Category Archives: Meditations

Meditation: Setting an Intention


This isn’t a meditation in and of itself, but should be a process that you go through every single time you sit down on the meditation cushion. Setting an intention isn’t just one of the most important parts of meditation practice, it’s also one of the most important parts of living a successful and meaningful life. Before you embark on any endeavor, you should examine your motivation and set an intention that you believe truly accords with this motivation. If you aren’t satisfied with your motivation, then make a conscious effort to change it so that you can direct your energies towards your goal as directly as possible.

Setting a proper motivation before practicing meditation is important because otherwise you’re just playing a mind game with yourself. Actual meditation requires a tremendous amount of focus and discipline to keep from wandering into the comfort of dullness, so setting a sufficiently strong motivation that truly accords with your inner motivation is necessary to engage with your practice as fully as possible. Otherwise, it’s easy to allow yourself to be led off into distractions. Your motivation should form the heart and soul of your practice, giving you that energy to persevere through difficult sessions and keeping you constantly striving towards deeper levels of insight.

Most importantly, be honest with yourself about your motivation. This is not as simple as it sounds. As with all things, there is very rarely a single motivation for engaging in meditation, but rather a complex web of reasons that bring you to the cushion. In psychological terms, this is called the principle of multiple determination. Spend some time analyzing exactly what it is you’re hoping to accomplish through practicing meditation and why this is the case. Who are you meditating for? Before any of my meditation sessions with Tibetan Buddhists, they always encourage the group to set the motivation to strive to achieve wisdom for the sake of helping lead all sentient beings to enlightenment. This is a beautiful intention for serous practitioners, but it is often unrealistic for the average layperson. It’s easy to tell yourself that this is your motivation, but unless you really embody that feeling in your practice, it’s an empty intention. There’s no shame in setting your intention a bit lower. Again, be honest with yourself! If you try and fool yourself into thinking that you’re motivated by something loftier than you truly are, it will hardly add any weight to your practice. In fact, if you set a motivation that is too high and then become aware that you aren’t actually energized by it, you might fall into a state of guilt, which is entirely unproductive for practice.

That being said, not all motivations are good. It is possible to have an unhealthy motivation for meditation. Below, I list 10 forms of unhealthy intention that are often problematic for Western practitioners, though they are hardly limited to those in the West and there are many more forms of unhealthy motivation than I list here.

1) Quest for perfection and invulnerability. This is not what meditation is for. This type of motivation is most often guided by a feeling of narcissism, a desire to be self-sufficient, and to rise above ‘worldly concerns.’
2) Fear of individuation. This form of unhealthy motivation is guided by a fear of taking responsibility for one’s own life in the belief that this can be avoided by a defensive pursuit of ‘egolessness.’
3) Avoidance of responsibility and accountability. Freedom from ‘egocentric needs’ can rationalize avoidance of anxiety-producing situations (i.e. taking charge of life), causing one to retreat into meditation.
4) Fear of intimacy and closeness. Retreat into the idea of ‘no-self’ can appear to provide a way of neutralizing hurt by avoiding close relationships.
5) A substitute for grief and mourning. Similar to #4, the idea of ‘no-self’ can provide a refuge from painful emotions if misinterpreted.
6) Avoidance of feelings. This type of unhealthy motivation is guided by the belief that the goal of meditation is to reach a state of non-feeling, rather than becoming better attuned to our feelings.
7) Passivity and dependence. ‘Egolessness’ can masquerade as a way of causing one to suppress their feelings of anger and self-assertion, as well as to disguise codependency as compassionate service to a loved one
8) Self-punitive guilt. This entails using the idea of ‘non-attachment’ to act out underlying feelings of unworthiness and guilt (“Feelings are bad and therefore I’m bad for having them.”)
9) Devaluing reason and intellect. Belief in the idea that meditation solely promotes experience over rational thinking can reinforce avoidance of thinking as a way of blocking self-understanding.
10) Escape from intrapsychic experience. Similar to #4 and #5, this involves attempting to ‘let go of the ego’ as justification for repressing anything that produces anxiety or insecurity.

