In our restless way of life, we feel the need to be continually on the move. Between work, family, everyday worries and our many activities, we are lost in a continual stream of thoughts. Without even being aware of it, these thoughts have become so intrusive that we can no longer free ourselves from them.
All of them are related to either past experiences or upcoming events. We end up not fully living the present moment, which is the only one that truly exists.
Moreover, external events constantly disrupt our lives. They can suddenly remind us of great truths that we tend to forget, such as the non-permanent character of all things. As, for instance, when we suffer the loss of a loved one, the end of a love relationship, a professional failure, etc. We start feeling vulnerable and this is the very moment when we get overwhelmed by some negative thoughts that can lead us to depression.
It is therefore useful to be able to use certain tools in order to fight against these thoughts. Mediation is one of the most efficient.
But what is meditation?
Meditation (Bhâvanâ in Sanskrit) is the culture of the mind. It is a way to reconnect with oneself. It allows us to raise our understanding of the “ultimate Truth”, the one helping us to overcome suffering (that differs from the “conventional truth”, the one we face in our everyday life).
Ok, but then how does it work…
First of all, you have to know that there are different styles of meditation, according to the different schools of Buddhism. The doctrines of Theravada (the primary Buddhism, that is still practiced in the majority of South-East Asian countries) refer to a silent meditation without any external aids. The practices of Vajrayana (Tibetan Buddhism) incorporate more esoteric components such as incantations (mantra or sacred syllables), rites (prayer rolls with karmic action) and visualization (Bodhisattva, Beings of compassion, as well as other beings of light). Zen Meditation also integrates philosophical considerations (under the form of questions/answers).
Actually, meditation is not limited to Buddhism and has been practiced in India since the advent of Vedic texts.
No meditation technique is better than another. The best is to get familiar with different techniques and choose the one that helps you the most. For instance, techniques using visualizations and mantras can be very useful for the concentration of the mind: they can help the beginner but are also intimidating. Just try to avoid the trap of curiosity: if you wanna try everything and don’t gain enough experience in any of the techniques, you’ll lose all benefits.
I’ve never practiced Tibetan and Zen meditation, so I will refer to the two types of meditation of Theravada Buddhism (which are actually common to all schools of Buddhism).
The 2 great meditation techniques
- Samatha Meditation:
The first step in any meditation is focusing on the calmness of the mind and on concentration.
Samatha meditation is a necessary step before undertaking any more advanced techniques.
Beset by our negative thoughts and emotions, we must first find inner peace. Our spirit is like the turbulent and dirty water of a flooded river, which must come back to its original purity and stillness in order to be able to sail on it.
To do so we need a naturally occurring concentration object: respiration (Prana in Sanskrit, which means vital energy).
Thus, by observing the flow of air entering our nostrils at every breath, and exiting at each expiration, we will slowly calm down this turbulent mind.
This task is not easy, even for experienced meditators: we are so conditioned by our thoughts that it is difficult to free us from them. So, after a few seconds of deep concentration, we will start to be invaded again by various thoughts. It is important here not to get frustrated, but to learn to just observe these thoughts, and to quietly bring our concentration back to the breath. If you try to fight your mind and thoughts, you will not be able to reach the state of relaxation that is the very object of this meditation. So let things flow naturally, even if it is hard work.
Samatha meditation is necessary before moving on to any other more complex technique, but one should not neglect its benefits. If you practice it consistently, 20 to 30 minutes daily, you will feel calmer and more relaxed. Besides, it will be easier for you to reach an optimum state of concentration and maintain it in time.
- Vipassana Meditation
The term Vipassana means “to see with clarity”. In other words, it is a technique to observe things as they are, without judgment.
Before starting this meditation, it is highly recommended to have attained a quiet mind practicing Samatha meditation.
The purpose of Vipassana meditation is to observe things as they really are, and to accept them as such, without seeking to change their natural course. This acceptance implies the absence of judgment, aversion and craving. So, by observing the reality of things, we no longer try to constantly control what happens to us in our everyday lives. We learn to free ourselves from the suffering related to external events.
