Nowadays meditation is sometimes confused with other activities. Meditation is not simply relaxing the body and mind. Nor is it imagining being a successful person with wonderful possessions, good relationships, appreciation from others, and fame. This is merely daydreaming about objects of attachment. Meditation is not sitting in the full vajra position, with an arrow-straight back and a holy expression on our face.
Meditation is a mental activity. Even if the body is in perfect position, if our mind is running wild thinking about objects of attachment or anger, we're not meditating. Meditation is also not a concentrated state, such as we may have when painting, reading, or doing any activity that interests us. Nor is it simply being aware of what we are doing at any particular moment.
The Tibetan word for meditation is gom. This has the same verbal root as "to habituate" or "to familiarize." Meditation means habituating ourselves to constructive, realistic, and beneficial emotions and attitudes. It builds up good habits of the mind. Meditation is used to transform our thoughts and views so that they are more compassionate and correspond to reality.
What Kinds of Meditation Are There?
Meditation is of two general types: stabilizing and analytical. The former is designed to develop concentration and the latter to develop understanding and insight. An example of stabilizing meditation is focusing our mind on our breath and observing all the sensations that occur as we breathe. This calms our mind and frees it from its usual chatter, enabling us to be more peaceful in our daily life and not to worry so much. The visualized image of the Buddha may also be used as the object upon which we stabilize our mind and develop concentration. While some non-Buddhist traditions suggest looking at a flower or candle to develop concentration, this is generally not recommended by Buddhist traditions because meditation is an activity of our mental consciousness, not our sense consciousness.
Other meditations help us to control anger, attachment, and jealousy by developing positive and realistic attitudes toward other people. These are instances of analytical or "checking" meditation. Other examples are reflecting on our precious human life, impermanence, and the emptiness of inherent existence. Here we practice thinking in constructive ways in order to gain proper understanding and eventually go beyond conceptual thought.
Purification meditations cleanse the imprints of negative actions and stop nagging feelings of guilt. Meditating on a koan -- a perplexing puzzle designed to break our usual fixed conceptions -- is done in some Zen (Ch'an) traditions. Some meditations involve visualization and mantra recitation. These are a few of the many types of meditation taught in Buddhism.
What are the Benefits of Meditation?
By building up good habits of the mind in meditation, our behavior in daily life gradually changes. Our anger decreases, we are better able to make decisions, and we become less dissatisfied and restless. These results of meditation can be experienced now. But we should always try to have a broader and more encompassing motivation to meditate than just our own present happiness. If we generate the motivation to meditate in order to make preparation for future lives, to attain liberation from the cycle of constantly recurring problems, or to reach the state of full enlightenment for the benefit of all beings, then naturally our minds will also be peaceful now. In addition, we'll be able to attain those high and noble goals.
Having a regular meditation practice -- even if it's only for a short time each day -- is extremely beneficial. Some people think, "My day is so busy with career, family, and social obligations that I cannot meditate. I'll leave it until I'm older and my life is less busy. Daily meditation is the job of monks and nuns." This is incorrect! If meditation is helpful to us, we should make time for it every day. Even if we don't want to meditate, having some "quiet time" for ourselves each day is important. We need time to sit peacefully and reflect upon what we do and why, to read a Dharma book, or to do some chanting. To be happy, we must learn to like our own company and to be content alone. Setting aside some quiet time, preferably in the morning before the start of the day's activities, is necessary, especially in modern societies where people are so busy.
We always have time to nourish our bodies. We seldom skip meals because we see they are important. Likewise, we should reserve time to nourish our mind and heart, because they too are important for our sense of well-being. After all, it is our mind, not our body, that continues on to future lives, carrying with it the karmic imprints of our actions. Dharma practice is not done for the Buddha's benefit, but for our own. The Dharma describes how to create the causes for happiness, and since we all want happiness, we should practice the Dharma as much as we can.
Visualization and Mantras during Meditation
Some Buddhist traditions use visualization and mantra recitation during meditation while others discourage these. Why?
The Buddha taught a variety of techniques because different people have different inclinations. Each technique may approach a similar goal but from a different vantage point. For example, when doing breathing meditation, emphasis is placed on developing concentration on the breath itself. In this case, visualizing something would distract us from the object of meditation, which is the breath.
