EDIT (2/1/19): I’ve updated this post to add a bit more about the cycle of distraction, omit some less important chunks and polish the language a little. A big thank you to my sister Ariadne Haske for giving me her notes and some thoughtful additions c:
If you don’t know me, don’t care to know my journey to this point, and you’re just here for the meat, please feel free to skip this section. It’s like when people write their life stories before sharing their beef enchilada instantpot recipe - sorry about your divorce, Martha, but I really need to know how long this chuck roast needs to cook. I get it. See you below.
For those of you who have been following me or know me in real life, I have intermittently mentioned meditation. During the holiday season in 2017, my sister gave me her meditation cushion and my re-introduction to meditation.
I say re-introduction because when I was in high school, I practiced Tibetan Buddhism for some time and meditation for me then included counting mala beads and chanting. While it provided some low level relaxation, it grew old and I stopped doing it. This reintroduction can be best categorized somewhere between Zen and Theravada - she taught me the Lotus position that is most commonly used when sitting Zazen including the dharmadhatu mudra (mudra basically meaning “hand movement”, dharmadhatu being Sanskrit for “realm of truth”), and gave me the base instruction on how to focus my attention, using the breath as my object. Bading, badaboom! She also gave me an app to install which I’ll talk about in a second here. I now follow Theravada though you really don’t need to sweat the specifics too much in the beginning of your practice.
The reason I bring this up is two-fold: first of all, I have only been doing this seriously for a little over a year now. While I have obtained more experience and knowledge than the average layperson, I by no means have all the answers. Or even most of the answers. Shit, I haven’t even attained stream entry yet so please bear with me as I am also learning more every day. Secondly, there are LOTS of different traditions, schools, styles of both Buddhism and meditation, which include even more words from languages I will probably never learn. This can be extremely overwhelming to a new practitioner but if you take one and only one thing away from this post, let it be this:
The most important thing is that you meditate.
How you do it, what words you use to describe it, your posture, all of that is secondary. Yeah, some styles have different focuses and once you make a habit out of “sitting” (by the way, I’ll use this term a lot but you can meditate while walking, laying down, standing - I’ve literally meditated while pumping gas before, so keep that in mind), then you can start to sift through the centuries worth of information. In the beginning, though, it’s all about getting your ass to the cushion (again, metaphor!).
I feel compelled to give a head’s up that meditation is not always about being, like, totally blissed out, man. Sometimes it’s uncomfortable. The deeper and longer you get into it, the more likely you are to experience weird phenomena that you’ve never experienced before. Sensations that you can’t explain. If you get into the later stages, you may very well spend some time mucking about in dukkha (Sanskrit commonly translated as “suffering”, "pain", "unsatisfactoriness" or "stress"). It takes a minute to get there - though truth being, if you’re reading this with serious intention of starting a steady meditation practice, there’s a chance you’re already on these stages. The path is sort of funny like that. You can end up experiencing the Arising & Passing without ever spending a second meditating. Dreams, drugs and just living your life have all been recorded triggers for the A&P as it’s colloquially referred to in my circles.
“Whoa, Carly, you kind of freaked me out with that dukkha stuff,” you might be saying. And that’s legit. When I first read about it, I definitely hesitated. But the reality is that we already experience suffering every single day. Aversion when we think about how we don’t want to get up and go to work/school/other life obligations. Craving when we think about sweets, video games, spending time with our loved ones. Ignorance when we choose to binge watch something instead of face our feelings.
The whole point of meditation is to accept and therefore eliminate suffering. That’s the long goal, baby. In the short term, it just makes shit easier to deal with day-to-day. From my personal experience, I can’t begin to tell you all the ways that meditation has changed my life. There are “fruit” that you obtain (literally what they call it in Theravada Buddhism), that 100% make it worth it. To give examples from my own life, my concentration improved. My mood improved. I can literally choose how to react to things - like time slows down and I can SEE my emotions clearly, and I simply don’t attach to that emotion. I can isolate and choose not to perceive pain. It’s fucking nuts. And remember, I’m barely in it. I can’t speak for the people who have attained proper Enlightenment but the amount of control those folks have over their brains must be absolutely astounding.
A quick disclaimer: all of these fruit that I described? They go away if you stop practicing. Unless you obtain stream entry. Then something in your brain clicks and shit gets real. So if you start to experience these things and want them to stick around, then you’ve got to keep going.
Anyway, let’s observe some vibrations already!
Where To Start
First of all, I highly recommend downloading an app called “Meditation Helper”. Having a good timer is absolutely essential for any kind of regular practice. It will look like this:
I’m sure you can figure out the specifics of how to customize the time and settings but I will recommend the following: give yourself 1 minute prep time, start with 5 minutes sitting time, set your bell to go off at the start and end time (I’ve never had them go off in the middle, that’s just weird to me), turn on Auto Silent Mode, and turn off Keep Screen On. As my sister said, never look at the time. You’re cheating yourself when you do that. Plus, in the beginning, five minutes isn’t so long c: you can handle it, I swear. Turning on Reminders is good but if you’re anything like me, you’ll just ignore them. Just tell yourself this every time you blow it off: I have five minutes - I just need to make it a priority.
