TEACH YOURSELF MEDITATION
Excerpted with permission from Teach Yourself Meditation by Naomi Ozaniec (Teach Yourself Books Series).
Chapter 1. Beginning - The First Step
Meditation begins with sila which is virtue or moral purity.
Daniel Goleman, The Meditative Mind
It is wisely said that the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, so let us begin. Your journey towards meditation will take shape as you find yourself this very day. This path will be built within your life as you find it now. The practice of meditation will arise from your own needs, aspirations and intentions. The life that is yours today, is like a seed-bed in which you have chosen to plant the possibility of meditation. Your behaviour, attitudes, values and commitment will determine whether this seed dies or flourishes. People come to meditation for many differing reasons. It can begin out of curiosity, or as a dimly felt need. It can commence as a purely intellectual interest or an antidote to stress. It is sometimes triggered by a crisis. More often it the end result of a long process of discontent and dissatisfaction with the goals offered by society. It is possible to be successful, financially independent, surrounded by the trappings of family and career and yet still feel empty. Some people just have an instinctive feeling that there is more to life than just a succession of experiences.
From the outset it should be understood that meditation touches the whole life and the whole person. Therefore the first step towards meditation consists in taking stock of the person we are today, of the life we have today, of the whole situation in which we find ourselves. This is no idle suggestion but a serious request and an opportunity to build your future meditation practice on a firm foundation. Please, take some time for personal reflection. What factors have led you towards meditation?' What hopes and expectations do you have? Do you feel ready to plant the seed of meditation in your life? Are you willing to be changed through meditation?
We should not forget that meditation has always been part of a wider spiritual life. Meditation is a an integral aspect of all Buddhist and Yogic practice. Taking the practice out of its wider context is not without difficulties. By contrast, meditation remains undeveloped in theory and practice within mainstream Western spirituality. Despite the fact that we find relatively few deep cultural hooks to which we may attach practice, we seek meditation with sincere heart and genuine need. We may profitably look to the older, long established traditions of the East while at the same time bearing our own cultural and spiritual circumstances in mind. This particular period offers great opportunities. Meditation is not static but dynamic. The West has its own needs. Recognising and meeting our needs may legitimately give rise to new forms of ancient principles. Meditation can take many forms as history shows. Through time, practice has evolved as enlightened teachers have arisen and nourished the tradition which nourished them. There can be do doubt that meditation is a living stream. The West may drink deeply here too.
It is valuable to understand the origins and developments of the great spiritual traditions of the world. Buddhism which now has several forms began with the life of Prince Siddhartha Gautama son to king Shuddhona and Queen Mahamaya. Wise men were consulted to explain a dream received by the queen. It was foretold that the child could either become a great universal monarch, or a great religious teacher. His father, the king determined that his son should pursue the life of the world. He created a fabulous world of pleasure and plenty to occupy the prince. Time passed, Siddhartha grew, married and had a son. But he longed to see beyond the palace. Despite every intent, the king could not prevent the curious Siddhartha from seeing the real world. For the first time, Siddhartha encountered death, sickness and old age. He was deeply moved and shocked. On a fourth outing, Siddhartha met a wandering holy man and saw a new possibility. Though he returned to his palace, his thoughts now turned to leaving the life of plenty. Finally he left for the world and undertook the great quest. He passed some six years and mastered the spiritual practices of his time. He learned concentration and followed the path of extreme asceticism. But he knew that liberation still eluded him. Determined to find enlightenment he settled into meditation beneath the shade of a tree. With each hour of the night came revelation. By dawn he had attained enlightenment. He thought, "I have attained the unborn. My liberation is unassailable. This is my last birth. There will now be no more renewal of becoming." He was transformed from the man, Siddhartha Gautama to the Buddha, 'One who is Awake.' The prophecy of the wise men was set in motion.
Details of the birth of Patanjali are more legendary than factual. A devout woman, Gonika prayed for a worthy son. At the same time, Adisesa, Lord of Serpents, bearer to the God Vishnu, began to meditate on who would become his earthly mother. In meditation Adisesa saw the figure of Gonika. In her world, Gonika meditated upon the sun and as she did so a tiny snake emerged on her palm and immediately was transformed into a human who asked to become her son. Gonika was delighted. She named him Patanjali. Pata means 'fallen' and Anjali means 'hands folded in prayer.' Even though it has been suggested that the 196 Aphorisms attributed to him are in fact the collected works of more than one author, Patanjali is always referred to as svayambhu, an evolved soul who incarnated in order to help humanity. These uncertain details need not detract from the wisdom to be found in the Yoga Sutras which open with a code of conduct and close with a vision of man's true nature.
