The Art of Meditation
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Meditation can be practised in two main ways: either by stopping and cultivating concentration and enquiry in a systematic way using the tools of awareness: breath, sensations, sounds, thoughts and meditative questioning; or by paying attention to life moment to moment without grasping as we go about our days. Both methods are needed for the cultivation of meditation to become an art. The first method helps us to become peaceful, still and bright. The second method anchors our awareness and makes the meditation permeate the whole fabric of our life.
Concentration and enquiry are essential elements in the art of meditation. Concentration is taking the time to focus on one element of our experience and stays with it in a steady manner. Enquiry is looking deeply into our own experience and discover its changing and unpredictable nature. Generally the object we can more easily concentrate upon is the breath as it is always there and the closest to us. If we stop and sit down in a chair or on a cushion on the floor, we can straighten our back, sit in a relaxed manner and observe the movements of the breath. The air that we are breathing passes though the nostrils, descend into the lungs and comes out again. We can meditate by focusing on this simple experience of the breath moment to moment. We do not force nor control the breath nor imagine it. We just follow it as it is for a certain period of time.
While we try to concentrate on the breath, we might have thoughts, feelings and sensations, we just let them be in the background without making stories out of them nor do we reject them as being inappropriate at such a time. If we bring meditative questioning to the breath we experience the breath more fully and realise this is the breath of life upon which our existence rests. Seeing directly the precariousness of life reminds us of the need to cherish it. It makes us feel more appreciative of the potential this breath gives to us in any moment.
Another tool of awareness can be sensations. We can walk slowly and steadily on a flat piece of grass, back and forth and observe the sensations in the body: for example the movement that accompanies the lifting of the feet. We can pay attention to the coolness of the wind or the warmth of the sun on our cheeks. We can focus on the sensations of placing the feet on the ground and feeling the earth that upholds us. With meditative enquiry we can notice the changing nature of these sensations – they come and they go. They also change within themselves and do not stay exactly the same for very long.
Sounds can be another focus for meditation. Listening meditation works in a different way from breath or sensation meditation. We do not focus inwardly but outwardly in a wide-open manner. We do not create nor imagine sounds. We wait for them to come to us. Any sounds will do -- the roar of a car, the barking of a dog, the twittering of a bird. We listen attentively to any sounds that might occur with a non-grasping attitude. We open up to the music of the world and of life. We do not name, conjecture or identify the sounds. We just listen as widely and openly as we can at the sounds themselves. If there are no sounds we just listen to silence and its special hum. In listening meditation we cultivate an open and spacious attitude which waits quietly for the unknown without fears or expectations.
Enquiry into sounds consists in noticing the changing nature of sounds in general and within themselves. Sounds erupt. Suddenly they exist when they did not before. Recently some concrete was broken down with a pneumatic drill in our garden. The noise was shattering the whole afternoon long. But by six it was completely gone. Even while it was happening it was not exactly the same continuously. There were roars, whines and clangs. I noticed that they became higher or lower according to the thickness of the concrete to be broken down.
We can also concentrate on our thoughts but it can be more difficult than meditating with the other tools of awareness. We have to be very careful not to become ensnared by nor magnify the thoughts and ideas as they happen. To cultivate meditative thinking we need to become fully aware of what we are in the process of thinking. We start to note and name the thoughts that are in our minds. What are the stories that go round and round in our head? We notice the mental habits that we repeat again and again. We are not judging them. We are just observing them directly. At the beginning it might be easier to note the mental habits that distract us and take away from being present in this moment while we are concentrating on the breath, sensations or sounds. After a while we can notice their texture: heavy, light, fearful, anxious, sticky, peaceful. Later on we can discover what give rise to them and what helps us to let them go.
The art of meditation only requires for us to try to concentrate and enquire in every moment of our experience. There is nothing that we cannot use in order to meditate. We do not need anything special; the only requirement is just ourselves and a lively and investigative mind. As Hui Neng said: “ Those who wish to train themselves spiritually may do so at home. It is quite unnecessary for them to stay in monastery”.