(This entry is based on a recent workshop I presented with a friend of mine. It is partially written from my notes, and partially transcribed. While my friend’s section of the workshop on Zen was fascinating I’ve left out his section as it is his intellectual property and I am not a Zen Buddhist so would feel ill-equipped to discuss it)
It seems no matter where you are in the spiritual/occult community one piece of advice always comes up: meditate. “I don’t know what to do about this.” Meditate. “I can’t see or hear the angels clearly.” Meditate. “My energy is unfocused.” Meditate. “Who is my spirit guide?” Meditate. “I keep getting distracted from my practice.” Meditate. Meditate, meditate, meditate. This is the piece of advice I see over and over and over and over again. Pretty much whatever the problem is, someone will suggest meditation. Don’t know how to meditate and you ask them? Their response? Meditate!
What is meditation? People toss around that word, and they don’t explain what this is, how to meditate, and it gets really frustrating to watch as it’s repeated like a mindless mantra. It’s counterproductive to toss out this advice repeatedly. So while there are many reasons to meditate, one of the reasons I wanted to teach this workshop was to actually share how to meditate in some different forms. Not all meditations do the same thing, or appeal in the same way, that’s why I’m presenting a variety of forms.
To start off with I’ll be discussing anapana meditation, which is the earliest documented form of meditation within Buddhism. Mythically according to Theravadan sects it is considered the form of meditation that Siddhartha Gautama used to achieve enlightenment and become the Buddha. The name just means breathing, as that is the focus of the meditation, and it is sometimes called anapanasati meaning awareness of breathing.
The basic theory behind anapana meditation is that we’re a bundle of corrupted karma and sankara, in modern terms you could roughly say neurosis and conditioning, which isn’t to remove the spiritual aspect of karma/sankara but more explain how they affect our life. They interfere with our emotional and mental well being, and when we let them interfere we actually reinforce them and increase them. By becoming aware of them we can let them occur without feeding them. It is as if they are fuel to a fire, every time we act on this karma/sankara we toss more fuel into the fire, but if we just observe them at let it occur then the fire consumes the fuel rather than being fed more. Anapana is a very grounded meditation, it works off the idea that we can’t meditate on abstract ideas, so we meditate on the body and sensations because those are relatively concrete. Instead of meditating on our emotions, we focus on where and how the emotions interface with our body. Karma/sankara act as conditioned responses, and the majority of our actions are based in them, but by releasing them we develop a greater ability to choose how to act, rather than reacting.
To perform anapana sit comfortably. Any seated posture will do as long as it can be maintained and is comfortable. Picture a triangle starting at the top of your nose between your brows, going down to the corners of your mouth, this is the arena that we use for anapana. Breathe normally, don’t try to breathe deeply, or slowly, let breath happen. Now observe physical sensations within that triangle, what do you feel? The subtle shift in temperature as you breathe in and out? The soft rush against your nostrils? An itch on the top of your nose? At first you may not feel anything, that isn’t because there is no sensation there, only that your mind is too unfocused to feel something so subtle. Don’t count the breaths, or think “In-Out,” just let them happen. This entire meditation is about observing and letting happen. If your nose itches don’t scratch it, don’t get annoyed, just “watch” the itch with your awareness. Any sensation you have, don’t reject it, don’t accept it, don’t react, only observe it until it fades away. As you gain greater focus change the arena, only do from the nostrils down, or eventual just observing the nostrils.
Now rather quickly you’ll realize you stopped paying attention to your breath and that’s okay, simply note that you are distracted and resume the focus on your breathing. To keep the mind focused on the breath for a while is a challenge, you may not even make it ten seconds, and that’s fine, as long as you realize you got distracted and bring your attention back. Like physical sensations don’t judge these distracting thoughts, or the act of distraction, don’t get upset you’re failing, because you’re not, simply bring your focus back to the breath. A teacher once told me “true meditation isn’t the ability to control focus, but the moment you realize you’ve lost focus and regain it.” You will get distracted, a lot, but when it happens bring your focus back to your breath, and you’ll find after a while you’ll get distracted less, and catch your wandering mind sooner, it just takes practice.
There is an advanced “sibling” of anapana called vipassana, but you can’t perform vipassana without having a really good handle on anapana. Vipassana means clear-seeing, and if you’re proficient at anapana, you can move onto it. Much like you focused on just your nostrils in anapana, in vipassana you pick a general area of the body (scalp, face, neck) and observe the bodily sensations there. Then as you become more proficient you shrink the area of focus until you’re watching your body in segments as small as a finger nail, and seeing what sensations arise there. To give a sense of how proficient one should be to begin vipassana, if you attend a retreat at a Vipassana Centre run by S.N. Goenka, for three days straight, over twelve hours a day, you practice anapana, only after that intensive (and it is intense) can you even struggle to begin vipassana. So don’t think you can jump into vipassana right away, and if you think you can and have, you’re deceiving yourself about the level of focus and awareness you have developed.
Next entry we jump ahead a few centuries and start spreading the love.