Mindfulness Meditation

Traditional Buddhist approaches to understanding and transforming consciousness have a great deal to offer Westerners who are seeking personal growth and development. To cite some examples:

• Buddhist concentration and mindfulness meditation can help steady and calm the mind, while loving-kindness meditation can help develop self-regard and self-care.

• The Buddhist understanding of the insubstantial nature of self can help people to let go of self-images and definitions that are negative or overly confining.

• Buddhist ideas concerning “skillful means” and “right speech” can help people to reduce interpersonal conflict

• The Buddhist conception of the nature of thinking can help people to stop identifying with their habitual self-defeating ideas.

• Buddhist ideas of selflessness and compassion can help people see the importance of enhancing their connections to the community and to nature.

• The Buddhist idea of karma can assist people in taking appropriate responsibility for their actions.

• The Buddhist belief that desire and aversion are the cause of suffering can help people to develop less controlling, demanding, and acquisitive lifestyles. This enables one to concentrate on what brings true happiness in life: the cultivation of equanimity and caring, and an open, respectful attitude to oneself, others, and all of life.

You don’t have to be a Buddhist to make use of these ideas: Meditation, for example, is a practice that doesn’t require any specific set of religious beliefs. You don’t have to be a Buddhist to meditate, just as you don’t have to be a Christian to love your neighbor.

Mindfulness Meditation is the jewel at the heart of Buddhist practice: It is a remarkable tool for personal growth, enhanced health, and spiritual liberation. The positive effects of meditation are legion: First, it calms the body by its direct and indirect effects on the autonomic nervous system, the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, and the autoimmune system. (Research has shown, for example, that it can reduce chronic pain, reduce anxiety, reduce the risk of relapse for depression, reduce blood pressure, and reduce the healing time for skin lesions such as psoriasis.) As the body becomes calmed, thoughts begin to settle and quiet, and the mind becomes peaceful and concentrated. In the internal quiet that develops with the meditative state, one becomes more intimate with the present moment, with one’s body, and with the stimuli in the environment. One learns how one’s mind/body reacts to thoughts, feelings, and environmental stimuli, and one learns to become less reactive to them. One also learns to see repetitive thought patterns which can lead to grief if allowed to proliferate unnoticed and uninterrupted. Lastly, one develops a deep sense of connection to the present moment as it unfolds, and an awareness of how our mind/body is connected to nature and society. This sense of connection in turn engenders a sense of compassion for oneself (including the parts of ourselves that have been previously disavowed) and others.

Jon Kabat-Zinn has defined Mindfulness Meditation as “paying attention on purpose to whatever is happening right now.” All one needs to do is to resolve to sit still with minimal movement for a set period of time (ideally 20 minutes or more). Begin by finding a place where you can sit without interruption, and find a position to sit in that is dignified and sustainable. Resolve to meditate daily at the same time and in the same place for a fixed period of time – maybe just starting with a resolution to sit daily for a few days or weeks to “see what happens.” As you sit, don’t expect or try to attain anything remarkable, for example, to have a “mystical experience,” or to “block out thoughts.” Try as best you can to sit without any expectation or intention (with a full appreciation of just how paradoxical this idea of trying to sit without expectation or intention is!). Just sit and notice whatever is happening.

What is happening, off course, is really nothing special — just a stream of sensations, feelings, and thoughts: the awareness of sensations in the body, the hearing of sounds, wondering how much time has passed, feeling momentarily bored, happy, or restless — one thought and one sensation after another. Your only job is to notice these mental events as they happen without judgement, without clinging, without aversion. A good deal of the time you will find that your mind will wander off and that you are no longer aware of the stream of consciousness; instead you will be lost in thinking, planning, or day dreaming. Whenever this happens, all you need do is to remember to return to being aware of the stream, without judging yourself, or your progress, for having drifted off. That’s all there is to meditation. It’s just that simple. And just that hard. You are hereby formally invited to give it a try.

As important as meditation is, please do not make the mistake of thinking that meditation is a substitute for psychotherapy or medication if we suffer from a serious depression or anxiety disorder. A few years ago, I heard a Zen master tell a conference how his decades of meditation had not cured his depression, but that an antidepressant medication had made all the difference in the world. Meditation does not cure illnesses, but it helps us grow as human beings: grow in our own self-understanding, wisdom, and compassion.

