CONCISE INSTRUCTIONS FOR SKILLFULL MEDITATION
By Jacob Meddin
Lesson One: Introduction and the First Two Stages of Letting Go
Meditation is about letting go. “In meditation you let go of the complex world outside in order to reach a powerful peace within…the goal of this meditation is beautiful silence and clarity of mind.” To attain our goal, we must apply skilful effort, wise effort, in order to establish the conditions that allow letting go to happen. Then we let it happen, little by little, bit by bit.
In these 4 lessons, we will use a basic method of meditation to enable us to let go in stages. These stages are called: Present- Moment Awareness, Silent- Present Moment Awareness, Silent Present-Moment Awareness of the Breath and Full Sustained Attention on the Breath. The Burdens of the Past and the Future–
We begin by putting down the two big ‘suitcases’ that we carry with us most of the time. One is called ‘the past’; the other is called ‘the future’. We leave them by ‘the door’ and allow our mind to come into the present moment. We do this by pactising the first stage of letting go: Present- Moment Awareness.
Stage One—Present-Moment Awareness
In Stage One we direct our attention to what is going on right now in the present moment. What ever is happening now is our only concern. What has happened in the past, what might happen in the future are simply not our business at this time. To the best we can, we pay attention only to what is coming in through the senses right now. For example, we may hear the sound of a bird, or feel the caress of the breeze, or the pressure of our seat.
Be Brief– At this stage it’s alright to give these fleeting meditation objects a name or label, but only very briefly. If we hear the sound of a bird, we may want to silently say to ourselves ‘bird’ or ‘chirp’ (or whatever we wish). But again we must do so briefly so that we can move on to the next object that comes to our senses. It’s only that bird right now that we want to be aware of. We’re not interested in ‘birds in general’, ‘birds that we have known’, or other birds in that that bird’s family. For if we dwell on the bird, we will miss the next object to come in through the senses.
Be Gentle– Once you’ve tried this meditation, you can see for yourself, that it is not as easy as it appears. The mind tends not to keep inner commentary simple and in the present moment. It likes to proliferate thought and to wander into the past, into the future (or even into a ‘fantasy land’ that has nothing to do with anything much at all).
The idea is to be alert and in the present moment only. However that takes skill born of patient practice. So when the mind starts to wander and to chatter away, don’t be upset with yourself, that’s simply what the untrained mind tends to do! Sometimes just being aware of the wandering is enough in itself for the mind to return to the present.
Stage Two—Silent Present-Moment Awareness
At stage two, we drop the naming; we drop the labeling. At stage one, we were very close to being right in the present moment, but not exactly there. We were just a little name or label away. Now we are really in the present moment, ‘spot on’.
At this stage when we hear the sound of a bird, we don’t comment to ourselves. We just know it. Of course that is now true of anything else that comes in through the senses. If we feel the caress of the breeze, the pressure of our seat, we just know it, but silently. There is a pleasantness in inner silence, a pleasantness that we can’t even begin to appreciate when all we know is the busy mind: chattering, chattering, chattering all the time. Now you can notice that silence, even if it’s only for a brief moment. Enjoy it!
If the mind wanders, it may be enough, as in the previous stage, just to know that and to allow the mind to come back to the silent present moment. However, if it keeps on wandering, then gently bring it back to Silent Present- Moment Awareness, just as a mother would take a little child by the hand who has wandered into an unsafe place and gently lead it back to a safe one. Be patient, be kind to your mind; this is a gentle practice. Again, remember the mind is not accustomed to being trained in this fashion. Usually it goes pretty much where it feels like going and thinks what ever it feels like thinking.
A Common Problem: Trying to Go Too Deep, Too Fast
A very common problem for most beginning meditators is trying to do the meditation, in other words to make it happen and to try to make it go too deep too fast. But think about it. How can you do letting go? How can you make letting go happen? You can’t! It’s a contradiction in terms. Instead a skilful meditator creates the conditions that allow letting go to happen, and at its own pace. This takes practice.
Stages Within the Stages— a good way to help us slow down and to allow the meditation to just happen is to create stages within each of the stages of letting go. For each stage in the Basic Method these sub-stages are always the same: recognition, familiarity and ease. These are ‘skilful means’ that allow the mind to stay in each of the stages of letting go longer and not go through them too quickly. Keep in mind that in meditation “careful patience is the fastest way”.
So in meditation, recognize your stage of meditation, allow yourself to become familiar with it and know what it ‘feels’ like. And stay with it at least until you feel a sense of ease. Only then is the mind properly prepared to move on to the next stage.
