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Home > Approaching Buddhism > Introduction to Buddhism > What is Meditation? > What is Meditation?

What is Meditation?

Alexander Berzin
Moscow, Russia, June 2010

edited transcript

Introduction

When we hear the word “meditation,” many people have various ideas about it. For some people, it brings up the image of some mystical practice in which somehow you go to a different realm in your mind. For other people, it might bring up the idea of a certain type of discipline that is only done in Asia by certain people. But if we want to look more closely at meditation, we need to ask – and, of course, answer – three questions: What is meditation? Why would I want to do meditation? And how do I actually do it?

What Is Meditation?

The first question is: What is meditation? Meditation is a method for training ourselves to have a more beneficial state of mind or attitude. This is done by repeatedly generating a certain mental state in order to accustom ourselves to it and make it a habit. Of course, there are many different states of mind and attitudes that are beneficial. One state of mind could be being more relaxed, less tense and less worried; another could be one that is more focused, or a state of mind that is quieter, without constant mental chatter and worry. Yet another could be a state of mind with more understanding of ourselves, of life, and so on; and another could be one with more love and compassion toward others. So there are many different types of beneficial states of mind that we could achieve through meditation.

What Is the Purpose of Meditation?

The second question is: Why would I want to generate these states of mind? To answer that question, we need to look at two factors: First, what am I aiming for? Second, from an emotional perspective, why would I want to achieve that goal?

For example, why would I want a calmer and clearer mind? One reason, obviously, would be because our mind is not calm, and it makes us very troubled; it causes us a great deal of unhappiness and prevents us from functioning at our best in life. Our troubled mind could also be adversely affecting our health; it could be causing or aggravating problems in our families and jeopardizing our other relationships; it could be making difficulties for us at our workplace. So, in this example, our goal is to overcome some sort of deficiency, some sort of problem that we have, both mentally and emotionally. And we decide to take responsibility to overcome that problem in an orderly fashion through the practice of meditation.

What is the emotional state that would drive us to start a meditation practice? Well, we might be completely fed up and disgusted with this difficult state of mind that we have. So we say to ourselves, “Enough, already. I’ve got to get out of this situation. I’ve got to do something about it.” And if, for instance, our aim is to be of more help to our loved ones, then the emotional state would be, in addition to this state of disgust, a feeling of love and compassion. The combination of all these emotions drives us to find some method that will enable us to be of better help to them.

It is very important, however, to have a realistic understanding of meditation. It is unrealistic to think that meditation alone will solve all our problems. Meditation is a tool; it’s a method. When we want to achieve a result and we have a positive emotion driving us toward that aim, we need to realize that a result is not achieved by only one cause. Many, many causes and conditions must come together in order to produce a result. For example, if I have high blood pressure and hypertension, meditation would, of course, be helpful. Daily meditation can help me to worry less. But meditation alone will not bring down my blood pressure. It may help, but I also might need to change my diet, do more physical exercise, and I might also need to take medication as well. Many factors applied together will bring about the desired result of lowering my blood pressure.

The methods that are used in meditation could, of course, also be used to build up a negative state of mind. For example, I could meditate on how terrible my enemy is. I could use meditation to develop hatred, which then causes me to seek and to kill my enemy. But that’s not how meditation is generally used. Meditation is generally used as a method to build up a positive state of mind that will be beneficial for us and beneficial for others.

How Do We Meditate?

The third question is: How do we meditate? There are various methods that are used, depending on the state of mind that we want to develop. But one thing common to all the methods is the need to practice. “Practice” means to repeat a type of exercise over, and over, and over again. If we want to train our bodies, we need to practice some physical activity on a regular basis; similarly, we need to practice with our minds.

