FIRST NIGHT: WELCOME AND OVERVIEW

 

 

Meditation is an inner spiritual discipline to gain full control over your thoughts, emotions, and mind, which means meditation is a process of bringing your thoughts and emotions under your control and not letting them dictate your life. When thoughts and emotions come under your control, then the actions of your body, speech, and mind are under your control, and as result, you are free from greedily running after something and fearfully running away from something.

                                                                        Venerable Geshe Dakpa Topgyal     

 

OVERVIEW AND PRACTICALITIES

 

Entering the Shrine Room:  Our classes are taught in the room where we meditate, and we try to be respectful in this space. We ask that you remove your shoes before entering and that you not talk socially while seated in this room, and we also ask you to stand when Geshe Sherab enters and sits. We don’t expect that you will participate in all our observances unless you want to do so.

 

The Pattern of Each Class:  Each night we will start with a recitation that reminds us of our purpose in meditating. You may join us or just listen—either is fine. Next, we’ll remind you briefly of meditation basics. Then we’ll present the topic of that night for 30 minutes, and then we’ll review the basics of meditation. Next we’ll practice meditation, starting with a very short period of time and gradually increasing it. We’ll close with a dedication, followed by a short time for questions and discussion. If you have time to stay after class for informal questions, we’d be glad to offer tea and cookies.

 

Questions and communication:  At present the class is mainly taught by senior students while Geshe Jampa is working on English, but he will answer questions and give some teaching, as he chooses. Since time is limited, we ask that you make note of questions and ask them after the meditation has ended. You’re welcome to stay after the formal class has ended and ask questions individually as well.


WEEKLY SCHEDULE OF TOPICS

 

What is Shamata meditation?

Shamata meditation leads to a focused and calm mind, using techniques developed over centuries in Tibet. We’ll learn what it is and why it can change our lives.

 

Meditative Posture and Settling the Mind

 

Meditation starts with the body, so we’ll learn the best way to sit so that our minds are alert and we’re not distracted by discomfort.  We’ll also learn techniques to calm the mind as we start to meditate, and discuss ways of maintaining the calmness with patience and determination.

 

Focusing the mind

Focusing the mind on an object of meditation is the path we follow toward having a clear, focused mind. We’ll learn what an object of meditation is and practice working with one.

 

Attaining mental stability and clarity

 

We need a mind that’s not easily distracted, and a mind that’s not fuzzy and vague. We’ll work on ways of attaining clear, stable states of mind in meditation and discuss antidotes to typical problems in meditation.

 

 

Why We Meditate

 

Shamata Meditation: What It Is, Why We Do It:   Meditation is not just simply relaxing the mind or fantasizing, though those things can be good to do. The term “meditation” describes a state of concentrated attention on some object of thought or awareness, and it requires some effort.  In Shamata meditation, as we practice it in the Gelukpa lineage of Tibetan Buddhism, is translated as “calm-abiding,” a single-pointed focus of the mind. The goal of practicing Shamata is to give our minds the ability to be able to abide or rest or focus on a purposefully selected object for an extended period of time without analyzing and thinking conceptually about it, and that in turn will give us minds that think clearly and see reality without distortion.

 

The ultimate goal of this meditation practice is to bring that same state of mind toward the world outside the meditative state.

 

There are many other types of meditation, some similar to our practice and others very different. We ask for the duration of the class that you try not to mix methods, but give this one a chance to work so that you can see whether or not it’s appropriate for you.

 

We recognize that some of you have come to us from other religions and practices, while some are interested in learning more about Buddhism. Our mediation is grounded in our Buddhist understanding of the world, so we will explain some things from that perspective, but we don’t expect that everyone will want to adopt this path. You are welcome to take whatever is useful to you. An example is our motivations for learning to practice shamata meditation:

 

Buddhist Motivation:  The first stage on the path toward enlightenment.

 

Non-Buddhist motivation: Relaxation, mental focus, clear thinking, improved terpersonal reltationships.

 

Ordinary mind and its problems:  Most of us turn to meditation because our customary state of mind, our ordinary mind, has left us frustrated. In our customary ways of thinking and living, we’re always chasing after satisfaction and never reaching it, looking to the past, which is gone; the future, which doesn’t yet exist, and even in the present for happiness and satisfaction to come to us from things and people outside of us. In mediation, we’ll learn to turn inside, and notice our own responses to the world.

