Buddhism & Meditation Guide

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16/04/18
In the West with our Judaeo-Christian upbringing and influences, we tend to consider ethics to be dry and dull, or one of dismal piety, but not something that is uplifting and the source of delight and freedom. We have been inculcated with fear and guilt in our Western tradition with the promise of eternal damnation for the unbeliever, and quite a few of us have been left with the remnants of this fear and guilt that still persists in our society today. The tradition in Buddhism is quite the opposite, and ethics are not seen as rules, regulations or commandments that must be complied with, because a book tells us so. Instead Buddhist ethics are seen as training principles or guidelines to be continually practiced and improved upon in a positive spiral. There are two ways of looking at ethics in Buddhism and they are the negative formulation of what we are trying to avoid and abstain from, and there are the positive formulations of what we are trying to move towards.

Buddhist ethics are not to be viewed as a loose and general aspiration, whereby we have a vague wish to want to act kindlier in the world, or lead a simpler life. It needs however to be expressed in specific actions. It requires us to engage in concrete examples of where we can act more ethically and skillfully, and this will take courage and honesty. These actions need to be small steps at first, but over time they can become larger strides.

The aspect of ethics that I have focused on more than any other is generosity. About thirteen years ago I was living in Maidenhead, and I would give a bit more change to the Big Issue seller than the cover price of the paper, and in the beginning, I would mumble a few words. I would find it difficult to stop and properly chat with the person, because I felt I was being judged by those walking by, and I would feel self-conscious. This giving felt on the one hand slightly freeing, yet from another angle I felt anxious and out of my comfort zone, and it took courage to continue down this path. This practice of giving I have sustained and continually increased in measure over the last thirteen years, where now I would have no hesitation in parting with a £10 or on occasions a £20 note, and absorbing myself in a heartfelt and warm exchange with the Big Issue seller, or homeless person. To me this is the inspiring part of the path of constantly improving your skilful behaviour.

The notion of loving-kindness underlies this and all the other precepts. Remember that ethics is always particular to the individual, as it manifests in concrete and specific examples, and what works for one person might not necessarily work for someone else. Each practicing individual will show skillful actions in their own unique way.
As a Buddhist practitioner there are five key precepts to act as training principles. These are as follows:

1. Avoiding killing or harming living beings, and striving to undertake acts of loving kindness.
2. Avoiding taking the not-given, and striving to be generous
3. Avoiding sexual misconduct, and striving for simplicity, stillness and contentment.
4. Avoiding speaking falsely, and striving to communicate truthfully
5. Avoiding taking intoxicants, and striving to become mindfully aware.

What does Point 1 imply in the positive direction. Ultimately it is about feeling love for all sentient beings, and not wanting to harm any of them. This can commonly be seen as the practice of vegetarianism or even veganism, because we realize the sanctity of living, breathing beings, and we want to do our best to honor that. This might take time, and it might be better to take smaller steps in the beginning, like reducing our consumption of meat, and eating more fish, or having more vegetarian meals alongside eating meat. There are various ways you can approach this precept, but realize that you might be working with very strong and powerful internal conditioning.
My situation that I have adopted, since 1993, is that when I am on my own in my flat, I will not eat meat or fish, but I will eat vegan/vegetarian meals. However, when I visit my parents, I accept the meat or fish that they serve me, because I want to maintain harmony in the family, and not upset my parents. I have tried in the past to persuade them to cook me plant-based meals, to no avail, and it would just cause unnecessary tension in the family, which I am not prepared to entertain. The way I see it is that I am a guest in their household, and the food was not specifically prepared for me, but I happen to be partaking in it. This is where ethics gets interesting and becomes alive, and it is definitely not black-and-white. Sometimes you have to use your own judgment and common-sense to assess the situation, and decide how you should proceed. Ethics, as mentioned earlier, are very much particular to the person, their situation and their judgment, and the motivation behind their actions.

With this first precept, we can also relate it to our livelihood that we spend so much of our waking life involved with. We need to consider the jobs or work we undertake, as this is something we can do for the majority of our lives, so it is good if it provides fulfilment and stimulation. There are a few professions which are considered to be disadvantageous for spiritual growth, and for that reason should not be entered into. These being the business of manufacturing, supplying and the utilization of armaments and weaponry, the purveying of deadly poisons, working with the slaughtering of animals in any context, human trafficking and gambling.

For the second precept, I have already talked a little about generosity, and in particular my own experience, yet it is worth mentioning that we should avoid stealing, or more accurately put, ‘to avoid taking the not-given’. This might seem obvious, but if you have ever worked in an office, can you cast your mind back to when you just freely helped yourself to the stationery for your own home purposes, or you decided that it would be quite justified to photocopy an entire personal booklet. Or another example might be acquiring a pirated DVD that you didn’t pay anything for. I think you can see that there are always little things that we have done or do, where we feel entitled to the extra goods, because we have been a loyal and trustworthy employee, or because we don’t earn much, and we feel we deserve that pirated film. We tell ourselves it is perfectly okay, but these are the grey areas in ethics I am talking about, which makes it a much more fascinating topic to go into, and becomes a journey in how we navigate our way in the world in as skillful a manner as possible.