Lesson Two: The Third and Fourth Stages of Letting Go
In the first lesson, we learned about the first two stages of letting go: Present- Moment Awareness and Silent-Present Moment Awareness. These stages allow us to begin the process of putting down the two ‘heavy suitcases’ of ‘the past’ and ‘the future’, and to ‘rest’ in the present moment. We became aware of the present moment in all its diversity—sounds, bodily sensations, smells, etc. In ‘awareness of diversity’ we are in the present moment with the many things that we can be aware of in that moment. This is why we call it ‘awareness of diversity’.
In this lesson, we learn how to become aware of just one thing in the present moment, ‘awareness of unity’. That ‘one thing’ for us will be the breath. While Present-Moment Awareness and Silent Present-Moment Awareness can be quite pleasant, Silent Present Moment Awareness of just one thing, like the breath, can be even more pleasant. It takes us even further into that “beautiful silence and clarity of mind” that are the fruits of good meditation.
Stage Three—Silent Present-Moment Awareness of the Breath
Remember that skilful meditation is a gradual process. Think of each stage of meditation as being within the previous one. Also remember from the last lesson, that within each stage, there is a gradual deepening too. Within each stage there are the three sub-stages: recognition, familiarity and ease.
In this lesson, briefly go through the first three stages of meditation: Present-Moment awareness, Silent Present-Moment Awareness and Silent Present-Moment Awareness of the Breath and then to come back up to the very first stage, Present-Moment Awareness and settle in to your meditation. The purpose of this exercise is to give you the opportunity to recognize these three stages and know what they feel like. However, when meditating on your own, take your good sweet time. Don’t be in a hurry. Remember, in meditation “careful patience is the fastest way”.
In Stage three, we allow the mind to come to just one thing—the breath. When breathing in, we know that we are breathing in. When breathing out, we know that we are breathing out. When the mind is settled and calm, watching the breath can be very pleasant; for the more sustained our attention on one thing, the more pleasant our meditation. Again, we can’t sustain this focused mindfulness through will power alone. Instead, we have to create the conditions and then allow it to happen. And those conditions are our previous stages of meditation, Present- Moment Awareness and Silent Present- Moment Awareness. Each builds upon the other. They provide the foundation for sustained attention on the breath.
Stage Four—Full Sustained Attention On the breath
In stage four, we experience silent present-moment awareness of just the breath. We are there in the present moment with the breath throughout the entire breathing cycle, from the very first moment of the in-breath to the very last moment of the out-breath. We are fully there from breath, to breath, to breath to… And we have arrived there from ‘wisdom power’, not from will power.
We arrive at this stage by putting the time into our meditation practice, and by allowing letting go to happen. We have instructed the mind on the stages of meditation and then ‘got out of the way’. In other words, we have created the conditions that allow this refined form of meditation to happen, this natural deepening of our meditation.
Beyond Full Sustained Attention Awareness of the Breath there are even deeper stages of meditation. And serious and diligent meditators have these to look forward to as their practice gradually deepens even more. But that’s beyond the instructions in these brief lessons.
Mindfulness– Mindfulness lies at the heart of skilful meditation. Mindfulness is about “being aware, being awake, or being fully consciousness of what’s occurring around you.” But it is more than just that. “ Mindfulness also guides the awareness to specific areas, remembers the instructions and initiates a response.” At each stage of meditation in this course we aim to remember to be aware, to know what to be aware of, and to know when the mind has wandered from the instructions.
Let’s take Stage One—Present- Moment Awareness as an illustration. In Stage One we instruct mindfulness to remember to be in the present and to be aware only and to pay attention only to what is coming in through the senses right now, and that “it’s alright to silently give these sense objects a name or a label, but only very briefly.” Also we instruct our mindfulness to remember to be aware when the mind wanders. This stage is about awareness of diversity in the present and how to begin to go about developing that awareness. Mindfulness is told what to do, and to remember the instructions, and also to know when the instructions are not being followed.
Sustained Attention and Stillness (Samadhi)
Sustained Attention and Stillness (Samadhi)– sustained attention is sometimes called ‘concentration’, but that is not the best choice of words. ‘Concentration’ implies effort, maybe even struggle, to hold the mind’s attention on one thing. When strong will power is used to hold the mind on it’s meditation object, it might work for a while, but is difficult to maintain and certainly is not the pleasure of letting go! So instead of using ‘will power’, we need to use ‘wisdom power’. We put our ‘doing’ into setting up our meditation, putting it ‘back on the tracks’ when it goes wrong and in investigating at the end. We need to put our letting go into the meditation itself.
We use our ‘wisdom power’ to instruct the mind at the beginning of our meditation and then to ‘get out of the way’ and allow it to gradually deepen to the beautiful silence and stillness of awareness of just the breath. Slowly and its own pace we allow the mind to deepen and focus its attention as it moves from diversity to unity, from a busyness to the lovely stillness of a unified mind.
Lesson Three: The Hindrances To Meditation
In this lesson, we’ll examine the hindrances to skilful meditation and refine our meditation further.
