The purpose of meditation is to cultivate those states of mind that are conducive to peace and well-being, and to eradicate those that are not. If we examine our life we will discover that most of our time and energy is devoted to mundane activities, such as seeking material and emotional security, enjoying sensory pleasures, or establishing a good reputation. Although these things can make us happy for a short time, they are not able to provide the deep lasting contentment that we long for. Sooner or later our happiness turns into dissatisfaction, and we find ourselves engaged in the pursuit of more worldly pleasures.
Directly or indirectly, worldly pleasures cause us mental and physical suffering by stimulating attachment, jealousy, and frustration. Moreover, seeking to fulfill our own desires often bring us into conflict with others. If true fulfillment cannot be found in worldly pleasures, then where can it be found? Happiness is a state of mind, therefore the real source of happiness lies in the mind, not in external circumstances. If our mind is pure and peaceful we will be happy, regardless of our external conditions, but if it is impure and unpeaceful, we will never find happiness, no matter how much we try to change our external conditions.
The method to make our mind pure and peaceful is to train in meditation. Meditation is a method for acquainting our mind with virtue. The more familiar our mind is with virtue, the calmer and more peaceful it becomes. When our mind is peaceful we are free from worries and mental discomfort, and we experience true happiness.
If we train our mind to become peaceful we will be happy all the time, even in the most adverse conditions. But if our mind is not peaceful, even if we have the most pleasant external conditions we will not be happy. Therefore it is important to train our mind through meditation. There are two types of meditation: analytical meditation and placement meditation. When we contemplate the meaning of a Dharma instruction that we have heard or read we are doing analytical meditation. By deeply contemplating the instruction, eventually we reach a conclusion or cause a specific virtuous state of mind to arise. This is the object of placement meditation.
Meditation is a method for acquainting our mind with virtue.
The more familiar our mind is with virtue, the calmer and more peaceful it becomes. When our mind is peaceful we are free from worries and mental discomfort, and we experience true happiness. If we train our mind to become peaceful we will be happy all the time, even in the most adverse conditions. But if our mind is not peaceful, even if we have the most pleasant external conditions we will not be happy.
Therefore it is important to train our mind through meditation. There are two types of meditation: analytical meditation and placement meditation. When we contemplate the meaning of a Dharma instruction that we have heard or read we are doing analytical meditation. By deeply contemplating the instruction, eventually we reach a conclusion or cause a specific virtuous state of mind to arise. This is the object of placement meditation.
The first stage of meditation is to stop distractions and make our mind clearer and more lucid. This can be accomplished by practising a simple breathing meditaton. We choose a quiet place to meditate and sit in a comfortable position. We can sit in the traditional cross-legged posture or in any other position that is comfortable. If we wish, we can sit on a chair. The most important thing is to keep our back straight to prevent our mind becoming sluggish or sleepy.
We sit with our eye partially closed and turn our attention to our breathing. We breath naturally, preferably through the nostrils, without attempting to control our breath, and we try to become aware of the sensation of the breath as it enters and leaves nostrils. This sensation is our object of meditation. We should try to concentrate on it to the exclusion of everything else.
At first our mind will be very busy, and we might even feel that the meditation is making our mind busier; but in reality we are just becoming more aware of how busy our mind actually is. There will be a great temptation to follow the different thoughts as they arise, but we should resist this and remain focused single-pointedly on the sensation of the breath. If we discover that our mind has wondered and is following our thoughts, we should immediately return it to the breath. We should repeat this as many times as necessary until the mind settles on the breath.
If we practice patiently in the way explained in the last section, gradually our distracting thoughts will subside and we will experience a sense of inner peace and relaxation. Our mind will feel lucid and spacious and we will feel refreshed. When the sea is rough, sediment is churned up and the water becomes murky, but when the wind dies down the mud gradually settles and the water becomes clear. In a similar way, when the otherwise incessant flow of our distracting thoughts is calmed through concentrating on the breath, our mind becomes unusually lucid and clear.
We should stay with this state of mental calm for a while. Even though breathing meditation is only a preliminary stage of meditation, it can be quite powerful. We can see from this practice that it is possible to experience inner peace and contentment just by controlling the mind, without having to depend at all upon external conditions. When the turbulence of distracting thoughts subsides and our mind becomes still, a deep happiness and contentment naturally arises from within.