At this point we may profitably look at the principles which sustain Buddhist and Yogic practice. Both the Noble Eightfold Path of Buddhism and the Eight Limbs of Yoga provide a context in which meditation can take root. If we do not set meditation within the context of a whole life, we make the fundamental mistake of believing that we can simply add practice to daily live without truly making the space to incorporate and integrate its effects. There is some noteworthy similarity between The Noble Eightfold Path and The Eight Limbs of Yoga. In each case a moral framework precedes meditation practice. Both traditions establish clear moral ground rules which cover behaviour in all forms, social, moral and ethical. Buddhism sets out the Five Precepts: killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying and taking intoxicants are expressly forbidden. Yoga commences with the Five Yamas: non-violence or non injury, truthfulness, not stealing, chastity and non acquisitiveness. Both traditions build the practice of meditation upon a period of moral and ethical preparation. A period of preparation has value which should not be overlooked. In our present culture of moral relativism, we are ready to ignore the idea of a preliminary moral training. Yet this always precedes Eastern practice. As a result Westerners are ill prepared for the psychological changes which rightly take place during the period of preparation. Meditation which is the development of consciousness and the discovery of a deep one pointed state of mind, can only truly arise from the moral life.
The Noble Eightfold Path
I take refuge in the Buddha,
I take refuge in the Dharma
I take refuge in the Sangha
The Eight Limbs of Yoga
Let us bow before the noblest of sages Patanjali, who gave Yoga for serenity and sanctity of mind, grammar for clarity and purity of speech, and medicine for perfection of health.
Prayer of Invocation
These principles provide a solid foundation from which the spiritualised life may arise. Western spirituality does not offer a counterpart. Once again it is worth taking the time to reflect and consider. What characteristics would you consider to be important as a foundation for a spiritually based life? Let there be no mistake the practice of meditation is derived from the monastery and the ashram. It may have travelled into the outside world with good effect, but it remains the spiritual discipline par excellence. We should not make the mistake of attempting to separate the practice of meditation from the life in which it is lived.
The Spiritual Path
If you wish to know the road up the mountain,
you must ask the man who goes back and forth in it.
It is common to speak of the spiritual life as a path. This metaphor has value, it gives us the idea of a journey with a beginning and a destination. It is also comforting to realise that we are not alone, others have trod this same path before us. The idea of the path is established most strongly in the East where monastic communities have a long history. In such specialised environments a shared language evolved naturally. Generation upon after generation ensured continuity through lives of study, practice and discussion. The path is a natural consequence of long lived continuity. Buddhism offers the Lam rim which is the graduated path to enlightenment. Hinduism recognises diversity in unity. It offers several avenues. The Karma Marga is the Path of Action. The Bhakti Marga is the devotional path. The Jhana Marga is the Path of Knowledge and the Virakti Marga is the Path of Renunciation. These various avenues recognise that individuals bring different temperaments to the spiritual life.
By contrast the idea of a path is less developed in Christianity. Christian mystics have indeed existed but where mystical experience has successfully evolved into a line of transmission, the Christian mystic has proved to be the exception rather than the rule and as a result, a lineage of mystical transmission has never evolved.
The concept of the path is not absent from Western esoteric tradition however. Through the lifelong work of Alice Bailey, a new and extensive corpus of esoteric material was incorporated into the Western heritage. She acted as a telepathic receiver for a figure who chose to be known simply as the Tibetan. In these recent works we find a helpful outline.
The Universal Path
Nothing can arrest the progress of the human soul on its long pilgrimage from darkness to light from the unreal to the real from death to immortality and from ignorance to wisdom.
Djwahl Khul, Problems of Humanity
The Tibetan describes the spiritual path into three stages: the Path of the Probationer, The Path of the Disciple and the Path of the Initiate. The Probationary Path corresponds to the period when the spiritual call has been sensed in some way. It is a time of distinct questing and searching. According to the Tibetan, this period is characterised by self-aware character building, a conscious desire to assist the side of evolution, a rudimentary interest in the Divine Wisdom and a desire to be identified with transpersonal intent. This period of life is outwardly active. Books are avidly read, teachers are sought, groups are joined. It is often a challenging and frustrating period; disappointments go hand in hand with discoveries. However diligent questing does bring a reward, the seeker finds a spiritual home which provides support and sustenance. The individual is able to deepen both commitment and understanding. The quest does not cease but expands in scope continuously.
