A General Introduction to Meditation
By Bhikkhu Dr. Saranapala
Buddhist Chaplain, University of Toronto
Nowadays people around the globe have become fascinated with meditation. They speak about the "coolness" and instant benefits of the practice of meditation. Since everybody is talking about it based upon some initial experiences, there are many expectations of its benefits. Even medical doctors are prescribing meditation as the best medication, as a remedy to all physical and psychological illnesses. Psychologists and psychotherapists recommend meditation practice to their clients as a remedy for their problems.
Well, this is true. Once you practice meditation, it will make a big change in your life. How does this change or transformation takes place within us? Is it the body or the mind that brings the changes? By and large when people practice meditation, they sometimes think that it is a way of mysticism. But in Buddhist meditation, we do not teach meditation to become mystics; it is not a mystical practice. Through some forms of concentrative techniques, people try to get into a mystical state, and as a result they experience some kinds of mystical experiences.
Now I would like you to understand the Buddhist term for what people popularly call meditation, concentration, or reflection. It is bhavana in Pali. Bhavana simply means "cultivation" or "development". When we talk about cultivation or development, you might wonder what is being cultivated. This is the question that you have at this moment: "Bhante Saranapala is talking about cultivation; but cultivation of what? What do we have to cultivate? What do we have to develop?" There is an interpretive sentence in Pali: “Cittam bhavayati’ti bhavana.” It literally means cultivation of the mind or development of the mind. This is a specific mental cultivation and development.
So now, the next question could be: "If bhavana or meditation is about the cultivation of the mind, what’s wrong with the mind?" What’s wrong with our mind? Well, you know what’s wrong with the mind! Mind is not present in the moment all the time. It’s restless and agitated. It never stays in one place. Even now while I am giving this talk, I see that I have some eye interactions. Yet, your mind may be having some fun with something else outside this meditation room. Your mind is trying to entertain you with something else it really likes, maybe with some previous experiences or past dreams.
Now imagine, if you have to live a life without having full presence of mind; can you ever be happy? All of you are struggling everyday to experience happiness, tranquility, joy, peace, inner happiness, and a stress- and tension-free life. These are lovely words. You all like to hear these words. When you hear them, your ears get pleased indeed. So now, if you struggle to experience happiness and tranquility, this suggests to that these are what you are lacking in your every day life. You do things: you eat, drink, dance, sing, work, make money, raise kids, and travel. Sometimes you think that if you could go to the Bahamas or the Caribbean or some other country (a warm country during winter, or any other lovely place), you would be really happy. Even you are led to believe that you would be really happy. Then you go there. You spend a week or two weeks there. But you begin to realize that it’s just the same thing; you are doing the same eating, bathing , etc. that you used to do here at home. There is no change in any of your habits. When you come back, you need another week to recover from jet-lag or fatigue.
In fact, you could say that it is a sensorial deception: the mind is tricking you, deceiving you, cheating you, with the thought that "Ahhh! If I get out of this city or this house, if I can go to Mexico, Cuba, the Caribbean, or the Bahamas, to spend some holidays, I are going to be really happy." Even though it is the same thing happening in daily life, people think, "Oh! I work so hard and I am tired now. I need a break. If I can go to a party, a dance club, a night club, or even a movie, I think I would be all right. I would be happy. I would be pleased." People do believe in these things. Well, there is nothing wrong in believing in these worldly material things. That’s fine. Indeed when you go there, you are truly happy for the time being. You feel so fabulous. So delighted! Your eyes are pleased by beautiful objects, bodily forms, appearances. You hear lovely words and music. You may eat popcorn, a lot of popcorn, while watching a movie, and drink a lot of Coke. So, for the time being you are happy. This is a sensorial pleasure.
Now, the real problem is that when you experience some kinds of sensorial pleasure, you think it is permanent: "I want it again; I need it every moment." So the mind is tricking you: "Hey! Yesterday I went to a movie, and I really liked it. So I must go there again today. Yesterday I went to a dance club, it was so fantastic! I must go there today as well." Or "Yesterday/last week/last month, I went to a restaurant. There were some yummy and delicious foods." So today you should go to the same restaurant, not only by yourself but with some friends as well. You go there and eat. You chat while you are eating. And you enjoy sensorial pleasures.
But these sensorial pleasures are always in flux. They change; they are coming and going. They arise and pass away, moment by moment. This occurs because they are dependent on external objects which are subject to change. Mind likes something for the time being and it tries to have it again. But if you cannot fulfill that desire or need, then your mind is going to be a real troublemaker. It’s going to rebel against you: "I want it the same way. I need the same thing." Somehow you have to fulfill this desire. You do fulfill this desire. Yet your mind asks for more. There is no end! This is the real struggle that you have. The mind is tricking you; it’s deceiving you. The mind is constantly creating anxiety and agony through the physical body, (and other kinds of suffering) when it is not comfortable. The mind is doing this because it has not been properly disciplined. You have not given proper instructions to this mind. You have not yet trained the mind The untrained, uninstructed, undisciplined, mind always becomes a troublemaker. This is a reality.