Notice that in many of the examples above, I place Buddhist terms in quotation marks. This is to highlight the fact that they refer not to the true Buddhist concept, but a misconception of it twisted to fit the psychological needs of the individual. All of these forms of unhealthy motivation reveal a misunderstanding of what meditation is designed to accomplish and, as such, cause the practitioner to engage in practice for the wrong reasons. It is important to examine our reasons for practicing so that we don’t fall into any of the pitfalls listed above. If your practice has previously been guided by one of these motivations, that’s okay. In order to change your motivation to something more healthy, you first need to recognize that your previous intention was misguided and not giving all the strength to meditate that you’re truly capable of mustering.

As time goes on, it’s inevitable that your meditations will change. Even day to day, your meditation is likely to be guided by different intentions. What is most important is to be aware of these various motivations and, whenever possible, to set an intention that you can truly believe in. It is only through setting a healthy motivation that you can fully get behind that you can dive as deeply as possible into practice and your own mind.


Meditation: Neutralizing Self-Pity and Worries


I was intending on doing my next post on meditation on setting a proper intention, but I’ve gotten a bit sidetracked and this seem to be the most fitting thing to write about after my last post. I’ve recently been working with a practice to try and help me work through my tendency to grasp onto my sad stories and use them as an excuse for inner stagnancy. It’s a Daoist qi-gong sound exercise that involves neutralizing self-pity and worry rather than bottling them or expressing them outright.

The practice begins with a round of 6-3-6-3 breathing, which is a simple form of Indian pranayama (breath control) used to condition the body to more involved breathing exercises. Sit upright with your hands on your lap and breath normally. Once your breathing has stabilized, breath in for 6 seconds, hold your breath with the lungs full for 3 seconds, breath out for 6 seconds, and hold your breath with the lungs empty for 3 seconds. 6-3-6-3. As you breath in, allow your belly to expand so your diaphragm has space to move downwards. Focus on your solar plexus as you inhale and be careful not to raise your shoulders as you breath in. As you exhale, draw your navel back in so that the diaphragm moves up, bringing your attention to your navel as you breath out. Do this 5 to 10 times, however many it takes for you to noticeably feel more relaxed and aware of the movement of your breath.

Next, sit on the edge of your chair and place your feet firmly on the ground with your legs spread. Curl your fingers and place your hands against your diaphragm. Inhale deeply and lean forward so that you’re facing the ground. During your exhalation make the sound ‘WH-O-O-O-O-O’ at a relatively high pitch, like an owl, for as long as your lung capacity allows. As you do this, visualize all of your self-pity and worries leaving your chest in the form of black smoke, exiting through the space between your eyebrows, and ejecting them deep into the earth. For those willing to adopt the potentially more questionable aspects of the practice, focus specifically on your spleen and pancreas as you release your negative emotions, as these are two of the primary organs that store self-pity and worry.

After you’ve finished exhaling, actively continue thinking that all of your worries have left your body. These can be either specific worries or just a general sense of anxiety that might pervade your life. Inhale and return to sitting upright with your hands placed on your lap, palms up. Visualizing a golden light radiating around your spleen and pancreas, think, “I am smiling on myself and all of my worries.” Continue this visualization for a few minutes, before taking another inhale and going back down to repeat. Repeat the process 3 times.

Through this practice of qi-gong, you should begin to feel a deeper sense of contentment with yourself. I personally find this practice incredibly helpful, since I am often quite hard on myself when not making the kind of personal progress I would like to be making. However, it is only through truly loving oneself and letting go of all forms of self-pity and self-hatred that we can begin to truly advance and help others. I’m hoping to post more qi-gong practices in the future, though admittedly I’ve become a bit distracted from writing on here. Nothing spurs me on to write more than positive feedback that any of this stuff might actually be helping someone!

Meditation: Proper Posture


For my first post regarding formal sitting meditation practice I thought the best place to start would be with proper sitting posture. Most people choose to sit cross-legged on the ground, though if this is uncomfortable then there’s nothing wrong with using a chair or even lying down (though beware of sleepiness.) Much of the instructions will be the same regardless of how you choose to position yourself.

(I would have liked to include pictures but my Internet wasn’t quite up to the task. Hopefully this is relatively self-explanatory, though I’ll attempt to put pictures up at a later date.)

