If you can practice even when distracted, you are well trained.
Listen Up there!
Buddhist Meditation is about listening, about seeing, about knowing.
There is a different sort of activity often called meditation but which should rather be called contemplation. Contemplation involves an element of active thinking. Often this takes the form of a led envisioning in which the leader tells a story which the meditators follow internally, creating a moving picture of the story as if they were in the story themselves. The sort of thing that I mean often starts with something like; ‘You are walking down a forest path. On either side of you are spreading oak and beech trees which reach up over your head so that you just catch glimpses of the blue sky beyond. You can hear the leaves rustling in the light breeze and the sweet sounds of many birds singing in the branches…..’ and so on. The journey invites you, at some point to continue on your own without the leader prompting you to see what happens and whether you find some special message or symbol before you are guided back to the start of the journey and the room you are meditating in.
There is nothing wrong with this sort of contemplation with it’s rather shamanistic overtones but it is not Buddhist meditation. Or perhaps I should say not the Buddhist meditation that this article is going to concern itself with. I say that because there are active Buddhist meditations, especially in the Tibetan traditions. These generally take the form of internalised rituals in which the meditator creates a mental image of a Buddha or other Buddhist ‘saint’ with very symbolic meaning and then performs, usually again mentally, a series of ritual actions and words before the image. These can be very powerful in terms of developing compassion, spiritual insights and so forth and one needs to have been initiated into them by a teacher who has had much experience of using them him ‘or her’ self. Generally they are only revealed to people who have studied a lot in various disciplines as preparation.
What I want to discuss now is the most basic forms of Buddhist meditation which are Shamatha and Vipassana meditation. Put simply this is just an awareness of what is. However for most people it is not possible just to sit down and be. Sooner or later the meditator gets fascinated and absorbed by the thoughts that are arising and then gets lost in them. Everybody who does not meditate, if asked if they could just be conscious of being, of what is going on around them and what is passing through their mind, will confidently say that they can and is amazed when they try it to find that they can’t. Gurgief said that most people are asleep most of the time, but because when anyone or thing calls them to attention they are for that moment aware of being there, they do not notice where they are the rest of the time.
Here is a simple and harmless exercise that you could do if you have not discovered this inability to stay aware for any length of time. Just sit comfortably on a chair, (no fancy lotus position needed for this,) and count slowly up to ten, perhaps one digit for every in-breath. When you get to ten (if you get to ten!) just start again. Suddenly you will realise with a start that your mind has wandered and forgotten all about counting. You might still be counting, or you might have stopped but you had gone woolgathering following other thoughts. There are all sorts of exercises designed in a similar way such as looking at a candle flame or reciting a simple mantra and many teachers of meditation start their pupils with an exercise like this and keep them coming back to this practice for many months or years in the hope that it will develop the ability to focus awareness on something and keep it there.
The basic Buddhist meditation is just to sit, allowing thoughts, sensations and outside events to come and go. At first, and for a long time, this is practiced in a formal way with the guidance of a meditation teacher. For a long time the thoughts and sensation sooner or later overwhelm the meditator and the have that snap-out-of-it-moment when they realise the awareness of being there has gone. Then it is the time just to refocus on that primal awareness and continue. Eventually that awareness becomes stronger and lasts longer and the bewitching thoughts and events come and go but do not sweep the meditator away. Many ways in which this happens and stages that some people go through have been recorded by seasoned meditators but knowledge of them is not essential to meditation. It knows where it is going and has an energy of its own. Eventually that awareness will spread out from the formal meditation and start to be present in more and more life situations and awareness of what Being is really about naturally emerges.
A meditator has one sure measure and it is this- that if they can be naturally aware even in the midst of distracting events, thoughts or feelings they are well trained.