by Ubasika Edna Lake
Meditation or mental development is one of the three meritorious actions, the other two are liberality, and morality. There are two main kinds. One – concentration or tranquility meditation which means focusing the mind on one of forty suitable objects of concentration, so that the mind becomes completely absorbed in the object and is, therefore, purified of the five obstacles which blind our mental vision. These hindrances are sensuous desire, ill-will, sloth and torpor, restlessness and skeptical doubt. More will be said about this kind of meditation later. The second kind is insight meditation, which requires a lower level of concentration, but a sufficiently pure mind for intuitive insight into the three characteristics of all the bodily and mental phenomena of existence to arise. These three insights are into impermanence, impersonality and unsatisfactoriness. They have been mentioned before and will recur quite often in connection with other aspects of the teaching. Purity of mind is required for such insights to arise. This purity may be temporary, at first, but the defilements which paralyse the mind may be eliminated in four stages, as concentration and wisdom develop. At first personality belief, skeptical doubt and trust in the efficacy of rites and rituals to bring benefits, are removed. Once these beliefs are removed from the mind of the devotee he is certain to achieve enlightenment in a future life. When all the defilements have been eliminated, at the fourth stage of holiness, there is complete liberation from pain and errors.
The insight wisdom which flashes up in the mind, is the decisive liberating factor in Buddhism. It is not based on logical thought or on learning, but on the practice of morality, investigation and concentration leading to a personal experience of the Four Noble Truths. For such wisdom to arise there must be purity of mind which is not possible when such things as attachment and aversion are still present.
Direct observation of the bodily and mental processes in our own body and mind, lead to understanding of the Buddha’s teaching on several topics which will be discussed later. Such things as the birth and death process, the law of cause and effect, the thought processes, mental and bodily states etc. can all be understood by microscopically analyzing what happens to this body and mind complex which we call “myself.”
The technique of insight meditation may be described, briefly, as sitting in a stable posture which can be maintained for some time, and observing whatever arises in the body and mind. Of course it is not easy to do this without following thoughts which arise. We are distracted from plain observation by likes and dislikes, opinions and expectations, fixed ideas about “who, what am I ?” This idea of a permanent self or ego to whom things happen is particularly strong. Sometimes we identify with the body, thinking “I am uncomfortable in this cross-legged posture” then we may identify with the mind, thinking “I am bored with this meditation.”
Most of us need to have a meditation teacher, a group of other meditators and a suitable place in which to practise, until we have reached a certain level of confidence. These externals are merely supports, we actually have to do all the work ourselves. How can we know if we are doing it right? We can tell by the results. If we find ourselves getting calmer, happier, less fearful, less egotistic then we are on the right path.
Most insight meditors concentrate, at least in the beginning, on the movement in the body as the breath goes in and out, or the sensation of the air passing the nostril on the in and out breath. There is no attempt to control the breath, but it can be observed to change in speed or depth, from time to time. The mind will move away from this inherently uninteresting object, to thoughts, feeling, listening to sounds, or to other distractions, at times. All these events are noted, but we try not to have opinions about them, simply observe them dispassionately. In this way the meditator’s mind becomes calmer and is trained in bare attention, he is able to make discoveries about the mind and body, and learns not to turn insights into concepts by thinking about them too much, or trying to fit them into some preconceived pattern. Seeing what truly is, rather than rearranging already held ideas is the aim
As we keep the attention on the in and out breath, we see what the mind does in these circumstances. Breathing is half way between a deliberated and an unconscious activity, we have some conscious control over it, and both body and mind affect it, whether we wish it or not. We notice that the breathing becomes slower and deeper when the mind is calm, and different thoughts or stimuli affect it. We can tell that something has changed in the mind when the breathing changes, and the bodily feelings also affect the mental states. Observing these constant changes, we come to realize how much of our thinking and feeling is based on the thought that there is a self who is acting and who is vulnerable to hurt, and yet is helpless to avoid the many kinds of physical and mental distress which life imposes. Gradually the meditator comes to see how the concept of a separate and individual being, rewarded and punished by externals, is being governed by attachments to passions and to ideas; by the wish to escape from what is disliked and by the idea that if it could only get what it wants, and keeps things so, it could be happy forever.
Observation of body and mind shows that the body follows its own rules and acts in ways which the mind experiences as pain or pleasure. The body does not feel, it is the mind which feels, and which also acts according to its own natural laws. For example, in sitting cross-legged certain physical effects occur which the mind interprets as cramp. The feeling of painful cramp is unpleasant and thoughts of hating the pain may arise. However, it is not the pain itself which disturbs the mind, but the dislike of the pain which is the problem.