The 7 Steps of Meditation
THE CHALLENGE OF MEDITATION
In his book The Origins of Creativity, Edward O. Wilson cites research from the University of Virginia and Harvard University that found “volunteers disliked sitting alone for even as little as six minutes with nothing to do but think . . . They even preferred administering electric shocks to themselves if nothing else was available.”
Meditation does not come naturally to many of us! The following seven meditation themes replace “nothing to do but think” with specific procedures to follow in each meditation period.
Use one or another each time you sit until you feel comfortable ‘just sitting’.
- ENTER THE MEDITATION SPACE…
* Notice that you are breathing!
(Take two or three breaths for each line below)
* Slow down the breath
* Pay attention to the sensations of breath
* Do a quick body-scan* Then, a quick mind-scan
* And an emotion-scan
* Move from surviving to thriving—toward positivity,
2. DEVELOP A HOLISTIC PERSPECTIVE
The Circle stands for a holistic attitude.
Take time to consider the whole picture as you plan your day, as you shop, drive, and eat.
Lack of a holistic vision is at the centre of today’s climate challenge.
It is also at the heart of relationships, family life, parenting, and work-life balance. The individualistic point of view comes naturally. To see the whole picture requires some wisdom, and meditation is the practice of wisdom.
Let love and wisdom be your guides.
3. WAKE UP TO INDRA’S NET
You would think that Indra is a kind of spider, but no, he is a deity from Indian mythology and Indra’s Net is a way to visualize the wholeness of nature. This image stands for the connectedness of everything in nature.
The way I drive has an effect on the melting of polar ice, and what I eat has an effect on the quality of the air I breathe. ‘Dependent co-arising’ is a term sometimes used to refer to this connectedness. It refers to the fact that things that look separate at the front-end are actually connected at the back-end, and further, that they have no independent being.
The raindrops on the web are you and me, our elected representatives, the apple tree in the backyard, and what’s on TV tonight. They appear as worlds in themselves that reflect one another.
4. LET GO!
* Don’t hold on to grudges, arguments, regrets.
Don’t hold on to anything automatically.
* Open the hand of thought when you meditate.
Do this several times a day.
* Let every thought, every experience come fresh as you walk, as you go about your day.
* Feel free to hold on to positive and ecstatic thoughts and feelings intentionally.
5. ADJUST YOUR SAILS, DO NOT TRY TO CONTROL THE WIND
This is how Odysseus, Columbus, and other famed sailors reached their destinations. To start,
* Assess the wind. In business, it is the demand for a product. In a relationship, it is your partner’s personality.
* Figure out an appropriate course of action. In the Buddhist tradition, this principle is called UPAYA, or skillful means.
* For a student it means to know yourself so as to choose the right teacher or the right path. For a teacher, it means to know a student well enough to adapt a teaching to their needs.
* In meditation choose the time that works for you: early in the morning, after breakfast, when you wake up at night. Choose how you meditate: with mantras, guided meditations, alone, or in a group. Choose where you sit: in front of a window, in your bedroom, or create your special spot.
6. LET IT BE…
The Beatles said it with their song Let it be,
* Notice that though they are shaped by the same forces of Wind, Waves and Tides, each beachstone is “same and different” as the Zen tradition would say.
* Whatever it is, unreasonable people, unruly children, bad weather… let it be with a smile.
* Connect your smile with a smiling heart, a smiling mind, and a smiling body.
* Let the smile be your home. Come home to your smile with every breath. If you are walking, come home to it with every step. Do not let thoughts take you away from it. Let the smile be an expression of your life, like the flower is the expression of the life of the plant.
* Wherever you go, take your smile with you.
(Here ‘SMILE’ means a relaxed and open expression.)
7. KEEP ‘THE BLUE ELEPHANT’ IN MIND
You know what happens when you say, “I will not think of a pink elephant.” You actually think of one!
Instead, just think of a blue elephant, and watch the pink one disappear effortlessly.
“I will not think of food”, also has the opposite effect. With “I will not be anxious” you actually touch anxiety, and with “I will not think” you are already thinking!
Message? Use positive language. Examples:
* I will focus on the sensations of breathing.
* I will be one with my breath.
* I will keep love in mind when I speak.
* I’m safe here, I can relax.
SERVE YOURSELF A VARIED MEDITATION MENU…
Although the Zen tradition usually defines meditation as ‘Just Sitting’, it also embraces Koan Meditation, and many of the precious insights that define Zen masters happened outside regular meditation periods, as a result of what we might call contemplation. Here is an incomplete list of what I include in the term ‘Meditation’. Notice that some of these are close to Thinking. Thinking is not a dirty word. Some people take meditation to mean stopping all mental activity—
The descriptions below shed some light on the kinds of thinking that are productive:
1. Mindfully going over a past moment or encounter (Reflection)
Reflection comes naturally to us, especially when we wake up in the morning. Let it happen. ‘
Mindfully’ means without self-bashing.