This word skillful is an interesting word. It implies that ethics is about using a skill to become better and more helpful to people and the world around us. It is like a craft, akin to carpentry or ceramics, where we have to shape us into the healthiest and best possible version of ourselves. The limit to being skillful has no ceiling, and we can always do more.

The precept for striving to be more generous is the most important one out of the five, as giving is the gateway to the rest of the spiritual life. It has been said that if you can give, then the whole of the spiritual life will follow from that intention. Giving money is just one part of it. There is also the giving of time, attention and energy, for example really listening to someone, and empathizing with them. There is the practice of imparting education and knowledge to people, and not coveting it for oneself, in order to act superior to others. Fearlessness is another vital aspect of giving. When you show fearlessness, then this creates confidence in those you meet, and makes them feel safe and secure. There is an aspect of generosity that is very rare, which is the giving of one’s life for another being’s sake. There is a story in the Jataka tales, which recounts the previous lives of the Buddha. In one episode, he sacrifices his own life to feed a starving tigress, in order for the animal to provide for her cubs.
Lastly, there is the giving of the Dharma, the teachings of the Buddha that lead from darkness to light. This is seen as the highest form of generosity, which reaps the greatest benefits and happiness for the ones who are giving.

Then there is the third precept, which is about abstaining from sexual misconduct, while striving towards stillness, simplicity and contentment. What do we mean by sexual misconduct exactly? Well things like rape, or non-consensual sex and extra-marital affairs. In terms of rape it is easy to understand why it should be avoided, but in the case of affairs why is there such a problem with this? It rests on the idea that the man or woman’s partner, who is being cheated on, will feel a great deal of anguish and pain, due to her spouse’s deception, and this can yield a great deal of tension and emotional pain in the household, when the lie has been exposed. This can have serious ripple effects and create devastating family divisions. Everyone comes out poorer for it. Children can also be affected by the rupture, if they are part of the picture.
We don’t have to necessarily strive for celibacy, although that might be the ideal path to follow, but we can still enter into sexual relationships. In sexual partnerships, Buddhists do not believe in marriage as a sacramental pact, but instead see relationships working so long as the two partners are in agreement to be a united pair. They are free to disband and leave each other once their set-ups don’t suit anymore. This is seen as quite normal in Buddhist circles. Buddhism also sees polygamous relationships as acceptable, but this is very rare here in the West.

In the positive formulation, we are endeavoring to become more comfortable in ourselves, and finding more contentment and satisfaction in being on our own. This does take time, and in our media and digital obsessed age where we are constantly connected in a virtual way, we will find this positive area quite challenging. In our lives, we need to try and find more wholesome activities to pour our hearts into, like reading books, listening to music, watching good films, appreciating paintings and artwork, enjoying the beauty of nature, or even the delight in experiencing friendships based around common interests, values and ideals. The more we are absorbed in these kinds of activities, the more we can begin to let go of them, from time to time, and immerse ourselves in a general stillness and simplicity.

Just sitting for twenty minutes with a mug of tea and being present to one’s own immediate experience is a way of us tapping into this stillness, simplicity and contentment. It also implies not trying to do too many things at once, and finding contentment in one activity at a time. This could be deciding not to read the paper, while also listening to the radio and eating at the same time. It might be that we focus just on our eating experience at breakfast to the exclusion of other activities. We start becoming more used to monotasking than multitasking, which we can never do with full precision and attention, as our minds only work sequentially rather than in parallel.

In June 2010, when I moved into my flat in Leamington, I discovered the reception for my TV was not very good, and I took this as a sign and an opportunity to discard the watching of TV programmes, and just settle for reading, watching informative Youtube clips, or viewing good films with my DVD player. This meant that I would not use my television as my default crutch, when I got back home after a day’s work. I therefore had to deliberately entertain myself in healthier and more life-affirming activities that were consequently educating or uplifting my mind and heart.

This is not to detract from the viewing of certain educational TV programmes, which can be illuminating, especially when you approach them in the right spirit, and you are selective with what you watch. It is more about the mental state you bring to your involvement. Watching the box can bring you into a passive relationship with the screen, and not something which you are actively engaging your mind and concentration. Instead it acts like a form of escapism, where you switch off from the world around you, and as they say in common parlance, ‘vege out’.

The next precept or training guideline is the abandonment of false speech, and the striving to communicate truthfully. Although it might not be very common for us to tell an outright lie, how often do we find that we are not telling the complete truth to people? We might be doing it to embellish a story to make it sound more exciting to our captivated audience, perhaps with our social drinking buddies. We might be put under pressure at work, and something goes wrong. We find it very difficult to admit blame and responsibility, if we think we are at fault. If the manager says to us that they think someone else is to blame for the fault, then we are normally reluctant to admit the truth that we are really the culprit. Understandably, this can be tricky, because we don’t want to feel that there might be a potential for us to be sacked for our negligence, but at the same time we would like to be honest and confess our actions.