 

 

 

DEVELOPING A PRACTICE

 

Meditating is like any other skill: you must do it often to make progress. That means you’ll need to find a time and place to meditate at home, and make a commitment to yourself to do it regularly, at least for the six weeks of this class.



The basics of meditation:  Sit comfortably with a straight spine (whether you choose to sit in a chair or on a cushion), place your open right hand in the palm of your open left hand with thumbs touching, and keep your eyes partly open. Unless we suggest a different approach, you’ll start by breathing normally and keeping your attention on your breath, counting each breath.



Time:  As you develop your ability to meditate, you should start with very short periods and gradually increase them. During the first week, even five minutes may seem like a long time, but later you may find that five minutes isn’t very long at all.

 

Some find that the best time to meditate is morning, but if you’re rushing to work, it may not be good for you. Find a time when you can be undisturbed by others and by your own concerns to get something done. Some people meditate more than once a day, especially at the beginning when they are meditating for short periods, but once a day is enough if that’s all you can do.

 

You should get a timer of some sort so you don’t have to keep checking your watch. You can set the alarm on watch or your cell phone or use a kitchen timer—whatever is most convenient. 

 

Place:  You should find a place where you can be comfortable and undisturbed by others, and also where you won’t be distracted by things around you. Meditating in an office is fine if the sight of the computer doesn’t make you start working.  You can sit on a cushion on the floor or on a straight chair, whichever suits your body.

 

Preparation:  It often helps you prepare to meditate if you have a regular pattern in the beginning. You might find a prayer from any religion or you might do some yoga or some controlled breathing. Some people like to have candles, incense, flowers, statues, or pictures that remind you of your purpose. Other people prefer a simpler atmosphere. The process of getting ready to meditate helps move your mind toward that state.

 

Music: We don’t use music during shamata meditation, because it would distract you from your focus. Instead, listen to music before or after if it helps you calm your mind or maintain the calmness.

 

Regularity: The most important thing is to meditate every day, even if it is for just a very short time. Regular repetition will gradually make focusing your mind easier and easier.

 

 

SECOND NIGHT:  SETTLING THE BODY AND THE MIND

 

Sitting quietly, doing nothing, spring comes, and the grass grows by itself.

                                                                                                From the Zenrin Kushu

 

 

Physical and mental stillness: As our teacher Geshe Topgyal says, meditation is simple: “Sit still, stop thinking, start from there.” Simple, perhaps, but not easy! In meditation, we try to still both the body and the mind, to achieve calm-abiding, a single-pointed focus. As we meditate, we come to understand not just our own dissatisfaction, but also the suffering of all creatures, and how that suffering is caused by our ignorance, our misperception of reality. Some of our mistaken ideas include:

 

  1. seeing things that are impermanent as permanent
  2. seeing things that are not real pleasure as pleasurable
  3. seeing things that are not inherently real as inherently real

 

With meditation we recognize what is wrong and where the mistake occurs. Meditation is a tool to help us understand ultimate reality.

 

The mind in meditation:  Our teacher, Geshe Dakpa Topgyal says:

 

 In our ordinary, non-meditating state of mind, we can only get rid of the symptoms of unhappiness, while the root cause is still intact.  Meditation helps us to realize that mind is the source of both happiness and unhappiness.

 

Can we really be happy against our will?  Our unhappiness arises when something goes against our wishes.  Happiness is subjective.  If it was objective, we would always be happy in the midst of positive circumstances. Therefore obtaining the objects of desire can not make us happy.  We lack two understandings:

1.     Objects, people, and events alone do not have the force to make us happy unless our perception is correct, clear, and healthy.

2.     The pleasure we are seeking is momentary and temporary.  Before our first experience of happiness ends another desire, another need for more has arisen.

 

What we perceive as making us happy ultimately is the opposite – unexpected unhappiness.

 

Meditation leads us to understand the intricate relationship between the mind and the world, between perception and the world around you: how the mind affects the physical world as opposed to how the world affect the mind, and how the mind is constantly creating something on the object so that it appears different from what it is in reality.  These are the imposition of the fabrications of the mind.

