Methods and benefits of meditation
By Ven. Madawala Upali
Principal Meditation Instructor
International Centre for Training in Buddhist Meditation
Kanduboda, Delgoda, Sri Lanka
This is a revised edition of a lecture by Ven. Upali published for free distribution at the International Vipassana Centre, Kanduboda in January 2002 from the series on 'Physical and Mental Health - Mind Training Behavior' organized by the Institute of Worker's Education of the University of Colombo for the benefit of undergraduates.
Methods and benefits of meditation
The word meditation is a generic term for a very ancient practice of mental and physical discipline begun very likely first in India, about 3000 years ago and now spread worldwide and adopted by almost all religions, faiths and some systems of medicine. It is now a well-researched and documented method of bio-feed back in western clinical therapy.
Meditation is a mental exercise that can help to relieve stress people experience in daily life and those resulting from events such as the death of a loved one or from unexpected misfortune. Our lives are full of minor frustrations, conflicts, indecision, and disappointments at home and in the work place. Urban and industrial environments tend to increase tension. Even when times are relatively 'quite' there can be anxiety, depression, loneliness or fear arising in the mind. Meditation can help to overcome these stressful circumstances and enable you, to face the ups and downs of life with tolerance and acceptance.
Regardless of age or sex status or profession, meditation can benefit your life even when you do not have 'problems' or anxieties. Professionals engaged in long hours of demanding work can meditate at work to relax the mind. Those working a steady, repetitive routine can get relief from boredom and restlessness. Discomfort and fear will not overtly trouble the elderly and the sick. Students will be able to improve their memory and do their studies better than before.
Your domestic and social relationships will be more harmonious. Because meditation 'strengthens' the mind, weak physical and mental conditions can improve. As the mind becomes more and more peaceful with practice of meditation, you will be able to have restful sleep.
In sum, meditation can help you to lead a more productive, satisfying, healthy and comfortable life. And the wisdom that can come from regular meditation can bring happiness to surpass everything else.
THE WAY OF THE MIND AND OBJECTIVE OF MEDITATION
Imagine trying to read a book by candlelight in a room that has all its doors and windows open. If there is wind, the light will flicker making it difficult to read. But when the wind ceases and the light becomes steady, reading can be done in comfort In much the same way, the mind flickers, darting now here and now there. When it is steady, one-pointed, the mind can bring steady light and clarity to everything you do. Why does our mind flicker? The mind receives sensory information all the time from the five sense doors - the eye, ear, nose, tongue and the body. When sleeping the sense doors are not so active admitting information. Why? Because the doors are not wide open to the mind as when we are awake. The pathways to the mind are temporarily wholly or partially shut.
For awareness to arise, three things should be present -an object, the sense door and the mind. When all three are present, there is awareness. For example, when a visible object, the eye and the mind meet, there is sight or seeing. Likewise, when sound, ear and mind are connected, there is hearing. While this explication may seem self-evident, and simple, the root cause for all problems in life arise from feelings that generate when three elements such as eye, consciousness of form or object make contact with the mind.
Flickering of the mind is reduced when our, sense doors are closed or restrained or controlled. The Buddha has explained the way to do this. He has described several ways to restrain or close the mind. The exercises begin in a very simple way and he tells you how to develop them gradually into a state that lead to the profound investigation of the working of the mind. This is how Buddhist meditation is unique and specific. This is why meditation taught by the Buddha is different from all other forms of meditation taught in the world. Above everything, the objective of meditation as taught by the Buddha and relentlessly practiced by his disciples, is unique. The objective is final liberation from all our problems.
TYPES OF MEDITATION
Two types of meditation are used to concentrate, discipline and develop the mind.
- Samatha or tranquillity meditation trains the mind to concentrate or become one-pointed on only one object.
- Vipassana or insight meditation trains the mind to observe the many objects that come into awareness through the five sense doors and the mind. That is to say, train awareness of information admitted to consciousness through the six doors. And the objective of vipassana is to develop wisdom (panna) in order to eradicate defilements in the mind and be finally free from suffering (dukkha).
WHAT IS THE PRINCIPLE OF SAMATHA AND HOW IS THE MIND CONCENTRATED BY IT?