Developing New States of Mind through Meditation

Meditation is dealing with our state of mind, and so it makes sense to use a mental method to bring about a positive change. Now, we could use physical methods to try to change our state of mind; for instance, sitting in various yoga postures or doing various martial arts, such as Tai Chi. Those by themselves are not meditation. Such physical methods can help to generate a certain state of mind, but meditation is something you do just with your mind. Now, of course, you could meditate while doing some yoga postures or while doing Tai Chi. But the physical activity and the mental activity are two different things: one we do with our bodies and one we do with our minds.

To bring about the desired result, we might need to use many different causes, both physical and mental. We might work with the physical body, for example, by changing our diet, which can affect our state of mind. But meditation is working with the mind itself. So if we want to achieve a certain aim, then we need to investigate what we need to change in our lives, both physically and mentally, in order to reach that goal. We might need to begin a meditation practice, change our diet, increase physical exercise, or all of these.

When done properly, our meditation sessions will start to affect our everyday lives in between sessions. If we are practicing a certain state of mind during our meditation sessions, either a calmer, more focused, or more loving state, the point is not just to be able to generate that state of mind while sitting quietly in meditation. The whole point is to build up this positive state so thoroughly that it becomes a habit, a habit that we can apply whenever we need it, at any time during the day. Ultimately, it becomes something that is just natural; it’s just there all the time: we are more loving, understanding, focused, and calm.

If we find ourselves not in that sort of state of mind, all we need to do is remind ourselves: “Be more loving.” And because we have become so familiar with this state of mind through practice, we can instantly go to that state of mind. For example, when we find ourselves losing our tempers with someone, we immediately notice it and remind ourselves, either consciously or unconsciously: “I don’t want to be like that!” Then, like with a snap of our fingers, somewhat like rebooting our computers when an error message comes up, we close this “session” of bad temper and regenerate our attitude into one of love toward the person.

Generating these states of mind, like loving-kindness, is not just a matter of discipline. For instance, to be more loving, we need have some understanding of why we need to be more loving. We can remember that we are all interconnected with each other, by thinking: “You are a human being just like I am; you have feelings just as I do; you want to be liked and not ignored or disliked – the same as I do. We’re all here together on this planet and we need to get along with each other.”

The following example may be of help. Suppose you were in an elevator with ten people and, all of a sudden, the elevator got stuck and you were trapped there for a few days. How would you relate to the other people in the elevator? There you are – you are all stuck together. You are all in the same situation; somehow you need to get along with each other. If you start fighting with each other in that small space, it would be a disaster, wouldn’t it? Instead, you need to cooperate with each other and have patience with all of them. You need to work together to try to get out of the situation. So maybe it’s helpful to think of this planet as a very large elevator!

It’s by detailed meditation like this that we can generate a state of mind that has love and tolerance toward others. It’s very hard to generate any real feeling just by sitting in meditation and simply telling yourself: “I will be more loving.” So when we ask how to meditate, one method is to build up a certain state of mind, like this example of being more loving and tolerant. We learn to use a mental scenario like our elevator scenario. We think about it until we understand it and it makes sense to us. And then, while sitting quietly in meditation, while imagining other people around us, either people that we know or strangers, we try to generate the state of mind of love and compassion.

Quieting the Mind

Another method of meditation is to quiet the mind, so that we arrive at a more natural state of mind. There is a very important point to understand here: When we are trying to quiet the mind, it’s not that we’re aiming to have a blank mind, like a radio that is turned off. That is not at all the aim. You might as well go to sleep if that were the case. The aim is to quiet all disturbing states of mind. Certain emotions can be very disturbing, like being nervous, worried or frightened. We need to quiet down all such upsetting emotions.

When we quiet our minds, what we want to achieve is a state of mind that is very clear and alert, a state of mind in which either we are able to generate some love and understanding, or we are able to express the natural, human warmth that we all have. That requires a very, very deep relaxation – not just relaxation of the muscles in the body, which, of course, is necessary, but also relaxation of the mental and emotional tenseness or tightness that prevent us from feeling anything – particularly, that prevent us from feeling the natural warmth and clarity of the mind. This is not an exercise to just turn off and become like a robot with no thoughts at all.