Lastly, there is the issue of psychological and spiritual truth. Do we actually communicate truthfully from our hearts and minds of what is truly going on for us? There are times when it is not appropriate to be completely honest, and discretion and tact will be required. This will be mostly with people who are colleagues, acquaintances and strangers, as they will perceive it as an accusation of their character, and they will naturally become defensive and possibly aggressive towards us. There are other times, especially with close friends, when honesty and clarity is called for to express words of gentle reprimand. These words can be sometimes difficult to speak, and can be problematic for the recipient to hear and accept. This is why it is so vital that there is a firm foundation of trust and mutual respect for these words to be taken in the right spirit. A sensitivity to one’s choice of words has to be paramount for the receiver not to react in a hostile way. This area of truthfulness works best if the two people share the same values and ideals, and are also open enough to receive constructive criticism.

Finally, from the list of precepts there is the avoidance of intoxicants, and the striving to cultivate mindful awareness. This training guideline also blends into shades of grey. The reasons why we avoid intoxicants is that they can cloud our minds and our judgments, and cause us to act unskillfully, both in thought, speech and action. They can also be addictive, and include things like recreational drugs and alcohol primarily, which cause us to be beholden to them.

For some people, recreational drugs can be a doorway into another dimension, and for those who come to Buddhism, drugs have been an access to that other world that they now want to get from meditation instead. They have heard of blissful states of mind and one-pointed concentration, or just more pleasant states of mind than they are currently used to, and they see Buddhism and meditation as their gateway to them.

My experience in my late teens was that I experienced a higher state of consciousness, brought about by my meditation practice of over two hours in length, done on a daily basis. My need for drugs was removed, as I had witnessed realms of bliss and ecstasy, and I knew this could be found through natural as opposed to artificial means. Ultimately, the problem with drugs is their addictive quality. The same can be said of alcohol, which is a legal drug. In this area I have been more relaxed, and in my University years, I would not worry about drinking three or four pints, but I would more than likely not binge, and I would temper the alcohol with pints of water or sugary cans of pop.
Over the years, while my Buddhist practice has deepened, I have cut back significantly on my alcohol intake, and I will only resort to, at the most, a pint of lager in a pub, or a glass of wine with a Sunday meal at my parents’ house. I justify this by seeing that my overall awareness is not impaired by one measure of alcoholic beverage, and I would feel less comfortable, for now, if I became completely tee-total. Some people do not have that luxury of restraint, and one drink will lead to another and then more. This is why they would need to be off drink all together. As I said before ethics is contingent upon the individual, and what works for one person, might not be suitable for somebody else.
Author: Alastair Gamble
16/04/18
For meditation to be effective, we need to apply three aspects that will help us to be fully engaged with the practice. These are enjoyment, interest and a sense of purpose. When all three are in harmony, then meditation can seem like the most effortless task to be involved with. I will now delve into each of them in turn, first looking at enjoyment, then interest and then a sense of purpose.

We all need to find enjoyment in things we do, and this is especially so in meditation. Just like we find enjoyment in reading a good book, or the enjoyment we get when we meet up with a good friend, who we haven’t seen in a long time. We find ourselves effortlessly concentrated in the immersion into a good book, or our communication with our friend, where, in both cases, we can lose track of time.

Like these couple of examples, we need to engage with meditation, so we are aware of seeds of enjoyment. This might be the silk thread of the breath coming in and out of our nostrils amidst an otherwise distracted session. It might be noticing the steady decline in speed and shallowness of the breath, where it consequently becomes slower, richer and deeper in texture. Or we observe the difference in length between the in and out breath. We need to pay attention to these seeds, and nurture them, as if we are flying a hang glider trying to ride the warm air currents, or looking out for the right waves to surf.

We are however not trying to crank up a big feeling of happiness. It’s not about forcing the experience, but allowing it to happen naturally. Most importantly is to keep it simple, and be patient. Try and look for some seeds of enjoyment, however subtle and simple they might be. It’s as if the more you regularly meditate, the more you enjoy those subtle and simple moments. You pay more attention to them, and you allow them to grow in your awareness.

As humans, we can derive great enjoyment from simple pleasures, but we also gain great satisfaction and delight in learning and discovering. With this learning and discovering comes an interest and curiosity, which is vitally important in helping to absorb our attention in the practice. It can become very engaging, when we learn to stay interested in our experience. Meditation gives you a close-up, intimate picture of your mind, and you can notice subtle areas of your experience. This can be whether the breath is shallow or deep, coarse or fine, quick or slow, or laboured or easy. It will of course be on a spectrum between these opposites, but by taking an interest helps to engage you.

