The 9th International Conference Buddhism & Australia
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Meditation Advice for Lam-rim Practice
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Dr. Alexander Berzin
Meditation is obviously an important topic if we want to put the Buddha’s teachings into practice. Meditation, however, is not something that is particularly Buddhist. We find meditation in all Indian traditions, as well as in non-Buddhist systems outside of India.
The word for meditation in Sanskrit is “bhavana.” Bhavana comes from the verb “bhu,” which means “to become,” or “to make something into something else.” Bhavana, then, is a process by which we take a teaching about how to develop some constructive state of mind and, figuratively, we “become” that state. In other words, through the process of meditation, we make our minds come to be in a particular beneficial state.
Since bhavana comes from the Sanskrit root “bhu,” from the word “to become,” bhavana implies a transformation. For example, if we are meditating on love, we actually transform ourselves into someone with love in our hearts. When the term was translated from Sanskrit into Tibetan, it was translated with the word that implies “building up a habit.” This is the Tibetan word “gom.” Gom means to habituate ourselves to something that is positive – not to something negative or neutral – and thereby to build up a positive, constructive habit.
The Tibetan word, then, is quite similar in meaning or implication to the Sanskrit word. The implication of both terms is that in order to transform ourselves to become like our goal – someone with love in our hearts, for example – we need to build up love as a beneficial habit. The method that we use to build up this beneficial habit is meditation. Listening to the Teachings
The main Indian philosophical texts that preceded Buddha’s time were the Upanishads, and these texts already contained references to meditation. In the Upanishads, meditation is discussed in the context of a three-step process: listening, thinking, and meditating. The Buddha did not invent this three-step process; it was already current in his time. So if we want to make something a positive habit, obviously we need to first hear about it; then we need to understand it by thinking it over; and finally, we need to integrate it into ourselves.
If we do not know anything about the Dharma, we need first to gain basic information about Buddhism and we need to be certain that this information is correct. Only correct basic information can serve as a reliable foundation for taking interest in the genuine Dharma teachings. At the time of the Buddha, however, philosophical teachings were never written down. Compiling them into written texts started centuries later. This is why the three-step process begins with the necessity of “hearing” the teaching – in other words, listening to the teaching delivered out loud.
Today, you could also include in the first step reading in books or on the Internet about certain types of practices or states of mind that you would like to develop. This point is debatable, however, because when we hear a teaching directly from a teacher, there is a special ambiance created by the teacher actually being present before us. When we listen to a live teaching, we may be inspired by the teacher in a way that we might not be inspired by reading a book. This is the case even though, obviously, someone had to write the book. We find that this is true in our everyday lives as well. For example, when you go to a live concert, the experience is much more powerful and inspiring than when you just listen to a CD at home. It is quite a different experience.
When we listen to teachings, one of the most helpful instructions is to remove the “three faults that are like a clay vase.”
First, we need to avoid the mistake of being like an upside-down vase, into which nothing will go. In other words, if our minds are closed, obviously we will not be able to learn anything from what we hear.
Then, we also need to avoid the mistake of being like a vase with a hole in the bottom. In that case, anything that is poured in just goes right out the hole. In English, the expression is having things “go in one ear and out the other.” We need to avoid that.
Finally, we also need to avoid the mistake of being like a dirty vase. When you pour clean water into a dirty vase, the water becomes soiled as well. In other words, when we have many preconceptions, these preconceptions contaminate our understanding of the new material. Rather than just hearing what the person says, we are always mixing the new material with projections of our own ideas.
To help avoid these mistakes, then once we have heard certain teachings, it is very helpful to write them down or record them somehow, so that we can correctly remember the points that have been mentioned. This is very helpful if we do not have perfect memories – as most of us do not. The longer we wait to write down what we have heard, the more our preconceptions will contaminate our memories. And even when we have written them down or recorded them, we need to listen to them over and again. Just having the teachings in a book of notes on our shelf or as a file in our computers or on our iPods is certainly not enough!
We first need to acknowledge that we have problems and that we are suffering.
We then need to have the wish to get out of our suffering situation.
Finally, we need to take interest in the Dharma as a way to get out of suffering.
