Meditation Instructions in the Thai Theravada Tradition
Meditation is a centerpiece of Buddhist practice. It is a method to develop the mind. The emphasis is on concentration, focus, clarity, calmness, and insight. There are different techniques; most of them are easy to learn and very useful in daily life. The following is an introduction to samatha-vipassana meditation in the Thai Theravada tradition (adapted with minor amendments from the Bung Wai Forest Monastery, Thailand).
The purpose of Insight Meditation is not to create a system of beliefs, but rather to give guidance on how to see clearly into the nature of the mind. In this way one gains first-hand understanding of the way things are, without reliance on opinions or theories – a direct experience, which has its own vitality. It also gives rise to the sense of deep calm that comes from knowing something for oneself beyond any doubt.
The term Insight Meditation (samatha-vipassana) refers to practices for the mind that develop calm (samatha) through sustained attention and insight (vipassana) through reflection. A fundamental technique for sustaining attention is focusing awareness on the body; traditionally, this is practised while sitting or walking. This guide begins with some advice on this technique.
Reflection occurs quite naturally afterwards, when one is ‘comfortable’ within the context of the meditation exercise. There will be a sense of ease and interest, and one begins to look around and become acquainted with the mind that is meditating. This ‘looking around’ is called contemplation, a personal and direct seeing that can only be suggested by any technique.
Focusing the mind on the body can be readily accomplished while sitting. You need to find a time and a place which affords you calm and freedom from disturbance. A quite room with not much in it to distract the mind is ideal. Timing is also important. It is not especially productive to meditate when you have something else to do or when you’re pressed for time. It’s better to set aside a period – say in the early morning or in the evening after work-when you can really give your full attention to the practice.
Begin with fifteen minutes or so. Practice sincerely with the limitations of time and available energy, and avoid becoming mechanical about the routine. Meditation practice, supported by genuine willingness to investigate and make peace with oneself, will develop naturally in terms of duration and skill.
Awareness of the Body
The development of calm is aided by stability, and by a steady but peaceful effort. If you can’t feel settled, there is no peacefulness; if there is no effort, you tend to daydream. One of the most effective postures for the cultivation of the proper balance of stillness and energy is the sitting posture.
Use a posture that will keep your back straight without strain. A simple upright chair may be helpful, or you may be able to use the lotus posture. These postures may look awkward at first, but in time they can provide a unique balance of gentle firmness that gladdens the mind without tiring the body.
If the chin is tilted very slightly down this will help but do not allow the head to loll forward as this encourages drowsiness. Place the hands on your lap, palm upwards, one gently resting on the other with the thumb-tips touching. Take your time and get the right balance.
Now, collect your attention, and begin to move it slowly down your body. Notice the sensations in each part of your body. Relax any tensions, particularly in the face, neck and hands. Allow the eyelids to close or half close.
Investigate how you are feeling. Are you expectant or tense? Then relax your attention a little. With this, the mind will probably calm down and you may find some thoughts drifting in – reflections, daydreams, memories, or doubts about whether you are doing it right! Instead of following or contending with these thought patterns, bring more attention to the body, which is a useful anchor for a wandering mind.
Cultivate a spirit of inquiry in your meditation attitude. Take your time. Move your attention, for example, systematically from the crown of the head down over the whole body. Notice the different sensations – such as warmth, pulsing, numbness, and sensitivity – in the joints of each finger, the moisture of the palms, and the pulse in the wrist. Even areas that may have no particular sensation, such as the forearms or the earlobes can be “swept over” in an attentive way. Notice how even the lack of sensation is something the mind can be aware of. This constant and sustained investigation is called mindfulness (sati) and is one of the primary tools of Insight Meditation.
Mindfulness of breathing – anapanasati
Instead of “body sweeping”, or after a preliminary period of this practice, mindfulness can be developed through attention on the breath.
First, follow the sensation of your ordinary breath as it flows in through the nostrils and fills the chest and abdomen. Then try maintaining your attention at one point, either at the diaphragm or – a more refined location – at the nostrils. Breath has a tranquilising quality, steady and relaxing if you don’t force it; this is helped by an upright posture. Your mind may wander, but keep patiently returning to the breath.
It is not necessary to develop concentration to the point of excluding everything else except the breath. Rather than to create a trance, the purpose here is to allow you to notice the workings of the mind, and to bring a measure of peaceful clarity into it. The entire process – gathering your attention, noticing the breath, noticing that the mind has wandered, and re-establishing your attention – develops mindfulness, patience and insightful understanding. So don’t be put off by apparent “failure” – simply begin again. Continuing in this way allows the mind eventually to calm down.
If you get very restless or agitated, just relax. Practice being at peace with yourself, listening to – without necessarily believing in – the voices of the mind.
If you feel drowsy, then put more care and attention into your body and posture. Refining your attention or pursuing tranquillity at such times will only make matters worse!
Walking and Standing
Many meditation exercises, such as the above “mindfulness of breathing”, are practised while sitting. However, walking is commonly alternated with sitting as a form of meditation. Apart from giving you different things to notice, it is a skilful way to energise the practice if the calming effect of sitting is making you dull.