 

If mind is in a blank state where not sensing anything – this is not meditation.  Meditation is a state of mind or being where you are fully present in the intense awareness living from moment to moment without taking memory of first moment to the next moment.  The object of meditation is nowhere other than only in that moment.

 

Meditation is not a blank mind, not just relaxing and dreaming, but it does require a calm mind and body. If you set up a pattern of preparation for meditation, you’ll find that your mind begins to associate those actions with calmness.

 

To work with the mind, however, we must first settle the body in a way that allows us to meditate well.

 

Why posture is important: Your body and your mind are interrelated. If we know how to sit in the seven-point posture, it allows prana and vital energy to flow smoothly. The correct sitting position has a calming affect on the mind; therefore it is essential to sit in a posture in which we are comfortable and peaceful.

 

Cushion or chair:  Meditation is customarily done on a cushion, but you can also sit well in a chair. If you choose a cushion, place it so that it is wedged under your hips, tilting your pelvis slightly forward. If you choose a chair, be sure that your thighs are parallel with your feet flat on the floor. If possible, sit in a straight chair, possibly with a small cushion, that lets your body follow the other pointers below.

 

SEVEN-POINTED POSTURE:

 

Traditionally we try to align our bodies with these seven guidelines, designed to let your body help your mind to be neither agitated nor sleepy, but calm and alert. 

 

Legs and Feet:  In a chair, your feet should be flat on the floor and your thighs parallel to the floor, with your knees at a 90 degree angle. On a cushion, sit cross-legged, but don’t put one leg on top of the other—put one heel in front of the other ankle. To lessen stress on knees, flex your toes, push your feet toward each other, and tense your inner thighs toward each other. If sitting cross-legged is really painful for any part of your body, sit in a chair, and consider taking some yoga classes. The traditional leg position for Tibetan meditation is the lotus or half-lotus position (padmasana): the legs are crossed with the back of each foot resting on the opposite leg. If this position doesn’t come easily to you, you should definitely take yoga class to increase your flexibility before trying to use it. “My legs go to sleep”: The numbness followed by tingling that some people may experience when sitting for longer periods is caused by pressure on a nerve, not blood supply being cut off. It’s distracting, so you should try to play with the position of your cushion and your legs until you find a way to sit that doesn’t press on the nerve.

 

Spine: Most important: sit with a straight back. Your goal is to make your spine as straight as you can, from the top of your head to your tailbone. There is a natural S in the spine, but it should be a long gentle curve, not cramped or bowed at the hips or shoulders. Positioning your pelvis well can help you with the alignment of the spine. Sit on your sitzbones (the bottom of the pelvis--you’ll feel them if you sit on your hands). To bring your pelvis into a neutral, balanced position, first arch your back to push your buttocks back, creating a deep inward curve in your lower back. Then use your abdominal muscles to pull your tailbone down, making the curve longer and gentler. If your back begins to ache while sitting, try pulling up with your abdomen again. The abdominal muscles need to help support the back, but shouldn’t be rigid and tense.

 

Shoulders: Your shoulders should be back and down. To do this, raise them toward your ears, then bring them back, then slide them down your back. And then soften—you’re not trying to be at military attention, but you do want an open chest. Your arms should fall loosely from your shoulders, not pressing tightly to your body. We use a traditional position for the hands: Support your right hand with your left hand and raise your thumbs to touch each other, forming a diamond shape. Relax your arms and hold your hands a four-finger width below your navel.

 

Neck and head: Your neck should be an extension of your spine. To straighten the neck, make a double chin, then lean your head down, slightly—and again, relax and soften.

 

Mouth: Relax the muscles of your face completely. This will allow your lips to part slightly.

 

Tongue:  Relax your jaw, creating a slight space between your teeth. Your tongue should press against your palate, just above your front teeth.

 

Eyes: If your eyes are wide open, you’ll be distracted by things you see, but if they’re entirely closed, you’ll be tempted to doze or daydream. Instead, your eyes should be slightly open, with your focus on empty space just beyond your nose (but don’t cross your eyes). Don’t try to force your eyes to stay exactly half-open, but close them completely and then open gradually until you find a point you can maintain. This will be come easy with a little practice.