If you miss a day or two, whatever, it’s fine. Don’t sweat it too much. But do remind yourself of why you’re doing this. It will make you feel better than any YouTube video, any time spent scrolling social media, any TV show or video game. I promise.
So you’ve got the app, now what? Find yourself a quiet place, ideally. Though you can genuinely meditate anywhere, it’s much easier to practice in the quiet, especially in the beginning.
For sitting meditations, I will recommend that however you sit (whether it be in a chair, on the floor, on a cushion, whatever), that you make yourself as comfortable as possible and maintain a nice, straight spine. In yoga, my teacher used to say imagine a string at the top of your skull pulling your body straight up. I always imagine a claw from those crane games you see in movie theater lobbies for some reason. You get the idea though.
I do recommend the dharmadhatu mudra. For me, after over a year of practicing, I can literally bring calm to myself within seconds when I do this with my hands now. The mind-body connection really is incredible. This was immensely helpful during the holiday season.
At this point, you’ve got your app, your nice quiet spot, your comfortable seated position and your hands - all you need to do is hit the timer, baby!
The meditation approach that I use is Vipassanā - Pali for “insight”. However, in the beginning, we’re actually just going to focus on concentration. After some time, you’ll end up combining these two skills to practice proper Vipassanā meditation but it’s very hard to make progress on insights if we just let our brains run about willy-nilly. The marriage of insight and concentration is what causes awakening, enlightenment, stream entry - the good stuff.
Pretty much everyone I ever talk to about meditation tells me, “oh, I can’t meditate, I can’t calm my mind down enough, I can’t focus.” That’s all the more reason you should meditate! Think of it this way: if you never cook a dish in your life, you won’t know how to cook. Sure, you’ve seen depictions in media of what cooking looks like and you get the gist of it - put ingredients together, usually add heat, make edible dishes - but you don’t know how to actually do it. So when your friend says, “you should try cooking! You’ll save so much money and you’ll get to eat healthier!” you decide to LEARN to cook. Your first few dishes are maybe a mess, barely edible, burnt, who cares, but the more you do it, the better you get.
Meditation is like any other skill. In a nutshell, what you are really doing when you meditate is training your mind. Nobody gets on the cushion and can immediately “zen out”. Anyone who claims that is either lying or they can’t actually tell that they’re processing sensory information in the background.
So please dismiss all ideas of people on mountain tops with waterfalls behind them, zoned out so hard they don’t hear a single sound around them. Please be patient with yourself and realize that in the beginning, your mind is going to probably seem REALLY LOUD. That’s absolutely normal. We spend basically every moment of our days engaging with stimulus - mostly screens - so it can be pretty striking how much chatter is going on up there when you actually stop to observe it.
Anyway! So it’s time to meditate! Use your minute of “prep time” to make sure you’re comfortable and set an intention. Sitting with a nice, straight spine, eyes closed, hands however you like them, and a moment of intention setting. This can be as simple as “I am going to be present and try to maintain concentration on my chosen object for ten minutes” or as complicated as “I am going to further my progress on the path towards Enlightenment, investigating the Three Characteristics and observing them without judgment.” In Zen, intention is the core of what you do. The chime goes off. You need a focus object. I’m personally a big fan of the breath though you can choose a sound, a mantra, a visualization, the feeling of your thumbs touching, whatever. Whatever you are able to notice and pay attention to repeatedly. This thing you’re paying attention to - really get to know it. With the breath, I focus specifically on my nostrils. The feeling of the air dragging inside of them, the moment that my breath ends, the moment that it begins. Sometimes I focus on my abdomen instead and feel the air filling my diaphragm, again noticing when it begins, when it ends.
Uh oh, you’re distracted! You started thinking about what you did today or what you’re going to do. No worries! Once you notice this, just go back to your focal point.
That’s really it.
You will get distracted repeatedly, that’s just part of the process. Don’t sweat it. Once you realize you’ve lost focus, you just take it right back to where it’s supposed to be. You do this over and over and over and over again.
My sister shared the following except from Culadasa’s “The Mind Illuminated,” (which I’m currently reading myself - if you pick it up we can discuss as we read it!):
“Awakening to the present is an important opportunity to understand and appreciate how your mind works. You’ve just had a minor epiphany, an “aha!” moment of realizing there’s a disconnect between what you’re doing (thinking about something else) and what you intended to do (watch the breath). But this wasn’t something you did. Nor can you voluntarily make it happen. The process that discovered this disconnect isn’t under your conscious control. It happens unconsciously, but when the “findings” become conscious, you have an “aha!” moment of introspective awareness.
