What is Buddhist Meditation?

Most of us live at the whim of our wild minds. Because life is so unpredictable and impermanent, our mind tries desperately to control and manipulate our experience. When problems arise, we usually try to think them through, relying on our habitual patterns to get by. “This is a fantasy,” says meditation teacher and author Pema Chodron. “Each moment,” she writes,  is totally unique and unknown…Meditation teaches us how to relate to life directly, so we can truly experience the present moment, free from conceptual overlay.” Meditation is the practice of getting in touch with reality behind the “conceptual overlay” over and over again.   

Living in a quick fix culture, it’s easy think the purpose of meditation is to feel good. Instead, the purpose of practice is to stay present with whatever is coming up. Attending to the feelings underneath the storylines naturally lessens the pain caused by concepts that solidify and grow our suffering. “meditation gives us the opportunity to have an open, compassionate attentiveness to whatever is going on,”  Pema writes.  “The meditative space is like the big sky— spacious, vast enough to accommodate anything that arises.”

Here are some of the central components of Buddhist meditation:

Cultivating Mindfulness and Awareness
When we meditate, we are strengthening faculties of mindfulness and awareness. Mindfulness is ability to hold focus on a specific object. Awareness is our broader field of attention. In practice we’re using awareness to bring us back to mindfulness over and over again, making our mind stronger the more we sit.

Synchronizing Body and Mind
Often times we feel that our body is going in one direction and our mind in another. Because of this disconnection, it’s hard for us to know how we truly feel. We may be following a storyline in our head and ignoring our heart. Getting our mind and body on the same page lets us act with genuineness and integrity in the world.

According to Meditation master Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, “Synchronizing mind and body is not a concept or a random technique someone thought up for self-improvement. Rather, it is a basic principle of how to be a human being and how to use your sense perceptions, your mind and your body together.”

Developing a healthier relationship to our thoughts and emotions
Contrary to the popular notion (or fantasy), the purpose of meditation is not to stop our thoughts. Rather, the purpose is to be present with our thoughts without chasing after them and building elaborate story lines to get ourselves caught in. After we practice for awhile we may find that thoughts are relatively empty.

By observing our mind without judgement, we can see the nature of our thoughts  more clearly with some sense of equanimity.

Just as the purpose of meditation is not to stop thinking (not that this ever worked), we also don’t want to ignore or numb feelings.  The magic of sitting, is that when we properly  acknowledge (without indulgence) our feelings they naturally are liberated. Pema Chodron gave the analogy that we should treat our thoughts and feeling sort of like seeing an old friend at a train station. You would of course wave and say hello.

Generating compassion for ourselves and others

Meditation is an opportunity to practice compassion and gentleness with ourselves everyday. In practice, we experience where we are right now, without trying to change or manipulate our experience. We may not have that job we wanted, or that person we’re pining after, but we can be content with our selves as we are right now. Observing our mind without judgment, naturally helps us be more open with others and stay present in difficult situations. If we’re not constantly judging or condemning ourselves, we won’t judge and condemn others so quickly.

Meditation is discovering the natural state of mind that is already present. Practice is a process of uncovering all the storylines and beliefs that cover over our original, open and unbiased wakefulness.

In Zen Mind Beginners Mind, Shunryu Suzuki writes, “Enlightenment is not some good feeling or some particular state of mind. The state of mind that exists when you sit in the right posture is, itself, enlightenment.“

Meditation & Neuroscience – 10 reasons to have a daily meditation practice

In the past decade breakthroughs in Neuroscience have revolutionized how we view the brain. Rather than hard-wired and static, scientists now see brain as having flexibility of response and the ability to adapt and heal itself. When you meditate you are actively making new neural connections. The process of sitting accelerates that process by creating space for fresh responses outside of our habitual patterns.

10. Your learning and memory will improve

In order to learn and better remember what we take in, it’s important that we train our minds to stay open to new information. When our minds are filled with what we think we know, there is little space for anything more. Meditation allows us to remain open to new information without blinding ourselves with our habitual emotional responses to new information. In a study published in Psychiatry Research, scientists found that participants who completed an 8-week Mindful based stress reduction program had increases in grey matter concentration in regions of the brain involved in learning and memory processes.

  1. Your focus will improve

flower stemThe prevalence of attention deficit disorders in our society has exploded in the past 20 years. These days, laptops and smart phones keep us glued to distracting images and videos at an almost constant rate. Sitting and slowing down, even for 10 minutes a day, can open up new neural pathways that promote calmness and focus. An Emory University study found that the process of continually bringing ones attention back to an object of focus, as one does in mindfulness practice, strengthens the neural pathways for keeping attention.