However, another meditation technique uses the visualized image of the Buddha as its object of meditation. A purification meditation could involve, for example, visualization of the Buddha with light radiating from the Buddha into us and all the beings who we imagine seated around us. This meditation takes the natural tendency of our mind to imagine things and transforms it into the path to enlightenment. Instead of imagining a holiday with our boyfriend or girlfriend, which just incites our attachment, we imagine the serene figure of the Buddha, which inspires a balanced and peaceful state of mind.
Similarly, reciting mantras takes the natural tendency of our mind to chatter and transforms it into the path. Rather than continuing our internal dialogue about what we like and what we don't, we use that inner voice to recite mantras. Mantra recitation helps us to develop concentration and can have a purifying effect on the mind.
Meditation: One Size Fits All?
Is it better to do just one type of meditation or a variety?
This depends on the specific Buddhist tradition we follow and on the instructions of our spiritual teacher. Those in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition train in several different types of meditation because many different aspects of our character need to be cultivated. Thus, we may do breathing meditation to calm the mind, loving-kindness meditation to generate compassion and altruism for others, visualization of the Buddha or a deity along with mantra recitation to purify negative karmic imprints, and analytical meditation combined with concentration to develop the wisdom realizing emptiness. When we have developed a general overall view of the gradual path to enlightenment, we'll understand the purpose of each meditation and where it fits in along the path. Then we can gradually develop many different abilities and sides of our character
Development Of Clairvoyant Powers With Meditation
Can one develop clairvoyant powers through practicing Buddhism? Is this a worthwhile goal to pursue?
Yes, one can, but that isn't the principal goal of Dharma practice. Some people get very excited about the prospect of having clairvoyance. "Wait until I tell my friends about this! Everyone will think I'm special and will come to ask me for advice." What an egotistical motivation for wanting to be clairvoyant! If we still get angry and are unable to control what we say, think, and do, what use is running after clairvoyance? Desiring clairvoyant powers because we want to be famous and well-respected is not only a distraction to our practice, but antithetical to it. Becoming a kind and altruistic person benefits both ourselves and others much more.
Once a child asked me if I had clairvoyance. Could I bend a spoon through concentration? Could I stop a clock or walk through a wall? I told him no, and even if I could, what use would it be? Would that lessen the suffering in the world? In fact, the person whose spoon I ruined may suffer more! The point of our human existence isn't to build up our egos, but to develop a kind heart and a sense of universal responsibility working for world peace. Loving-kindness is the real miracle!
If one has a kind heart, then developing clairvoyant powers could be beneficial for others. However, sincere practitioners do not go around advertising their clairvoyance. In fact, most of them will deny they have such abilities and will be very humble. The Buddha warned against public displays of clairvoyance unless they were necessary to benefit others. Humble people are actually more impressive than boastful ones. Their serenity and respect for others shine through, and this gladdens our heart. People who have subdued pride, loving-kindness toward others, and are developing their wisdom are people we can trust. Such people are working for the benefit of others, not for their own prestige and wealth.
Can Meditation be Dangerous?
Can meditation be dangerous? Some people say you can go crazy from it. Is that true?
If we learn to meditate from an experienced teacher who instructs us in a reliable method, and if we follow these instructions correctly, there is no danger at all. Meditation is simply building up good habits of the mind. We do this in a gradual fashion. Thus, doing advanced practices without proper instruction is unwise. If we build up our capabilities gradually, we will be able to progress to more advanced practices without difficulty, and one day will become a Buddha.
Reprinted with permission of the publisher,
Snow Lion Publications. ©2001.
Buddhism for Beginners
by Thubten Chodron.
This user’s guide to Buddhist basics takes the most commonly asked questions—beginning with “What is the essence of the Buddha’s teachings?”—and provides simple answers in plain English. Thubten Chodron’s responses to the questions that always seem to arise among people approaching Buddhism make this an exceptionally complete and accessible introduction—as well as a manual for living a more peaceful, mindful, and satisfying Life. Buddhism for Beginners is an ideal first book on the subject for anyone, but it’s also a wonderful resource for seasoned students, since the question-and-answer format makes it easy to find just the topic you’re looking for.
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About the Author
Bhikshuni Thubten Chodron, an American-born Tibetan Buddhist nun, has studied and practiced Buddhism in India and Nepal since 1975. Ven. Chodron travels worldwide teaching and leading meditation retreats and is known for her clear and practical explanations of the Buddha's teachings. She is the author of Buddhism for Beginners, Working with Anger, Taming The MInd, and Open Heart, Clear Mind. Visit her website at www.thubtenchodron.org.