The Hindrances to Meditation
There are five basic hindrances to skilful meditation: 1) sensory desire, 2) ill will, 3) sloth and torpor, 4) restlessness and remorse, and 5) doubt. If our meditation is not going well, then it will be because of one of these hindrances (or a combination of them). When our meditation has ‘gone off the tracks’ (is not working well), we need to pause and investigate. Then we can apply the ‘antidote’ to deal with the problem. Once we recognise the problem, and know how to deal with it, our meditation can deepen and become more pleasant.
Let’s take the hindrances one at a time:
Sensory Desire–Sensory desire refers to our interest (even delight) in the world of the five senses—sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch. It’s easy for an unguarded mind to ‘space out’ and become absorbed in thoughts about food, sex, music, etc. This is not meditation; it’s ‘fantasy land’. Mindfulness is so important here. Remember, mindfulness is about being aware of what’s happening in the present moment and remembering the instructions and initiating a response. Once mindfulness recognises this hindrance, the proper response is simply to let go, little-by-little, of that part of the five sense world that has grabbed our attention.
Ill Will—Ill will usually comes in one of three ‘flavours’: ill will toward others, one’s self or even toward our meditation. When mindfulness recognises this problem, the next step is to generate the antidote, ‘good will’—even loving-kindness. We need to train ourselves to be more generous and accepting of what we take to be the ‘faults’ in ourselves and in others and even with our own meditation. (We’ll do a formal loving kindness meditation in our next lesson.) However, when we’re willing to soften our hearts, just ‘seeing’ this hindrance ‘in action’ is often enough to evaporate it.
Sloth and Torpor—We’ve probably all experienced sloth and torpor in our meditation at some time or another—that dull, woozey state of mind, where we really don’t have much, if any, awareness of what’s going on. The most common reason is the obvious one. We’re tired and low in energy. The most effective way for dealing with this type of sloth and torpor is to accept it, to make peace with it . Then it usually doesn’t last that long. When we’ve rested a little, our mind becomes clearer and we can carry on. Sometimes, though, sloth and torpor is more like a subtle form of ill will. We don’t want to be here. We don’t like what we’re doing and/or where we’re at, so the mind withdraws and escapes into ‘La-La’ land. Investigate, when you become aware of this hindrance. If ill will appears to be the real or underlying problem , then practice goodwill like we discussed above. Treat sloth and torpor for what they are: a subtle form of ill will.
Restlessness and Remorse— In a general sense, restlessness is a sign of lack of contentment. Let’s take remorse first as it’s a special kind of restlessness. Remorse is about feeling bad about something we’ve done. When that kind of feeling comes up, apply the ‘AFL’ formula: 1) Acknowledge what you’ve done, 2) Forgive yourself and 3) Learn from your mistake. Remember, everyone makes mistakes—big and small. Try to adopt the attitude that there is nothing you have done, absolutely nothing that cannot be forgiven. It will soften your heart, and a soft and accepting heart makes for good meditation. Strive to cultivate an unconditional acceptance of yourself. Say to yourself, “No matter what I may have done, the ‘door to my heart’ is always open to me.”
“Restlessness in meditation is always a sign of not finding joy in what’s here. Whether we find joy or not depends on the way we train our perception.” It’s easy to find fault with just about anything, and meditation is no exception. Many of us are trained to have a ‘fault finding’ mind. However, with time and practice we also can train ourselves to be content and to value our meditation. If we instruct it ahead of time, mindfulness helps us remember contentment, and like most endeavours, the more we practise contentment, the better we get at it. When restlessness is strong, we can even repeat a phrase or mantra to ourselves, a mantra like ‘good enough’, ‘good enough’, ‘good enough’.
Doubt—Doubt comes in three categories, towards: the teaching, the teacher and often yourself. Sometimes in meditation they can be combined. (The double or even triple ‘whammy’)
Here are some reflections that might help with doubt. First, in regard to these Teachings in general, they truly have stood ‘the test of time’. Buddhist meditation has been around for over 2500 years! That’s not a bad track record.
In regard to these instructions, they are based on Ajahn Brahm’s applications of these Teachings, which come from his deep experience and understanding. He has been a Buddhist Monk for over 30 years and is well known as an accomplished meditator, teacher and author. The teachings are sound, and his track record is well established!Finally we come to the big one—doubts about ourselves, about our ability to meditate. This probably is the most common form of doubt that arises in the beginning meditator. Everyone practising these instructions is capable of meditating! Initially some people may show more aptitude than others, but in the long run, like most things in life, it is persistence that pays off in the end. Don’t lose heart. Hang in there.