Proper posture for seated meditation is absolutely imperative. Having a relaxed body facilitates having a relaxed mind, which makes it easier to get into subtle feelings, both physical and mental. It’s also closely related to how the energy (prana or rlung depending on which tradition coming from) moves throughout your body. In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition it is said that rlung (wind) is what carries the mind, so leaving your energy channels as open as possible to facilitate the movement of rlung is extremely important.

Lets start with the lower body. It often helps to sit on a cushion so that your hips are elevated above your knees. Feel free to use however many cushions you need when you’re getting started. It’s better to build down than to struggle with too few for a long time. Cushions aren’t always necessary but adopting this position helps relieve some pressure from your lower back, which is often one of the first places that tension crops up. There’s no reason to sit half or full lotus if it isn’t comfortable for you, especially early on in practice. Only when you can sit like that for at least 30 minutes is it okay to adopt complicated postures with your legs. If you do choose to sit in half or full lotus be sure that you aren’t blocking the flow of blood to your legs as they will fall asleep and become a distraction to your practice. The primary goal for your lower body is to establish a solid base to support the rest of your body. Be comfortable and be relaxed.

Pay close attention to your hips. As you rotate your hips back and forward, notice how this effects the position of your back. Avoid putting yourself in a position in which you’re arching or caving your spine too much.

Turning next to the abdomen and torso, lets focus on the back. The back should be as straight as possible, but without holding any tension. Allow your back to be soft straight. If this puts a slight curve in it, so be it. It often helps to imagine a string attached to the top of your head, which is gradually drawn up, pulling your back erect. It can also be helpful to lift yourself up on the in-breath and relax the muscles in your shoulders and back on the out-breath. It should feel as if your muscles are draped over your skeleton, holding as little tension as possible. This allows you to sink into the present moment, easing off all resistance to being in this moment right now.

In regards to the arms, it isn’t particularly important where you place your hands. Many people choose to put their hands on their knees, either cupping their knees, or resting with the palms facing upward. It is also common to place one’s hands in the lap, with the right resting gently in the left, connecting the thumbs at the top. This creates two circles in the body: one in the hands and the other formed by the arms. As a teacher once said to me, with the hands in this position it is like the Self resting in the Universe. Alternatively, the left hand of wisdom lies in the lap, while the right hand of compassion sits on top, thumbs coming together in union. Be sure to keep some space between the upper body and the arms so that heat can escape. If you are too warm while sitting it is likely that you will start to become sleepy and drift away from your object of concentration.

Keep your head upright in line with the spine. If the head comes down, it is easy to grow drowsy. If the head is tilted too far up, too much energy is likely to come up and flood your mind with thoughts. Think of your head like that of a swan, with the chin tucked slightly back. This opens the flow in the neck, allowing energy to move freely up and down the 2 central channels of the body.

The eyes are very essential. Many people believe that it is best to meditate with your eyes closed but this leaves you prone to sleepiness and daydreaming. Too wide open, however, and it is easier to become pulled in by distractions. It is best to leave the eyes just slightly open so that everything is darkened but shapes and colors are still visible. Initially, this will feel quite uncomfortable and the eyes will often flutter, opening and closing to resist relaxation. But if you keep at it and allow your eyes to relax, soon it will become very natural. This is very helpful in the long run to keep the mind sharp and focused. When you meditate you don’t use earplugs or stick things in your nose to prevent senses from entering those organs, so why attempt to block out all sensations to the eyes?

Place the tip of the tongue against the back of the upper teeth and pressed up against the roof of your mouth. This serves the double function of diminishing the amount of saliva that collects in your mouth so that you don’t need to swallow so much, as well as activating an acupressure point in the palette that increases blood flow to the pineal gland, which is located where mystics often cite the 3rd eye to be.

So that’s the body. Again, the main goal here is to be comfortable, remaining relaxed while simultaneously erect. Early on, it’s common for pain to develop in the knees and lower back, but this will lessen over time with regular practice.

In my next post on meditation I’ll get into the basics of shamatha, including the importance of setting a motivation each time before you sit, what you should be doing with your breath, and how to deal with painful sensations in the body. However, don’t forget, if the pain becomes too much and prevents you from focusing on your practice, feel free to move and readjust your body so that you’re comfortable. Don’t get carried away by moving with every minor ache, though, or you will never be able to settle in calmly.