The stage of discipleship as the name implies, establishes the unshakeable commitment to spiritual principle. However this too is a time of challenge and personal growth for the doors of spiritual responsibility now open to new horizons. The seeker becomes committed, aspirations begin to change, values shift and priorities are altered. The frenetic activity of the early years is replaced by a more focused but settled outer life. According to the schema written by the Tibetan, the Path of Discipleship is characterised by a deeper commitment to serve humanity and its evolution, the development of the higher faculties of consciousness, a shift from the personal to the transpersonal and a deepening realisation of the spiritual responsibilities that come from spiritual awakening.
Finally the consolidating work of the Path of Discipleship flowers into the Path of Initiation. This is characterised by successivly deeper spiritual experiences, a continuous expansion in consciousness and an increased understanding and interaction with the non-physical levels of reality. This brings a total transformation of being at all levels. The path and the individual merge, the initiate takes up the challenges and work of the tradition with fullness and joy.
This outline has universal application, curiosity changes to commitment, spiritual questing brings its reward, consciousness is expanded. Meditation is the single key to the unfolding of this pattern. Without the unifying practice, curiosity will remain idle, questing will be incomplete and consciousness can do no more than process information.
We can begin to unravel the complexities of meditation by drawing upon the familiar image of a target. As a target serves to direct our aim, so the subject of a meditation serves as a target within the mind. Quite simply during meditation, the practitioner will attempt to keep the mind focused on the subject of the meditation. In other words, thoughts will be aimed a particular target. We find this notion in the Judaic tradition through the classical Rabbinical term for mental concentration, kavvanah which is intentionality. The word is derived from kaven to meaning to aim. The development of kavvanah is a central theme of the Judaic mystical tradition. It is the same one pointed concentration elsewhere called samadhi. It is the state of higher consciousness. At it simplest meditation may be described as a state of focused awareness.
Diagram 1. (A Target )
Text : Meditation places a target in the mind.
Focused Awareness - The Path of Concentration
Using the idea of a target in the mind, it is easy to see that our intention is to strike as near to the bull's eye as often as possible. This is of course much easier said than done as anyone who has tried will know. Nevertheless we should not be disheartened by early failure. The difficulty of this apparently simple task has been recognised by the sages and spiritual teachers of all times. In the Bhagavad Gita, Arujna says, 'The mind is so relentless, inconsistent. The mind is stubborn, strong and wilful, as difficult to harness as the wind.' It does not take long to discover the truth of this statement. Soon enough, we come face to face with our own mental clutter, our boredom, our resistance and our inability to concentrate. As we set out on the journey towards meditative practice, it may be that we are considering the qualities of mind for the first time. There is much to discover and much to learn. Geshe Rabten describes meditation as 'a means of controlling, taming and eventually transforming the mind.' (1) This ambitious goal begins in the simplest way; we begin to develop a more focused awareness. This includes a level of sustained concentration and additionally contains an element of self observation. Using the mind in this way is quite different from everyday awareness which makes no attempt to constantly review itself. A simple exercise will introduce you to the idea of one part of the mind watching another. Watch the stream of your own consciousness by observing your own thoughts.
Although at first our concentration may be very brief, if we persevere in the practice it will progressively lengthen.
Geshe Rabten, Treasury of Dharma
Exercise 1 Just Watching
Simply sit quietly for a short period of time, no more than a few minutes will be enough. Close your eyes and turn your attention inwards. Try to watch and remember everything that is happening inside your mind. It is more difficult than it sounds. When you have finished, write down all the thoughts that came to you in that short time.
The results are usually surprising; distant memories, associations, future plans and disconnected ideas flow at an extraordinary pace. The idea of slowing down our thinking is a helpful analogy. The first attempts to focus our awareness often proves to be disheartening. Unwanted thoughts arise as if from nowhere. Developing this skill as a sustained and reliable ability will take time and effort. It will not happen in a week, it will not happen without frustration. It will not happen without personal commitment. The advice from the experienced is universally gentle and comforting; don't give up, just carry on. Don't get involved in your thoughts, just let them pass. Return the mind to the subject of the meditation, the target. Allow other thoughts to flow through. Stay focused. Stay aware.
Focused awareness clearly demands a development in concentration. Unfortunately this particular quality still smacks of the classroom and enforced learning which is not helpful. Too often we associate concentration with mental strain, intense effort and difficulty. Concentration is not an end in itself but the necessary precondition which excludes distractions and diversions. Without concentration no subject for meditation can be held in the mind. Geshe Rabten presents us with six similes of concentration which enable us to extend the concept of meditative concentration to include qualities of calmness, constancy, dynamism, clarity and lightness.
The Six Similes of Concentration
1. Concentration is likened to the way a small child views a painting. The child will be aware of the whole canvas but oblivious to the small details. In the first stage we begin to observe the mind at work without the need to observe the fine details of processes.
