This is my understanding from study and practice of the Buddha's teaching. If you have followed the study method the Buddha gave for his teaching and you see Wrong View here, please let me know, out of compassion. It is easy to claim one is teaching the Buddha’s Teaching, but to do so with minor, or little reference to what he actually said, is a very foolish and dangerous situation to be in. I am not providing references to all the quotes of the Buddha I refer to below, as I have done that in my book.
This information has been compiled from instruction given to me by various meditation masters during my three years intensive Mahaasi Insight Meditation practice in Asia and my study of the Buddha's teaching. There are two important factors I see in progress in meditation: 1. good, clear instruction and 2. personal effort, or testing/application of the instruction in one’s experience. I hope this summary helps you progress in your meditation and happiness in general.
Meditation as it would seem the Buddha taught, involves integrating the emotion [calm] and intelligence [insight], feeling and thinking, heart and mind. The heart and mind naturally work together to produce happiness. When they are at odds with each other, we suffer to varying degrees. When they are at odds with each other, the suppressed one of the two struggles for attention or recognition. So we swing from one extreme to the other to compensate and the Middle Path degrades to a balancing act, a way "between" extremes, rather than the way that "avoids" the 2 extremes. Half time in one extreme and half in another is not full time happy. It is zero time happy. "Two wrongs don't make a right."
When we want to meditate, especially as beginners, we should not have just had a large meal or be very tired. Have a snack and a nap first, if that is what you need. The practice should be enjoyable, not self-mortification. For sitting, walking and standing meditation, we should, if possible, adopt a comfortable upright independent posture, not leaning our backs against anything. We should use eating and resting to support our practice. As our mindfulness gets stronger, we waste less mental energy with wandering mind and we naturally need less sleep. We just wake up earlier and earlier and we feel totally refreshed. Forcing ourselves to sleep less is an ego game we play to try to prove to ourselves we are a "good meditator" or that we are "committed". A "good meditator" understands cause and effect and uses them wisely. S/he does not try to control outcomes, but tries to develop the right conditions for certain results.
There are four foundations of mindfulness that we need to get to know to fully integrate intelligence and emotion: body, feelings, emotions and processes. All are present in everyday experience, but our awareness needs to be trained first to focus, then to expand and know them all at once. Awareness has to be trained to focus in a wholesome way on the simpler, more blatant aspect first, the body, then when it is comfortable with that, with the right guidance, it gradually expands to the other areas. Proper awareness doesn't move from the body to the next one, but the body is the FOUNDATION for other levels of awareness. We see the more subtle levels "through" the more blatant ones. The other levels are built on the more blatant ones. This is one difference between the Buddha's teaching and others'. We do not seek "out of body" experiences, but rather fully embodied ones, where we fully live, not half live or half experience.
I have noticed these signs that my awareness of my body is getting better established: I have a much better sitting posture, I don't bite my lip, cheek or tongue as much, I don't have hiccups as much [they occur when I eat too fast and air gets trapped in my stomach], I don't yawn as much, I am not so easy to frighten [as when someone sneaks up on one]. This is the test I have when doing sitting meditation: I sit with my hands in my lap, palms up, one on the other and lightly touch the thumbs together. If I noticed the thumbs have come apart, I know I have had wandering mind. Sometimes when the mind is unclear, this test has helped to become aware of that. When doing walking meditation, I set mental limits to the stretch I walk up and down. So one sign that my awareness during walking meditation is getting better is: I don't go past the mental limits I set as much. This is another little test I set myself. I have found mental limits are better than physical limits, such as a specially prepared walkway with a beginning and end. In general walking, I can hear if I am stomping, that is, if my heel is thumping the ground and I adjust my step accordingly.
To try to be aware of the subtle without having honoured or known the blatant, is an ego game. It's like thinking one can complete a tertiary degree without having gained the skills of primary and secondary education. [I am not denying there are other ways to obtain those skills apart from going to educational institutions.] There is always an ego version of subtler states of consciousness that people want to believe is deliverance. In a sense the ego versions are easier to attain. So less patience and training is needed. “All good things take time.” Before enlightenment the Buddha was taught subtler states of consciousness [aruupa-jhaana] as enlightenment. He mastered them, but since he wanted to integrate intelligence and emotion in everyday life, he knew that they were not full enlightenment and continued searching. Those states required withdrawal from everyday life.