Enjoy your practice.

The Life of a Happiness Junkie


What’s your addiction? Is it money? Is it girls? Is it weed? I’ve been afflicted with not one, not two, but all three. Why’s everything that’s supposed to be bad make me feel so good? Everything they told me not to is exactly what I would. Now I tried to stop, man, I tried the best I could but you make me smile with my heart.
-Kanye West

Diamonds are forever. For real doe?

Let me begin with a story about something that happened when I was 15 years old. I had just gotten a new video game and was so stoked on it that I planned on staying up all night to play it. It must have been a weekend night if I could afford to stay up all night but clearly beating this game was far more important than doing something social. Anyways, I brought all my blankets and pillows into the den because I knew I would be there all night and I wanted to be comfortable. As soon as I finished dinner I rushed off to the den and got holed up there for the long haul.
Sometime around midnight I started to get hungry (because I’d barely eaten anything at dinner so I could start playing as early as possible) so I went into the kitchen and looked in the pantry. There were two big boxes, each one filled with 10 small packets of these low-carb, bite-sized wafers. One of them was flavored like Oreos and the other was Chips Ahoy. I’m pretty sure that there were real cookies in the pantry but for one reason or another I decided I wanted to go low-carb. Clearly my 15-year-old self was extremely health conscious. I knew I’d be up for a long time and I needed sustenance if I was going to keep focused on playing my game all night so I brought all 20 packets into the den with me.
Over the next 4 or 5 hours I proceeded to eat every single one of the wafers. They were absolutely delicious. I have no idea how I did it, but somehow I finished every last one. I must have eaten at least 200 of these little cookies. Then, of course, I got incredible sick and threw up. Now I can’t even look at that snack without cringing.

What makes you happy? A fancy new watch? A 6-pack of good beer? Is it money? Is it girls? Is it weed? Or maybe just some low-carb, bite sized, Oreo flavored cookies? Maybe you’ve moved beyond the material ish and find your happiness in something else. How about long weekends? A beautiful day at the beach? Spending time with a loved one? Obviously these are some pretty great things, the stuff that happiness is surely made of.
But are any of these things actually true sources of happiness? What would it even look like for something to be a true cause of happiness? For something to deserve this label I believe that it would have to fulfill two conditions:

1)   It would always make you happy.
2)   The more you have of it the greater your happiness.

So think back to those things that make you happy. Do they meet those two conditions? Are they still making you happy right now? Would you keep getting happier with more and more of those things and experiences? Although it’s a simple example, I certainly learned that cookies were not a true source of happiness for me.

Because here’s the crux of the issue: what we view as happiness is actually in the nature of suffering. This is not to say that it is suffering, but that within every happy experience the seeds of suffering are already sown. As soon as a source of happiness arises so too does a new potential source of suffering. Buddhism labels this as the suffering of change, but an example might help.

Let’s say that you agreed that long weekends make you happy. Great, it’s 5 pm on Friday and you’ve got 3 full days of freedom ahead of you. But what starts to happen on Monday as it creeps up on you that you have to go back to work tomorrow? Suddenly the happiness of a long weekend starts to feel a lot like suffering.

Here’s another example. You’ve spent the whole day walking around and your body is exhausted. Sounds like suffering. You finally come to a chair and sit down. What a relief! But as soon as you’re sitting you’ve already created a new opportunity for suffering. As you sit for a longer and longer time your body starts to become uncomfortable until you finally stand up. What a relief! And yet soon the suffering of standing will set in yet again. And so the process goes on and on. There’s no relief.

Think about any experience you’ve ever had that has made you happy. Is it still making you happy right now at this very moment? Or did it come to an end? Even if the external conditions continued, do they still make you as happy as they once did? Don’t just take me at my word. Examine your own experiences. See how real the suffering that is inherent to happiness is.

Siddhartha saw merchants trading, princes hunting, mourners wailing for their dead, whores offering themselves, physicians trying to help the sick, priests determining the most suitable day for seeding, lovers loving, mothers nursing their children-and all of this was not worthy of one look from his eye. It all lied, it all stank, it all stank of lies, it all pretended to be meaningful and joyful and beautiful, and it all was just concealed putrefaction. The world tasted bitter. Life was torture.
-Herman Hesse

I understand that this may sound incredible pessimistic, but it is merely a realistic assessment of the way that our happiness works. Because it is common for us to grasp at things that make us happy, it is inevitable that we will experience dissatisfaction once the source of happiness comes to an end, as all things must.

