Greetings Dear Readers,
January is retreat month for those who follow the Buddhist calendar. It’s an excellent time to quiet life down a little and experience some spiritual renewal. Below are some teachings which come from Geshe Kelsang Gyatso my spiritual guide and lineage holder of the New Kadampa Tradition. Author of many clear and practical books on Mahayana Buddhism, his latest book, Modern Buddhism, is now available as a free e-book download.
First, let’s clarify what meditation is. Meditation is not about going blank, spacing out or thinking about nothing (although there are moments for this). Meditation means focusing the mind on a virtuous object. In our normal waking state our mind is moving here and there thinking about objects of attachment (tonight’s dinner), objects of anger (email spam) and neutral objects (tomorrow’s to-do list). Like the wind blowing, the mind is often scattered, not very controlled, and a bit reckless like a bull in a china shop. It’s a little like a tantrumming child running around and that’s not who you want in charge of your adult life!
The benefits of meditation (there are hundreds) stem from what meditation does to the mind. Meditation gathers our thoughts together, create some calmness, composure and space for positive thoughts to take hold. This concentration and positivity creates a more powerful mind.
What is a virtuous object? It is a thought, feeling, visualization or sound that serves to create peace in the mind. There are thousands of objects to use. For a Mahayana Buddhist, the main practice is Lamrim which translates as “Stages of the Path to Enlightenment”. Lamrim is a set of 21 meditations done one each day for 21 days and then the cycle repeats itself ad infinitum. It appears repetitive but repetition is key as it brings depth of understanding or wisdom. Each time we cycle through the 21 meditations is different, a little deeper than before with new insights, ideas and questions. This wisdom developed is carried in the heart and lived in daily life, not just intellectual knowledge that may be quickly forgotten or abandoned.
At first it is necessary to quiet the mind so that we have room to allow the virtuous object in. You may sit quietly with your eyes closed and just focus on your breath for a few moments, just watching the breath coming in, going out, coming in again. Do this for a few minutes before focusing on your chosen meditation object. This helps bring the mind to a more neutral state which calms the anger, stress and disappointment we may be feeling. It also makes the mind less busy, less of a tornado. We become more in control of our mind, watching what it does and learning to direct it where we want it to go.
Find a visual object such a picture or statue of a deity or Buddha that resonates with you. Place it before you on a table or perhaps on a shrine or alter set up for meditation. Allow yourself to study the sacred image, becoming familiar with, building a spiritual connection to it and learning to hold the image in the mind’s eye when your eyes are closed. Or, instead of an image you may want to chose a thought that brings peace such as wishing love towards others, renunciation or patient acceptance. The goal is to sit and contemplate, analyze and study the virtuous object from different angles, connecting it to your own personal experience so that it makes sense for you.
Once you have built up some experience of knowing the object the next thing is to hold the mind still on the virtuous feeling that comes. It’s not an affirmation, “I am loving towards others, loving towards others” on and on, although that can be helpful. It goes from a thought to a feeling carried in the heart. When the mind wanders away from that feeling we just notice the mental wandering and bring it back to the chosen object. You will go through this process of seeking the meditation objet, dropping it and coming back to it again several times each session and this is normal. It takes a long while to become strong in concentration but over time as this mental muscle develops you will notice your mind becoming a little more controlled.
One last thought, meditation is not just something you can do at home for a few minutes or hours, it is really something that can be practiced anytime, anywhere to bring greater benefits. As I explained earlier, meditation means to focus on a virtuous object. This you can do with your eyes open as you go about your day. We can do this standing in line at the bank (i.e. we can just rejoice in the wealth people have gained through the karma of having given in the past rather than feeling jealous) or if we’re stuck in traffic (developing compassion for everyone around us who is also stuck, people who want to go home and be with their families or people who just feel stuck in life, not sure what to do to make themselves happy).
What benefits do you get from meditation? How’s your practice going? Love to hear your comments and questions.