Some people also think that meditation means to stop thinking. That is a misunderstanding. Rather than stopping all thinking, meditation should stop all the extraneous, unnecessary thinking, such as distracting thoughts about the future (What am I going to have for supper?), and negative or unskillful thinking (You were mean to me yesterday. You’re a horrible person.). All of that is in the category of mental wandering and disturbing thoughts.

To have a quiet mind, however, is just a tool; it’s not the final goal. But if we have a mind that is calmer, more relaxed, clearer and more open, then we can use it constructively. We can use it to help us in daily life, of course; but we could also use such a mind while sitting in meditation to try to gain more understanding of our life situation. With a mind that is free of disturbing emotions and extraneous thoughts, we can think much more clearly about important topics such as: What have I been doing in my life? Or: What is going on with this important relationship? Is it healthy? Is it unhealthy? We can be analytical. This is called introspection – being more introspective about what is going on inside us, what is happening in our lives. In order to understand those types of issues and to be introspective in a productive way, we need clarity. We need a calm, quiet mind. Meditation is a tool that can bring us to that state.

Conceptual and Nonconceptual States of Mind

Many meditation texts instruct us to rid ourselves of conceptual thoughts and settle into in a nonconceptual state. First of all, this instruction does not apply to all meditations. It refers specifically to an advanced meditation for focusing on reality. Nevertheless, there is one form of conceptuality that all types of meditation need to be rid of. But to understand the different forms of conceptuality discussed in meditation texts, we need to understand what we mean by “conceptual.”

Some people think that being conceptual refers to the normal, everyday verbal thoughts that pass through our minds – the so-called “voice in our heads” – and that to become nonconceptual means simply to quiet that voice. But quieting the voice in our heads is only a start. We’ve discussed this already in the context of quieting our minds of extraneous disturbing thoughts in order to have a clearer and calmer mind. Others think that to really understand something, we need to understand it nonconceptually, and that conceptual thought and correct understanding are mutually exclusive. This is also not the case.

To untangle the complexities regarding conceptuality, we need first to differentiate verbalizing something in our thoughts from understanding something. We can verbalize something in our thoughts either with or without understanding it. For instance, we can mentally recite a prayer in a foreign language, either with or without understanding what it means. Similarly, we can understand something with or without being about to explain it mentally in words, for instance how it feels to be in love.

The issue of conceptual versus nonconceptual cognition in meditation, however, is not an issue of understanding or not understanding something. In meditation as well as in daily life, we always need to maintain understanding, whether conceptual or nonconceptual, and whether or not we mentally verbalize it. Sometimes verbalizing is helpful; sometimes it’s not useful at all or not even needed. For instance, tying our shoes: we understand how to tie our shoes. Do you need to actually verbalize what you do with this lace and that lace when you tie it? No. In fact, I think that most of us would have great difficulty describing in words how we tie our shoes. Nevertheless, we have understanding. Without understanding, you can’t do anything in life, can you? You can’t even open a door.

From many points of view, verbalization is in fact helpful; we need verbalization to be able to communicate to others. However, verbalization in our thinking is not absolutely necessary; verbalization in itself is neutral. We have some useful meditations that involve verbalization. For instance, mentally repeating mantras is a form of verbalization that generates and maintains a certain type of rhythm or vibration in the mind. That regular rhythm of the mantra is very helpful; it helps us to stay focused on a certain state of mind. For example, when generating compassion and love, if you are reciting a mantra like OM MANI PEME HUNG, it’s a bit easier to stay focused on that loving state, although of course we can remain focused in a state of love without mentally saying anything. So verbalization itself is not the problem. On the other hand, of course, we certainly need to quiet our minds when they just chattering with useless verbiage.

So, if the issue of conceptuality is not an issue regarding verbalization or understanding, what is the issue? What is the conceptual mind and what does the meditation instruction mean when it tells us we need to rid ourselves of it? Does this instruction pertain to all stages and levels of meditation, as well as to daily life? It is important to clarify these points.

