STILLNESS IN ACTION

MEDITATION GUIDELINES 

I put together these guidelines primarily by drawing on the methods and writing of US insight meditation teacher, Jason Siff.  I have adapted Jason’s guidelines to suit my own way of teaching.  If you would like to know more about Jason’s approach, see: www.meditationproject.org/

Bobbi Allan, May 2007

WHY WE MEDITATE

 We all have our own reasons for meditating, and those may change over time.  At first, we may simply wish to be more relaxed, or more aware, but as we practice, we find we are noticing our inner world differently, and new directions may emerge from that.

Ultimately, meditation is to wake up, to transform one into a conscious human being, one who knows the causes and conditions for mental suffering and the way to end such suffering.  Meditation is one path that leads to unsurpassable wisdom, happiness and freedom.  As we meditate in this way, subtler and subtler aspects of subjective experience are revealed to us, until we are able to embrace all aspects of experience with a balanced mind, free from all desires, discontentment or any other kind of mental agitation. The whole process of life is revealed as free and joyful. 

 

CONDITIONS INSTEAD OF INSTRUCTIONS:

Instead of instructions (or rules) to be followed, there are three conditions influencing what one does as meditation. These three conditions are: gentleness, permission, and interest (or ‘curiosity’).

 

Gentleness:

Be gentle to yourself. Most of us are self-critical. We want to do things well. But we don’t treat ourselves all that well in the process.

Gentleness is the most important quality to bring to any  practice you are doing.  You can recall the following acronym, ‘DROPS’ to help you remember ‘gentleness’:

Don’t

Resist

Or

Push,

Soften

Gentleness in meditation is about how you treat yourself. Many meditators start their meditation sittings by diving right into doing the instructions they have been taught. They don’t just bring their attention to the breath, a mantra, or visualization, but rather force it. Behind that force is aggression, pressure, driven-ness, or just plain tension. And when things don’t go well, they tend to chastise themselves with thoughts of failure and self-doubt.

So, to start off a meditation sitting with gentleness is to not dive right into doing some kind of instruction or practice. Simply allow a transition to occur. What you were thinking about before the meditation sitting will often naturally carry on into the beginning of the sitting.

Many meditators start off a sitting by trying to stop all thoughts. Thoughts, when they arise, are then perceived as distractions. Here is where gentleness truly starts in meditation. These thoughts coming into your sitting are not distractions, for they are your thoughts, and most of the time outside of meditation, you are the one who owns them, acts on them, and produces more of them. They are to be welcomed into the meditation sitting just as you would welcome into your home a friend, a relative, or even someone you may not particularly like.

Permission:

You have permission to do the meditation practice of your choice, or not do it.

Practically all people who are introduced to meditation are given an instruction to follow, and they follow it, believing that in order to get the right results from meditation they must follow a particular instruction.   Rather than uncritically keeping on ‘doing more of the same’ regardless of the effects of the practice, you are encouraged explore the various meditation practices you have done (or are doing).

To explore one’s various meditation practices, one needs to do them. So you may choose to do the practices you have previously learned. As you do so, attempt to look at those practices and see some of the habits of mind you have developed by doing them.

You are encouraged to develop independence – your own way of meditating.  Become genuinely interested in what meditation is – for you.

Interestor Curiosity
‘Interest’ or ‘curiosity’ encourages us to investigate all experience.

One aspect of experience we can investigate with gentleness is the thought-stream.  The verb “to meditate”, in English, includes the meaning “to ponder, to contemplate, to reflect on.”

This is especially useful for those with very active thinking minds.    You can consider it a type of intelligent focused thinking, although at first it may appear as ordinary problem-solving, ruminating, pondering, etc. It is important to sometimes let this kind of thinking go on, for there is generally quite a bit of momentum behind it, and it is how our minds will eventually become intelligently and insightfully engaged in looking at things.

If we hold a view that thinking is not meditation, that view will foster aversion to thinking, where there is no room for gentleness. Allowing one’s mind to engage in focused thinking as part of the meditation sitting is a condition for any serious exploration of the process of thinking.  At first it may appear more as a hindrance or impediment than as an asset, because it doesn’t appear to be leading towards what we usually think of as ‘meditative states’.