The subtler states of consciousness [aruupa-jhaana] are like pulling a car over to the side of the road and turning it off. As one develops subtler states of consciousness [in the aruupa-jhaana], the more blatant activities of the body and mind get turned off. This does not fix any problems present. Once the car is restarted, it will still have any existing problems. The problems have not been dealt with. The Buddha praised attaining the subtler states of consciousness [aruupa-jhaana], but he taught them as non-essential for the path. The path is for extinguishing greed, hatred and delusion, in THIS VERY LIFE, in our everyday experience, not for escaping life/everyday experience. The everyday mind that utilises form [the form states of mind] is where we can see and end suffering. The fourth form state is resting from our everyday activities, but still having the mind active. It's like pulling a car over to the side of the road, but not turning the engine off.
To get the mind and heart to work together we have to develop Wisdom. To develop Wisdom, the next phase of the Buddha's teaching, we need to overcome the five hindrances, which is the work of meditation. See the table below which compares the 10 fetters and the 5 hindrances. We need to use the main aspects of thought: word and image, or “name and form” to focus on our feelings and emotions, to know them clearly as they are. We focus on some action we are performing rather than some abstract idea, or magical word [mantra], like: "God", "soul", "love", "Om", or "Buddha". This help keeps our meditation real, grounded. The breathing is recommended by the Buddha, as the action to focus on in sitting meditation. He called awareness of breathing, his "abode" or "dwelling" [SN 54:11; v 326]. So I'll take that as the example.
Once we have determined to focus on one action, here breathing during sitting meditation, we choose one or two words that accurately reflect that action and repeat those to ourselves mentally, using our “inner” or “mental” voice. We also use our “inner” or “mental” eye to focus our attention on the area of our body that has some sensation [of movement] associated with breathing. We try to form a mental image of that area. The chest or the abdomen are the most likely options, if we are looking at movement. When I do this I notice my head move slightly down. This coincides with my internal gaze, moving from straight ahead, which is directed at the “movie screen” on the back of my eyelids, where the images of wandering mind and daydreaming are projected, to the area of my body I choose to focus on.
In the first of the four foundations of mindfulness mentioned above, the body and in regarding the specific practice of awareness of breathing, there are four levels of focus, which may be summarized by the words: "in - out", "long - short", "whole body" [or "up - down"] and "calming". See the 16 Steps of Mindfulness of Breathing Meditation for a suggested complete set of summary words. [“Rising” and “falling” of the abdomen also keeps the mental activity grounded and those words could be substituted for "in" and "out", which is what is done in the Mahaasi Vipassanaa practice.] You will see in that link that “concentration” is the 11th step. Therefore until then, there will be some wandering mind and it would not be wise or compassionate to expect otherwise of ourselves or others. We have trained our mind to wander for many years and it would take some time to train it to focus. Try to keep this in mind to keep the Buddha's teaching real, down to earth, practical.
We just recognise and know clearly that we are breathing. So "in - out" will happen with every breath cycle. Then we try to see the breath from beginning to end. When we can, "long" or "short" is to be chosen as to whether the in- and out-breath are either long or short. That is, the in-breath is not to be made long and the out-breath short etc. We don't try to change the breath at all, just develop awareness of it, as it is. Next we become aware of the whole body sitting there breathing, not just the abdomen rising or falling, [or the chest expanding or contracting, or the touch of the breath near the mouth]. This may be assisted by a "sweeping" method summarised as "up - down". [This is done in the Goenka Vipassanaa practice.] Breathing in we may sweep our awareness up the body and breathing out we may sweep down. Then we determine to calm the bodily functions: thinking "in calming" as we breathe in and thinking "out calming" as we breathe out. Eventually we may feel our heart beating and the solidness of the whole body. We may feel like a solid statue sitting there breathing as the body is calming down. There is a calm comfortable feeling, but a calm body does not necessarily mean a calm mind. There still may be some wondering mind as we have not yet reached the 11th step.