Conceptual mind means thinking in terms of categories, which, in simple terms, means thinking of things by means of putting them into “boxes,” such as “good” or “bad,” “black” or “white,” “dog” or “cat.” Now, certainly when we do the shopping, we need to be able to distinguish between an apple and an orange, or between an unripe fruit and a ripe one. In such everyday cases, thinking in categories is not a problem. But there are other types of categories that are a problem. One is what we call a “preconception.”

An example of a preconception is: “I expect you always to be mean to me. You are a terrible person because in the past you did this and that, and now I predict that, no matter what, you will continue to be a terrible person.” We have pre-judged that this person is awful and will continue to be awful toward us – that is a preconception. In our thoughts, we put the person into the category or box “awful person.” And, of course, if we think that way, and we project onto someone the thought that: “He is mean; he is always terrible toward me,” then there is a big block between ourselves and that person. Our preconception affects how we relate to him. So preconception is a state of mind in which we categorize; we put things into mental boxes.

There are many, many levels of nonconceptuality, but one level is to simply be open to a situation as it arises. Now, that doesn’t mean to drop all conceptual understanding. For instance, if there is a dog that has bitten many people, then because of thinking of the dog in terms of the category “a dog that bites,” we are careful around that dog. We have some reasonable caution around the animal, but we don’t have the preconception of: “That dog will definitely bite me, so I won’t even try to go near it.” There is a gentle balance here between accepting the situation that is arising, while at the same time not having preconceptions that prevent us from experiencing the situation fully.

The level of nonconceptuality, then, that is needed in all meditations is a mind that is free of preconceptions. One of the most general instructions is to meditate without any expectations and without any worries. Preconceptions around a meditation session could be the expectation that our meditation session will go wonderfully, or the worry that our legs will hurt, or the thought: “I won’t be successful.” Those thoughts of expectation and worry are preconceptions, whether or not we mentally verbalize them. Such thoughts fit our upcoming meditation session into the mental box or category of “a fantastic experience” or “a painful experience.” A nonconceptual approach to meditation would be simply to accept whatever happens and deal with it according to the meditation instructions, without placing a judgment on the situation.

Situations Conducive to Meditation

We also definitely need a conducive situation for meditation. Some people think that a conducive situation has to be what I would call a “Hollywood setting.” People think that they need a special room with candles and a certain type of music and incense; they think they need a whole Hollywood movie set. If you want to have that type of environment, that’s fine; but it’s certainly not necessary. We need to show respect for ourselves and what we are doing with meditation, so what is usually recommended is that the physical location be neat and clean. Usually, it’s the practice to clean the room where you will be meditating. Set the room in order; don’t have clothes thrown all over the floor, etc. If the environment around us is orderly, it helps for the mind to become orderly. If the environment is chaotic, that negatively affects the mind.

It is also very helpful, especially in the beginning, if the environment is quiet. In the Buddhist tradition, we certainly do not meditate with music. Music is an external source that we play to try to make us calmer. But rather than relying on an external source of tranquility, we want to be able to generate peace internally. Also, music can be quite hypnotic, and we don’t want to be in a daze. We don’t need to tranquilize ourselves, as if we were in a dentist’s waiting room, with gentle music playing in order to calm us down. That is not a good meditation atmosphere.

Regarding meditation posture, if we look at the different Asian traditions, there are many different ways of sitting for meditation. The Tibetans and Indians sit cross-legged; the Japanese kneel with their legs bent beneath them and their feet facing behind; people in Thailand sit with both legs bent to one side. The most important thing is to sit in a comfortable position. If you need to sit in a chair, that’s fine. In very advanced meditation exercises, in which we’re working with the energy systems of the body, then the posture is important. But in general we need to be able to meditate in any type of situation. You may be used to sitting cross-legged on a cushion, but if you are on a plane or a train and you can’t sit cross-legged, then you simply meditate while sitting normally in your seat.