When we are newcomers, we certainly need to have open minds and try to retain what we learn; but most importantly, we need to listen to a Dharma teaching with the interest and intention to evaluate what we hear. We want to evaluate it in order to determine whether or not the teaching that we hear is something that could help us personally to overcome problems if we put it into practice. We are not learning about the Buddhist teachings to pass an examination in school or to impress others with our erudite knowledge. We are listening to the teachings to see if we can find something in them that will be personally relevant and helpful in our lives.
When listening to teachings, then, there are various ways to regard ourselves and the situation. In the method known as the “three recognitions,” we regard ourselves as a sick person, the teacher as a doctor, and the teachings as medicine to help us overcome various sicknesses or problems – the sicknesses being our disturbing emotions.
As we get more advanced in our practice, there are many further instructions regarding the attitudes that we need toward the teacher, in terms of seeing the teacher as a Buddha, and so on; but those instructions are not intended for beginners.
Thinking about What We Have Heard
The second step is to think about what we have heard. We think about a teaching in order to understand it. We reach the end point of this thinking process when we correctly understand what the teaching means. Not only do we need to correctly understand a teaching in order to put it correctly into practice, we also need to become convinced that the teaching is valid and that it is something that we need to adopt in ourselves because it will help us to overcome certain problems. We also need to be convinced that it is possible for us to actually achieve whatever it is that the teaching is discussing. If we think that it is impossible – that we are never going to be able to overcome our anger, for example – then what is the point of following a practice that is intended to overcome anger? We need to be convinced that the practice is going to work to achieve the stated goal.
When we think about a teaching, we think about it from many points of view. For example, if we are talking about meditation to develop love equally toward everyone, we need to know the various steps that we need to take in order to develop that kind of love. For instance, what does equal love for everyone depend on? It depends on seeing everyone as equal, seeing that everyone has been kind to us, and so on. So in order for universal love to develop in our minds, we need to know what love depends on, and what insights and states of mind we need to develop beforehand in order for love to grow in us.
In addition, we need to know what the opposing factors to love are that love is going to remedy. Specifically, we need to be convinced that the opposing factors are anger and hatred; and we need to be convinced that love can actually overpower those factors and rid us of them. We also need to understand how love would get rid of them.
Further, we need to understand what is the purpose of developing love, and what are we going to do with this love once we develop it, which implies knowing the benefits of developing love. For example, when we look at many of the texts that give instructions on developing a bodhichitta aim – the aim of attaining our own, individual future enlightenments in order to benefit all limited beings – they usually start with describing the benefits of having a bodhichitta aim. The purpose of the texts starting this way is for us to become convinced that having such an aim in life is something that we would like to develop.
Finally, we need to be convinced of the logic of the teachings. They need to be logical, they need to be reasonable, and they need to make sense in terms of the stages and the actual details of the teachings.
So there are many things that we need to think about. To just jump into a meditation practice without having understood what do we need to develop first, and how is it going to rid us of this or that problematic state of mind, and what are the opposing factors we need to watch out for, and so on...that would be unwise. The analogy for that is: “Listening is like putting food in your mouth; and thinking about it is like chewing it.” If we try to swallow without chewing, we are going to choke. Likewise, if we try to meditate without thinking about the teachings, we are going to have difficulties.
How exactly do we accomplish the thinking process? The thinking stage can be either some free-style form of thinking about the various points that I have mentioned, or once we have done that, it could be a more formal process.
The Formal Thinking Process
The formal thinking process means to follow a line of reasoning. When we want to develop a certain state of mind, we need to build up to it. We need to build up to that state of mind by going through stages or steps, and often those steps include working with lines of reasoning. For example, the teaching could include a line of reasoning that builds up to an understanding of impermanence (that things affected by causes and conditions change from moment to moment and come to an end); or it could include a line of reasoning that builds up to an understanding of voidness (that everything is devoid of existing in impossible ways). By thinking about and working through the logic of the lines of reasoning, we become convinced not only that impermanence and voidness are valid, but also that the lines of reasoning validly prove that impermanence and voidness are true. Not only that, but we also become convinced that by going through the logic of the lines of reasoning, we can generate a correct and decisive understanding of impermanence and voidness. Remember: becoming convinced is part of the thinking process.
