ARE WE TRYING TO EMPTY THE MIND WHEN MEDITATING? WHAT IS THE ULTIMATE AIM OF MEDITATING?
Sometimes people think insight meditation is just sitting on a cushion doing nothing. This is not mind-emptying meditation! This is mindfulness meditation. There is more to it than just sitting there. After all, you can devote 100 percent of your attention to what you are doing and still not gain any insight. A cat or a tiger pays total attention to its prey but doesn’t gain an iota of insight about anything. Why? All they have is simple concentration as they focus intently on their prey in their minds.
But in insight meditation we pay total attention with mindfulness. We work on gaining the ability to look at everything that arises with the clearest state of mind—without greed, hatred, or delusion. That is not how we normally pay attention to things. Usually our minds are obsessed or distracted by some variation of greed or desire for things or a rejection of things. We feel annoyance, dislike, or dissatisfaction with our current state. We want to be someplace else, anyplace other than where we are. Or there is ignorance about what is really going on around us and inside us.
But when we start to pay mindful attention to our moment-to-moment experience, we learn to see the mind’s restlessness and distraction, its illusions and desires, more keenly. That is where letting go comes in.
Very often you hear about “letting go of things.” Sometimes meditators become confused by this phrase. We must remember what is meant. We learn to let go of those things that are harmful to our practice, but we keep those things that are beneficial.
What is harmful to us? Greedy thoughts are harmful. Hateful thoughts. Jealousy, fear, worry, confusion—we must train ourselves to abandon these states by cultivating their opposites. When we have mindful reflection, what do we see? What do we gain? We gain clear comprehension.
Clear comprehension or clear understanding of the purpose, according to the Buddha, means we understand our aim. It means that we meditate not just to gain a little relaxation or to temporarily feel good. Those are certainly nice byproducts of meditation practice. But the ultimate aim of practicing meditation is the purification of our being. We aim at no less than overcoming suffering, treading the path that leads to liberation, and finally attaining that liberation. Our mind and body are our laboratory for this effort.
In the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, the Buddha repeated something so many times that it is like a chorus: “This body is not something to cling to. This body exists for me to gain knowledge and insight.” That is really what we are doing in meditation practice—not just blanking out.
"We learn to let go of those things that are harmful to our practice, but we keep those things that are beneficial."
I HAVE BEEN MEDITATING OUTSIDE. IT OCCURRED TO ME THAT WHEN MEDITATING OUTSIDE, THINGS IN NATURE—ANIMALS, INSECTS—THEY OFTEN COME TO YOU. WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS ABOUT THE BENEFITS OF MEDITATING IN NATURE?
Well, at the very least you get a lot of oxygen from the trees! You merge with nature when you meditate outside. You know, in the Buddha’s life, he was born under a tree and he attained enlightenment under a tree and passed away under trees. And whenever he gave his followers—his bhikkhus and bhikkhunis, or monks and nuns—instruction on meditation, he would say, “Bhikkhus! There are trees. Sit under them and meditate!”
When we are very peaceful, the trees that surround us—although they don’t have feelings like ours—somehow receive the peaceful vibrations from us, and we feel the peaceful vibrations out in nature. So, practicing outside is a very compassionate and meaningful way to practice.
"You merge with nature when you meditate outside."
HOW DO WE KNOW WE ARE MAKING PROGRESS IN MEDITATION?
This is a very common question because people don’t know what they are doing. They follow this system, then that system, this teacher’s instruction, then that teacher’s method.
They spend many hours sitting on cushions and counting their cushion hours. How many hours, how many days? How many retreats have I gone to? They go from retreat to retreat. If they hear that in such and such a place there’s a good meditation teacher they say, “Let’s go there!” And then they hear there’s another teacher—“Let’s go there!”
They keep window-shopping. You might call it meditation window-shopping. Yet when they look at themselves, they find themselves at the same place. They have gained nothing. They never look where they are supposed to look. They never do what they’re supposed to do. One doesn’t have to go that far to practice meditation. Buddha has laid down the plan. And they just ignore that.
When we try to explain meditation from the Buddha’s own words, they say, “Who cares about that! Tell me what you know, what you have experienced!” But we only know what we experience by following the system. If we don’t follow a method, we cannot tell what we’ve experienced.
Buddha asked us to look at our own mind. That is exactly what we are not doing. In order to see how far we have developed in our meditation, we must look at our mind.
"In order to see how far we have developed in our meditation, we must look at our mind."
This article was an excerpt from Bhante G.’s new book What, Why, How.
How can I fit meditation into my busy life?
How should I understand karma and rebirth?
Is enlightenment even possible for me?
Sound familiar? If you’ve ever meditated or studied Buddhism, you may have found yourself asking these questions—and many more! Here’s the good news: there are answers, and you’ll find them all in this book. Imagine that you could sit down with one of Buddhism’s most accomplished and plainspoken teachers—and imagine that he patiently agreed to answer any question you had about meditation, living mindfully, and key Buddhist concepts—even the myriad brilliant questions you’ve never thought to ask! What, Why, How condenses into one volume a half-century of Bhante G.’s wise answers to common questions about the Buddha’s core teachings on meditation and spiritual practice. With his kind and clear guidance, you’ll gain simple yet powerful insights and practices to end unhealthy patterns and habits so that you can transform your experience of the world—from your own mind to your relationships, your job, and beyond.
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—Sharon Salzberg, author of Lovingkindness and Real Happiness
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