This feeling of contentment and well-being helps us to cope with the busyness and difficulties of daily life. So much of the stress and tension we normally experience comes from our mind, and many of the problems we experience, including ill health, are caused or aggravated by this stress. Just by doing breathing meditation for ten or fifteen minutes each day, we will be able to reduce this stress. We will experience a calm, spacious feeling in the mind, and many of our usual problems will fall away. Difficult situations will become easier to deal with, we will naturally feel warm and well disposed towards other people, and our relationships with others will gradually improve. We should train in this preliminary meditation until we gain some experience of it.
However, if we want to attain permanent, unchanging inner peace, and if we want to become completely free from problems and suffering, we need to advance beyond simple breathing meditation to more practical forms of meditation, such as the cycle of twenty-one Lamrim meditations explained in The New Meditation Handbook. When we do these meditations, we begin by calming the mind with breathing meditation, and then we proceed to the stages of analytical and placement meditation according to the specific instructions for each meditation.
Sitting in Meditation
When we practice meditation we need to have a comfortable seat and a good posture. The most important feature of the posture is to keep our back straight. To help us do this, if we are sitting on a cushion we make sure that the back of the cushion is slightly higher than the front, inclining our pelvis slightly forward. It is not necessary at first to sit cross-legged, but it is a good idea to become accustomed to sitting in the good posture either on a cushion or on a chair.
In The New Meditation Handbook, Geshe Kelsang Gyatso explains that we all have the potential to gain realizations in meditation:
These potentials are like seeds in the field of our mind, and our meditation practice is like cultivating these seeds. However, our meditation practice will be successful only if we make good preparations beforehand. If we want to cultivate external crops we begin by making careful preparations.
First, we remove from the soil anything that might obstruct their growth, such as stones and weeds. Second, we enrich the soil with compost or fertilizer to give it the strength to sustain growth. Third, we provide warm, moist conditions to enable the seeds to germinate and the plants to grow. In the same way, to cultivate our inner crops of Dharma realizations we must also begin by making careful preparations.
First, we must purify our mind to eliminate the negative karma we have accumulated in the past, because if we do not purify this karma it will obstruct the growth of Dharma realizations. Second, we need to give our mind the strength to support the growth of Dharma realizations by accumulating merit. Third, we need to activate and sustain the growth of Dharma realizations by receiving the blessings of the holy beings.
It is very important to receive blessings. For example, if we are growing outer crops, even if we remove the weeds and fertilize the soil we shall not be able to grow anything if we do not provide warmth and moisture. These germinate the seeds, sustain the growth of the plants, and finally ripen the crop. In the same way, even if we purify our mind and accumulate merit we shall find it difficult to meet with success in our meditations if we do not receive the blessings of the holy beings. Receiving blessings transforms our mind by activating our virtuous potentials, sustaining the growth of our Dharma realizations, and bringing our Dharma practice to completion.
From this we can see that there are three essential preparations for successful meditation: purifying negativities, accumulating merit, and receiving blessings. If you like, you can engage in these preparatory practices by reciting the sadhana Prayers for Meditation.
Sometimes it is helpful to do a meditation retreat.
This can just be one day, or a weekend, or longer if you have the time. On retreat we stop all forms of business and extraneous activities in order to emphasize a particular spiritual practice. There are three kinds of retreat: physical, verbal, and mental. We engage in physical retreat when, with a spiritual motivation, we isolate ourselves from other people, activities, and noise, and disengage from extraneous and meaningless actions
We engage in verbal retreat when, with a spiritual motivation, we refrain from meaningless talk and periodically keep silence. We engage in mental retreat by preventing distractions and strong delusions such as attachment, anger, jealousy, and strong ignorance from arising, and by maintaining mindfulness and conscientiousness. If we remain in physical and verbal retreat but fail to observe mental retreat our retreat will have little power. Such a retreat may be relaxing, but if we do not prevent strong delusions from arising our mind will not be at peace, even on retreat. However, keeping physical and verbal retreat will help us to keep mental retreat.
A schedule for a meditation retreat can be found in The New Meditation Handbook.