8 Replies to “Mindfulness Meditation”

  1. Good afternoon Seth,
    I read that the basic Buddhist meditation – samatha – is based on paying attention to your breath coming in and out on the tip of your nose. Nothing more, just this for all the time, when a thought pops out just return gently to your breath. But you are suggesting a different technique, i.e. noticing your thoughts, sensations, outside noises etc. Do you think it´s more suitable to follow the stream of thoughts/sensations than the breath? I am asking because I am trying to meditate but I am so confused about all these different suggestions I read: keep your eyes open so that you are present to this moment – no, close them; focus on your breath – no, focus on what´s going on inside and outside you; don´t label what you think and perceive – no, label it because you can´t do otherwise but don´t get entangled in it…
    Could it be that it´s because there is a Theravada meditation technique, a Mahayana one, a zen one, a vajrayana one, etc…? But then, how am I as a beginner supposed to choose among them? Please help 🙂

    1. Zdenek, you’re right in thinking that there are different types of meditation and different variants of meditation instructions in the various schools of Buddhism. This can be very confusing. Even something as simple as mindfulness of breath (anapanasati) can have different instructions, e.g., focusing on the breath at the nostrils, or focusing on breathing at the abdomen. Vipassana meditators close their eyes, Zen meditators keep them open. What is one to do? I think that this depends on what one is trying to accomplish. Samatha/anapanasati is best for calming, stabilizing the mind, and learning the basics of one-pointed focusing and returning attention. It can be a useful precursor to cultivating the jhanas. It’s always a good place to start out. The kind of “open monitoring” or “choiceless awareness” meditation that you refer to in your third sentence — the kind in which all sensations and mental processes are grist for the meditative mill — is something you can switch over to if you like once you’ve gotten the basics of stabilizing, focusing, and returning down. This kind of open awareness is more typical of Zen shikantaza and Tibetan dzogchen meditation, and also, of Krishnamurti’s, Toni Packer’s and Jon Kabat-Zinn’s meditation instructions. It may be a better choice if your goal is more intimacy with life, experiencing non-duality, and extending awareness to every corner of your being. Its not uncommon for people to switch back and forth between breath focus and open monitoring depending on the needs of the moment. Also, be aware that there are other kinds of meditation as well, including the kind of analytic meditation involved in Vipassana, and the Theravada lovingkindness (metta) and Tibetan compassion (tonglen) meditations. There’s no word for “meditation” in Buddhism. All meditations are forms of bhavana, or “cultivation.” I once had a Tibetan teacher who talked about all these different types of meditation as being like applications you have on your computer desk top which you can switch between and deploy as needed. Which meditation you settle in on at any particular time depends on what you’re trying to cultivate. I also think there are individual personality differences that make one form of meditation more suitable for one person over another. Zdenek, do you have a teacher? Are you currently practicing within one particular tradition? It can be very helpful to work with your teacher around these questions and, at least until your practice is very solid, to stay within the bounds of that one tradition. Later, you can branch out and see what other traditions may have to offer. (Of course, there are always circumstances where one is unhappy with one’s own teacher or tradition, and when it may be time to move on.) In the absence of a teacher or a practice home, my advice is to try both the breath focus and the open monitoring meditations during different sittings. Do one for a week, and then the other for a week. See for yourself what seems to satisfy your own particular needs right now.

      1. Thank you Seth for your time and usual patience in explaining me these basics.
        No, I don´t have a teacher: I am sure it´s better to have it but I don´t feel very at ease in public classes and moreover I prefer using the time I would spend to go to a meditation centre to actually meditate/read. Right now I am trying to do anapana sati first (as you suggested) like 30 minutes a day…and even that is so difficult for me 🙂
        But from what I read – and you confirmed it – samatha sharpens your mind which is very useful for vipassana which I count to do later on. And I would like to add metta meditation as well and then would like to stick to this entire schedule in my every meditating session: start with samatha, continue with vipassana and finish with metta.
        I only hope that – given that I don´t have a teacher and what I learnt was from the books I read (regarding meditation basically Trungpa rinpoche, Pema Chodron and a book from a theravada practitioner – I am doing it correctly 🙂

        1. Zdenek, establishing a consistent routine is a good idea, and it sounds like you’ve picked a reasonable one for yourself. My only concern is that “sangha,” or community, is an equally important aspect of the spiritual path. There’s a limit to what one can gain from books or solo practice. If there’s no local practice community that you care to affiliate with, perhaps there’s an on-line community you might like? I know of several within the Zen tradition (e.g., I’m thinking here of Jundo Cohen’s or Dosho Port’s) and I’m sure there must be ones in the vipassana community as well. In addition there’s great power in sitting in 7-10 day group meditation retreats which can take you far beyond where you can go sitting on your own for shorter periods. At least give it some thought.

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