In the Buddha's teaching it is greed, hatred and ignorance that we need to stop [see the quote from Ven. Sariputta at SN 38:1;iv 251-2]. That is, unwholesome mental states or formations and any bodily activity conditioned by those unwholesome mental states. Fast or slow, calm or hurried bodily activity in itself is not a problem. One example of the difference between bodily activity and unwholesome mental states is reflected in the different meanings of "hurried" and "rushed". One can act in a hurried manner without being rushed. "Rushed" indicates a negative state of mind AS WELL AS some bodily action. Whoever doesn't know the difference, will judge themselves or others on the appearance of the bodily activity and assume the person is rushed [in a negative sate of mind].
There is a common misconception that meditation is about "not thinking". There is some truth in this, but it is subtler than first impressions would suggest. There are two types of "not thinking": the common "spaced out" one which has delusion, is a dull mind and lacks training to focus the mind; and the other, which is based on skill in focusing thought to one action and then intentionally turning off that function of the mind [for a predetermined period]. This is done to rest and recuperate, e.g. during sickness, because thinking is a mental activity that uses a lot of energy. There is skill in the second, not the first, but the Buddha taught that the second is not necessary for enlightenment, but can be beneficial to develop. The Buddha taught other, even subtler states that are also not enlightenment, but also beneficial to develop; good but not necessary. In later life he said it was only in those subtle states of consciousness that he had rest from the pains of aging. Those states are once again the formless-mental-states [aruupa-jhaana].
The first kind of "non-thinking" usually "just happens." Sometimes the second “just happens” too, but in that case it is often mistaken to be enlightenment, if we don't have Right View. When the second is the result of practice and skill and is determined, then it is most beneficial. Then it would be the direct result of our efforts and is full of energy and it would be known just as it is: a subtler mental state or state of consciousness that is out of the realm of form, but not enlightenment.
The trick is not to try "not to think" but rather catch and identify or acknowledge "wandering mind" as soon as we can; to know it “just as it is”. As soon as we do, then the original intention, in this case, focusing on the breath, automatically kicks in. Thus we can train the mind to do what we want, not be a slave to it, that is, a slave to past unwholesome mental habits of wandering and reacting. We should not give up using the mental word and image to help us focus on present experience [feelings] because it helps keep the mind bright and clear. This is a training. It integrates mind and emotion in action.
As we practise, as we catch the mind wandering quicker and quicker, we will see the mind slowly coming under control. First we focus briefly and sharply, then we focus longer and gradually the focus extends to what might be called a 180 degree view rather than the previous "spotlight view". Those periods of extended focus are brief at first, but whenever we experience them the mind is clear of the mental chatter and we are very relaxed. We become aware of our whole body, not just the breath. We start to relax and enjoy having a focussed mind. There is such a sense of freedom from the mental chatter, but this is not liberation, as we have yet to deal with the causes of wandering or mental chatter. It is at this point we can become addicted to meditation retreats. We may be able to go to live in a meditation centre and our practice of concentration may improve, but we may not deal with the causes of wandering, the tendencies or taints. We need Wisdom do deal with them and that is the next phase of the path.
As soon as one wakes up, one should try to be aware of one's breathing and sit up with the first in breath. Then determine to be more mindful this day, but wishing that for oneself is not enough, one must train oneself to be mindful in each activity. Each activity has an intention and we have to become aware of our intentions otherwise we will not be able to develop Wisdom, the next phase of training. For example, one may decided to go for a walk and determine to be mindful on the walk, but one should also cut the walk up into segments and determine to be mindful in each segment of maybe about 20 metres.
These areas and levels of focus can be applied to whatever we do. The Buddha taught that meditation is to happen in the four postures, sitting, standing, walking and lying down. But when we require more mental action like, planning a trip or a project, that probably is best done mostly sitting down. Then we can still be aware of our body [posture], feelings, emotions and processes, depending on the degree of skill we have developed in the practice.