 

CALMING THE MIND: 

 

Meditation is not a blank mind, not just relaxing and dreaming, but it does require a calm mind and body. If you set up a pattern of preparation for meditation, you’ll find that your mind begins to associate those actions with calmness. You can also use some practices that will help your mind move towards the stillness of meditation.

 

Same time and place: If you can always meditate at the same time (perhaps soon after waking up, for example, or in the evening after supper), you establish a routine that will become habit, and your body and mind will recognize the time when it comes each day. If you choose a regular place to sit, that will also train your mind to become calm when you sit there.

 

The meditation environment:  If possible, choose a place to sit that is quiet, though perfect silence is probably difficult to find. The “white noise” of a heater or fan may be better than many small sounds, but you will learn gradually to cope with outside distractions. Do let other people know not to bother you for your meditation period. Pets will sometimes sit with you quietly, but if they demand attention, find a place where they can’t bother you. You don’t have to dim the lights, but avoid bright lights shining in your face.

 

Preparations for meditation:  The traditional preparations for meditation are cleaning the meditation space and making it pleasant. You may not need to physically clean each day, but when you do, make your cleaning symbolize clearing away the cares of everyday life and turning to the free space of meditation. If you set out flowers, candles, those actions too can represent bringing your open mind forward.

 

Prayers, mantras, readings: Reciting prayers or poems or mantras, or reading something aloud, is an additional way of reminding your mind and body to settle into meditation, especially if you use the same words each time.

 

Counting the breath: When you actually sit down to meditate, at first you will use only this technique until you’ve established the habit of calming the mind. You will simply focus on your breath, noticing it as it goes in and out, feeling it from the time it enters your nose all the way down to the bottom of your lungs, and then back out. To make sure your mind doesn’t wander, you may count your breaths (up to 10, 21, or 49, as you choose) and then count backwards down to 1. Start by counting to 10 and then back to 1, and if you lose count or continue on past 1, start over. You should count each time you breathe in and out as one number.

 

Fixing and re-fixing the mind: Your goal at this point is to focus all your concentration on your mind—you try to empty your mind of all conceptual thoughts about anything, including whether you’re meditating well! But your mind will tend to stray. Don’t be frustrated or angry with yourself when your mind wanders; just notice that you’re no longer thinking about the breath and start over.

 

Patience and Determination:        Meditation is a skill, and a mental skill develops slowly with many repetitions (just like physical skill). You will start to cultivate patience with yourself, just peacefully starting over each time your mind wanders. You’ll need to use determination, so remind yourself of your reason for meditating and take yourself to your cushion each day, even when you’re tempted to skip it.

 

Time:  Use a timer such as your phone to set the time so you don’t think about the clock. Start with five minutes each day for a week, and then move up to ten. After you have done this for a couple of weeks, you’ll be ready for the next step.

 

Concluding the meditation: Sit still for a moment at the end of the period to let your mind gradually come back to the world. Closing with a dedicational prayer helps remind you that the meditation period is a special time, different from the rush and frenzy of ordinary life.

 


What we need in meditation is a cup of understanding, a barrel of love, and an ocean of patience.                                                                                           St. Francis de Sales

 

 

 

 

 

 

THIRD NIGHT: FOCUSING THE MIND

 

 

Through meditation you can come to recognize illusions as illusions, fantasies as fantasies, and projections as projections, rather than being misled by those forces and trapped under their control.

                                    Geshe Dakpa Topgyal

                                    Diamond Key for Opening the Wisdom Eye

 

 

How Ordinary Mind Works:  In developing Shamata meditation, we are creating a calm-abiding, single-pointed focus. We do this to help us overcome the problems of our ordinary mind. With our ordinary mind, we are constantly searching for satisfaction outside of ourselves, and we are not looking inside.

 

  • We look to the past and future, which don’t exist, and we see the present in a distorted way
  • We mistake reality, very quickly, almost instantaneously (for example, we might go outside and see a rope lying on the ground, and think it is a snake. We respond with horror and draw back, before we have a chance to observe the reality of the rope).
  • We feel attachment for things and thus think the things themselves are good; we feel aversion and think the things themselves are bad (for example, one ice cream cone appears delicious; the tenth ice cream would appear horrible). Both are really our projections, not something in the outside world.
  • Our emotions are created by our mind, and there is no external cure—only meditation can cure us of delusions.