Alternatively, we could build up to a certain state of mind, not necessarily through a line of reasoning, but through stages. For instance, if we want to develop a bodhichitta aim, we would go through stages such as developing equanimity, and then seeing everyone as having been our mothers in some previous lifetime, remembering the kindness of motherly love, developing gratitude for that, and so on. We work through the stages so that we become convinced that by taking these steps, we can reach the goal of developing a bodhichitta aim. This is still part of the thinking process.
Also we need to understand very well, in this thinking process, what actually is the state of mind that we are trying to cultivate. Some meditations are intended to help us to focus on a certain object, for instance, a visualized Buddha. To meditate on a visualized Buddha, we need to understand that this is the focusing type of meditation and its aim is to focus on a specific object, namely a small, three-dimensional, live Buddha made of light that we imagine at eye-level in front of us.
On the other hand, there are different meditations that are intended to develop a specific state of mind, for instance, love. Love is not an object we are focusing on; rather it is a state of mind, a type of mental attitude that we develop. So we need to know which type of meditation are we working with: are we trying to focus on a specific object or are we trying to develop a certain state of mind? What are we trying to accomplish?
In both cases, Tsongkhapa emphasized very strongly that we need to know two things:
Firstly, we need to be clear about what the object is that needs to appear in our minds. Whether we are talking about meditation on a visualized Buddha or meditation on love, what is the object that appears in our meditation?
If we are not completely clear about these two points, how can we possibly generate the state of mind that we wish to develop?
For example, compassion: what is compassion aimed at? What is the appearing object? The object that appears in our minds when meditating on compassion is sentient beings, various limited beings with suffering. Our minds focus on them and distinguish a certain aspect about them, namely their suffering and the causes of their suffering. How does the mind take hold of those objects? The mind takes hold of these objects with the strong wish for these beings to be parted from their suffering and its causes, and with the intention to try to bring this about ourselves. In this way, through thinking about the instructions we have heard or read, we are able to specify and understand very clearly the state of mind that we want to generate.
If we plan to meditate on bodhichitta, we need to think about and be very clear what our minds do in such meditation. Most people confuse bodhichitta with compassion; however, bodhichitta and compassion are not the same. Bodhichitta is a state of mind that has compassion as its basis; but bodhichitta goes much further than just wanting others to be free of all suffering and its causes. It goes beyond just wanting to bring all limited beings to enlightenment and assuming the responsibility to do this. But these good wishes and feelings are the positive emotions that bodhichitta depends on and grows from. We first need to have that foundation of love and compassion.
What are we focusing on when we actually are sitting on our cushions and meditating on bodhichitta? We are focusing on our own individual enlightenment, which is not yet happening, but which can happen on the basis of our Buddha-nature factors and on the basis of all the hard work that we need to do in order to achieve that enlightenment. Our Buddha-nature factors are the basic qualities and features that we all have that will enable us to become a Buddha, such as the pure nature of our minds. We are not focusing on the enlightenment of Buddha Sakyamuni. We are not focusing on abstract enlightenment in general; but rather we are focusing on our own individual enlightenment, our not-yet-happening enlightenment.
How do we focus on our not-yet-happening enlightenment? That’s not very easy. First of all, we need to understand what that means, what kind of phenomenon is that – a not yet-happening phenomenon or thing. For instance, we need to consider: does the not-yet-happening sprout already exist in the seed just waiting to pop out? Or is the not-yet-happening sprout totally nonexistent at the time of the seed?
Obviously, the understanding of voidness is necessary here to really get a clear understanding of what we are focusing on when we are focusing on our not-yet-happening enlightenment. Our not-yet-happening enlightenment is not sitting out there somewhere, like the finish line of a race toward which we are heading. Nor is it sitting somewhere in our minds or in our Buddha-natures, waiting to pop out. It is not a findable object like that. On the other hand, we are not focusing on something that doesn’t exist at all; we are not focusing on nothing. Rather, we need to understand that our not-yet-happening enlightenment is something that can be validly imputed on our mental continuums on the basis of our Buddha-nature factors. We also need to know what it means for something to be validly imputable on an appropriate basis.