As we mentioned earlier, three things should be present for awareness to arise - an object, the sense door and the mind. By concentrating for example on a single object repeatedly such as our (visible) breathing, the mind is focussed on only one object - breathing.
Anapanasati or the contemplation of the in and out breathing is very popular because many have heard about it and appears easy to do. Breathing is an activity, that is continuous and done usually without actual awareness. But when you concentrate on in and out breathing, you begin to feel it. The way to concentrate is to just be aware of the sensation of the air as it passes in an out of the nostrils. Or, you can bring awareness to the rise and fall of the abdomen as you breath in and out. If you can now focus and continue to focus on the in and out flow of the breath or movement of the abdomen, the mind will begin to get concentrated. Note that the most important attention here is not the object (in and out breath) but achievement of fixed or one-pointedness of the mind.
The mind can be trained in many other ways. You can look, and keep looking at a visible object such as a color, clay, water, fire, or the wind shaking a leaf to make the mind one-pointed. This is known as kasina meditation. For a person who has developed skill in concentrating the mind, imagied or real corpse or skeleton can be a good object for samatha meditation. This is known as asubha meditation. Someone who is irritable, depressed or worried can benefit from concentrating or contemplating thoughts of loving-kindness by thinking “May all beings be well and happy". This is known as metta meditation. [Contrary to popular belief, metta meditation properly practiced, is difficult. The objective, as taught by the Buddha, is the attainment of jhana].
There are people, not knowing or able to understand the principle above who think that the mind cannot be concentrated by focussing on the rise and fall of the abdomen during breathing. But concentrating on it actually works as well as on any other object. The Buddha once instructed his pupil Sariputta to begin developing his meditation by concentrating on a flower, and to Culapanthika, be suggested a clean piece of cloth - because the Buddha knew their minds can easily concentrate on these objects. [Acharya Buddhagosa gives a more detail account in his treatise 'Visuddhimagga']. Remember that the principle of samatha meditation, whatever object is used, is the same - to achieve one-pointedness of mind from concentrating on one object only, at any one time.
I hope you can now understand the principle of samatha meditation, namely the focussing of mind on one object without let or hindrance. The object should be your own body, an external thing or a wholesome thought. There are many objects you can choose from nature. Hindu or brahmin meditators have built many such samatha meditation practices. There are forty traditional methods of Buddhist samatha meditation.
BENEFITS OF VIPASSANA MEDITATION
The essence of the teaching of the Buddha is development of wisdom to be freed from suffering, dukkha. Things come and go, appear and disappear, arise and cease. Nothing is permanent. When we lose something we are sad. But if we can look at life and its vicissitudes with wisdom developed through bhavana, we shall see that things do not happen the way we want or like to happen according to some such thing as an impersonal law of nature. The realization of subjective impermanence or anicca, of unsatisfactoriness or dukkha and of impersonality or anatta of every phenomenon in the world can come only through wisdom or panna. This is vipassana or panna meditation.
An important aspect of vipassana meditation is to be mindfully aware (sati) of the four postures (iriyapatha) we adopt in everyday living: sitting, standing, walking or lying down. When seated, we should be aware we are sitting. When standing, be aware of standing, - as also when walking or lying down. To some this may appear simple and others may consider it pointless. But the mind, when aware of our postures, becomes the condition and forerunner for progress in meditation.
Awareness of posture is not enough to advance in meditation. It is important to do our daily activities with awareness (satisampajanna) by gradual and regular training until awareness becomes automatic. Washing, eating, drinking, bathing dressing, going to the toilet etc. should be done mindfully and with awareness. When you drink a cup of tea which is on the table for example, be aware of stretching the arm... touching the cup... lifting it to your lips slanting the cup... drinking... keeping the cup back on the table... and finally removing your hand from the cup.
To practice vipassana meditation in the sitting posture bring the attention to the rising and falling movements of the abdomen. Make a mental note, "rising" for the upward movement and “falling” for the downward movement. When meditating in this way, if a thought arises, make a mental note "thinking, thinking”. After noting in this manner a few times, bring the mind back to the rise and fall of the abdominal movements. lf there is pain, note, "pain, pain". Watch the pain until it disappears. Do not try to get rid of the pain or want it to go away. If you feel the pain too uncomfortable, note that thought and mindfully change posture, noting, "changing, changing”. If you feel sleepy, lazy, happy or, have any other feeling, note them too, "sleepy, sleepy” or “lazy, lazy", or "happy, happy" etc. If you hear a sudden noise, note "hearing, hearing". Whenever you have finished and there is nothing to distract attention, return to the abdominal movements.