Sometimes the experience of sitting and thinking appears to be no different than idle day-dreaming. What distinguishes these two mental activities however is intention: meditation is done with the intention to develop more awareness of one’s inner world; day-dreaming is done to pleasantly distract oneself.  It is the intention to meditate, to gently investigate one’s inner experience, which will bear fruit.

 

HOW TO BEGIN A MEDITATION SITTING WITH GENTLENESS, PERMISSION AND INTEREST


Posture:
 Choose a comfortable posture to sit in, one that will not cause pain or create additional posture changes during the sitting. You may sit in a chair, have back support, or lie down on your back. Whatever posture you choose, make sure it is gentle to your body.   Whichever posture you are in, it is preferable to keep the spine straight, just allowing the two slight natural in-curves in the lumbar and neck region. If you have to move for some reason during the sitting, be aware of the pain, itch, or discomfort you are experiencing, and only then decide whether to move – slowly and deliberately. When you move slowly and deliberately during a meditation sitting, there is less likelihood that the movement will feel disruptive.
Sit with your eyes closed, as that will enable a meditative process to form more readily (as well as bring the other senses more into awareness).   If you are uncomfortable with closing your eyes, open them very slightly, lowering the gaze towards the floor.  Many people find it helpful to soften the small muscles around the eyes and mouth, and place a small smile on the lips – at least to begin with.

 

Begin with an intention to meditate. The intent to meditate is the key element that distinguishes meditation from any other activity.  (Be gentle with this – an intention is not an ‘order’).  The intention is to allow whatever comes to come, and to trust that the mind will find its own pathway to peacefulness and greater understanding.

 

Place your attention on your body to begin with. You may bring your attention to the front of your face, your hands resting on your legs or one on top of the other, or your legs and feet touching the cushion you are sitting on. But do not hold your attention there, and definitely do not cut off thoughts, feelings, and sounds to return to the awareness of your body. Just have a gentle preference for being aware of the stillness of your body sitting, as you allow your thoughts and feelings to be.
Allow your mind to transition from what you were doing and thinking about before the sitting. This transition may contain recent memories, dialogues you just had, work you were doing, plans that you were making, lists of things to do, and a whole variety of feelings. You may fear that the transition will not be a transition at all, but will consume you for the entire sitting. If you are gentle with all that is going on inside  you as you sit down to meditate, it is bound to change for better. But if you are impatient with your thoughts and feelings and try to stop them or do something to make them go away, you may just end up being hard on yourself, prolonging the difficulty. Being gentle with them, if they don’t stop, at least there will be less ‘problem – focus’, less negative self judgment.

What you are doing is being aware, of your experience, exactly as it presents itself  - with gentleness, permission and curious interest.  Don’t ‘try’ and ‘do’ a particular practice, just bring the conditions of gentleness, permission and interest to bear on whatever is going on for you. There is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ experience.

The first approach is to try a few sittings where you relax your attitude about meditation and let your mind do as it pleases. While allowing your mind to wander, every so often bring your attention back to the stillness of your body, and make a short, simple mental note about where your mind was before allowing it to go off again. This can be done very lightly, without the use of force or willpower. The purpose of meditation, done in this way, is to learn how to sit with and tolerate whatever arises in your realm of experience, accepting your mind as it is instead of how it should be.

The realm of your experience may include: the breath and other aspects of the body and its’ sensations: feelings; sounds; states of mind; thoughts; and the subtle interplays between all these aspects of experience.  As we begin to investigate experiences like ‘breath’ and ‘body sensations’, we quickly find what limited descriptors of experience they are.   Behind those everyday terms are layers of subtle experience that we barely have language for.  What you are paying attention to is the interplay of the content of your experience, with the processes by which you experience and respond to things.

 

Sleepiness in meditation.