Objects that we designate as sources of happiness are not pleasurable in and of themselves. They only seem to be because of the way that our minds perceive them. As I talked about in my meditation on the ‘I,’ once we label things as being agreeable to the ‘I’ we tend to grasp at them. This is not to say that happiness is inherently bad, but that it must be coupled with equanimity in order to avoid the suffering of change that grasping brings about. The mind that grasps is a mind that is always wanting more, always wanting better, constantly searching for its next fix of happiness.The mind that grasps is a mind that suffers. This doesn’t apply merely to material things, but to any sort of sensory-derived experience. So long as we want, we will never be satisfied.

Consider the 8 Worldly Dharmas. We all want to be happy and to avoid suffering. We all want profit and to avoid loss. We all want praise and to avoid criticism. We all want respect and to avoid disrespect. So long as we fall into this pattern of grasping and aversion we’re bound to remain dissatisfied. We must cultivate the mind of equanimity.

Just look at the impact of living in a society that runs on desire. It’s virtually impossible to maintain a steady level of happiness when we’re always in search of our happiness high. And each of these highs must be accompanied with a low. Such is the life of a happiness junkie.

Mindfulness is Not Enough


The first time that I can recall trying to meditate was nearly 5 years ago when I was living in India during high school. After that, I don’t think I picked the practice up again until I got to college, at which point I would sit with a group only once a week for 45 minutes. After my experience in India last summer I began meditating on a regular basis, though it wasn’t until this past spring that I began sitting on a daily basis (to the best of my abilities.)

This entire time I had solely been practicing shamatha (calm abiding/mindfulness) meditation. I’ll get into the particulars of this a bit more in a future post strictly on meditation, but, in short, the practice consists of allowing the mind to settle down into a state of mental tranquility. Thoughts continue to come and go but the idea is to not get sucked into any particular train of thought, instead observing the thought come and go, like watching a cloud move across an otherwise empty sky. A common anaology is that our mind is often like a murky pool filled with dirt. When the water is churned up it appears to be quite dirty. But as soon as the water is no longer being churned the dirt begins to settle on the bottom, revealing the water to actually be completely clear. So too with our minds and the constant thoughts that continually keep them moving.

During mindfulness meditation the mind becomes calm and increasingly aware of its own mental activity. Thoughts no longer come as rapidly and it becomes easier to identify them when they do. This increased awareness of one’s mental processes carries over into daily life, allowing one to more easily understand their thoughts and feelings in relation to the external world. This eventually creates a gap between immediate experience and action, allowing a person to respond to their environment rather than merely reacting to it. This leads to better decision-making and a generally more well thought out way of interacting with the world.

Mindfulness, however, is not enough. Don’t get me wrong. These are all wonderful benefits and I had certainly begun to notice them in my day-to-day life once I committed myself to regular practice. As one becomes progressively skilled at shamatha it becomes easy to get lulled into the idea that some true inner work is accomplished. But mindfulness is only the beginning. By helping to quiet the mind, mindfulness increases one’s ability to focus one-pointedly. This in and of itself is only useful to a certain point. It must be employed alongside other methods in order to maximize its benefit.

When paired with vipashyana (insight) meditation, mindfulness is able to do some of its best work. This entails using the concentration gained through shamatha to probe the nature of reality and our perceptions of it. One of its primary goals is to discover the 3 marks of existence: anitya (impermanence), duhkha (dissatisfaction), anatman (no-self). Shamatha alone will not unveil any of these truths.

By using insight meditation it is also possible to begin purifying one’s mind. By analyzing our various delusions with one-pointed concentration, it becomes possible to turn intellectual rationalizations of their disadvantages into a true experiential understanding, thus helping to cleanse the delusions from the mind. Essentially, a realization is being brought from the head into the heart. Again, shamatha alone cannot accomplish this.

