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Buddhist Meditation

A talk given by Sankarankutti Menon Marath at the Phiroz Mehta Trust Autumn School on 20th October 2001

It is all the vogue nowadays to meditate. Not in the sense of just sitting down in a comfortable chair and flopping out and letting your mind do what it will unrestrained. Buddhist meditation proposes a very different regimen. And its popularity is increasing all the time. Mass media are devoting quite a bit of their time and space to the subject of Buddhism and Buddhist meditation.

The Buddhist method of meditation aims at training the mind to do one’s bidding: to stop the continuous, aimless chattering that the mind automatically indulges in the moment it has nothing purposive to engage it. When some memory or upsurge of emotion or feeling emerges into the mind and possesses it to the exclusion of everything else, and it becomes habitual and perhaps obsessive, we would give anything to be released from its hold, even for a short time. Buddhist meditation teaches us how to weaken its hold on us, reduce its effect on us and in time and after much practice to still the mind at will.

For a few moments, a quarter of an hour or longer, by this method the mind is made to remain virtually empty and inactive. We know only too well how the mind greedily takes up and magnifies promptings from outside or from within ourselves. These may be some unpleasant news, recollection of things done or undone. The mind works on them and generates apprehension, anxiety, often a sense of hopelessness. If the news happens to be pleasing, encouraging, then too the mind often has the habit of making too much of them. And the resultant mood could be one of frustration or depression because you had expected more than you were given. A lot of us have not the gift of coping with them in a healthy manner so that no residue is left for the mind to chew over again. So we find ourselves living in a state of continuous tension, unable to relax.

The technique of meditation as practised by Buddhists is a deceptively simple one. Choose a quiet, pleasant room, sit down in a chair or on the floor, close the eyes and watch steadily the in and out flow of the breath either at the nostril or as it moves the wall of the abdomen. Our attention is centred entirely on it. If we are distracted by noises or thoughts or feelings, as we will be, we must not pursue them and be involved in them; we should merely acknowledge their presence and then quickly go back to observing the movement of the breath. But nothing is ignored, or more important, suppressed. Buddhists call it ‘bare attention’ — meaning that no emotional energy is allowed to fuel them. Success comes with practice, giving us perfect stillness and tranquillity.

The cares and worries and inadequacies of life will not be banished. They are part of the business of living. And we will react to them; this is inescapable. But to be protected from them even for a little while is like taking a good tonic when one is down in health. Buddhist meditation does just this — liberates us from these pressures.

Regular practice is essential if we want results, preferably at the same time of the day and in the same place. Before we start we must be mentally prepared to meditate, in the sense of disengaging ourselves from any preoccupations we may have. If we are too deeply embroiled in any kind of mental or emotional strain and we cannot free ourselves from it, meditation can be a wasted effort because we will not be able to concentrate.

As practice progresses and we get closer to the desired ideal state of tranquillity it becomes possible to slip into this state without too much difficulty. The cumulative effect of such regular practice is that we are less and less prone to getting knotted up and more and more able to come to terms with the strains of life. If we are working at something, a problem, study, our power of concentration, because we are able to cut out distractions, markedly improves. And equally our efficiency.

There is a further stage in Buddhist meditation. To a Buddhist this stage is of far greater importance and what has been described above is only a preparatory one, but a necessary one.

It is a cardinal belief of the Buddhists that the truth of the Buddha’s teaching can be fully experienced only in this second stage of meditation.

The Buddha taught that everything exists only for a while, there is nothing that endures for ever. Therefore to attach ourselves to persons or things as though they are permanent is to expose ourselves to frustration, disappointment, pain and unhappiness. Everything depends on something else for its existence, nothing has an independent life in its own right. We come into the world with a heredity over which have no control; and forces from the outside world determine how we shall live — be they parents, society, government, world economy, international finance or polluted environment.

Many of our thoughts, words and deeds have their source in covetousness, intolerance and our refusal or inability to see beyond the world which we have spun round us out of our passions, jealousies, desires and self-orientated values.

So in this second stage of meditation we investigate everything that appears in our consciousness, whether it unpalatable, ugly or disturbing thoughts or feelings; or those of pleasure and satisfaction. We trace them to their origin and see them for what they are. It is no easy thing to do this. Our mind has built so many protective layers and ruses of self-deception that to see them starkly without indulgent sentimentality takes a lot of determined practice. We do not like to see ourselves stripped naked, all our defences down, as it were. In fact we cannot bear it, it is most distressing to look at ourselves and see ourselves as we really are: very often selfish, greedy, aggressive, suspicious, without fellow-feeling. But the effect is truly therapeutic. We feel able to turn away from ourselves and go outward in joyous compassion without any sense of having lost anything. We realize slowly or in a flash the truths the Buddha gave to the world over 2500 years ago, of impermanence, pain and interdependence of everything.

This is of course advanced meditation: in Buddhist parlance, insight meditation. A word of caution is necessary here. It is not advisable to embark on this stage by oneself. In meditation the activities of the body slow down considerably — the frequency of breathing, blood pressure, heartbeats, intake of oxygen, skin temperature, and activity of the brain. These may worry us. Some of us may experience unusual sensations or pass into a trace state. A qualified teacher understands what is going on and is able to guide and assure the person and if necessary ask him to give it up. Insight meditation therefore is best done under the watchful eye of an experienced teacher. Most of the Buddhist centres in Britain, and there are many of them all over the country, have a monk or a lama or trained teacher to help aspirants.

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