Don’t worry if you feel like you are drifting off to sleep.  You will be more tired than you expect on the first few days of the retreat.  Allow sleepiness to come and go, and try and pay attention to the state of sleepiness – especially the movement from wakefulness to sleepiness and from sleepiness to wakefulness.  Sometimes you may be pleasantly surprised to find that you don’t fall asleep, but enter a subtle state of absorption.

 

If you wish to meditate using a practice you have already been taught, you have permission.  Remember, do it with a gentle interest.    Every so often in the meditation sitting reflect back on what you have been doing. For instance, if you have been counting your breath, recollect how you have been doing it, what the experience has been like, and what makes you remember (or decide) to count your breath. Sometimes when you reflect / recall you may not notice much of anything. When that happens, don’t force it; just continue with the practice you are doing.

 

Contemplating Thinking

You will find you cannot ‘turn off’ thoughts.  Sometimes your mind may become deeply absorbed in another aspect of your experience, such as the breath, and it may seem as though thinking has stopped; in reality thinking will be subtle and in the background of your awareness.  The brain is a thinking organ; to ask it to stop thinking would be like asking the heart to stop pumping.    The choice you have is whether or how you pay attention to your thinking.

 

If you wish to contemplate thinking, do so with gentleness and a curious interest.  If, at anytime in the sitting, your thinking becomes fragmented, random, dreamy, or just less prominent, then allow those experiences to continue. When focused thinking returns, for surely it will at some time, meditate with permission to do whatever you see as needed. If you need to go with the thinking, go with it; if you need to let go of the thinking, let it go on and subside of its own; if you need to explore it, let yourself think about the thinking that is going on of its own accord.

 

Dealing with ‘shoulds’ and ‘should nots’ in meditation

Become curious about the internal mental conditions that support ‘shoulds’ and ‘should nots’. In essence, a ‘should’ or ‘should not’ is an intention to eliminate something – either directly by stamping it out or indirectly by replacement. That intention is  brought on by an awareness of the unsatisfactory nature of that thing. Be aware of where the sense of unsatisfactoriness comes from.  Is it an inner authoritarian voice?  Is it an echo of something you were once told? Is it a response to a particular experience?  Is it a bodily aversion? Who is doing the judging?

The awareness of a pervasive unsatisfactoriness is harder to sustain and tolerate when there is a strong intention to eliminate it. If one can stay with the pervasive underlying mood of things not being as they should (i.e. being painful, chaotic, fearful, uncontrollable, unpredictable) there is an opportunity for understanding the conditions for the arising of ‘shoulds’ and ‘should nots’. These conditions vary, and though they may not always be the same each time, one can usually begin the process by gradually becoming acquainted with the underlying mood, staying with it, and then working from there, becoming aware of the themes in one’s thinking, of bodily sensations, and of reactions to sense impressions.

What leads to the diminishing and eventual lack of intrusion of ‘shoulds’ and ‘should nots’ in your meditation practice is the cultivation of acccurate attending to what arises.

It does not matter so much what you attend to in your meditation, but rather, how you attend to whatever you experience. It is the cultivation of discernment and interest that leads to understanding how all one’s experiences come about through certain conditions, and are supported in the present by conditions. Accurate attending does not lead to self-criticism, blaming others, attributing causes to gods and demons, or to any such handy answers as to why things are the way they are.

Noticing beneficial and less beneficial states of mind

Your realm of experience may also include the quality of the mind that is meditating.   Some qualities of the mind are not particularly beneficial.   They are: the mind that is caught up in desire; the mind that is caught up in aversion; the dull or lethargic mind; the mind consumed with restlessness and worry and the mind full of toxic doubt.  Don’t try and make them go away.  Just by bringing awareness to these qualities of mind – to how they arise, what effect they have, and how they pass away – they will begin to have less power over us.

 

You may also notice beneficial qualities of the mind.  They inlude: awareness; investigation; energy and courage; joy or rapture or lightness; calmness or tranquility; concentration; and ‘evenly balanced, non-preferential looking on at whatever is happening’. These qualities are quite subtle, but become increasingly more apparent as one meditates.  As these subtle qualities arise – even momentarily – notice and affirm them – without grasping onto them or trying to make them stay.  Notice how they arise, what effect they have, and how they pass away.  As we notice and affirm them, they grow stronger.