The Buddha warned us not to listen to those that do not know the essentials. He said he has only taught the essentials. He taught the four, yes FOUR, form states [the 4 ruupa-jhaana] as the definition of Right Concentration in the Noble Eightfold Path, not just the first form state. Therefore all FOUR are essential parts of the Path. These four states are developed in the 16 steps of Awareness of Breathing that the Buddha taught. The four formLESS states were taught as beneficial, but not essential [as these cannot be experienced in our normal everyday life, but only in trance-like still meditation]. The following table shows how I make sense of the 8 jhaanas and how the first four would be part of everyday life.
Once we accept the 4 form states as Right Concentration, then the question arises, “How do we develop [Right] Concentration [the 4 ruupa-jhaana] in everyday life?” as with any of the other 2 phases of the Path, i.e. the previous one, Ethics, or the next one, Wisdom. When the Buddha spoke of the four form states he said, “abiding in them” or “living in them” is a pleasant abiding. He also said his disciples are rightly or wholesomely addicted to this kind of “pleasant abiding”, as it does not bring harm to oneself or others. This is the Buddha’s definition of “right” or “wholesome”: that which does not bring harm to oneself or others.
One should develop and master the FOUR not just one. The two divisions of monks early on in Buddhist history would indicate that study monks developed and praised only the first one - study, but possibly not realising study involved jhaana; and meditators didn't realise the first was about study and only developed and praised the others. Or they developed a new interpretation of Right Concentration, as we see in the commentaries and other later works.
If we decide to go on meditation retreats or do "intensive" practice, then we should try to maintain kindness and compassion to ourselves. Getting trapped in idealistic ideas becomes extreme practice if those ideas lead us to negate kindness and compassion for ourselves. Ego can use ideas such as "a good meditator only needs 4 hours sleep" or "doesn't need much sleep" to hinder our practice, even if they are true. Rather than force ourselves to sleep less and have poor quality meditation through most of the day, it would be better to focus on improving the quality of our meditation. Try to stop sleep walking during your waking hours first. That is, try to be fully aware of what you are doing, catch the wandering mind as it happens in your normal waking life first. When this is done we naturally require less sleep as we are using up less energy with useless mental activity. It has happened to me that I only slept 2 hours and felt completely refreshed. We must understand and put energy into causes rather than try to force results. Forcing results is an ego game.
The purpose of meditation is to give the individual a calm, clear mind "ready for work", the work of purification through insight. The calm, clear mind is not yet purified and is libel to fall back into unwholesome states due to the negative tendencies that have been developed. With Ethics, gross mental, verbal and bodily actions have been temporarily given up, with Meditation we start to develop wholesome bodily, verbal and mental actions. This results in a "happy abiding" temporary liberation from grosser suffering, but this is not yet enlightened living. When we have understood ego and start to eradicate it from our lives, then we start to have enlightened experience. When ego is totally eradicated, then we are Fully Enlightened, thus Wisdom, which deals directly with ego, is the next phase of the path.
I hope this gives an accurate understanding of the second phase of the path - meditation. The next phase is wisdom.
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 We don’t need to be a Noble Person to have this knowledge. Right View distinguishes Noble Ethics from everyday ethics; Perfect Right Concentration from perfect concentration and Perfect Wisdom from partial wisdom. Right View is therefore spoken of as the most important accomplishment. The Buddha said, the amount of suffering left after attaining Right View is like the water on one's finger when one has dipped it in the great ocean and the amount of suffering gotten rid of is like the water left in the great ocean after having dipped one's finger in it. The Buddha also tells us not to rest on our laurels, not to be lazy and therefore, after attaining Right View, to perfect, Ethics, Meditation and Wisdom, all three. Whatever effort one puts in, whatever skills one perfects, even with Wrong View, would not be lost though. This is attested by the fact that shortly after enlightenment the Buddha considered that his former meditation teachers would understand his teaching quickly.