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.“