Train your mind through positive feedback. Savor the sense of being more fully conscious and present than when you were lost in mind-wandering.
The way to overcome mind-wandering is by training this unconscious process to make the discovery and bring it into consciousness sooner and more often. Yet, how do you train something that happens unconsciously? Simply take a moment to enjoy and appreciate “waking up” from mind-wandering. Savor the sense of being more fully conscious and present. Cherish your epiphany and encourage yourself to have more of them. Conscious intention and affirmation powerfully influence our unconscious processes. By valuing this moment, you’re training the mind through positive reinforcement to wake you up more quickly in the future.
Also, avoid becoming annoyed or self-critical about mind-wandering. It doesn’t matter that your mind wandered. What’s important is that you realized it. To become annoyed or self-critical in the “aha!” moment will slow down your progress. You can’t scold the mind into changing, especially when dealing with entrenched mental patterns like forgetting and mind-wandering. Even worse, the negative feedback will get associated with the most recent event—the spontaneous arising of introspective awareness—and you’ll end up discouraging the very process that stops mind-wandering. It’s like telling your unconscious you don’t want to have the mind-wandering interrupted.”
This is the first and most important building block of meditation. The more you do it, the quicker you’ll realize that you’ve gotten distracted, and the faster you’ll get back to your focal object. The more you do it, the longer you’ll spend with steady attention on your object of choice without distractions. Some days are better than others. I still have days where it takes me quite a while to settle my mind down. It feels a bit like trying to tame a wild animal (or I guess I should say, what I imagine that’s like since I’ve never done it!), but it does get easier with practice. Practice, ah, there’s that lovely word.
To really reap any benefits from meditation, you need to have a proper practice. Every single day, ideally. Five minutes is the start. I recommend upping your time to ten minutes after a week or so. You don’t have to keep increasing it but you will make progress faster if you do. For your low level relaxation benefits though, ten minutes is the gold standard. Supplement with five minute sits on days that your schedule is absolutely nuts. Just make sure that whatever time you commit to it, you really commit. You really genuinely try to keep returning your concentration to it’s original object.
If you’ve made the intention to sit once, hopefully you’ll set the intention to begin a daily practice. Once you’ve made that commitment and started to sit every day for a week or so, you’ll probably feel like you’ve gotten the hang of this concentration stuff. Some people will do just concentration meditation their whole life and omit the whole “insight” scene altogether. I don’t personally recommend this. If all you want is better concentration in your daily life and maybe a bit of relaxation, this may suffice. You might reach the jhanas (there’s really no clean translation for this word - but a jhana is a state of profound stillness and concentration in which the mind becomes fully immersed and absorbed in the chosen object of attention), and taste some sweet, sweet bliss. Jhana can be quite nice. But if you want to alleviate depression, anxiety and any other pervasive suffering, you will need to practice insight.
Insight is a little more involved so I’m going to write another post for it. I will have it up by February 6th, 2019 so that if you, my wonderful reader, decide to try to incorporate a meditation practice into your life starting the publish date of this post, you will have had one week to get a hang of concentration training.
If you want to read and learn more, I would recommend:
http://www.buddhistische-gesellschaft-berlin.de/downloads/mastering-vers-3.pdf - Mastering The Core Teachings of the Buddha: An Unusually Hardcore Dharma Book by Daniel Ingram. This fucking book, y’all! This particular link is a .pdf of the whole thing but you can also find it on Amazon if you want to purchase a physical copy of it. My sister was the one who got me into this and it is very astutely named. Daniel does not pull punches, he does not fuck around, he spells it all out with literal maps of how to reach Enlightenment. Most of what I have learned is from either Daniel or my sister. Additionally, should you ever have a question and want someone who knows a bit more than me, Daniel runs the website:
http://www.dharmaoverground.org/ - You can find some of Daniel’s posts on there, as well as a whole community of folks familiar with his writing who are also practicing meditation. I even saw a thread once with Culadasa in it, who wrote the book:
The Mind Illuminated - Unfortunately, I’ve never been able to locate a free version of Culadasa’s book. However, it’s a great resource that isn’t quite as in-your-face as Daniel’s book.
https://www.saddhamma.org/pdfs/mahasi-practical-insight-meditation.pdf - For a very short and to-the-point guide on insight meditation, Mahasi Sayadaw pretty much hit the nail on the head. Twelve pages that may very well lead you to the big ‘E’ as Mahasi outlines different insight exercises. If you would like, you can additionally find the full book here.
Since meditation and Buddhism are far from new, this is quite literally just scratching the surface of dharma texts that are out there. These have been my references for the past year and hopefully you find them as helpful as I did. Additionally, please do not hesitate to contact me! I can be messaged on Facebook or texted at (231) 690-1242. I sincerely hope that I can inspire some folks to begin the same practice that changed my life and maybe in turn have their lives changed as well. Good luck!