Image: Meditating Buddha, Pollononaruma, 12th c. CE



Buddhists have been meditating for several thousand years, and at the simplest levels, very little has changed in that time. Although there are many variations, the two most common sorts are sitting meditation (staying still, with the emphasis on calming the mind) and action meditation (involving some sort of activity such as walking, in which one tries to focus one's attention exclusively on the activity at hand). Some brief instructions for these can be found below for both of these types. These are intended as to give a general overview for class purposes, to try to understand better why meditation has been so important in Buddhist religious practice. Although Buddhists acknowledge that some people have gained enlightenment on their own (including the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni), they are also pretty emphatic that if one wants to do serious meditation, it is best to do this under a qualified meditation teacher.


Sitting Meditation

Posture: Buddhists have traditionally sat cross-legged in meditation, sometimes on a cushion, to raise the body a little higher than the legs (as in Zen meditation), but at other times directly on a platform or rug. Of course, most of these Buddhists have come from cultures in which people routinely sit on the ground, and thus their hips are more open and flexible (through years of sitting cross-legged) than people who have been sitting in chairs most of their lives. There is nothing absolutely essential about sitting in "this" position or "that" position, and many "western" practitioners sit in chairs to meditate. The one thing that is deemed really, really important is to have the spine be vertical and straight (with the head, neck, and shoulders in line above it, so that the upper body is like a perfectly positioned tower). This is to keep the body in balance, so that one's position will be stable, and so one can sit without fatigue. Since the object in meditation practice it to try to concentrate the mind, one must try to remove or head off anything that could cause pain, discomfort, or distraction. Thus, one should NOT sit in an uncomfortable position...this would be self-defeating. For the same reason, one should wear relatively loose, comfortable clothing.

Practice: Perhaps the oldest Buddhist meditation practice is the meditation on breathing; this is described in detail in the Anapanasati Sutta. Breathing is an ideal focus for meditation, since it is something that body does naturally, without requiring conscious effort from a person. Sit, close or half-close your eyes, and observe your breathing. When your breath is going in, observe that it is going in. When the breath is going out, observe that it is going out. If the body naturally takes a deeper or shallower breath, observe that it is deeper or shallower. In all these cases you is not supposed to consciously breathe in and out, but simply to let the body do this for you, and to observe the process as it happens. This is all there is too it.

Of course, it's not as simple as it sounds. After the second or third breath, most people will start to think about what they have to do tomorrow, or something that someone said to them today, or what they should have done in some situation, or want to do....the list is endless. Buddhist scriptures compare the mind to a monkey hopping from branch to branch--if the mind doesn't get outside stimulation, it will tend to create its own, since it wants to be occupied. When you find these thoughts arising, recognize that this has happened, but don't dwell on them-simply let them go, and then go back to observing the breath as the focus of one's concentration. With practice will come the ability to focus on the breathing without distraction for longer and longer periods of time. Meditation on the breath is (I am convinced) really about training one's mind to concentrate and focus, and enhancing one's ability to do so. This doesn't happen right away, but requires time, effort, and a great deal of practice (just as someone wanting to run a marathon, like my colleague Dan Schowalter, would train and practice for a long time before attempting to do it).

Stilling the mind through focusing on one's breathing is one way to cultivate this mental discipline. The notion is that once the mind's unconscious "chatter" has been silenced, one can turn one's mental faculties (now developed and with the ability for much greater focus), to examine other things. One such object of examination is the mind itself and its workings, others are the nature of the body, the emotions, thoughts, and mental qualities. Buddhists really believe that a mind focused through meditation is far better able to perceive and understand the world and oneself as they truly are, particularly their impermanent quality, and how they arise based on certain conditions. Further objects of meditation include Buddhist doctrinal formulae such as the Four Noble Truths-in which one focuses on these "truths" to understand the working of the reality.

A different kind of sitting meditation technique is primarily visual-in the oldest described forms, it is described creating a carefully rounded mound of fine dirt (kasina), and then simply giving it one's undivided visual attention. The procedure is the same as for the other forms-when other thoughts/emotions come to mind, observe that this is happening, but then direct one's attention back to the kasina. Interestingly, the instructions direct the meditator to fix on the shape of the kasina not only with the eyes open, but also with eyes closed.


Action Meditation

Introduction: The most common "action" meditation is walking meditation. As with breathing, walking is something that we do all the time, and hence something we often do without paying much conscious attention. In most cases, this walking meditation involves walking back and forth on a well-defined path-some piece of reasonably flat ground where one can walk in a straight line for 30-50 feet. The early Buddhist texts instruct one to remove any stones, roots, or other obstructions that might trip one up, and to smooth the pathway itself, but this was written for monks living at the boundaries of settled society, and most contemporary Americans have access to lawns. Since one walks back and forth on this path, the pathway should have some sort of demarcated "beginning" and "end" (although in theory, this could be a chalk line on a driveway or sidewalk).

Practice: Starting at one end of the walking pathway, and walk to the other end. Turn around, and walk back to beginning. Repeat and repeat. Whereas sitting meditation concentrates on the breath, here the focus is on observing the process of walking. While walking one's attention is much centered on one's legs and feet, and the arms either hang naturally, or with the hands clasped in front of the waist. When one is lifting up a foot, one should be aware that one is lifting up one's foot; when one is putting down one's foot, one should be aware that one is putting it down, and when one is turning, be aware that one is turning. This too sounds much easier than it actually is, since this attempt to focus and clear the mind (by focusing on the one's actions alone) will probably generate all sorts of thoughts and feelings. This walking meditation is an exercise in what Buddhists call "mindfulness," (the ability to focus one's awareness on one's immediate surroundings), and "Right Mindfulness" is one of the parts in the Buddha's Eightfold Path.

In the Zen Buddhist tradition, which gives primary attention to immediate experience, many sorts of activities came to be used as "action meditations"-drinking tea, archery, calligraphy, sword training, flower arranging, and the martial arts. In theory, any activity could be the focus for meditation, since the ideal was to cultivate this sort of awareness in every part of everyday life. Of course, Zen Buddhists also did (and still do) a considerable amount of sitting meditation too.


Benefits of Mindfulness

According to a syndicated column written by the Harvard Medical School Faculty, "There's mounting evidence that cultivating mindfulness can help you enjoy life more, make it easier to cope with illness, and possibly boost your physical and emotional health.  While it doesn't replace traditional therapies and medications, it can lower stress and may help other treatments work better."  The article goes on to note that "A study of nearly 1,500 people who answered the questionnaire [found below] found that those who were more mindful were also more likely to be more optimistic and happier.  They also tended to be more open to new experiences and more satisfied with life." 

Measuring Mindfulness:  To help define mindfulness , researchers at the University of Rochester developed a questionnaire (below) that gives people a sense of how much time they spend not being mindful.  Would you agree or disagree with the following statements?

(These last two sections were quoted from "Mindful meditation may have health benefits," a syndicated column (Harvard Adviser) written by the Harvard Medical School Faculty.  It appeared in the Kenosha News on 3 May 2005, pages D1-2). 


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Last modified 16 September 2000