 

I have taken a risk in naming these qualities, because the names, e.g. ‘lethargy’ or ‘joy’,  may set up preconceived ideas in your mind that prevent you from experiencing for yourself what ‘lethargy’ or ‘joy’ is like for you, how it functions in you, and what language you would find for that experience.

These ‘names’ are guidelines for your exploration, not detailed maps. Keep your exploration open and curious.

Please don’t get the idea that if you experience a less beneficial state of mind, you are doing something ‘wrong’.  All states of mind arise in everyone, in different ways.  What is important is not to grasp any state of mind, or indeed anything that arises, as ‘self’.

 

RECOLLECTING YOUR SITTINGS – AND JOURNALING

 

After the sitting is over take a few moments to recollect the meditation sitting.   The Pali word ‘Sati’ that is usually translated as ‘mindfulness’, originally meant ‘memory’. In using the word Sati, the Buddha draws our attention to the important link between memory and awareness.

If we do not recall the process of our sitting and reflect on the experiences, thoughts and insights that emerged, then the meditation is “just another experience’ in our life that we will soon forget.  As in the rest of our life if we do not reflect on our experience we will not learn from and integrate the understanding that may be contained in the experience.

It’s important not to let the fact that you will be recalling the meditation afterwards, interfere with the meditation itself.  It’s more important to be aware and present in the meditation than to recall it perfectly.  So don’t waste meditation time worrying whether you will recall things later.  This will become easier over time.

Reflecting on the experience after the meditation session is often where most insight occurs.  Reflecting and recollecting are contemplative forms of exploratory thinking.  When one can report these recollections to a teacher and explore the experience ‘out-loud’, other levels of insight can emerge.

Reflecting back on each sitting afterwards, or for a moment during it, can bring back to awareness things that otherwise would have been completely forgotten. Forgetting about totally unproductive trains of thought and negative emotional states may seem like a very good outcome from a meditation sitting; but what about forgetting how tranquility came about in the sitting, or not remembering a particular understanding one arrived at which produced an instant of mental clarity? These are ‘landmarks’ which we need to know about to continue arriving at wholesome states of mind.

 

Recollection can lead to a familiarity with these landmarks, a knowing of them in a more complete way than before. When that experience occurs again, in some form or other, we can then be more awake in it because we have recalled it and become better acquainted with it. This kind of present-moment awareness based on recollection is a natural form of awareness.

 

How to journal

As you recall your sitting, what do you remember about what happened?  You may like to write down as much as you remember in your journal.  You won’t remember everything, and what you remember doesn’t need to be sequential.  Once you start recollecting, you will probably remember more than you at first thought; perhaps you will see links and connections or pathways that were previously invisible to you.

If you were following particular meditation instructions, in your recollection bring your attention to how you applied the instructions and what your “honest” experience of doing that practice was.
If you were contemplating thought, try to get a sense of the general themes of your thoughts (work, relationships, plans, memories, etc.) and how these themes shifted in the sitting (from work to relationships to memories, for example). You need not write them down, unless that helps you with your recollection. And, you need not go into any detail with your recollection; it is enough, at the beginning, to just become aware of the general pattern of your focused thinking in the sitting.

 

Reviewing & evaluating your approach to meditation

Occasionally, take time to look back over a number of sittings. The idea here is to review the effectiveness of the instructions you have received and then evaluate those instructions in light of your experience. A touchstone for assessing your meditation practice is seeing whether it has led to the arising and cultivation of beneficial states of mind (such as awareness, happiness, wisdom, inner peace) and the diminishing of negative states of mind (such as self criticism, worry, anger, craving) or to the opposite, the cultivating and support of negative states of mind and absence of beneficial states.

Paradoxically, another sign of progress in meditation is to know the depth and strength of the mind’s grasping, aversion and delusion, and the strength of the hold grasping, aversion and delusion have on you.  As you progress down this path, you will become aware of the views that feed these states of mind.