Lesson Four: Consolidating Our Practice
In this brief course, we have covered the basics of skilful meditation. We have covered four stages of ‘letting go’ and examined some of the common issues and problems that arise in meditation practice. In this final lesson, we examine some of the things we need to know to sustain our meditation practice over time. And then we’ll do another type of meditation—Loving Kindness or Metta— this will give our practice more variety.
Mindfulness in Day To Day Life
There is a general rule: what we do in our meditation practice affects what we do in our day to day life and what we do in our day to day life affects our meditation. If we value and practise mindfulness in our daily life, we will find it easier to practise mindfulness when we meditate. And as our mindfulness strengthens in our meditation practice, mindfulness becomes easier in our daily life. Daily mindfulness and meditation mindfulness reinforce each other. Sustained mindfulness is not that easy though! Mindfulness means remembering to be aware and how often we forget! When we remember again, we need to re-establish our mindfulness with a gentle, kind and non-judgemental persistence. Again remember, careful patience is the fastest way!
Building a Strong Meditation Practice
The ‘Secret Teaching’–One of the ‘secrets’ to good meditation is the same ‘secret’ that we touched on at the end of the last lesson. Like most things in life, in the long run, we get out of it what we put into it. And we are willing to sustain effort for that which we value. Give meditation a fair trial and see if it doesn’t make you calmer, more peaceful and easier to live with, in other words, happier. If you can see that, even if only vaguely at first, you will value your meditation and want to keep up your practise and to protect your meditation time.
How to build a good practice–Here are some tips for building a good practice: Pick a regular time and place to do your meditation. Be realistic. Pick a time and place where others are not likely to intrude, and let those who live with you know that this is your special time. Protect it! A regular time and place are important. We want to get into the habit of meditating regularly. After all, that’s why meditation practice is called ‘practice’.
Try to meditate with a group at regular intervals also. Group practice reinforces our individual practice. And it helps us make good meditation friends too.
When to ‘do’ and when to ‘let go’–Above all, remember that meditation is about letting go. There is a place for doing in our meditation, but remember we can’t do the actual meditation itself. We can’t do letting go! The places for doing in meditation are in setting up the time and place for regular meditation, instructing mindfulness at the beginning, investigating when our meditation goes ‘off the tracks’ and in assessing our meditation right after we’ve finished. In the meditation itself, we let go, and with practice, we get better at it. Letting go can be so blissful!
Metta or Loving Kindness Meditation
Metta refers to a feeling of goodwill toward others and ourselves, a feeling that can sustain thoughts of wishing happiness for others (and ourselves) and a willingness to forgive faults. (It’s actually the opposite of the ‘fault finding mind’). In this meditation it’s ok to use your imagination initially to create a being that we can easily feel tenderness towards. For example we can imagine a baby, a kitten, a puppy (or even a little plant). Choose an object you can relate to, for you know best. This helps us generate the feeling of caring. From there we go to a real person we care about who we can relate to easily, for example a child, parent or teacher. And then we progress to others who are slightly more distant—one little step at a time. We save the most difficult person for last. Guess who that often is. Ourselves!
We begin by establishing ourselves in Stage One—Present Moment Awareness. Then we bring up our imaginary ‘Being’ in our mind. We hold it gently and wish it well. Silently we ‘say’ the inner speech that is meaningful to us. For example, “May you be happy. May you be well. I care about your well-being and happiness. I will look after you. I will protect you.” (or what ever words you want.) Imagine your caring as a golden light that glows from your heart and that bathes your little imaginary Being.
Notice the feeling of loving kindness. Make much of it; it’s a very wholesome feeling. Often meditators experience it as a sensation in the chest. When fully developed, it can be a very pleasant feeling indeed.
When you’re ready (and there’s no rush), move on to a real person. Someone you’re very close to and who you care about a lot. Use the inner speech that you find best and spread the golden light to invoke the same feelings toward this real person. Later, when you’re ready (take your own sweet time), move on to someone else who you care about but are not quite as close to. Keep up the process, one person at a time, until you reach and include an acquaintance, someone you barely know. Then spread the golden light in all directions, throughout the universe. “May all Beings be happy, may all Beings be well. I care about your happiness.”
Now comes what are the most challenging parts for many people: First select someone you don’t like, someone who is difficult for you, an enemy even. Someone whose been unkind to you. Send the golden light of loving kindness to them too. Make up the words of your choice. Perhaps something like: “Even though you’ve been unkind and have caused me suffering, I wish you happiness and the wisdom not to harm others.”
Now turn your attention to what is for many people the most difficult metta object of all. Our Self! “May I be happy; may I be well. I care about me. I open my heart to myself.” You choose the words that are right for you. Dear Meditator, open your heart to yourself.
Then when the time has come, allow the golden light of loving kindness to withdraw within your heart; so that it will be there for the next time you practise metta meditation.
Dear Meditator, This concludes this brief Meditation Course.
Be happy; Be well!