Especially for less-experienced meditators, it is important that the environment is quiet. For many of us, it’s not so easy to find a place that is quiet, especially in the city. So, many people meditate early in the morning or late at night when there’s less noise. Eventually, when we become advanced enough, then noise doesn’t bother us; but in the beginning it is very easy to be distracted by external noise.

In general, it’s important to determine for ourselves, personally, what time of day is best for us to meditate. For example, many people find that their energy declines after eating; they get tired, so that’s not the best time to meditate. Some people are very fresh and alert when they wake up in the morning, but others are groggy for most of the morning. Some people are more alert late at night, but others struggle to stay awake if they try to meditate before bedtime, which is not productive. So it’s important to judge for yourselves what time of day suits you best.

We also need to find out what is best for us personally in terms of posture. If we are sitting cross legged, for example, then it’s always recommended that we have a cushion beneath our behinds. But there are many people who don’t use a cushion. And if you use a cushion, you need to see for yourself what type of cushion to use: thick or thin, hard or soft. You need to find a type of cushion and a type of posture that will minimize your legs falling asleep and prevent your whole session being one of pain and discomfort. The meditation session should not become a torture session in which we’re sitting there feeling horrible because our knees hurt and we can’t wait until it’s over. So the type of cushion that you use is quite important; it can make a big difference. And when we become older and we can no longer sit cross-legged, there is no problem with sitting in a chair, though our backs should be straight.

Also, the amount of time that we meditate will vary as we progress. In the beginning, it’s always recommended that we meditate for a very short time – three to five minutes – because it will be very difficult for us to concentrate and be focused for any longer than that. It’s better to have a short period in which we are more focused, than a long period in which we are mentally wandering, daydreaming, or falling asleep.

If we are doing a certain type of Zen meditation, then maintaining the posture and not moving is very important. In other types of meditation, if you need to move your legs, you move your legs – it’s not a big deal. In all these sorts of spiritual practices, it’s very important to be relaxed; don’t push yourself too hard. Of course, we show respect for what we are doing, but don’t make it into a dramatic situation, as in: “I’m a holy being sitting here and I need to be perfect.”

One of the most important principles to remember is that everything goes up and down. Some days our meditation will go well; some days it won’t go well. Some days we will feel like meditating; some days we won’t. It will never be the case that every day our meditation will be better and better and better. Progress is not linear that way; it will always be up and down. Maybe, after a few years, you’ll be able to see a general trend that your mediation practice is improving, but it will always be the case that some days will be better than others. As one of my teachers would say: “Nothing special.” It’s going well – nothing special. It’s not going well – nothing special. You just continue. What is most important is to persevere. Meditate every day. Like practicing the piano, you need to do it every day. And if you’re doing it just for a few minutes at a time, fine. Take a break, then meditate for another few minutes. Take another little break, and another few minutes of meditation. It is better to practice like that rather than sitting for an hour in a torture session.

Meditation on the Breath

Many people want to know: how do I get started with meditation? For most people, in many traditions, the way that we begin is with meditation focusing on the breath. When you are meditating on the breath, you are just breathing normally: not too fast, not too slow, not too deeply, not too shallow. Just breathe normally through the nose. You certainly don’t hyperventilate; if you breathe too deeply, you become very, very dizzy and that is not helpful at all.

You can focus on the breath in two places: either on the sensation of the breath coming in and out of the nose, or on the sensation of the stomach going in and out. If your mind is wandering a great deal and you are up in the clouds – what we call “spaced out” in English – then focusing on the stomach area around the navel going in and out helps to ground you. If, on the other hand, you become very sleepy and dull, then focusing on the sensation of the breath coming in and out of the nose helps to raise the energy. So, again, you judge for youself what you need at any particular time. The whole point is to be focused on the breathing with awareness. You are not turning your mind off; you are aware of the sensation of breathing, without a running commentary in your mind.