All in all, the breath interacts with the totality of your experience, and you can come to learn and discover everything about your energies, your thoughts, your emotions, your intuition and anything else about yourself by remaining curious and interested. This can become a real adventure of the mind! When you realize that you have been distracted by your thoughts, and you return to the breath, it is really helpful to make a brief mental note as to where your mind had wandered to. Try and notice the underlying emotions accompanying those thoughts. Were the emotions one of anxiety, anger, fear or pleasure. This will of course take time to adjust to, and we need not worry if we cannot remember what thoughts were on our minds. If we cannot recollect, then come back to the object of focus, with a kindness and gentleness and without harsh judgment. This exercise of recall needs to happen briefly over several seconds or so.

Lastly, there is a sense of purpose, and by far this is the most important aspect of the three qualities, we bring to bear on meditation. Just like deciding to go to a party to please a friend, even though we don’t enjoy parties, we can set the resolution to do something, like meditating, and stick to it for the time we have allocated ourselves. If your mind keeps on going AWOL, then there’s a good bet that you have lost touch with your reasons for meditating. The feeling of having a sense of purpose, is the opposite of needing motivation to do something. The only way to get over de-motivation is to just do that activity – and in our case, that is sitting on the chair to meditate. Jon Kabat-Zinn the founder of mindfulness in healthcare said, ‘You don’t have to like meditation. You just have to do it.’

Meditation is fundamentally an art or a collection of skills that you bring to bear to produce something delightful and harmonious. What you create is an inner artwork, a state of mind where you are acting at your best, with all your energies and awareness flowing in a unified stream. Some of the most crucial skills in this are the finding of enjoyment, the development of interest, and keeping in touch with a strong sense of purpose. When all three are well developed then meditation can seem like the most natural activity in the world.
Author: Alastair Gamble
26/03/18
People often think that to do meditation, you need to be sat on the floor or on cushions cross-legged. For those of us who are very supple and flexible in the hips, then this might be a realistic option, but generally in the West, due to our conditioning, we need more comfortable arrangements like sitting on a chair. We can still get into concentrated states of mind, and have the meditation work for us seated on a chair. Although I tend to alternate between kneeling with the aid of a stool under a padded mat, and sitting on a chair, as it gives my knees and ankles a rest.

What is important in the posture you establish, is to allow the spine to follow its natural curves, free from muscular strain or tension. I will teach you the principles of meditation, on the basis of using a chair. A straight-backed dining room chair is the most preferable. Keep your upper and if possible your lower back away from the back rest, and have both your feet planted firmly on the floor. If they do not reach the floor, then use a firm cushion or yoga block to give them support. Keep your chest open and your shoulders relaxed. Let your shoulders drop down, and surrender your body to the invisible force of gravity, while maintaining an upright spine. Between your backside and the bend of the chair you could have a rolled-up towel or cushion to give extra support.

Looking at your back sideways on, the lower back should not be overarching, because the pelvis is tilting forwards. This is more akin to a sergeant major style arrangement. Neither should the pelvis roll backwards, so your back and shoulders round, so you end up slouching. The correct posture should be somewhere in the middle of these two extremes.

It is a good idea to rock your pelvis backwards and forwards, until you find a natural equilibrium. Another thing to mention is your jaw, and that you should unclench your teeth, and have the tongue lightly pressing against the upper teeth and the palate or roof of the mouth. You should also keep the crown of your head high, and your chin tucked in slightly. You will undoubtedly have to make slight or even major adjustments to your posture throughout the sit, as your body will naturally fall downwards, due to the weight of gravity. Ultimately, you are looking to achieve three qualities in your posture – an alertness, comfortability and relaxation.
Author: Alastair Gamble
24/03/18
I will explain the practice of the mindfulness meditation, or more technically put the ‘Mindfulness of Body Breath meditation’. What we are trying to develop in this meditation is an integration, a focus and concentration. It is broken down into three stages, which get cumulatively more focused, subtle and refined.

The first stage is to gently bring attention to the breath coming in and out of our lungs. Feel both the lungs expanding and contracting with the breath, and maintain an awareness of the air flowing in and out of the lungs from your nose. Not if but when you get distracted, bring your awareness kindly back to the object of focus. The real awareness comes when you realize you are distracted, and gently turn towards the breath again without harsh judgment. These should be seen as magic moments, and they should be inwardly celebrated. This is the real work in meditation, and not how long you can spend concentrated on the breath without being interrupted by distractions, as good as that might at first appear to be.

People have a picture that they should try and block all thoughts from their mind, while they are meditating, but this is counterproductive, and will only lead to mental strain and dullness, and not calm and stillness. Your mind, to begin with, will be like a wild horse, completely untamed and unruly. To try and wrench it back to its focus will just make it more wild and unruly. The mind does not respond well to coercion. It is good to allow all of your physical, mental, emotional and intuitive experience to unfold, but keep coming back to the breath in a kind and gentle way, when experiencing your magic moments of awareness. It is unhelpful to judge yourself critically, or judge the judgments you are making, although it is natural for people to do so in the beginning, so be patient with yourself. With time, you will also begin to let go of negative judgments, but this will require a continuing gentle perseverance. The loving kindness meditation develops this kind and compassionate response to ourselves and others, which we are so desperately in need of in our society today.