In order to focus on that not-yet-happening enlightenment, however, we need to focus on it through some sort of mental representation of enlightenment that appears in our minds. For instance, we could imagine the sound of the word “enlightenment” or we could visualize a Buddha before us. In tantra, we could visualize ourselves in the form of a Buddha-figure. With each of these examples, we need to regard the mental sound or mental picture that appears in our minds as a representation of our not-yet-happening enlightenment.
Next, how do our minds focus on this mental object that appears? We focus on our not-yet-happening enlightenment, as represented by the mental object that appears in our minds, with two intentions. The first intention is: “I am going to achieve enlightenment.” Now, to have that intention to achieve enlightenment depends on many other things that we need to have thought about and understood. We need to know realistically what we need to do in order to achieve enlightenment. Our attitude can’t just casually be: “Oh, I’m going to achieve this.” We need to know how we are going to achieve it, and be convinced that we can achieve it. We need to have a valid intention to achieve the state of enlightenment; otherwise, achieving it is just a nice dream. And of course, we need to understand correctly what enlightenment is, which is also not terribly easy to understand. We gain all these understandings through this second step in the process: thinking.
The second intention that we have while focusing on this mental representation is that with that enlightenment we are going to benefit others as much as is possible. After all, enlightenment does not mean becoming an omnipotent god. And being able to benefit everyone, of course, is based on having taken the steps beforehand of laying the foundation that bodhichitta depends on, namely love and compassion. We are taking responsibility to bring others to enlightenment because we wish for them to be free from all suffering and to be endowed fully with happiness.
This thinking step is actually quite a long step, and requires a great deal of work. But at the end of this step, we understand and know, precisely and with full certainty, what the state of mind is that we are trying to achieve and how to build up to that state of mind. We are also fully and validly convinced that we are capable of generating that state of mind and that generating it will be extremely beneficial.
Although this process of thinking may look like meditation, it is not meditation according to the traditional definition. Western people who are not using the terminology very precisely might call this thinking process “meditation,” but that is not correct. We need to be clear about the differences between thinking and meditation.
This thinking process is a very worthwhile activity, and thinking about the teachings is something that we can do any time. In fact, it is a very helpful thing to do while we are engaged in other activities in our daily lives. For instance, when we are caught in traffic, we could think about how a particular state of mind, for instance love, would apply in this situation. How would it be relevant? What would be its benefits? and so on. These are points that we can think about during our day. Meditation
Now we come to the third stage in our three-step process: meditation itself. Meditation is similar to digesting the food once we have chewed it. The purpose of meditation is to make a particular positive state of mind a habit, to actually become that state of mind once we have thought about and understood the state and are convinced that we can generate it.
Meditation is primarily a two-fold process. One step is what I translate as “discerning meditation.” It is usually translated as “analytical meditation,” but calling it “analytical” tends to confuse it with the thinking step. I think that the word “discerning” is a more accurate translation of the term. In this context, “to discern” means to scrutinize something very carefully and to understand it in a certain way. The second aspect of meditation is fixating meditation, in which we actually fix on that state of mind and stay focused on it. We can call this second stage “stabilizing meditation.”
How do we accomplish the first step, discerning meditation? During the thinking process we went through a line of reasoning or we went through the stages and the steps for building up to a certain state of mind. We did that for the purpose of gaining an understanding of what the mental state is that we wish to develop and also an understanding of how we can develop it. Now, with discerning meditation, we go through once more the line of reasoning or the steps for generating a certain state of mind. But now we are going through this process in order to actually generate that state of mind and to have it freshly within us. For example, to generate compassion for everyone, we follow the line of reasoning: “Everyone has been my mother, everyone has been kind to me…,” and so on, so that we actually work ourselves up to the intended state of mind and actually feel it.
