Tag Archives: mindfulness

Meditation: Setting an Intention

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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.

Mindfulness is Not Enough

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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

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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.