In the second stage of the mindfulness meditation, you bring your awareness lower down into the lower abdomen, and like before you become aware of the swelling and subsiding with the in and out breath. This stage requires a slightly more focused attention than the previous stage. Stay curious and interested with how your breath is manifesting. The breath is always a barometer of our physical, emotional and mental landscape. It might well be that your breath is laboured, quick, shallow, coarse and noisy. This is generally a reflection of what is going on for you in your life currently, and your state of mind. Notice how, eventually and without forcing the breath, it will become calmer in texture and deeper and slower. Noticing this change is like experiencing a pleasant peacefulness, which is enjoyable. We need to learn to ride these air currents, like flying a hang glider, to find wherever sources of enjoyment occur.

The third and last stage brings your focus now on an even more specific part of the body, namely the tip of the nostrils, or the upper lip – depending on whether you are breathing through your nose or mouth. It is advisable to breathe through your nose, as this involves a deeper belly breathing, which is healthier for us. You gradually become aware of the subtle play of breath, as it first enters and last leaves the body, and place your attention solely on this point. You still need to maintain a looseness and not be too rigid in trying to find an exact point. For a long time, this will be a localized area around the nostrils. Try and maintain a delicate, but minutely observed awareness around this area, and see if you can notice very subtle sensations, like the caressing of air over the skin at that specific zone. An analogy which has often been used in the Buddhist world is that of a carpenter sawing wood. He does not focus on the saw moving back and forth, but instead concentrates on the spot where the saw's teeth are cutting into the wood. Above all maintaining your curiosity and interest, will lead into an accompanying enjoyment of the practice.

This last stage leads your mind into deeper levels of concentration. This is because there is a dynamic interplay between your awareness and breathing. To experience the delicate sensations of the breathing you need to pay closer attention, and that greater attentiveness changes your breathing pattern. Your breath will most likely become more refined, which means the sensations of the breath become more delicate, which in turn causes you to concentrate more. This creates a ‘virtuous circle’, in which increased concentration leads to more exquisitely delicate sensations, which in turn require your concentration to be even better attuned. In this way when the practice goes well a dance unfolds between your breath and awareness leading each other into more refined realms of experience.

Once you have finished the practice try and avoid jumping up off the chair, and rushing to do the next thing. Take two or three minutes to keep sitting on the chair, and let go of any effort you have been making. Become aware of the sounds around you, and then open your eyes and take in what is in front of you. Meditation normally puts you in a slightly altered state of consciousness, so it is good to be gentle and gradual with how you adjust to the everyday world again. If it’s possible try and do something still and mindful, after getting up from your chair. Perhaps gaze out the window, or silently make a cup of tea for yourself. The main point is to try and absorb the effects of the meditation into the rest of your day. It does not need to be long, just five minutes or so. The same preparation could be practiced for beginning a sit, and it only needs to be five or ten minutes of relative stillness and inactivity, to mentally adjust to the practice of meditation.
Author: Alastair Gamble
21/03/18
The three principles of meditation practice are:

1. Letting go and relaxing – not controlling the breath
2. Engaging directly with experience – being the breath
3. Freshness and Beginner’s mind – seeing each breath as new

I will now begin to explain each of them in turn, so commencing with ‘Letting go and relaxing – not controlling the breath’. When we first start to meditate, we often form judgements about how the breathing is progressing. If it is uneven, shallow and quick, we can often try and force our breathing to slow down and deepen, because it doesn’t fit in with our notions of what we would expect. We therefore try and control the breath, and force it to cooperate with our desires for smoothness and depth.
This is above all not helpful, and can cause us to feel mental strain and pressure, thereby undermining our possibility of getting involved with the sit. There are yoga practices and chi kung exercises, which try and control the breath, but for our purposes we let the breath and the wisdom of the body do its own work, and we therefore let us be steered by its flow. The breath has been around with us before we could remember, and so it’s an adult, like us. We should not be nannyish and try and control it. The breath does not respond well to coercion, but instead we should go with its natural flow and rhythm.

The second principle is ‘Engaging directly with experience – being the breath’. There is a distinct quality that would characterize twenty-first century living, and that is ‘alienation’. It’s as if we are in our heads a lot of the time, and not very often in our bodies. You could say we have dragon’s heads, so full of ideas, opinions, beliefs and views and under-developed physiques, like that of a snake’s body.

When we are approaching the breath, we come to it with ideas about the breath. It’s as if we are an onlooker or passive observer, and that we are noticing the breath from up in our heads, or looking at the breath ‘down there’.