Once we have worked ourselves up, in this step-by-step process, to the state of mind that we want to habituate ourselves to, then we actively discern or understand the object of focus in that way. If we are meditating on compassion, for instance, we focus on all limited beings and, in particular, on this detail that we distinguish about them: their problems and sufferings. We discern that they are suffering and we have the wish that they may be free from that suffering and the intention to help them free themselves of it. We are actually seeing sentient beings in our minds, we are looking at them in our minds in this way; or it could be in real life when we actually see people. Compassion is focused on others and their suffering, and it is with the wish for them to be free of it.
We stay with that discernment for a while, in an active process. Subsequently, stabilizing meditation is basically just letting what we have discerned sink in, with full concentration on this topic or mental state. Obviously, we need to have concentration when we are doing the discerning meditation phase as well; but in this stabilizing phase we are letting the feeling sink deeply into our hearts: we are strongly feeling compassion.
We alternate these two stages, discernment and stabilization, back and forth, and eventually we are able to combine them. Combining the discernment and stabilization stages of meditation is very difficult. The discussion of the stages through which we combine them is very complex. If you would like to know some of the details, you can read more about that on my website.
[See: Meditation States That Are Discerning or Stabilizing]
Also, when we become very advanced, we do not need to do what is called “labored meditation.” Labored meditation is one in which the discerning meditation process involves going through the stages and building up to a state of mind. At an advanced level, we are able to do unlabored discerning meditation. We are able to generate the desired state of mind instantaneously without building it up through steps or a line of reasoning. We still use that state of mind, however, to discern our object of focus as we did when our discerning meditation was labored. Types of Meditation
We often hear about two types of meditation. The Sanskrit words for them are “shamatha” and “vipashyana,” or in Tibetan, “shinay” and “lhagtong.” These two terms actually refer to two states of mind that we aim to achieve through the process of meditation. Shamatha is a stilled and settled state of mind. It is stilled in the sense that, with it, we have quieted down all levels of mental dullness and flightiness of mind or mental agitation (a mind that flies off to some other attractive object). Shamatha is also settled in the sense that its focus is settled firmly on an object. The emphasis, then, is on stabilizing meditation.
Even with shamatha meditation, we need to hear the instructions, and then think about the stages of the meditation. For instance, if we are visualizing a Buddha, we would hear instructions on how to build up the visualization step by step. We would then think about what to do first, second, and so on.
“Vipashyana” means an exceptionally perceptive state of mind. It is a state of mind that is able to perceive things in a very exceptional way. Vipashyana meditation, then, emphasizes discerning meditation. When we talk about achieving a state of vipashyana, it could be achieved as an exceptionally perceptive state of mind that discerns impermanence or voidness, but it is not exclusively one of those two. In anuttarayoga tantra, the highest class of tantra, one method to develop vipashyana, this exceptionally perceptive state of mind, is by visualizing a tiny dot or drop at the tip of the nose. Then, while maintaining a visualization of that one dot, you visualize two dots in the next row, then four, eight, sixteen, thirty-two, and so on. You must keep them all perfectly in order, and then dissolve the visualization in stages. By doing this type of visualization, you develop an extremely sharp, exceptionally perceptive state of mind. If you really want to develop this state of mind to a very high level, there are other practices in which you visualize, in each drop, the whole mandala of the deity system that you are practicing, with all the deities and all their details. If you accomplish this, you really have an exceptionally perceptive state of mind!
These two types of meditation, shamatha and vipashyana, exist in all the Buddhist traditions, as well as in many of the Indian non-Buddhist systems. In the Theravada Buddhist traditions they are known by the Pali terms “samatha” and “vipassana.” We find the two also in Zen as well. For example, in Son Buddhism, the Korean form of Zen, there is a koan: “What is it?” When we focus on “What is it?” the point is not that there is an answer, for instance: “This is the table; this is the glass,” and so on. Rather, we develop the mind to be in the state of “profound doubt” – always questioning the reality of “What is it?” Then our state of mind becomes exceptionally perceptive.
There is a funny story that shows that most Tibetans masters have not studied the Zen tradition; they aren’t familiar with it. There was a famous meeting between a Zen master and Kalu Rinpoche. The Zen master held up an orange and asked Kalu Rinpoche, “What is it?” Kalu Rinpoche looked at his translator quizzically and asked, “What’s the matter, don’t they have oranges in his country?”