 

In order to have the kind of meditative experience that leads us to see reality, we can use various things as the object of meditation. One of the best is the visualization, because when you use visualization, you can notice easily when your meditation is strong and clear, and when it is weak.

 

Not just a blank, relaxed state

 

Remember that meditation is not a blank, empty mind.  As our teacher, Geshe Dakpa Topgyal says:

 

Meditation is a state of mind or being where you are fully present in the intense awareness living from moment to moment without taking memory of first moment to the next moment.  The object of meditation is nowhere other than only in that moment.

 

Fully present means the full force of your mental focus is not scattered or divided.  The full force of mental focus is in oneness.  The full force of attention is directed toward one thing without any portion of your mind experiencing nothing other than where the mind is focused.  Single pointedly, no portion of mind is taking a glimpse of anything other than the original focus object.  In intense awareness…if at any point the mind wavers it is not intense, but loose and scattered.

 

Right now [when we are not meditating], no awareness is new and fresh, but is polluted and corrupted by memories and expectations.

 

 

 

Selecting the Object of Meditation

 

In this tradition (Geluk lineage of Tibetan Meditation), actual meditation means focusing the mind on a visual object.  The object can be anything you choose: a flower (a rose or camellia blossom, for example), an apple or orange, a symbol of some kind, like a star. (Those who are Buddhists should use the image of Shakyamuni Buddha, and we can give you details of how this image should appear.)

 

The object is not literally in front of your eyes—you see the object in your mind’s eye. If you want to visualize something and need to see the details, you can look at a picture or at the actual object when you’re not meditating, but in meditation, see the object in your mind only.

 

Visualization comes very easily to some and with more difficulty to others, but all can learn to do it. You should imagine the object as floating in space just in front of and a little above your forehead, and you should imagine it as small but very clearly visible.  You may need to build up the image, piece by piece—start with the center of the flower, for example, and then add the rows of petals around it, and finally the stem and leaves. If you lose the image and don’t seem able to return to it, build it up again.

 

Once you select an image, stay with it. Don’t meditate on a rose one day and a daisy the next, for example.

 

When to use the object

 

Your meditation preparations and posture should be the same as when you focused on the breath only, and you should still calm your mind the same way, and perhaps count your breath for a minute or two until you have calm, alert focus. But now, after your mind has settled down, begin to focus on the image in your mind instead of on your breath. Each time your mind wanders away from the image, gently call it back, without becoming frustrated with yourself.

 

Changes in the object, other visions

 

Your mind is used to wandering as it will, and will resist your attempts to maintain a calm, steady focus on one thing. You may find that it’s very difficult to continue to visual the object the same way—it may change color, grow larger or smaller, change shape, etc. You may also see other visions. Don’t be excited or frightened by these—they are just the mind’s tricks. Just calmly return to the object the way you want to see it.

 

 

If visualization is a problem

 

If visualization doesn’t come easily to you, you can use a picture or real object as an aid—but do these exercises before you meditate, not while you are doing it.

 

Memorize the picture:  Try looking at the picture or object, and then looking away, seeing what you can remember each time. Then look at it again. What you’re doing is memorizing the picture. Try this often, perhaps with various objects. Visualization may be a talent that hasn’t been awakened yet.

 

Use words to describe the picture: While meditation, you definitely want to get away from language, but if you’re having a hard time calling up an image, maybe the language will help. You might say to yourself, for example: “Thin green stem, oval leaves, yellow petals shading to pink, drop of dew, pistils and stamen, pollen,”  and as you say each word, see the image that word calls up. Also, just as an exercise, try reading poetry, travel, even recipes or decorating articles—and try to see what’s being described.

 

Imagine the object as real:  Think that the object is really there, and that you just have to look at it. Sometimes it helps to imagine walking down a hall, opening a door, and finding the object, or opening a box, or parting a curtain.

 

Don’t strain your eyes: You’ll see the object in your mind’s eye, not with your physical eyes, so if you find yourself straining your eyes, you’re headed in the wrong direction.