We practice meditation to give a proper and systematic training (discipline) to this mind. You should constantly say to your mind, "My friend, your nature is to run around and to focus on impermanent things. You are trying to chase things or objects which seem to be externally good or pretty. Even though you go after them, you are never going to be satisfied with such things. Therefore, if you really want to have true peace, you have to live here right in this moment. You will be satisfied with whatever you have at this moment, understand the true nature of present moment, see the beauty of present moment, and experience the power of 'now'." This is a tough task and not that easy. But in order to discipline the mind in this way, we need to cultivate awareness. This is what we are lacking.
Awareness is very important for the realization of our nature, and to experience a tranquility which is not dependent upon external objects. We can cultivate the mind if we constantly instruct it to live right here at the present moment. If we can have real presence of mind at this very moment, then we can observe a lot. We can watch whatever is occurring in the present moment. When we observe whatever is happening in the present moment, we then realize that these experiences are unpleasant at the outset and hard to bear. Then we become scared: "Ahhh. These things never happened to me before. This cannot be me. This is not true of myself. How come these unpleasant and painful things are coming up now?" When experiencing unpleasantness, we either we run away from it or suppress it: "Don’t come up. You stay there." When they begin to come to the surface, you run away. You have been running away from this reality for so long. Right from the beginning of your birth till right now you have been running away. This shows us how we have developed reluctance toward these realities. In meditation practice we do not run away from them. We observe them. We watch them with utter mindfulness. We observe these realities -- how they arise, and how they pass away.
If you try to live in the present moment, you would experience various kinds of thoughts. Thoughts are just popping up, one after one, one after one, one after another ... to no end! If mind gives birth to these thoughts, if it keeps creating all kinds of unnecessary thoughts, then we cannot be truly happy. We have to stop them. We have to stop the mind creating unnecessary thoughts. We have to instruct the mind to accept whatever is happening right now: it could be a pain, it could be a thought, or it could be something else. Whatever is happening in the moment, mind should observe it unjudgementally. Rather than running away from the reality, rather than suppressing the reality, rather than grasping the reality, whatever is happening in the moment, we must discipline the mind just to watch it, observe it, and to let go. This inner observation gives us a much needed insight: things just arise and then they pass away. Impermanence!
You have to give more training to this mind. You have to transform this mind into a positive, wholesome one. For example, if the mind’s nature is to generate unwholesome thoughts, we must prevent the mind from generating unwholesome thoughts, and instead instruct the mind to generate wholesome thoughts. This is what we called the cultivation of the mind. If mind has not been compassionate, loving, and caring, toward the body or toward everything else, you should constantly remind the mind to become conscious, loving, caring, and compassionate. This is the cultivation of wholesome thoughts for the benefits of yourself as well as for others. We cultivate goodwill, compassion, altruistic joy, and equanimity.
Generally the mind develops a resistance toward yourself when you experience pains in the body. This resistance creates anger: "How come this body is going through some excruciating pain? When I sit down, now, all kinds of pain come along." Well, we should understand that this pain has not been created by anybody else. Nobody created this pain for you.
During the practice of meditation your mind could be bored. You cannot blame others for your experience of boredom: "Oh! I am bored because Bhante Saranapala is so boring; his talk is so boring." It’s not that my talk is so boring, but your mind is. You are bored because it is looking for some excitement, some sensorial excitement: go out, dance, drink, eat, and have fun. Here in the practice of meditation, we are not expecting such exciting things. However, we should understand that at the beginning the mind could be so bored, and it would try to create all kinds of unnecessary thoughts, unwholesome negative thoughts, in order to rebel against you. It’s fine. There is nothing wrong with this. If the body is experiencing pain, let the mind accept it. Let the mind acknowledge it with patience. Don’t let the mind run away from it. Let it accept it. Acceptance is the remedy. Acknowledgment is the healing. Acceptance is the way to freedom from pain. And then the mind slowly begins to become loving, caring, compassionate, kind, and more generous; and the mind is going to create more altruistic joy. This is a great virtue. So, as the mind creates this wholesome thought bit by bit, day by day, week by week, month by month, then you know it’s going to become 100 % full of love, compassion, altruistic joy, equanimity, peace, and harmony. Your mind will not be bored anymore; it will not become a troublemaker anymore.
Your mind is going to be blessed with a true blessing to all who are around you. This is what we call “purifying the mind.” It’s the purity of the mind that brings all healing. You can purify your mind only through meditation objects like loving-kindness meditation, and anapanasati (breathing in and breathing out with full awareness). In other words, it’s the awareness, the mindfulness, that brings healing. It’s the awareness that helps purify the mind. Awareness is what we lack in our daily life. Through awareness of body, feelings, sensations, emotions, mental objects, thoughts, perceptions, and images, we can overcome any difficulty, any problems that we face in day-to-day life. Freedom from problems and anxieties is possible for us only when we are really aware, mindful, and conscious of these phenomena moment-by-moment. So, we are practicing meditation on Wednesday evenings to develop this awareness. Through awareness, we are instructing our minds, and preparing ourselves to cultivate the mind to do wholesome thinking. When you keep on doing this, one day you’ll wake up with a fully-blessed mind. So, let’s cultivate the mind, develop the mind to become blessed, and thus gain freedom from suffering.