So we have shamatha and vipashyana. Shamatha is not just perfect concentration, which is developed through nine stages by using different types of attention and so on. But shamatha has, in addition to perfect concentration, is what is known as an “exhilarating state of mind.” “A sense of fitness” is actually the technical term. In addition to perfect concentration, there is a sense of fitness, which is an exhilarating physical and mental state. “Sense of fitness” is similar to the state of a perfectly trained athlete.
Tsenzhab Serkong Rinpoche, my teacher, explained that having the state of mind of shamatha is like having a jumbo jet: if you put it on the ground it will stay, and if you send it flying in the air it will go. There is a sense that you can concentrate on anything for any amount of time. The body will not get tired; the mind will not get tired; you feel totally fit; and it is exhilarating. Shamathais a very exhilarating, uplifting, joyous state of mind. But it’s not joyous as in exuberantly running down the street singing and dancing like in a movie – it’s not like that. With shamatha the mind is totally honed, like an extremely well trained athlete.
It is important to clarify that a mental state of vipashyana is one that is in addition to a state of shamatha. In addition to the perfect concentration and state of fitness of shamatha, vipashyana adds on top of that a second sense of fitness. This is a sense of the mind being fit to understand and discern anything.
There is also another type of meditation that is usually called “glance meditation.” When we are working on a particular meditation practice, every now and then we need to review the complete Buddhist path. The purpose is to remind ourselves where our particular meditation topic fits into the whole picture, so that we do not overemphasize one topic and skip or neglect another. So glance mediation means reviewing the entire path; it is a type of review.
Many years ago, I came to Moscow with Dr. Tenzin Choedrak, who was the personal physician of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. We were working on a project to use Tibetan medicine to help the Chernobyl radiation victims. We stayed at very nice hotels and were formally escorted by officials from the Ministry of Health. Often we were taken out to the famous Russian seven-course banquets. Now, Dr. Tenzin Choedrak had spent twenty years in a Chinese concentration camp before he was able to leave Tibet and come to India. And so the first course of the seven-course banquet would be served, and no matter how much we warned him beforehand, he would eat as much as possible of the first course. It was as if this would be the only food he would receive for the next week. Then he would be so full, he could not eat any of the other six courses that followed. This is an analogy of the situation that we want to avoid by doing glance meditation. We want to review and keep in mind the whole menu of all seven courses, so that we don’t “overeat” and do too much meditation on one topic. That would be like gorging on the first course and missing out on the rest of the meal.
Now, I was describing the type of meditation in which we build up to a certain state of mind, but that is not the only type of meditation that is done in Buddhism. In certain meditation practices, for example, in some of the Kagyu meditations on the nature of the mind or in certain Zen practices there is a different approach. Rather than building up to a state of mind, we quiet down to a state of mind in order to discover that there are certain innate qualities in our minds, such as love or clarity of mind, and to gain access to them. But even when we are doing this type of meditation, we need to have first heard the instructions and then thought about them until we have understood them. We also need to know what the state of mind that we are quieting down to is based on, what we are going to achieve, what we need to do first, second, and so on. The structure with the “quieting down” type of meditation is the same as with the “building up” type of meditation.
The Environment Most Conducive for Meditation
There are extensive instructions on how to set up a meditation session, how to arrange a meditation space, sweeping the floor and cleaning the room, and instructions on making prostrations, making offerings, and so on – all of which are very important for having an environment conducive to meditation. And although it is important to have conducive circumstances and a suitable environment for meditating, especially a proper seat and a quiet, clean environment; nevertheless, it is not necessary to have an elaborate scene going on around us. We do not need to spend a lot of money in order to get all the proper gold fixtures, and the incense, and the New Age music in the background, and all these sorts of thing. Milarepa certainly did not have all of that and he was quite successful in his meditation practice! We try to make our meditation space as nice as possible, but without going overboard and making things elaborate just for show.