 

Rest your mind on the object:  As with breathing, don’t be angry with yourself if visualization doesn’t happen at first, or if your mind wanders. Commit yourself with determination, and keep gently bringing your attention back to what you’re doing.

 

 

When meditation is mastered, the mind is unwavering like the flame of a lamp in a windless place. 

Bhagavad Gita,  6:19 (translated by Eknath Easwaran)

 

 

 

FOURTH NIGHT:

ATTAINING STABILITY AND CLARITY

 

 

Who provides the opportunity to cultivate patience? Not our friends. Our enemies give us the most crucial chances to grow.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama

 

Benefits of Shamata Meditation:

 

  1. We learn how to live and deal with problems

 

  1. We see how to treat your world and other people

 

a)    We become aware of how to live life with simplicity with clear awareness/understanding of basic needs of existence.  Once we know basic our needs, we can be content with what is available instead of being concerned with what is not available to our life.

b)    We are able to hope for the best, prepare for the worst.  When unprepared, we are overcome by emotions, which don’t help solve problems, but only amplify them.  When we are prepared we are not surprised by the unexpected and can see problems from a distance.

c)     Once we have a good experience of meditation, we will not see and relate to the rest of the world as separate, unconnected, unrelated to existence.  Once we realize interconnectedness, we become more conscious.

 

Geshe Topgyal tells us what meditation can bring us:

 

Once we have a sense of comfort without conflict we experience a moment of internal quiet; a moment of silence and peacefulness, a total break from sensory activities. In this moment of absence of grasping and rejecting, what remains is mere intense awareness.  Now we are fully present in an intense moment of awareness.

 

All conceptual and memory trace of who you are, what you were and what you went through temporarily ceases.  It doesn’t mean you don’t exist.  You are still you, but not in the way that you were.  Instead you are new and fresh.  Once you come out of meditation you return to your past self, but the goal is to live with yourself as new and fresh in daily life.  This is one purpose of meditation.

 

 

Clarity and Stability:  Meditation that will benefit us has these two characteristics.

 

Clarity is complete, lucid perception of the object of meditation.

 

Stability is maintenance of an unbroken focus on the object.

 

You won’t sit down for the first time and achieve perfect clarity and stability. It will take a period of trial and error, of recognizing problems and overcoming them.

 

The quality of your meditation is always more important than the quantity. If you are sitting and your body or mind is absolutely not cooperating, it’s better to wait and try again later. However, many problems can be overcome with the right antidotes.

 

Motivation and intention:

 

If you find yourself forgetting to meditate, or not making progress, it’s good to remember why you originally started out to meditate. Have the problems that made you long for peace and a focused mind vanished, or are they still there? Helpful also is setting the intention to meditate well, each time you sit.

 

Vigilance:

 

The part of you that notices that you’re distracted or sleepy is the vigilant part of your mind. With vigilance, you notice that you’re no longer focused on the object, or that you have just a vague idea that the object is somewhere in your mind. Vigilance allows you to make progress, by being aware of the quality of your meditation. It’s not the same thing as conceptual thinking about meditation, but just the awareness of where you are— right here, on the cushion, focused on the object, or off in some distorted vision of another place or time.

 

Obstacles as opportunities:

 

If only our practice could be perfect the first time! If only our minds didn’t wander and our knees didn’t ache, if only the phone never rang…if all these things were true, our practice wouldn’t grow strong. It is working against the distractions that develops our ability to concentrate.

 

Good days and bad days:

 

As with anything else, you’ll have good days in meditation when it’s easy to stay calm and focused, and you’ll have bad days when your mind is jumping around like a caged wild animal. Don’t despair when the bad days come—the next day will probably be much better. Just try again.

 

 

External distractions:

 

Lawn mowers, sirens, barking dogs, garbage trucks, the TV in the next room—there’s no end to the things that start to happen when we sit down to meditate. If you know you’re always in a noisy environment and you can’t change it, try earplugs—they work for many people. “White noise” is another option—go somewhere that has so much noise that it all blurs together into a dull roar. But also remember the times you’ve been so absorbed in what you were doing or reading (or even thinking!) that you didn’t hear what someone said to you. That shows you that you have the ability to ignore the outside stimuli, if you are concentrating hard enough. And that’s the goal.