If you have access to some open land, measure off about 25-30 paces’ length of level ground (r a clearly defined pathway between two trees), as your meditation path. Stand at one end of the path, and compose your mind on the sensations of the body. First, let the attention rest on the feeling of the body standing upright, with the arms hanging naturally and the hands lightly clasped in front or behind. Allow the eyes to gaze at a point about three meters in front of you at ground level, thus avoiding visual distraction. Now, walk gently, at a deliberate but ‘normal’ pace, to the end of the path. Stop. Focus on the body standing for the period of a couple of breaths. Turn, and walk back again. While walking, be aware of the general flow of physical sensations, or more closely direct your attention to the feet. The exercise for the mind is to keep bringing its attention back to the sensation of the feet touching the ground, the spaces between each step, and the feelings of stopping and starting.
Of course, the mind will wander. So it is important to cultivate patience, and the resolve to begin again. Adjust the pace to suit your state of mind – vigorous when drowsy or trapped in obsessive thought, firm but gentle when restless and impatient. At the end of the path, stop; breathe in and out; ‘let go’ of any restlessness, worry, calm, bliss, memories or opinions about yourself. The ‘inner chatter’ may stop momentarily, or fade out. Begin again. In this way you continually refresh the mind, and allow it to settle at its own rate.
In more confined spaces, alter the length of the path to suit what is available. Alternatively, you can circumambulate a room, pausing after each circumambulation for a few moments of standing. This period of standing can be extended to several minutes, using ‘body sweeping’.
Walking brings energy and fluidity into the practice, so keep your pace steady and just let changing conditions pass through the mind. Rather than expecting the mind to be as still as it might be while sitting, contemplate the flow of phenomena. It is remarkable how many times we can become engrossed in a train of thought – arriving at the end of the path and ‘coming to’ with a start! – but it is natural for our untrained minds to become absorbed in thoughts and moods. So instead of giving in to impatience, learn how to let go, and begin again. A sense of ease and calm may then arise, allowing the mind to become open and clear in a natural, unforced way.
Reclining at the end of a day, spend a few minutes meditating while lying on one side. Keep the body quite straight and bend one arm up so that the hand acts as a support for the head. Sweep through the body, resting its stresses; or collect your attention on the breath, consciously putting aside memories of the day just past and expectations of tomorrow. In a few minutes, with your mind clear, you’ll be able to rest well.
Cultivating The Heart
Cultivating goodwill (metta) gives another dimension to the practice of Insight. Meditation naturally teaches patience and tolerance or at least it shows the importance of these qualities. So you may well wish to develop a more friendly and caring attitude towards yourself and other people. In meditation, you can cultivate goodwill very realistically.
Focus attention on the breath, which you will now be using as the means of spreading kindness and goodwill. Begin with yourself, with your body. Visualize the breath as a light, or see your awareness as being a warm ray and gradually sweep it over your body. Lightly focus your attention on the center of the chest, around the heart region. As you breath in, direct patient kindness towards yourself, perhaps with the thought, “May I be well”, or “Peace”. As you breathe out, let the mood of that thought, or the awareness of light, spread outwards from the heart, through the body, through the mind and beyond yourself. “May others be well”.
If you are experiencing negative states of mind, breathe in the qualities of tolerance and forgiveness. Visualizing the breath as having a healing color may be helpful. On the out-breath, let go of any stress, worry or negativity, and extend the sense of release through the body, the mind, and beyond, as before.
This practice can form all or part of a period of meditation – you have to judge for yourself what is appropriate. The calming effect of meditating with a kind attitude is good for beginning a sitting but there will no doubt be times to use this approach for long periods, to go deeply into the heart.
Always begin with what you are aware of, even if it seems trivial or confused. Let your mind rest calmly on that-whether it’s boredom, an aching knee, or the frustration of not feeling particularly kindly. Allow these to be; practice being at peace with them. Recognize and gently put aside any tendencies towards laziness, doubt or guilt.
Peacefulness can develop into a very nourishing kindness towards yourself, if you first of all accept the presence of what you dislike. Keep the attention steady, and open the heart to whatever you experience. This does not imply the approval of negative states, but allows them a space wherein they can come and go.
Generating goodwill toward the world beyond yourself follows much the same pattern. A simple way to spread kindness is to work in stages. Start with yourself, joining the sense of loving acceptance to the movement of the breath. “May I be well.” Then, reflect on people you love and respect, and wish them well, one by one. Move on to friendly acquaintances, then to those towards whom you feel indifferent. “May they be well.” Finally, bring to mind those people you fear or dislike, and continue to send out wishes of goodwill.
This meditation can expand, in a movement of compassion, to include all people in the world, in their many circumstances. And remember, you don’t have to feel that you love everyone in order to wish them well!
Kindness and compassion originate from the same source of good will, and they broaden the mind beyond the purely personal perspective. If you’re not always trying to make things go the way you want them to: if you’re more accepting and receptive to yourself and others as they are, compassion arises by itself. Compassion is the natural sensitivity of the heart.