Also, we need to be able to meditate anywhere. If we go on a long train journey, we don’t say, “I can’t meditate on the train because I don’t have my water bowls and I can’t light any incense, I can’t prostrate,” etc. We can actually meditate anywhere, once we become a little bit proficient at it – on the train, anywhere, standing in a queue. Even in our everyday lives, between formal meditation sessions we can try to remember to treat others with love and compassion – that’s meditation isn’t it?
Remember, the whole point of meditation is to integrate the teachings – to make them part of us so that we can apply them in everyday life. But when meditation becomes completely separate from our daily lives, then it is just a hobby. Especially when our meditation involves exotic tantric visualizations, it can easily become like a trip to Disneyland, to some fantasy land that has nothing to do with our daily lives. If we go down that path, we become mentally unstable and the meditation has very little effect on our daily lives. Remember, the whole point of the meditation is to apply it in life.
And no matter where we are, when we meditate we need first to set the motivation, affirm the motivation, and have the intention to meditate with concentration. If our mind wanders, we are going to bring it back. If we get sleepy, we are going to wake ourselves up. And at the end, we have the dedication of the positive force. If we do not dedicate the positive energy that we have generated by meditating, then our efforts in meditation just improve our samsaric situations. We want to dedicate the positive energy to enlightenment, to the benefit of everyone.
Some people do meditation individually. In fact, the Tibetans mostly do individual meditation; they do not really do group meditation, though in monasteries the monks and nuns do recite prayers and ritual texts all together as a group. However, in the West, we have developed the custom of group meditation. For most people, the biggest benefit of group meditation is the discipline. If we are alone, we do not have the discipline to just sit and meditate. We get up long before we had intended to end our sessions; whereas if there are other people around us, we have more discipline. We tend to fidget much less, because we are embarrassed to do so in front of the others.
Some people find group meditation absolutely horrible, because they are distracted by the other people. Especially when someone is coughing or fidgeting, they find it terrible for their meditation, and so they prefer to meditate alone in private. Especially if the group is reciting something out loud in unison, and some people are reciting it much more slowly than we normally would, then we get incredibly bored and angry. And the other way around as well, if it is going too fast we also get angry.
We need to judge for ourselves which is better for us – individual or group meditation. I’ve noticed an interesting feature, however, when participating in small group meditation, which means meditating with one or two other people. The meditation can be very successful when you have an especially close bond and connection with the others, so that you feel very harmonious with them. It’s as if your energies reinforce each other. The situation of meditating with them gives you a lot more energy and a lot more clarity. But when the energies of the individual people who are meditating in a small group clash with each other, the effect is just the opposite: it brings annoyance and makes your mind much duller. So you need to check who you are meditating with, if you are going to meditate with others.
The Importance of Perseverance
The last piece of advice is one of the most important, and that is that the nature of samsara is that it goes up and down. So our meditation naturally is also going to go up and down. It is never going to be a linear process that every day gets better and better. Some days our meditation is going to go well, and other days it is not going to go well. Some days we want to meditate, other days we do not feel like meditating at all. This is perfectly normal and natural – it’s the nature of samsara. The point is that no matter what you feel, you should just persevere and keep on going. If you have the thought: “I don’t feel like meditating” – so what? Meditate anyway. Maintain the continuity; do it every day, even if it’s only for two or three minutes. That continuity is very important in terms of bringing us stability on the path.
Also, don’t make the meditation sessions too long, especially in the beginning. Three to five minutes is enough. Otherwise, you are thinking, “I can’t wait until it’s over,” and then you don’t want to go back to your meditation. If you end the meditation when you would still like to continue, you are very happy to go back. It’s like if you are with somebody and you part when you still would like to spend more time with the person, then you will like to see them again quite soon. But if they overstay to the point at which you really get tired of them and you wish they would go away, then you are not very happy to see them again.
And finally, it is important to gradually extend the amount of time that you meditate. Be flexible – it is very important to be flexible. As I said: Never miss meditation even for a day. You gain stability, reliability and confidence if you meditate every day. But be flexible: sometimes you can do the full meditation that you want to do, and at other times when you do not have time, do a shortened version. But at least do something every day. Don’t be a fanatic; don’t push yourself too hard. My favorite Zen koan is: “Death can come at any time. Relax!”