  1. 8. Daily Practice Reduces stress anxiety and depression

Recent studies have demonstrated that Stress can tax our system enough to actually change the structure of our brains. The area of the brain called the Hippocampus is covered in receptors for the stress hormone cortisol. Too much cortisol release can lead us into a downward spiral of anxiety and depression, turning stress into more serious chronic disorders. In a study of meditators who practiced thirty minutes a day, brain images showed increased grey matter in the Hippocampus, rebuilding this area previously damaged by stress.

  1. Decreases Pain

The practice of gently observing sensory information in our environment and body can change our relationship to physical discomfort. Often times we experience pain with a mixture of judgment that magnifies the intensity of our discomfort. A 2011 study published in the Journal of Neuroscience demonstrated that after four days of mindfulness meditation training in the presence of painful stimulation, participants reported significantly reduced pain unpleasantness by 57% and pain intensity ratings by 40% when compared to the control group.

  1. Increases Positive Feelings

Meditation practice doesn’t just mitigate negative feelings; it can also give us a more positive outlook on our lives. Significant research has been done on “loving-kindness” meditation, a practice that incorporates visualizations, mantras and reflection. Resting the mind in compassionate space can disrupt what psychologists call the “hedonic treadmill,” the propensity of humans remains at a stable level of happiness despite positive changes in their lives.

  1. Increases feelings of connection and empathy

Our society is becoming increasingly inter-connected by large impersonal social networks. As a result, our daily interactions with friends and coworkers are often mediated by a computer screen or smartphone. This can lead us to feel alienated from ourselves and disconnected from others. In 2008, a Stanford University study explored the effect of loving-kindness meditation on feelings of connection. After participants completed a brief guided loving kindness meditation, they were told to direct their feelings of love and compassion towards a photograph of a stranger. Participants reported significantly increased feelings of empathy and connection after the exercise.

  1. Improves creativity

Anyone who has sat a meditation retreat will tell you they experienced an increase in natural creativity after a prolonged sit. However you don’t need to sit long to experience the fresh sense of wonder that meditation practice produces. UC Santa Barbara’s Brain Research center has explored how mindfulness correlates with better insight-problem solving, our ability to creatively find solutions outside of logical reasoning.

  1. Improves our ability to Self Reflect

When we’re rushing around constantly, its difficult to tune into how we are feeling. Sitting still allows us to connect with our lives and act in our life with purpose and meaning. When we make decisions based on our habitual patterns we cannot make fresh changes in our life. Scientists have found that meditators have a greater ability to connect with their emotions, synchronizing their mind and body to help them act from the heart.

  1. Helps us establish a feeling of worthiness

Above all, meditation helps us feel worthy of being human, which may not be measurable through brain chemistry. Sitting lets us tap into that original state of being and original intelligence that we always have access to. When we feel worthy of being human, it affects our lives in more ways than we can imagine.


The Essential Travel Checklist for Meditators

One day, over twenty years ago, I woke up in a hotel room in Mexico City. The room was unadorned and low-budget, a few blocks from Chapultepec Park. Dream memories gradually dissolved into the polyester sheets and morning sunlight entered the room as I had an epiphany that has stayed with me ever since.

I realized each day is a complete lifetime. I especially feel this way when traveling — that each day is new, unique, never seen before.

I began my day in that Mexico City hotel room with meditation, just as I do most days, just as I do whenever I travel. Maybe I’ve learned a few things about how to integrate meditation practice into life with a suitcase. In any case, I’ll explore and share a few thoughts on the basis of meditative discipline, or any discipline.

The Foundation of Buddhist Practice (Shila, Samadhi and Prajna)

The traditional terms for the foundation of Buddhist practice, with includes both meditation and study, are (the Sanskrit terms) shila, samadhi and prajna, or discipline, absorption and intellect.

Shila, as discipline, means something innate. Conventionally we view discipline as something external, an obligation that might feel onerous, even odious. But in this case, shila means drawing on something inside of us – and when we do so we discover joy, another meaning of shila.

This relationship with discipline, or the process of becoming simple and focused, and joy is something anyone involved in the creative arts discovers, that through discipline we come to meet – rather than avoid – the blank page, the blank canvas, the open dance floor. That meeting brings joy.

Samadhi means, in the traditional translation of the term, absorption. Essentially samadhi means meditation. As my teacher, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche put it, samadhi means “entering a particular world, which is a full world, a big world, a complete world.”

