Meditation 101

By Peter Schroedter

Meditation as I practice it, draws heavily on current teachers, Ajahn Brhan , Ajahn Sumedho, and Jack Kornfield. They are western students of Ajahn Chah who taught the Thai Forest Theravada Tradition to Westerns in the 1960s  and ‘70s.  This is the tradition I follow.   

Knowing what to expect when meditating and learning how to overcome the problems with the advice from the venerable teachers helped me progress. We will all encounter problems because our minds in their “natural state” generate endless streams of chatter looking for attention. 

In early stages of meditation problems arise in a predictable pattern and without solutions we will become discouraged, often quitting before we have really begun to practise. The untrained mind has no focus and jumps from thought to thought.  This “monkey mind” is the untrained mind

The purpose of meditation is to train the mind to rest comfortably in its calm, natural state.

It is only though persistent meditation we can approach a level of practice that opens our minds to the Buddha’s teachings. It is by applying the Buddha’s teaching we will find calm and relief from our suffering. 

Early on in my practice I sensed moments of mental stillness. This gave me hope that with persistence I could quiet the endlessly racing thoughts to find calm.  

Many mornings I gave up.  Then in desperation I’d sit again next morning in hopes finding quiet spaces between my breaths.  It was that occasional glimpse of the quiet space that convinced me to persevere.

In his book, The Mind and The Way, Ajahn Sumedho discusses what to expect when practicing meditation. He states the most important thing in meditation is having the right attitude and stresses the quality of perseverance.

Ajahn Sumedho points out that many westerners meditate wanting to gain or achieve through meditation. This is not surprising considering our social conditioning in the western world which is all about achieving, or becoming something. His advice is to learn to meditate without trying to gain. Simply observe how thoughts come and go while focusing on the breath. 

Ajahn Sumedho is echoing his teacher Ajahn Chah, who in his book Living Dhamma, said we all come to meditation looking to gain something or we would not have come to the practice. The sooner we give up the idea of gain the better our ability to maintain our focus.   

The important thing is a calm mind,  being aware of thoughts as they arise. Then letting the thoughts go without clinging so as not to get lost in a train of thought that won’t lead you anywhere.  

In a talk to Westerners Ajahn Chah describes how he teaches focusing on the breath: “Think of the in breath as a welcome visitor you meet at the door — the tip of your nose. You follow as they enter your home, you let them rest comfortably until they are ready to leave — you follow them all the way out.”

He tells his students to breath naturally.  If the focus is lost, gently bring it back and start again. To refocus after getting lost, two or three deep breaths work. When I started meditating I counted my breaths to remain focused.  

Jack Kornfield compares learning to meditate to training a puppy.  It’s to be done with gentleness, patience, and persistence. Kornfield writes: “When people first come to meditation class to train in mindfulness they hope to become calm and peaceful. Initially meditation can reveal self-judgment and harsh criticism.” 

In my experience, self judgment is usually followed by agitation, boredom and a list of disjointed distractions ranging from itches to aches and annoying sounds and a host of purely random thoughts marching onto the mental hamster wheel.  

Starting meditation is like going to kindergarten; we all have to do our time in the sand box.  To become proficient requires effort, perseverance and a little guidance. Don’t expect a lot to happen in a hurry. Practice requires seemingly endless repetition with no noticeable change. 

In one of his You Tube Dharma talks, Ajahn Brahm said meditation is a lot of hard work with no sign of reward. He compared it to working for a paycheque: “You go to work daily but you get paid every two weeks.”

With persistence there is change even though it is imperceptible until it one day you notice a change in your thought response or how your behavior to something is different now. 

The Theravada meditation practice often has us focus on our breath. Every breath is gentle and natural in its depth and regularity.  Keeping the attention on the breath keeps our mind from following random thoughts as is normal in the untrained mind    

Once we can hold our focus on our breath, the stage is set for the next phase of meditation. This is when the mind becomes quietly observant of every aspect pertaining to what is happening around it. We learn to see thoughts arising and disappearing without following or becoming agitated or distracted.  

Our untrained minds produce thoughts the way our saliva glands produce saliva. Producing thoughts is the mind’s function. Training the mind to become calm is a big job requiring patient perseverance. 

In addition to breathing techniques already mentioned there are a number of things that can help establish focus in the over-stimulated mind. 

For me the first step is to determine when I am most inclined to practice. Early mornings are good for me, evenings are good for others. Make sure you can set aside 10 to 30 minutes to the practice at this time without interruptions. If all you can manage is 10 minutes, be happy with that until you can manage more time sitting. 

The next step is to create a “sacred” space. Any place will do as long as you aren’t going to be disturbed.  You can light a candle or set up picture that inspires you. A picture or small statue of the Buddha is what I use.

Once you have the space, create a preparation ritual.  I read excerpts from Buddhist teachings to get ready. I used to play a Buddhist chant. The preparation ritual prepares me to focus on my breath. It’s like making a sandwich — when it’s made your ready to eat.

There are days when my mind simply has too much activity and jumps back into chatter mode. I can usually draw it back to the breath with two or three deep breaths. I used to get annoyed when I had to deep breath to refocus but now accept it as part of the process. 

Some people simply cannot get their minds to focus on the breath. When I have this problem I try focusing on a candle flame.

There have been times when I have been too restless or upset for the candle flame to quiet the chattering monkey mind and twitchiness. This is when I do a walking meditation. Walking calmly, keeping the eyes two to three meters ahead of me with the focus on each part of the step. I walk 10 to 15 steps then turn slowly and walk back. This can be done inside or outside.  

With practice awareness, or mindfulness, becomes the norm. In this state of awareness the mind receives information and — based on a deliberate conscious analysis — can decide calmly to either release the thought and move on, or to act on the information. Without a calm mind of awareness, our reactions are reflexive, instinctive, and often heedless.  

For many people, the mentally calming effect of meditation is all they want. For others, mindfulness becomes the foundation of a very rich practice that colours every aspect of life. For me meditation has made the teachings of the Buddha available as part of my practice which I try to incorporate into my life.

To close I’d like to do an exercise in meditation examining the persistence of the thought generation capacity of the mind.

Let’s take a couple minutes to meditate. During this time I’d like you to keep track of the number of thoughts that come up. It doesn’t matter how many thoughts present themselves. Just be aware of them and try to release them. The more you do this the easier it becomes.   

 Thoughts arise, are acknowledged and released.  One thought or 100, it doesn’t matter — just being aware is the object of the exercise.

Peter Schroedter began meditating in the Buddhist Theravada tradition four years ago while he was reading The Wise Heart by Jack Kornfield: “This opened my mind to the possibility that meditation might help make my life better. Meditation did improve that and continues to improve my life.”