Yet another method of mindfulness is to be aware of the mental formations (dhammanupassana) that come to the mind. When desire arises, be aware of it. If there is anger, be aware 'there is anger'. If lazy, be aware 'there is laziness'. If restlessness is present, know that you are restless. When meditating in this way if doubt arises in your mind, be aware that doubt has arisen. Conversely, if there is no desire or anger or laziness or doubt, be aware of it too. In other words, to put it succinctly and entirely, always be in the present.
Vipassana meditation is completely different to samatha meditation. Though concentration to keep the mind one-pointed on on the object is basic, fundamental or foundational, in vipassana meditation, anything or any number of 'things' (dhamma) that come to awareness by the six doors can become the object of bhavana. You may think that vipassana meditation done in this way is unusual. You may even wonder if this is really meditation! This may be because the methods of samatha are well-known and popular.
The point to note is that samatha meditation using or choosing any develops only concentration while vipassana is practiced to develop wisdom, to know, understand and see directly (abhinna) how 'things really are' (yatha bhuta). Development of wisdom, through vipassana, is a sine qua non for final liberation.
It won't be difficult for a person who has become skilled in practicing awareness this way to be aware of the changing conditions of the mind while doing everyday things or. at work. This is another way to practice vipassana meditation. Note that it is not necessary to have one-pointedness on a single object in order to be aware of the ever-changing conditios or drama of life events. In vipassana meditation, there is observation or attention or awareness of many objects. You would have also noted that it makes you more or fully aware of changing conditions of the mind and the body in the present and every moment, during engagement in meditation.
It is not. impossible or difficult to be aware continuously of the changing condition of the mind while doing everyday chores or when at work. [Note that this exercise of training the mind is not introspection or looking inward and analyzing the working of the mind].
When you are accustomed to doing these exercises, you will then realize the value of meditation. You will gradually begin to develop complete and full understanding of the present moment und the ceaseless processes of ordinary, normal living. With practice, as the mind gets clearer and clearer, the difficulties you confront will not be so confusing or painful or unpleasant as earlier. And when experiencing, pain or sorrow or despair or grief or happiness or joy, you won't be carried away by them. This is slow and sure evidence of development of equanimity (upekkha). As this state develops and comes to suffuse your being and pervade the present, mental anguish, disturbance, physical pain will be greatly reduced, by awareness of their presence and their mere accptance - without aversion or delight. Thus, vipassana meditation can lead to a more meaningful, understanding and harmonious way of living.
May all those who want to live an awakened life, practice vipassana meditation! May all beings come to realize the Dhamma! May all beings be freed from dukkha!
Questions asked by students
HOW CAN STUDENTS BENEFIT FROM MEDITATION?
Answer: A student should be able to understand things and have a good memory. A brahmin once said to the Buddha. “0! Venerable Buddha, what I have learnt before, I find it difficult to remember now. What are the reasons for this? The Buddha gave five reasons for forgetfulness.
- Just as color added to water makes it unclear, so desire for things muddles the mind making it difficult to remember.
- Just as it is impossible to see into boiling water, likewise a mind seething with resentment or anger cannot clearly see.
- Just as the bottom cannot be seen of a pond covered with, weeds, a sleepy, lazy mind cannot see to understand it clearly.
- Just like the surface of water is stirred up by the wind, a restless mind is agitated and cannot think smoothly.
- Just as it is impossible to see through water in the dark, nothing can be found in the memory when they are doubts about what has been learned.
These states of mind are the five hindrances (panca nivarana) that obstruct the mind and prevent it from concentration and clear thinking. Strong, energetic, trained control is needed to keep these five hindrances from overtaking and imposing the mind. Meditation frees the mind from these hindrances, gradually and surely; and it awakens the mind to wisdom. An unobstructed mind can think clearly and remember well. When the mind is alert you should be able to do your studies well.
IS IT POSSIBLE TO GET RESULTS OF MEDITATION NOW?
Answer: If you practice correctly, regularly and heedfully (appamada), all the great benefits from meditation can be realized here and now.