This is not to say that mindfulness meditation should be thrown away. On the contrary, it is highly important in order to further develop other meditation practices. On days when I’m having a particularly difficult time with thoughts running amok, I now find that shamatha is certainly the most effective solution. But in less strained situations I often will only use mindfulness meditation as a warm-up before diving into vipashyana. The two methods must be used in tandem in order to maximize the results. As such, as I continue to present different methods of meditation, I’ll begin by giving a basic outline of shamatha to the best of my abilities, and will then proceed to various guided vipashyana meditations. I realize that guided meditations are far more useful when spoken aloud than when written down to be read by others but I don’t think I have the Internet speed (or suitably soothing voice) to make spoken guided meditations a reality.

Eating Mindfully


I thought it would be nice if every couple days I posted a different meditation practice that I’ve come across. I picked up a lot of Tibetan Buddhist practices over the past couple weeks, as well as a handful of meditations used by Theravadan Thai forest monks. There’s also a ton of meditation classes being taught in the area so I thought it would be interesting to check a bunch of them out so that I could compare different practices and try and get some sense of what different aspects of the mind each one is working on.

Most of these will be strictly sitting meditations but I’ll try to include some others that can be incorporated into your daily life if sitting down to meditate sounds a bit too daunting or time consuming. I can recall a number of times this past semester when someone has asked me a question about meditating and I’ve been rather unhelpful about it, which I’ve recently been regretting. There are many beautiful practices and I should take every possible opportunity to share them with anybody that demonstrates interest. I’m looking into the prospect of starting a Buddhist philosophy/theology/psychology club at school next year with a weekly meditation component but I figure this will have to do now. If nothing else, it’s a nice way for me to keep track of the various practices that I’ve collected.

I’m going to start with a practice that I had never seriously tried until going on retreat and it was extraordinarily eye-opening from even the first time I tried it. I believe it was made popular by Thich Nhat Hahn but I’m not familiar with his particular method so I’ll just share it as it was presented to me.

A delicious meal to be mindfully enjoyed to the last bite

A delicious meal to be mindfully enjoyed to the last bite

The purpose of this meditation is to eat mindfully. Through doing this practice I realized that almost every time I sat down to eat I was stuffing down food as if it were some sort of emergency for fear that the food was going to disappear at any moment. This often gave me issues with indigestion and almost always led to me eating far more than I should have since I didn’t give my stomach time to process how full it had already become.

It’s best to begin by taking a moment to give thanks for the kindness in the food. Think of all of the various factors that went in to making this meal possible: the people who prepared it, the people who brought the ingredients here, the people who grew those ingredients. But the list goes on: the sun, the rain, the earth, all of the countless beings that gave their life so that this food may exist, the people that mined the oil to fuel the vehicles that transported the food, etc. Such a list could go on ad nauseam and you’d never actually get to eat your meal so pick whatever aspects are most meaningful to you when you take your moment for appreciation.

As you begin to eat, examine your mind. What are you thinking about? Are you thinking about the food or do you drift into daydreams, fantasizing about the future, reminiscing about the past? Try to be present and keep the taste in mind, always thinking, “so much kindness in this food.”

Appreciating the kindness in the food

Appreciating the kindness in the food

Pay attention to what you’re doing with your utensils. As you chew one bite, are you already scooping up another? Are you absentmindedly playing with your food? Between every bite put your utensil down to give yourself the opportunity to truly reflect on what you’re eating. Notice that before one bite is finished the mind is already becoming impatient in anticipation of the next bite. Why does the mind do this? It is the exact same food. In fact, it will probably be even a bit worse because you have already tasted that flavor and it is no longer as new and exciting. And yet the mind continues to jump forward, always anticipating the next moment of pleasure rather than appreciating the one in which it is living.

Mindful eating can also be adopted in many other arenas in life. Try to be mindful when doing the dishes, when brushing your teeth, while driving, etc. I think that it has the potential to be particularly powerful during pleasurable sensory experiences, one of which is certainly eating. This practice also strikes me as especially applicable to sexual activities. Is the mind truly enjoying what the body is engaged in at the present moment or is it constantly looking towards the next change in posture, the next wave of bliss, whatever? I’ll pretend for the moment that this blog still has some semblance of boundaries so I’ll cut the meditation off there. But don’t forget:

Be Present. Be Thankful.