Looking at what has come out of practicing a particular type of meditation may indicate that you have more to learn in that practice; for instance, you may have become attached to a technique rather than developing the skills the particular technique was meant to engender. Evaluating the results may mean questioning the validity (for you) of the type of meditation you have undertaken. On the other hand, it may reassure you that you have found an approach that is valid for you at this stage in your meditation practice.

I would suggest that when making such an assessment you discuss your practice with someone else who has meditated – preferably with your teacher.  Human feedback is important in such a process, even if it only serves to have us listen more closely to our own words.

Summary

This practice trusts the mind’s natural ability to discover processes that further its development, to discard bad habits and to transform.  Transformation in meditation will not be a linear progression from restlessness to tranquil to bliss to ‘awakening’.  It may seem more like a spiral, often with unclear direction. You may cover old ground over and over again, but each time you will find a slightly different twist.  Occasionally you will stumble on a new state and, with time, the new states became more refined, and eventually as familiar as the old ones. This kind of self-discovery may seem perpetual.

What we are talking about here is a path of openness and honesty about one’s inner world, where through meditation there is an effortless and natural cultivation of qualities which are lacking in that world; and these “excellent” qualities can work like an antidote for the turmoil, trauma, and injuries found within us and the world.

 

May all beings be liberated and joyful.

 

*****

 

P.S: Structured and un-structured approaches to meditation practice – by John Allan

 

Most people consider the whole field of ‘meditation’ in terms of particular traditions and specific techniques.  The emphasis then tends to shift to something one is trying to do rather than exploring what happens in one’s experience when meditating  (whether ‘doing’ a technique or not.)

We can loosely characterise all approaches to ‘meditation’ as:

1. Structured meditation, and

2. un-structured meditation.

 

Structured meditation

In this approach the emphasis tends to shift to the method or technique, to what one does, to learning a skill – and often the only reflection that happens after the practice is in terms of: ‘That was a good, or bad, meditation session.”  People can get caught in ‘gain and loss’ thinking.  This applies to methods across the board from ‘watching the breath’, ‘sweeping the body’, ‘visualizing a mandala’, ‘mantras’ etc, etc.

If one sets up an ‘object’ of meditation and then becomes involved in ‘bringing ones attention back to the object’,  this sets up an inherent conflict  because the mind and attention naturally moves to many different aspects of experience. It is not natural to say “No, only this experience (the object of the technique) can be attended to.”

Thus skillfulness in these approaches begins by adjusting the level of control and intensity one brings to an inherently frustrating exercise.  Of course sooner or the later the mind will tend to focus or become absorbed in ANY activity, on or off a meditation cushion, and various experiences of tranquility etc. will appear.  Usually people take this as a sign that the method or technique they are doing works and will work even better if they ‘are better’ or ‘do it better.’

Of course there is limited (or no) empirical evidence for such a hypothesis and as most people and traditions don’t talk about the actual experiences of and in meditation, then people are left operating on vague determinants such as “that was a good, or bad, meditation session.”

THIS IS NOT to say that one cannot engage in ‘structured meditation’ or that these practices are not useful.  Developing a skillful practice means that one can take up any approach according to what best suits the actual conditions one is experiencing.

Unstructured Meditation

An ‘unstructured’ practice focuses more on an attitude to experience and on awareness as a dynamic quality, rather than on a practice requiring a static object, which is easily disturbed.

Thus the ‘focus’ is not so much on specific methods and ‘objects of awareness’ or ideas about ‘mindfulness’.  Rather the focus shifts to what happens in my experience if I attentively follow whatever presents to my awareness.

We also realise that there are vast ‘numbers’ of experiences and categories of experience happening at any time, and that the mind is already reducing or filtering the number of ‘objects’ that we can know through the senses.

Of these, our attention will incline to some more than others.

If we simply pay attention to what is most interesting at the moment, the mind will usually become more collected and less easily stressed.  When there is a little more collectedness and attendant flexibility of awareness, one can follow increasingly subtle states of mind and experience.