What we are trying to do is close the gap between ourselves and the experience of the breath. This might take some time, but if you acknowledge the direction you are wanting to go in, then before long you will be able to narrow the space between your views and the direct experience of the flow of air in your body – eventually being the breath.

The third principle is ‘Freshness and Beginner’s mind – seeing each breath as new’. In Zen Buddhism there is a concept called ‘Beginner’s mind’, which implies that when you are a beginner you come to new experiences with an open mind, and you are totally open to new possibilities and potentials. You do not know where something will lead, and you are willing to explore your experience without judgements with how it will progress. It has been said that in the expert’s mind there are few possibilities, and in the beginner’s mind there are many.’

It is important for anyone approaching meditation, especially those who have practiced for a while, to be open to new experiences, and to not feel constrained by views. It is important to see each breath as new, as there will never be two breaths the same. If you can adopt this attitude of beginner’s mind and freshness to each new experience in the meditation, you will never take your meditation for granted, and you will find greater vitality and enjoyment. Just as a shipwreck survivor, after the tragedy, will savour each lungful of air that they take in – grateful that they are still alive - so we should try and treasure the uniqueness of each moment of the breath.
Author: Alastair Gamble
15/03/18
The loving kindness meditation is split into five stages, but the most important thing to start off with, before the five stages, is to get in touch with how you are feeling. If you are feeling angry, anxious or fearful with an event that has happened, then acknowledge that. Turn towards that anxiety, resentment, anger or fear. Then in the first stage we start with bringing loving kindness to ourselves. This can be for some the most difficult, especially for those in the West. A lot of people have low self-esteem and judge themselves critically with a harsh inner voice bellowing down at them. If this fits your description, then in the first stage you could start off the practice, by bringing to mind a good friend. Think that your friend would undoubtedly say appreciative things about you, and they would also feel warmly disposed towards you. Try and contact that feeling. If you try this approach, and you really don’t believe that your friend would say good things about you, then instead imagine bringing to mind a very wise and kind person - perhaps someone in history or someone alive today in the world. Try and feel what it would be like if their kindly gaze were to meet yours. They would not judge you at all, but they would be totally open and loving to you, accepting all your hopes, aspirations, fears and struggles, but also seeing the potential in you as an individual. They would only want you to be truly happy and free from suffering.

For those of you, who have a modicum of self-respect, then you could bring to mind occasions in your life, when you felt buoyant and joyful. This could either be on holiday somewhere, where you felt calm and relatively content, or perhaps you had a deep and meaningful conversation with a good friend, who you had not seen in a long while, that was engaging and enlivening. Try and contact that specific feeling, and rest with it, gently trying to nurture it. Don’t just stick with one image, but try mixing it up with different memories of your life. It could also be how you engaged with a good book, or the smile you flashed at a stranger in the street, which was willingly reciprocated.
Try not to treat these positive emotions like a tube of paste. You are not trying to squeeze out loving kindness from your heart, or pump up a feeling of love. You need to be patient with yourself, and let it unfold naturally and organically with time.

It can help to say affirmations or positive phrases silently to yourself like,

‘May I/you be well.’
‘May I/you be happy.’
‘May I/you have ease of being.’
‘May I/you realise my highest potential.’

You can invent your own phrases if you like, but these are the standard ones you can adopt, if no others spring to mind.

In the second stage, you call to mind a good friend. This should be someone who you are not sexually attracted to, someone near enough your own age, give or take ten to fifteen years, so they are not seen as either a parent or child figure to you. Lastly, they should be someone who is still alive, as all these conditions are tainted with complications, and could spoil the loving kindness you are trying to engender, at least in the beginning of your practice.

There are a few ways you can bring the friend to life, and this can apply to the other stages as well. These are as follows:

1. Name
2. Their voice
3. Things or places associated with them
4. Characteristic mannerisms
5. A mental picture of them
6. A sense of their presence

Again you imagine times spent with your friend that were happy and enjoyable, or you experienced adventures that brought you together, and created a tighter bond between you both. Try and wish your friend to be truly happy and contented, and inwardly say to yourself the phrases that I mentioned to you before, May you be well, May you be happy, and so on. Allow yourself to experience a pause between each phrase, really contemplating the meaning of each of them. You are not trying to repeat the phrases mechanically or robotically, but instead giving a sense of justice and openness with each one. At the same time don’t overdo the space between them. There really needs to be a fine balance, and use your better judgment as to what seems right.

In the third stage, you call to mind a neutral person, someone you don’t like or dislike. This should be someone who you are familiar with, and perhaps you converse with, from time to time. They could be someone who works in a coffee shop you frequent, or the person you pass by in the park, while walking your dog in the morning, or it could be the secretary at work, who you don’t speak to much, because you are not very interested in her. The neutral person does not necessarily have to be someone you feel completely neutral towards. There could be a slightly lukewarm response towards that individual, or, on occasions, there could even be a friendly exchange between both of you. Either way, it would be someone who you would not classify as a friend – at least just yet. Again, in this stage, like all the stages, it is helpful to say the positive phrases to yourself.
Sometimes even by conjuring a clear mental picture of them in your mind, is not enough to establish an empathy with the neutral person. With this in mind, you could be made aware of three things which could develop greater empathy and connection between you both.

