms part of a general distraction that leads you away from the relaxed, meditative state of mind you were in not long before.

At this point, you have fallen into a striving mode of mind in which you are working out various past and future issues. This mode of mind will usually be characterized by self-talk, day-dreaming, scenario-building, and all manner of fantasies dealing with everything under and above the sun – except what is actually happening right now in this very moment while you are meditating. It is fundamentally a forgetting of non-striving.

No problem. That’s just what the striving mind does. Impressions naturally arise, and the striving mind naturally follows those it finds interesting, which is to say, those that correspond to the mind’s desires.

Ah, but you’ve provided the mind with an anchor! And the anchor helps the mind realize it has forgotten something. So eventually you will effortlessly remember the anchor. And this happens naturally without you having to do anything to make it happen.

It may seem strange you don’t have to struggle to remember the anchor, but that is the case. You only have to try it a few times to see it is so. The notion of struggling to meditate comes from certain misguided teachings that for whatever reason wish to make meditation seem difficult and effortful. The actuality is very different.

The reason for this effortlessness can seem mysterious but it’s fairly straightforward and has to do with the nature of memory. Let’s say you and a friend are standing together and your friend says to you, “For the next minute, I want you to look at me and think about a purple elephant”. If you are like most people, you will be able to think about a purple elephant for a fair amount of that minute – maybe not the entire minute, but at the very least, every so often while looking at your friend you will remember that you are also supposed to think about a purple elephant. The only way you can completely stop is by actually forgetting that your friend is standing there and has requested you to think about a purple elephant. And in order to forget that, you will need to change the context within which her request was made – perhaps by leaving the scene or turning your back on her – and only then, perhaps, will you be able to forget that she asked you to think of a purple elephant. And only then might you actually be able to completely stop thinking about a purple elephant.

A similar story applies to the anchor you’ve created at the beginning of your meditation sitting. For as long as you remain in the same context within which that anchor was created, that is to say, for as long as you remain sitting in your meditation posture and are there because you want to meditate, the anchor will remain as part of that context, doing its job of helping you remember the meditative state of mind. It’s as if your body position is your friend standing in front of you and as if the anchor is your friend’s face smiling at you. Until you make the decision that you no longer want to meditate, every time you start getting distracted and go off thinking about all sorts of other things, eventually you will wake up to the fact that you are still sitting there in a meditation posture and the anchor is still there waiting to remind you of the meditative state of mind. All you have to do at that point is decide to use the anchor and voilà you are meditating again. And this process will continue to repeat itself for as long as you decide to remain in the context of doing meditation.

At first, of course, you may remain distracted for relatively long periods of time and for numerous times throughout your sitting. That is okay. With a week or two of regular practice, you will find the distracted periods lasting for less time and coming less often. Within a few months, you will go for minutes at a time with only nominal distractions, if any.

Another thing to keep in mind is that not every meditation sitting is the same. Sometimes your mind becomes easily distracted, other times it rests easily in meditation. But don’t get frustrated on the distracted days. You are still accomplishing much. The simple fact of sitting there and bringing yourself back again and again to the meditative state of mind helps you learn how to meditate better each time. Even if after remembering your anchor your mind flies off into distraction a second or two later, you are gradually deepening your ability to rediscover the meditative state of mind and remain in it for longer and longer periods of time.

When you are ready to finish a sitting, it’s a good idea to do two things. First, we can take advantage of the relaxed and receptive state of mind we are in by making affirmations. For instance, we might borrow from the Buddhist tradition of the “good will prayer” (Metta Bhavana) and wish ourselves well. This prayer can be extended to others, including loved ones, acquaintances, even people with whom we have difficult relationships. However, it always starts with ourselves since, according to the tradition, if we are unable to wish ourselves well, we cannot fully wish others well.

If we’d like to use this prayer, we can, at the end of our session, say silently to ourselves:

May I be well
May I be happy
May I be free of suffering
Allow each phrase to sink in deeply, taking a breath between. You can then move on to other people as you like. (Download a free ebook describing the complete practice of Metta Bhavana.)

The second thing to do at the end of your session is to take a few minutes to allow yourself to slowly come back to your normal waking state of mind. The reason for this is that the mind needs a few minutes to readjust. Lacking this extra time, you risk experiencing negative feelings, including anger, irritation or depression, at random times throughout the rest of the day. So take your time switching from your meditation back to daily life. You needn’t do anything special during this time; just sit and relax with your eyes open for three minutes or so.

And that is it. That is the entire process of meditation. It is nothing more mysterious or complicated than that.

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