2. Concentration is likened to the calmness of an ocean which is not disturbed by the individual events taking place in it or upon it. A calm mind should not be disturbed by external events such as a knock at the door.
3. Concentration is likened to the sun shining in a cloudless sky. Mental concentration should be bright and clear, unclouded by dullness.
4. Concentration is likened to the great birds such as eagles or vultures in flight. These birds flap their wings briefly and then glide for great distances. The mind should be able to provide short burst of energy which then sustain mental flight.
5. Concentration is likened to a bird flying in the sky. It leaves no trail as it passes through the sky. Thoughts come and go but the well developed concentration is constant.
6. Concentration is likened to a cottonwood seed or piece of down which floats gently on the air. When we meditate we must concentrate in such a way that our mind remains very light, not becoming heavy and tired.
Meditation begins with concentration, the focused awareness. This is the first step but not the last. Concentration requires a subject, the target at which we will take aim.
We do not need to look to the arcane and the distant but to the ordinary and the present for meditation subjects. Meditation is considered to be a means of uncovering the true nature of the human being. Practice therefore often commences with ordinary human activities such as breathing and moving. Awareness is focused on these mundane activities, daily activities serve as serve as the target for the opening of the meditative mind. The breath is followed universally as a subject for meditation. It is after all an obvious and simple choice. Focused awareness become mindful as we take in more and more everyday activities. We begin to live mindfully instead of mindlessly as we attempt to notice what we are doing as it happens. So much of daily life is automatic and neglected. Meditation brings awareness into ordinary life.
Subjects for Meditation
Everything can be used as an invitation to meditation.
Sogyal Rinpoche, Meditation
In complete contrast to the detached observation of natural processes, meditative practice may also focus on created visualised images. This form of meditation draws upon the mind's ability to create and hold internal images. This approach is widely found in Tibetan Buddhism and the Western Mysteries. Such images are invariably symbolic and often complex. A word has a particular limited meaning but a symbol speaks volumes. It opens the mind through a rich train of assosciations and connections. Meditation can take place on a single symbol or a constellation of symbolic images. The symbolic offers a rich vein for meditative and contemplative thought. Symbols serve to expand consciousness and develop the qualities of insight and intuition. Symbols can be presented for meditation through innumerable forms. Sometimes a physical representation is used, at other times the image is just created with one part of the mind while it is simultaneously contemplated. Symbolic paintings, constructions, stories, statues, sacred objects, treasured icons and even imagined realities all serve to transform the mind.
Particular symbolic traditions have evolved as certain forms have become regularly employed. The mandala is a circular symbolic representation of both universal and personal forces. It is employed in a particular way for meditation. The traditional Tibetan mandala is drawn according to a symbolic schema and approached through a long established convention.
The yantra is another visual representation but it uses geometric shapes to represent cosmic and personal connections. The Shri Yantra is composed on nine interpenetrating triangles which symbolise male and female energies. It represents the whole of creation.
The Judaic mystical tradition is unique in representing a complex philosophy entirely in symbolic form. This is a most remarkable interplay between philosophy and symbol. The single embracing image, Otz Chiim or the Tree of Life contains a host of interconnected symbols. Here is a lifetime's study and meditation.
Subjects for meditation are varied and endless, traditional and emergent, widely different yet unified in purpose. In startling contrast to the symbolic and the ordinary, Zen Buddhism holds a unique place among meditative traditions. It takes no subject as its subject and rejects all conceptual tools, words, images, theories and mental structures. It has created its own unique series of subjects for meditation, namely the koan, a riddle without an answer. As we consider meditation practice in further detail, we can remain open to endless possibilities.
Although certain subjects have become traditional through extended use, we should not feel confined by the past nor intimidated by the learned. Sogyal Rinpoche takes meditation right into the heart of daily life. He reminds us to be inventive, resourceful and joyful as we take the openness of the meditative mind into the everyday world. 'A smile a face in the subway, the sight of a small flower growing in the crack of a cement pavement, a fall of rich cloth in a shop window, the way the sun lights up flower pots on a window sill. Offer up every joy, be awake at all moments.' Subjects for meditation are everywhere.
Joining the Company
Close you eyes for a moment and imagine that you are standing beside a broad pathway. People are walking along. Some walk in groups, others travel by themselves. You stand and watch them pass. You notice that these people radiate a serenity and contentment that you have only rarely seen. Someone comes over to you and offers you a warm handshake.
"Are you coming?"You step onto the path, People greet you with warm smiles knowing that you have just joined them. Your journey has begun.
You reply and ask, "What will I need to take with me"?
"Everything that you are."
"Where are we going"? you ask.
"To discover all that you can be," comes the reply.
"When shall we start"? you ask.
by Naomi Ozaniec
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