Firstly, there is the quality of imagining them living their life. Imagine how they would feel, by finishing their day’s work, and then putting their feet up at home, and relaxing with a good book in their hands. It helps if you work with your imagination, and feel free to completely make up scenarios to help with contacting a feeling of care, concern and loving kindness. Although, try not to get side-tracked with interesting imaginary situations, as the main point of it is to cultivate loving kindness for that individual. Secondly, you could appreciate their qualities. It could be a secretary, who if you look closely, is always reliable, courteous and efficient in her job, yet remains unassuming – also a positive attribute. Lastly, there is the sharing of our common humanity, what Confucius calls ‘jen’ or human-heartedness. We are all breathing air every minute of the day, and our hearts are constantly pumping blood around our bodies. On a deeply existential level, we are all getting older, and one day we must all die. We are all trying to find ways to be happy, and we are all trying to avoid suffering as best as we can. These are our fundamental processes and drives that we all share, and these can all give us a gateway into experiencing love for the neutral person and also the difficult person, who we will move onto next.

So, in the fourth stage, we call to mind a difficult person. This should not be someone we totally despise, and who potentially could have ruined our life, but instead, for now, it should be someone who irritates or frustrates you. It should not be a historical figure, or someone you have seen on the TV, but instead someone who has played a part in your life, at one time or another. If you really think you have no-one who irritates you, then try putting a relative or in-law into your practice.

See that the difficult person is not a two-dimensional character, and although he or she has annoyed you in the past, these characteristics are not what defines them. Instead these foibles are just a small part of the rich tapestry that makes them who they are, and like anyone else they will have their redeeming features with other colleagues, friends or family. What we have to realise is our minds obsess with the injury that they have caused us, and we cannot see past the hurt they have inflicted.

What is best when bringing to mind loving kindness for a difficult person, is to turn towards the anger that surfaces, and try not to ignore, block or suppress it, but allow yourself to experience the anger, without feeding it, or trying to indulge it. Then when feeling the anger, say the positive phrases or affirmations, while having the image of your difficult person in your mind. This can be difficult to experience, and will probably go counter to your pride, but remember that doesn’t he or she deserve loving kindness, just as much as the next person. Remember again the common humanity you both share. This will hopefully help, with time, to dispel your deep-seated pride, you have with this person.

In the fifth and last stage, you bring all four of you together in your mind. I quite often picture all four of us sitting around a circular table, outdoors in a sunlit garden. A circle seems befitting of the love we are trying to manifest, as it is a harmonious, inclusive arrangement. Try and equalise your loving kindness to all four of you, and don’t dwell too long on the four of you in this stage, but then either geographically or emotionally call to mind those people, who live on the street you are on. Again, like before, wish these people well, and bring in the positive phrases. Then move out in ever widening circles, to take in the village, town or city you live in, before reaching out to everyone in the whole country, and then the rest of the globe. Each session you do this, you could extend your well-wishing and loving kindness to different areas of the globe. Also, you don’t need to restrict yourself to those who are human, but you can include animals as well. Whatever comes into your field of vision and rays of warmth.

End the practice, by taking a few minutes in stillness, to acclimatize back to the ordinary everyday world. Before opening your eyes, take in the sounds around you, both inside and outside the house, without your awareness flying out to the external sounds, but with you being embodied, and letting the sounds come into your awareness. Then gently open your eyes, and take a minute to adjust your gaze to what’s in front of you, and then calmly get up from your seating position.
Author: Alastair Gamble
15/03/18
When calling to mind a difficult person, we need to learn to detach the emotion which we have become aware from the person towards whom we are feeling it. Success in meditation comes from how pliant one’s mind can be in this respect. You probably won’t be able to do it straightaway, and it will take quite a bit of practice. This is the most challenging with the difficult person, when we try and maintain feelings of loving-kindness to someone who we perceive is intent on doing us harm. The method of loving-kindness meditation is to coax the habitual reactive mind into the first glimmerings of positive emotions and thoughts directed to real individuals with all their virtues and failings, and who play a walk-on part in our lives. However sooner or later you will have to detach these positive emotions from their object, and over time it will come to depend less and less on the object and will therefore rely more and more on itself. It is no less an emotion, but it is less dependent on particular persons. You feel the same loving-kindness towards the friend as you do towards the difficult person.

The loving-kindness meditation practice is not about annihilation of your negative emotions, but a transformation of them. Our aim is not to obliterate our unhelpful emotions, but instead to redirect them. There is energy in anger, and if we are to transform then we need to release all our energies in line with our goal of nirvana, both our positive and also our negative energies as well. Rather than suppress our negative emotions when we can, and allowing them to run riot when we can’t; the aim is to transform the energy in them, and thereby integrate them into our positive emotions, making our positive emotions stronger.

