Buddhism & Meditation Guide

Blogs

10/11/17
Hi welcome!

There are quite a few meanings of the word meditation. The one I like the most is
the Sanskrit word called ‘bhavana’, which means to cultivate. This has, for me, the
connotations of growing plants or trees, which require the essentials of good soil
conditions, water and sunlight, but above all space and time. Trees and plants
generally require space to grow into their potential, and also the patience of time
to help them flourish. For instance, you don’t try and wrench a plant upwards to grow,
because you are getting impatient, but you let it make its own slow upwards ascent
to the sunlight to blossom. Meditation, like plants or trees, also requires good internal
and external conditions, but above all, it requires space and time. It is not a quick fix,
but requires gentle, steady perseverance and dedication to meet its challenges.

One of the greatest hindrances to an effective practice is the hindrance of
doubt. This is not an intellectual doubt, to ascertain whether something is right or
wrong, but an indecisiveness or indecision – an unwillingness to make up one’s
mind. Doubt raises its head in thoughts like, ‘Is the teacher correct in what he or she
is explaining, or you don’t believe that you are someone who can properly meditate –
you are just not cut out for it.’ When these thoughts occur, just realise that this is
doubt manifesting itself, and it should be let go of, and not taken seriously.
As I often tell people, for meditation to have a cumulative effect, it needs to be
a little often, rather than a lot infrequently. In my books, this equates, in the
beginning, to at least a daily ten-minute formal sit, rather than an hour once a week.
Although any meditation is better than nothing, so some people need to start
somewhere, and long or short sits, once in a while just to get them started, seem
initially to be preferable to a daily undertaking.

The main thing I would stress is that you need to try and find enjoyment from the practice.
Enjoyment can come from how we engage a curious interest in the object of focus.
Notice if the breath is quick or slow, easy or laboured, coarse or fine, shallow or deep. Just try and
observe, and realise that it does change and quieten with time, which brings with it
enjoyment and a pleasant peacefulness, amidst, what could seem, an otherwise dull
and distracted meditation. Try and ride the air currents of these moments of
pleasure, which will help sustain your practice.

We are so often in our lives caught up in a multitude and cascade of thoughts.
When we first come to meditation, we bring an idea of our breath as something up
there in our heads. We can quickly lose interest in the breath, because we are so
immersed in our fantasising, planning, judging, analysing or comparing. What we
need to do is with gentle perseverance, to try and become more embodied and in the
breath, rather than being an onlooker of the breath. It requires us to engage with our
direct, felt experience, and being less mediated by our thoughts, concepts or ideas.
This will take practice, but above all be kind to yourself, and don’t be perfectionist
about it! Being perfectionist is definitely not being kind to yourself. As Jon Kabat-Zinn
said about mindfulness,
‘Mindful awareness or mindfulness, arises out of this being mode, when we
learn to pay kindly attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgementally,
to things as they actually are.’

So often in the world, we operate from the doing mode, either one of
achieving or avoidance, rather than in the being mode. The characteristics of the
achieving mode are ‘go get’, wanting, striving and succeeding, while the avoidance
mode is about fight or flight, pushing things away or rejecting what we see are
perceived threats. The doing mode is our default position, and at times when we are
successful, it can trigger the hormone dopamine, which creates buzz, excitement
and vitality in us. The doing mode can also cause anxiety, stress and exhaustion,
when it becomes one-sided in our avoidance strategies, or we crave pleasurable experiences
too many times. The hormone related to these particular unhelpful emotions is called ‘cortisol’.
Both poles of the doing mode have their place in the right context, and should not be
disregarded, at the expense of the being mode.

Through the practice of consistent meditation, you come into a more
harmonious balance with the doing and the being mode. The being mode has the
qualities of kindness, awareness, love and connectedness with life. The hormones
related to the being mode are oxytocin and endorphins. They help relax tensions held in the
body, and calm the mind of its constant mental chatter and worry. The being mode
could be likened to what Buddhists call ‘pure awareness’, which is the much greater
part of who we are.

Meditation helps to put you in a more calm and tranquil state. As the Indian
yogi Tilopa once said, ‘Our minds before we start meditating are like a turbulent
mountain stream, but with a steady and consistent meditation practice they become
more like the gently flowing Ganges.’

So much of our time is spent in the past, regretting past actions, replaying
attractive incidents or troublesome quarrels you might have had or witnessed, or else
it is fantasising about the future, or planning to-do lists, or fretting and worrying about
events to come. So rarely are we actually present in the moment, and not being
dragged to the past or future. This is what meditation helps to teach you, is to be
more alive and awake to the present moment, in its richness, splendour and beauty.
We start tuning into and delighting in simple pleasures, like the soft fabric of clothes
against our skin, the touch of our feet on the ground, or the swirl of vapour from a hot
cup of coffee. All our senses become more alive and alert, and we take life less for
granted, by genuinely operating in a present tense awareness.

The two fundamental meditation practices that I teach are, ‘Mindfulness Meditation’, and a
‘Loving Kindness Meditation’. I can definitely say that these two practices have stood
me in good stead for the last six years of daily practice. It has cultivated the qualities
of awareness, concentration, integration, kindness and compassion in me. I believe it
depends on the person, but I have spent more time on Mindfulness Meditation
than the Loving Kindness Meditation, as to begin with there is a greater need to
develop concentration and integration, than loving kindness, but it definitely depends
on the individual’s temperament.

What do I mean by integration exactly? Well, we are mostly a bundle of
conflicting desires, both unconscious and conscious, which do not have a unified
direction to our life, and this bundle is loosely tied together with the thread of a name
and an address. When we learn to practice mindfulness meditation, we bring
together our disparate and scattered selves, namely our obedient self and our
disobedient self, and all other shades in between, and then bring them into a
harmonious, unified stream of individuality and consciousness. This is what is
commonly termed ‘integration’. See if you can recognise in yourself how you can be
different in personality to your parents, to your friends, and to your teachers or
mentors.

My positive emotional resources were put to the test at the beginning of 2014,
after almost three years of consistent daily practice, when a young student was run
over by a truck. Although, I didn’t see it happening, I heard the thud when they both
collided. She lay helpless on the tarmac, and was beginning to bleed fast. Unlike all
my colleagues on the scene, who were in various degrees of panic, I remained calm
and composed, but still with a strong feeling of concern and compassion towards the
student. I was asked by a student doctor, who was on site at the time and could see
that I would be useful, to cradle her head in my hands, while he tried to unclog her
mouth from the constant pouring of blood. This had no effect in disturbing my
composure, yet every now and then I would send loving thoughts her way. At no time
after the incident was I affected by feelings of grief and loss, and I did not at any time
after the incident require counselling.

This example illustrates the power behind meditation, and the resilience,
calmness and compassion, amongst other things that can be effectively achieved
and developed. I hope, with a steady consistent practice, you will begin to experience
similar fruits that I have found!
Author: Alastair Gamble