Awareness may go to ‘classical’ meditation objects during the course of a session and explore them to great benefit.  But these explorations are arising by following emergent causes and conditions of experience rather than arbitrarily imposing a condition on one’s experience.

The emphasis is on the whole process of my meditation session rather than on trying to achieve various ‘valid’ benchmarks of meditation success.

This approach also recognizes that the mind can become focused or collected on just about any object.  Thus, being attentive to a process of thinking, for instance, can lead to a deeply collected state. Often meditators develop a dismissive attitude to much experience in meditation; Eg “That’s a distraction.”  “That’s ‘just’ an experience / feeling / thought / emotion … now… back on task.”

Instead we come to realize that when we practice our whole life comes with us and by skillfully investigating what is actually happening we can develop some insight into the workings of cause and effect, as lived experience, in our own lives.  It’s not for nothing that the Buddha said: “Patience/forbearance is the greatest austerity.”   Patiently being with our actual experience instead of impatiently trying to avoid it with all sorts of ‘spiritual routines’, is the great challenge.

When we find the joy in starting from where we actually are we can grow in freedom, just as the Buddha did when he finally stopped running and found the truth in his own body, mind and experience.

 

PS: THE DANGERS OF IDEAL SCENARIOS – by Jason Siff 

People have ideals regarding meditative experience. For beginning meditators that is often just the way it is; they have only the mental pictures and ideas about meditative experiences and may be meditating in order to have those experiences for themselves.

What if the actual experiences are different from the idea one has of them? Then isn’t one just pursuing a fantasy? Few, if any, meditation students ever consider this to be a problem, for the ideals about meditative experience seem to be so generally accepted that people are easily led to believe that these ideal states of mind are indeed based on reality.

Let’s take for example the ideal that the optimum meditative state is one that is free of thoughts. It is usually conceived to be a pure (luminous) state of consciousness where thinking does not occur. With the absence of thinking, there is no self or ego, and thus the mind is pure. It also must be an awake, peaceful, and sublime state of mind, though some traditions might consider it to be more ordinary than sublime. The student gets the idea that to be empty of thoughts is an ideal meditative state, only to be achieved by practicing the prescribed meditation instructions meant to get one there.

What is missing from this scenario is the real difficulties one encounters in meditating with that practice; for it is presented as a formula, which when followed correctly is believed to lead to the right outcome: freedom from thoughts. The student thus meditates according to the instructions so that an ideal state of mind becomes a constant state of mind (which is an ideal upon an ideal, for the student believes that ideal states are ideally constant). This can turn any experience which is not ideal into a’ negative’ or  ’unproductive’ or ‘worthless’ state of mind.

I hear this kind of sitting often from students who practice trying to arrive at ideal scenarios for their meditation sittings. A student goes into the meditation sitting to empty his mind of thoughts and finds himself thinking all the time. All thinking is seen as an obstacle, a hindrance, and even as a ‘defilement’. It must be gotten rid of somehow. So he tries holding his attention on the breath, a mantra, an internal image or feeling, or on sounds to see if he can free himself from thinking. But thinking keeps intruding into his meditation sitting. He may then put his attention on catching the moment where each thought begins, hoping thereby to cut it off at the root. All of his energy is focused on the elimination of thinking, so as to arrive at states of mind where there is no thinking. This state of ‘no thinking’ is what meditation is supposed to be, or at least lead to; and yet what meditation has become is a battleground to eliminate thought.

When this kind of meditation sitting is looked at without the ideal scenario coloring one’s perception of it, the student sees that he is using aggressive effort to suppress thoughts.

 

The ideal scenario thus tends to hide what is really going on in one’s meditation sittings. When I hear students talk about sittings in terms of such scenarios, it has an air of ‘looking good’ by at least attempting to meditate ‘correctly’ (in that form of meditation), even though their meditation experiences look ‘bad’ to them much of the time. Meeting an ideal is not easy. It may not even be possible. So anyone trying to do it will often fail and carry with them the feeling of failing at meditation, instead of seeing that realizing an ideal is not much different from making a fantasy come true. Both have a picture of how things should be and obscure or distract one from how things are.