Shantideva, an eighth century bodhisattva, or Buddha-to-be wrote that we don’t just get angry with no cause or condition, but instead we are dependent on various conditioning factors to be in place, which we have no conscious control over, in order for us to get angry and resentful in the first place. A person does not get angry at will, saying, ‘I will get angry now’. Anger arises owing to factors outside our conscious control, and the anger with which we respond with anger is also irrational. Anger and hatred are states of suffering that only lead to further distress and pain, so there is nothing to be gained from perpetuating them.

Our reasoning mind understands this concept, but our emotions are a much more powerful force to be reckoned with. It is easy to talk about feeling ill-will, and turning it into love, but it is not at all easy to bring about this transformation. If the kind of reasoning that Shantideva proposes is to be successful, then we need to ensure that all our emotions are lined up behind our spiritual aspirations. If they aren’t, then anger or hatred will make their presence felt in a way that obstructs those aspirations, in the guise of righteous indignation for example. We may then start not to be able to develop loving-kindness for our enemies.

With the difficult person, you often dwell on the injury that they have caused you, and you obsess with this hurt. Try and see or imagine their attractive qualities that they possess, or some mitigating factor that you have overlooked. Like the reason why they turn up late to work is because they are devoted to their family, and this takes time for them in the morning. You focus on their positive human qualities, or at least the problems they face. At the very least, you can ponder that they are not always causing injurious actions to everyone. In this way, you learn to paddle against the current of your ill-will.

Another way is to recognise their common shared humanity. They are getting older like you, and from an existential point of view they will have to die some day just like you. Also, their hearts are pumping blood all around their bodies every minute of their lives, just like you.

Although in a sense loving-kindness is the rational response to reality, in the end it is produced without cause or justification. When we practise the loving-kindness meditation, our feelings of goodwill do not arise out of anything they might have said or done. We simply wish them well. If it were otherwise, then loving-kindness would be no more than a psychological thing, coming and going on who we bring to mind at any one time. As a spiritual quality, loving-kindness is not a qualification or condition that is meted out on whom is deserving of it. In this stage with a difficult person, you are not trying to change your opinion of that person, but instead you are endeavouring to strengthen your loving-kindness towards that individual. If it is genuine then you will not be disturbed by your thinking of an enemy.

Loving-kindness is a challenge, and as such it is an attempt to reverse our usual way of experiencing the world and ourselves. A great deal of our latent tendency towards ill-will stems from our early conditioning from home and school life. Those whose lives are comparatively untroubled are more straightforward, open and receptive than those whose lives have been difficult, to say the least, and can be seen to be suspicious, reserved and wary. In trying to cultivate loving-kindness we should recognise that we are swimming against the current of our human nature, which has evolved over millions of years from our animal origins. The tendency to feel hatred, even to those who pose no threat, comes all too easily to us. Although, we should try not to feel discouraged by the challenge we face, and for a long while we will be developing something more akin to ordinary friendliness, which is very valuable in itself, than what we will eventually develop if we persist with the practice, that of true and genuine loving-kindness.
Author: Alastair Gamble
15/03/18
The middle way is a key principle of the Buddha’s exposition. In a metaphysical sense reality is seen as the middle way between eternalism or absolutism and nihilism. What we mean by eternalism is a state of mind where you believe that you will live forever in an afterlife for eternity. It could also mean a belief that you transmigrate from body to body, as though you have an underlying unchanging entity, like a soul; each time slipping into a different suit, as it were, but with your character remaining solid, fixed and unchanging. On the other hand, you could have the view of nihilism, where you believe that at death there is just oblivion and annihilation. You believe that matter is the only defining criteria, and nothing else – no spirit, no soul or no essence that ceaselessly continues from life to life.

The Buddha taught the middle way of rebirth where we are subject to change, and one’s habitual tendencies and formations get repeatedly reborn into a new bodily form, but with no inherent unchanging fixed self. This means that we have the potential to grow and develop into fully awakened beings. The Buddha said that if you were to hold one of the extremes of eternalism or nihilism, then it would be more beneficial and more wholesome to believe in the idea of eternalism than nihilism, as this would encourage a positive outlook to the world, and would be less likely to result in a hedonistic lifestyle, believing nothing ultimately mattered, as it would all end at death - the view of nihilism.
In terms of lifestyle, the middle way can be seen as acting between self-indulgence and self-mortification. Both these extremes are unhelpful, and the real answer is spiritual discipline and a patient endurance with all circumstances, which is the true sense of the way the word ascetism is used, and not as an exercise in self-flagellation.
The middle way can also define a middle ground between fate and destiny at one end of the extreme, and everything happening by chance at the other end of the extreme. The reality is treading a middle way between these polar opposites, and therefore it cannot be categorised and labelled. It is ultimately ineffable and also wondrous.
Author: Alastair Gamble
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