Indeed, our moods and feeling of joy are too often conditioned by the occurrence (or not) of external events. If I feel good today, I will link it to a particular event that happened and caused my mood. If negative things happen to me, I will feel weary and depressed. Without even being aware of it, our emotions arise from the perpetual changes that are the essence of our lives.
Vipassana meditation helps us to stabilize our emotional states. Thus, by observing internally his reactions to the various sensations he feels, the meditator learns to be objective and not react anymore. It is often said that “no matter what happens to us, it all depends on the way we react.” It’s so true. Vipassana goes even further: it actually depends on our ability “not to react”. So when someone attacks you, violent reaction only traps you in your own negative emotions. At the end, you’re your own victim. Not to react does not mean passive acceptance of violence, but is rather wisdom: I decide to avoid being contaminated by this negativity and becoming an instrument serving it. Let’s just leave our assailant alone with his hatred.
A keyword in this type of meditation is equanimity. The equanimous mind considers everything with total objectivity.
Since every event happening to us is distorted by our mind, it turns into afflictive emotions which are very dangerous. It is not the pain itself that is unbearable, but rather our aversion to it. By developing equanimity through constant practice of Vipassana meditation, we see things more objectively and slowly lower the manipulation of our mind.
We are all convinced that sensations of pleasure are positive and are the cause of our happiness. But… Insidiously, these “positive” sensations can also be the source of suffering. The most striking example is the craving to reproduce an ephemeral sensation that gave us pleasure at some point. We won’t be able to reproduce this exact sensation since everything is continuously changing. We will then start generating frustration and more craving… That’s the way addictions work!
Vipassana Meditation is very hard and requires a good amount of time and patience. Results won’t come instantly, but keep practicing and there will be a huge improvement in your life. Over time, your mood will depend more and more on an inner reality and less on external events.
This inner harmony (Sukha in Sanskrit, as opposed to the dukkha-suffering) allows the one who experiences it to feel inner peace in his daily life. It also makes it possible to deal more serenely with difficult situations since we are not anymore full of craving and aversion.
Meditation must be part of a healthier life. There is no point in establishing a 20-minute daily meditation ritual if we have no will to change our daily behaviors.
Thus, Buddhist teachings refer to the “Noble Eightfold Path”, which consists in:
- Morality: right speech, right action and means of action (profession)
- Mental Discipline: right effort, Right concentration and right mindfulness
- Wisdom: right vision and right resolve
These points will be developed more deeply in a separate article.
It is also strongly advised to follow a healthy and balanced diet in order to purify the body and the spirit.
How to start with meditation?
Of course, these few lines are just a theoretical presentation, and as the Buddha said: “I can show you the path to enlightenment but it’s your responsibility to walk”.
So, if you are interested in meditation and want to get started, begin with short Samatha meditation sessions. Sit in a comfortable position and focus on your breath to empty your mind of all thoughts. If this is too difficult, you can play a musical background and/or relaxing lyrics (there are thousands available on Youtube).
As far as Vipassana is concerned, it is strongly recommended that you take a guided course because this technique is much more complex. I personally followed twice the course organized by S. N. Goenka. It follows the traditional teachings of the Burmese master Sayagyi U Ba Khin. It is a worldwide non-profit organization (courses are funded by donation – for more information :www.dhamma.org). Be ready to spend 10 days in complete silence and following a very strict discipline. An intense but very rewarding course.
If you prefer “give it a gentle try”, there are many organizations offering an initiation to meditation that lasts from a day to a week. A wave of mindfulness meditation is on the rise. Inspired by the tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, its practices are very beneficial. The mindfulness’ body scan is quite similar to Vipassana but is guided, which is less disconcerting for beginners.
As a conclusion, I’d say that meditation is a valuable tool that allows us to be happier and more serene in our everyday life. Personally, these techniques have brought a lot of positive changes to my life. I highly recommend you try them. Nevertheless, as for everything else, strong will and consistent work are the keys to achievement. Working the mind is probably the hardest, and also the most rewarding job. We all dream about living in harmony with ourselves.