DSC_0737The natural relationship between discipline and meditation is to make a daily relationship with meditation, to sit for as long as one practically can. During a meditation retreat, shila might mean to sit for ten hours a day, whereas in a life of a fulltime job it might mean to sit twenty minutes in the morning (or evening). The key word, the magic word, when it comes to shila or discipline is priority.

To make something a priority means to actualize what we value the most, to walk the talk. When we do, someone or something will meet us there.

Again, to cite the creative arts, if we make a regular date with our writing – i.e., if we show up every morning to write, if we make writing our priority – eventually creative inspiration will also show up. Traditionally this arrival is that of the muse, the animating spirit of creative life.

Chögyam Trungpa called these muses the dralas. If we make a date in our mind, the muses, the dralas, the lineage can “read our mind.” If we break that date, we disappoint the larger sphere of our being, and so we suffer. If we do show up, and meditate for the time that is reasonable to our day, we always, always, always find it is worthwhile (though any rule is made to sometimes be broken; there are times when it is not indicated to practice).

When the brush meets the blank canvas, the result is a painting. When shila meets samadhi, the result is prajna or intellect. When we think of intellect we usually think of its contents, but intellect here simply mean clearheadedness.

The meditation discipline of sitting practice brings a diminishment and release of discursive thought. Often when we sit we feel we are having more discursive thought, but this is only because we are keeping still and thus noticing them – this noticing is also prajna.

When we finish sitting it is often then that the clearheadedness arrives, is noticed.

Clearheadedness is the basis of all the other virtues of life; if we are not clear, how can we discern virtue?

Travel as an Opportunity

Travel is an opportune time to be clearheaded. Since travel means venturing beyond our familiar home, not only do we need to have our wits about us but the unknown is very wakeful. So if we are already woken up through meditation, the wakefulness of the world penetrates us all the more.

In essence, travel is not so much a destination as a state of mind. Our commute to work is as much travel as a vacation in Rome. As Allen Ginsberg put it in the poem, We Rise on Sunbeans and Fall in the Night:

Dawn’s orb orange-raw shining over palisades
bare crowded branches bush up from marshes –
New Jersey with my father riding automobile
highway to Newark Airport – Empire State’s
spire, horned buildingtops, Manhattan
rising as in W.C. Williams’ eyes between wire trestles –
trucks sixwheeled steady rolling overpass
beside New York – I am here
tiny under sun rising in vast white sky,
staring thru skeleton new buildings,
with pen in hand awake…

Packing Checklist

For me, in the practice of being an awake traveler, it is good to put a few things in my suitcase that the ordinary traveler might not carry:

1. Inflatable Zafu. The Zafu weighs next to nothing, looks like the real thing, and works better Screen Shot 2015-06-29 at 5.48.39 PM
than rolling up the blanket of the bed or sitting on a couple of pillows (Google to find one).

2. Small Gong. I also like to carry a small gong. This may be an optional item, but it makes a difference to ring it, to feel the bell’s melody penetrate the room, to feel it invite the lineage Screen Shot 2015-06-29 at 9.14.58 PMand the dralas.

3. Adornments for my Shrine: I always carry a picture of my teacher, a small silk cloth and (usually) a candle. With these three objects I can make a shrine in my hotel or guest house room.

This is the first thing I do as I unpack my suitcase, and it is part of taming the heretofore anonymous space, making it my own, suitable for both sleep and the practice of waking up from sleep, meditation.

4. Alarm Clock: The final accoutrement to carry is an alarm clock (my iPhone). To manifest my priority I like to get up early, with or before the sun. For me, it is better to loose a bit of sleep than to miss the opportune time of the day to meditate, which is early. Dawn is fresh is and so is mediation when done this time of day.

After breakfast, I come back to my room and write. Sometimes I’ll write all morning and not begin the way of the wanderer until the afternoon.

Next I take a long, long and somewhat aimless walk. I’ve been fortunate to be able to take many of these walks in Rome, Istanbul, Phnom Penh.

The meditative traveler is always on a pilgrimage, whether wandering on commute, as Allen Ginsberg did, or through northern Japan, as Basho famously did in his Journey to the Interior.

Each day really is a lifetime.

Bill Istanbul2Bill Scheffel in a writer, creative writing teaching and videographer who has directed Shambhala Training since 1980. Bill was a student of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche and taught classes in meditation, creative writing and poetry at Naropa University for thirteen years. Currently, Bill teaches online classes in creative writing and the I Ching. For more on Bill see Vertical Time Yoga.