The real work is to recognize as soon as possible when your attention wanders away and then to bring it back. Or, if you start to become dull and sleepy, you need to wake yourself up. That’s the work that’s involved here. And we shouldn’t fool ourselves: this work is not easy, because we tend to be very attached to our thoughts and our mental wandering, and we forget that we need to bring our attention back. Especially, if there’s some disturbing emotion involved with a thought, like thinking of someone that we’re very attached to, someone that we miss, or someone that we’re really angry with, then it’s even more difficult to bring the attention back. But the breath is always there; it is something stable that we can always bring our attention back to.

Focusing on the breath has many other benefits. The breath is very much connected with the body. And if we’re the type of person that is too preoccupied with our thoughts or someone with our “head in the clouds,” then focusing on the breath, regardless of whether we focus on it at the nostrils or the belly, helps to ground us, to bring us more back into our body, into reality. Focusing on the breath is also very helpful if we have pain. In fact, breathing meditations have been adopted in some hospitals, particularly in the United States, for pain management. If you think about it, when a baby is crying, and the mother holds the baby to her breast, the baby feels the mother’s breathing going in and out, which is very calming. Similarly, if we focus on our own breathing, that can help to calm us down, particularly if we have a lot of pain. And breathing can relieve not only physical pain; it can also relieve or lessen emotional pain.

Next, you need to know what you do with your eyes. In some traditions, you meditate with your eyes closed. The advantage is that you have fewer distractions. The disadvantage is that it is easier to fall asleep with your eyes closed. Another disadvantage of meditating with your eyes closed is that it gets you in the habit that, in order to calm down or meditate, you need to close your eyes, which is often very difficult to do in real life. The Tibetans meditate with their eyes open, not wide open and looking around, but just looking with a gentle, unfocused gaze, down toward the floor. Again, we need to judge for ourselves what is best.

Generating Love toward Others

Once we have quieted our minds with a meditation on the breath, we can use that quiet and alert state of mind. We can use it to be more aware of our emotional state, but we can also use it, for instance, in a meditation to generate more love toward others. To generate love, you need to work yourselves up to a state of love. In the beginning, you can’t just think: “Now I love everybody” and then actually feel it. There’s no power behind such a thought. So, you use a thought process to work yourself up to a feeling of love, such as: “All living beings are interconnected; we are all here together. Everybody is the same: we all want to be happy, nobody wants to be unhappy; everybody wants to be liked, no one wants to be disliked or ignored. All beings are just like me.”

And since we are all here together and interconnected, then love is the feeling of: “May everyone be happy and have the causes for happiness. How wonderful it would be if everyone were happy, if nobody had any problems.” And by building ourselves up to this state of mind, and this heart of love, then we imagine a warm, yellow light like the sun, shining from us, with love, out to everyone else. If our attention wanders, we bring it back to this feeling: “May everyone be happy.”

Building up Beneficial Habits for Daily Life

If we accustom ourselves to these types of meditation, we develop tools that we can use in our daily life. Simply focusing on our breath will not be the sole activity of our daily lives. That is not the final aim, is it? However, the skill that we have developed, the ability to always bring our attention back to a focus – we can definitely use that in daily life. For instance, if we are having a conversation with someone and our mind starts to wander, and we’re thinking: “When will she shut up?” and we are making all sorts of judgments and comments in our mind about what she is saying, as soon as we recognize what is happening, we need to quiet all of that and just bring our attention back to the person and what she is saying. We are using the skills we practiced in meditation to generate the understanding: “This is a human being. She wants to be liked. She wants to be listened to when she is talking to me. She wants to be taken seriously, just as I do.”

So the goal is to be able to apply the skills that we developed in meditation to our daily life experiences. We’re not aiming to get the Olympic gold medal for being able to sit perfectly in meditation; that is not the goal! Instead, we want to meditate in order for the meditation practice to help us in our lives, both personally and in our interactions with others. And to do that, we need to build up more beneficial habits. That is what meditation is all about.