What is Meditation?
Meditation is a practice for training and understanding our mind.
Why do we want to understand our mind?
We interact with the world around us through our mind. These interactions are influenced (or conditioned) by many factors such as life experience, concepts and moods. The conditioned factors form a filter through which we perceive the world and ourselves. We may react in very different ways depending on what’s going on with this filter – are we coping OK with what’s happening or does it “push our buttons” in a way that is not helpful.
Getting to know how we respond to the world around us brings our reactions and mental habits into the light, which helps reduce the power they have over us. There is a metaphor that meditation is like riding a bus. You start on the back seat with no idea why the driver (your mind) is driving so wildly. As you learn the craft of meditation you move forward from seat to seat and start to be able to see what the stressed driver is doing, then to offer support and guidance to the driver.
What types of meditation are there?
Meditation is used by many different religious and secular groups. Broadly speaking there are 2 styles:
- Meditation for understanding. This is also called insight meditation, mindfulness meditation or vipassana. This is what we mainly practise in our group.
- Meditation to cultivate a quiet focused mind. This is also called concentration, samatha or calm abiding practice. It does not lead to understanding in itself, but has many benefits and can be used to nourish or focus the mind in preparation for insight practice. An example would be focusing on an image, a phrase (mantra) or a candle. Metta meditation falls under this category and we also practise this in our group.
What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness is an English word that was chosen to translate the term “sati” used in Buddhist meditation practice. Literally it means memory, or more specifically memory of the present. When we ask ourselves “What’s happening now?” – what am I experiencing externally and internally, that’s mindfulness. It sounds simple, and it is, but our mental habit is to get caught up in thoughts so it’s not easy to stay mindful.
When we repeatedly bring our awareness back to the present we are training our attention. In daily life our awareness jumps around as different objects “grab our attention”. In meditation practice we direct our attention in a more deliberate way.
What is insight?
The term “insight” is a Western interpretation of the Pali word “vipassana” which means “clear seeing”. There are many insight or vipassana meditation techniques but the one thing they have in common is the aim of developing understanding of the three universal characteristics of existence: impermanence (anicca), suffering/dissatisfaction (dukkha) and not-self (anatta).
What is the Mahasi technique?
The Mahasi technique that we practise was developed by a Buddhist monk in Burma in the early 20th century as a way of bringing meditation to lay people (not just for monks and nuns). It is one of many Burmese neo-vipassana methods that emerged during this time. Although a modern method, it is based on the Satipatthana Sutta, or the four foundations of mindfulness, which has been practised since the time of the Buddha over 2,600 years ago. In the 1970s and 80s it was exported to the rest of the world and now there are meditation groups and centres in many countries. For more information about the Western form of the Mahasi approach click here.
What is metta?
Metta can be translated as benevolence, friendliness or loving kindness. It is one of the four Brahma-vihara (divine abodes or divine dwellings), which also include karuna (compassion), mudita (appreciative joy) and upekkha (equanimity). Metta practice involves well-wishing for self and others and cultivates beneficial or skilful qualities of mind. As a concentration practice it can also be used to still or calm the mind to support vipassana meditation.
Why do walking meditation?
Walking meditation has many benefits. It can relieve soreness or stiffness in the body that may arise from sitting for long periods, and it can lift energy if tiredness or lethargy is a problem. It can also be a good practice to do if you are restless or anxious and having trouble sitting still. Most essentially, however, as walking meditation involves the observation of movement, it can yield important insights into the mind-body process.
What about cultural traditions like bowing and chanting?
As meditation practice moves to new cultures it often brings traditions with it, like bowing and chanting. These are not an essential part of the meditation practice as such, but are more part of the framework in which the practice operated in the country of origin. Many meditators find them to be helpful in supporting their practice, but they can also be off-putting to people not used to such traditions. The general rule with all these traditions and rituals is do it if you find it helpful.
What can I expect from doing meditation?
It’s inevitable that we come to meditation practice with preconceptions from what we have heard or read. We might be expecting to sit quietly and have a peaceful break from the over-stimulation of our lives, but after 5 minutes find our mind chattering furiously and our body stiff and sore. This is not what we wanted, but it’s not a bad thing – in fact it’s a good step because seeing what is actually happening is the start of understanding.
One thing we can expect is that our expectations will almost always turn out to be wrong.
How much meditation should I do?
The amount and style of practice to do is very individual. Ultimately, we all want to be able to guide ourselves and work out what works for our mind. To this end the amount of practice to do should be whatever is sustainable. Better to do a few minutes regularly than strain to sit for long periods, get exhausted, then stop.
There are only 2 requirements for getting benefit from mediation practice: begin, then continue. Every mindful moment is taking you in the right direction.