 

 

Physical problems:

 

Though great yogis can meditate perfectly in any physical condition, for those of us not yet so adept it’s important to eliminate any physical problems that can make meditation difficult.

 

Posture and seat: As you sit for a longer time, you may find that your back aches or your legs go to sleep. If that’s happening to you, review the details of posture we discussed on the second night—things that didn’t matter when you sat for five minutes may become problems when you’re holding a posture for a longer time.  

 

Body and mind games: However, remember again that your mind is a wily beast that will use whatever it can to resist your efforts to tame it—including your body. Sometimes it helps just to notice a minor itch or twinge, and decide that you will sit anyway without moving. When you don’t let small discomforts become an excuse not to focus your mind, often they will go away.

 

The body you bring to the cushion: If you’re sleepy, exhausted, overheated, full of food—you’re probably not going to sit well. Your mind will be dull and fuzzy. Try to get enough sleep and plan your meditation time so it’s not a time when you’re dopy from eating or cold medications, for example. If you’re agitated from caffeine or sugar, your mind is going to be bouncing around, out of control. See if a little less of these will help you sit in a calm, alert frame of mind.

 

 

Mental Problems

 

Doubt and confusion: In western culture, we get used to quick fixes and things that work immediately. Taking the time to develop a meditation practice can make us doubtful that it works—to overcome that, we need to consider the long experience of meditators in other cultures and the vast amount of scientific research that’s been done, showing the real benefits. We can also trust that this particular method has been used for hundreds of years, so it’s not some gimmick someone just thought up. Other methods exist, but following one path is more likely to lead us to our destination than constantly changing when things grow difficult.

 

We can also doubt ourselves: we can feel that we’re too scattered, too impatient to learn to sit still and meditate. But everyone, even the Buddha himself, started with the same ordinary human mind. Remind yourself that you are working with the same material that every meditator works with, your own mind with all its problems, and having more problems just means you have more material to work with.

 

Conceptualizing: Meditation is not thinking about the object, but a still awareness of it. When you finding yourself analyzing, remembering, projecting, telling yourself stories, or in any other way thinking about the object rather than of it, you are getting away from the purpose of meditation.

 

Being Excited: When your mind is excited, it’s hard to keep focused on the object of meditation. New ideas rush in despite your good intentions. Ironically, sometimes we even get excited when we notice we’re meditating well. If you’ve eliminated physical causes of agitation, and returned to your motivation, the best antidote for excitement is to keep returning to the object of meditation. Eventually you will become calmer. If something particularly wonderful or terrible has happened, it can be a struggle—and sometimes, that’s just not the best time to meditate.

 

Being Scattered: Being scattered is not so much an occasional thing as it is a way of thinking, but again, reminding yourself of your motivation for sitting is an important way of bringing your mind into focus.  Also, try to set as a goal that you’ll notice more quickly when you’re distracted, so you can continue to return to the object. Sitting for a long period of time in a scattered frame of mind isn’t a good practice—instead, try sitting for several short sessions, and then for one of the sessions, gradually increase the time (by a minute or so each day), until you have gained some ability to keep your mind on the object.

 

Being Lax: A lax mind is dull, foggy, sluggish, rather than alert and focused. Laxity is a characteristic of a mind entering a sleep stage, not the meditating mind.  It’s possible to use the rhythm of the breath to fall into a sort of trance, neither awake nor asleep. If you eliminate the physical causes, the best way to deal with laxity is to become mindful of the difference between an alert mind and a just-barely-awake mind, and to use vigilance to notice when our focus on the object loses its sharpness. Sometimes meditation can make you feel a little gloomy or sad—that’s another way that laxity manifests itself, and that little gloominess will eventually disappear if you continue to meditate.

 

Balance: The Middle Path

 

Achieving the calm, alert focus that will enable us to see through our delusions is often a balancing act. We notice that we don’t have clarity, and we work so hard that we become stressed and excited; we notice that we’re rigid and we relax so much that we become groggy. Vigilance will help us notice when we’ve overcorrected and gone too far in the other direction. Remember that developing a meditation practice takes time as well as patience and determination.

 

On this path effort never goes to waste, and there is no failure. .

Bhagavad Gita,  2:40 (translated by Eknath Easwaran)