2. Calming the Mind, or a mix of Body Scan, Mind Scan, and Letting Go
3. Mulling over the meaning of an event or thought (Contemplation)
A retreat often starts with a talk. The expectation for the following meditation sessions is for participants to digest it, not to ignore it. This is done with thinking.
4. Following up on an insight (Creative Meditation)
Insights sometimes come in dreams, sometimes spontaneously, or unexpectedly. Honour them.
They may be introducing a new chapter in your life.
5. Focusing intentionally on love and kindness, including toward yourself
The love that comes from a feeling of oneness with other living beings is at the heart of what is meant by Awakening.
6. Experiencing oneness with the breath (Breath Meditation)
Breathing is not something we do; it is part of who we are.
7. Letting a mantra or a song guide your meditation (Mantra Meditation)
The Beatles played a part in the Hare Krishna movement. Sikhs and many other Indian traditions use Kirtans as their principal way of meditating.
A healthy body requires a variety of foods such as proteins, carbs, and minerals.
A healthy mind is no different in its requirement for variety.
PRESSURE IS INEVITABLE, BUT STRESS IS OPTIONAL
We sometimes hear people say, “He has a stressful job.” This implies that work is to blame when the worker has difficulty adapting. But that’s not always true…
Think of a pressure cooker. Not everything turns to mush in a pressure cooker. A tomato would last maybe a minute. A glass jar, on the other hand, could last a long time without problems. There is no doubt that there are high-pressure jobs and environments. However, the effect of this pressure is not the same on everyone.
Are you a tomato or a glass jar?
Even a dog knows how to put pressure on its owner so she’ll take him out for a walk!
Mindfulness allows us to distinguish outside pressure from our thoughts about that pressure.
Avoid turning pressure into stress. Stress comes from our attitude toward pressure. Mindfulness is a way of self-monitoring that alerts us when we turn pressure into stress; this is the beginning of self-regulation.
(Note: this does not apply when the pressure is unbearably intense such as on a battleground, and the stress takes over the mind.)
From time to time take a deep breath and notice what your mind is doing.
Is it ruminating, daydreaming, or celebrating the moment?
Is it helping you move forward in your projects?
PAIN IS INEVITABLE, BUT SUFFERING IS OPTIONAL
“Life is suffering” is one of the Big Lies of Buddhism.
Nowhere in the Pali canon does the Buddha himself actually say this.
This is my simplified version of the central Buddhist teaching known as the Four Noble Truths.
Stuff happens to everyone; accidents happen, or we get sick. We lose a loved one or a job, or get dumped by a lover. The way we respond to these painful events determines whether and how much we suffer. Do we respond with serenity and accept the things we cannot change as the Serenity Prayer urges us to do?
Many people respond with negative thoughts such as, “Why me? Why now? What did I do to deserve this? This is so awful. It should not happen. Life is so unfair.” Buddha called such thoughts ‘the second arrow’. The idea is that the first arrow caused the actual pain. Now those negative thoughts around the pain are like a second arrow that hits the already hurting wound and makes it worse.
Buddha’s remedy was the teaching known as ‘The Noble Eightfold Path’. That path includes seven other elements besides Mindfulness.
Mindfulness means observing what’s happening (pain) nonjudgmentally; thus, all those negative judgments go out the window, and only raw pain is left. Surprise; raw pain is pretty bad, but not as bad as feared.
(Note: this does not apply when the pain is unbearably intense, and takes over the mind spontaneously.)
Mourning is a natural and healthy response to loss. But at a certain moment, acceptance of the new situation must prevail, and we must overcome our resistance to change and adapt.
LET US PLANT FLOWERS AS WELL AS PULL WEEDS…
GREEN TARA—A METAPHOR FOR INTEGRATING
MEDITATION INTO EVERYDAY LIFE
There are many models for the spiritual journey. They include monasticism, silent retreats, and wall gazing.
My favourite model is this image of Tara. Tara is not meditating in a vacuum—her life has context. She has one foot on the ground ready to go, symbolizing that she is responsive to others and to their needs.
Meditation is not opposed to or separate from the life of a couple, from family life, or a fulfilling work life. Those things provide us with meditation themes; they also make our days rich and fulfilling.
PS: Let’s not just admire her from a safe distance; let’s be Tara.