“The most important thing is practice in daily life; then you can know gradually the true value of religion. Doctrine is not meant for mere knowledge, but for the improvement of our minds. In order to do that, it must be part of our life. If you put religious doctrine in a building and when you leave the building depart from the practices, you cannot gain its value.”
His Holiness the Dalai Lama, from ‘ A Policy of Kindness‘
I would strongly advise everyone to make an effort to start with a serious course in meditation in a centre or group under the guidance of an experienced teacher, preferably with at least a few days in silence. This should give you a genuine feeling of the effect that meditation can have on the mind. Many people try to teach themselves meditation by reading books etc., but I know only very few enthusiastic self-taught meditators. So a proper course, if possible with a qualified teacher is invaluable. Furthermore, one should realise that continuity in meditation is considered essential: better five minutes a day, every day, than two hours once a week. For example, five minutes in the morning are likely to become longer over time, and can easily become part of your everyday life.
Many people discover it quickly becomes more essential and helpful than a good breakfast or ‘the first cup of coffee’ in the morning. In the evening, it can be a good way to stop the worries of the day and go to sleep in a comfortable state of mind. People who have problems getting to sleep may discover that with an evening meditation just before going to bed, the mind becomes much calmer and getting to sleep is no problem anymore. Ultimately, meditation can become a continuous state of mind, but that obviously takes a lot of training/habituation.
Before starting meditation, ideally we need to take care of a few things:
– a quiet place (using music is nice for relaxing, but not really meditation), switching off the phone will help.
– make sure you are not too tired, early morning is generally said to be the best time.
– sit comfortable; most people like a cushion under their behind, the room is best not too warm or cold.
– wear loose, comfortable clothing.
– try to create continuity in time and place to become habituated to the circumstances of meditation.
– keeping the back straight, in whichever posture you meditate is most essential.
– try to be comfortable and physically relaxed, and avoid moving too much.
– keep the head straight, slightly bent forward, keep the teeth slightly apart, the tip of the tongue against the upper pallet.
– the eyes are best kept half-open (without really looking), but many beginners find that too distracting and close them.
– the shoulders should be relaxed and the hands can be put in one’s lap.
– the legs can be in the full lotus (which not many Westerners manage), but also simply crossed. In fact, other positions like sitting on one’s knees or on a bench are good as well. If all of these are too difficult, you can also use a chair, but remember to sit only on the front half of the seat, not leaning against the back rest to avoid a bent back, and keep the feet flat on the floor. Keeping the knees warm may help to avoid numbness of the legs.
– try belly-breathing; not breathing with the chest, but from the navel.
– always remember that the posture should enhance meditation, not be an obstacle! The Buddha even taught one of his disciples who had many problems with his posture to lie down with his back on a bed, and then he quickly made progress; however, most people tend to fall asleep – so it will not be suitable for everyone…
– be relaxed but at the same time awake and attentive: finding your balance here is not easy!
– be a careful observer of your own mind and thoughts; sometimes called the ‘little spy inside’:
From Ani Tenzin Palmo, Reflections on a Mountain Lake: Teachings on Practical Buddhism:
“As we begin to develop awareness of the mind, the mind itself appears to divide into two. A new aspect of the mind arises. This is referred to variously as the witness, the seer, the knower, or the
observer. It witnesses without judgment and without comment. Along with the arrival of the witness, a space appears within the mind. This enables us to see thoughts and emotions as mere thoughts and emotions, rather than as ‘me’ and ‘mine.’ When the thoughts and emotions are no longer seen as ‘me’ or ‘mine’, we begin to have choices. Certain thoughts and emotions are helpful, so we encourage them. Others are not so helpful, so we just let them go. All the thoughts and emotions are recognized and accepted. Nothing is suppressed. But now we have a choice about how to react. We can give energy to the ones, which are useful and skillful and withdraw energy from those which are not.”
1. Try and set yourself a minimum time that you want to meditate and try to stick to that as a minimum, but also stop before you get completely tired.
2. Motivation – to know what you are doing, most Buddhists will start with a refuge prayer, generating bodhicitta (for example using the prayer of the four immeasurables) and the seven-limb prayer (this contains the aspects of respectfulness towards the teachers, making (mental) offerings, admitting one’s past mistakes, rejoicing in positive actions, asking the teachers to remain, requesting them to teach and dedicating the practice to full enlightenment).
3a. Calming and clearing the mind – often using a simple (but often not easy) breathing meditation – see below.
3b. Optional for an analytical meditation: take specific object or technique and stay with that – avoid excuses to change the subject.
4. Conclusion and dedication – to make impression on the mind
In short: meditation is a method to transform ourselves into the person we would like to be; don’t forget what you want to be like, therefore we need to set the motivation which gives perseverance in the practice. Keep relaxed, don’t push yourself and don’t expect great experiences. A dedication at the end directs positive energy towards results.
The Tibetans traditionally advise the ‘6 Preparatory Practices‘ prior to the first traditional meditation session of the day:
1. Sweep and clean the room and arrange the altar.
2. Make offerings on the altar, e.g. light, food, incense, water bowls, etc..
3. Sit in a comfortable position and examine your mind. If there is much distraction, do some breathing meditation to calm your mind. Then establish a good motivation. After that, take refuge and generate the altruistic intention by reciting the appropriate prayers.
4. Visualise the ‘merit field’ in front of you with your Teachers, Buddhas, bodhisattvas, etc. If this is too difficult, visualise Shakyamuni Buddha alone and consider him the embodiment of all Buddhas, Dharma (teachings) and Sangha (community).
5. Offer the seven limb prayer and do the mandala offering by reciting the prayers.
6. Make requests to the lineage teachers for inspiration by reciting the requesting prayers. It is also good to review the entire graduated path to enlightenment by reciting for example, “Foundation of All Good Qualities”. This helps you to understand the purpose of the particular meditation that you will do in the overall scheme of training the mind in the gradual path. It also plants the seed for you to obtain each realisation of the path.