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The Essence of Meditation

The Essence of Meditation

This is the art of meditation—paying close attention to what is actually going on. Lewis Richmond gives us practical steps to find the essence of meditation. 

Part I: Turning the Light of Awareness Inward

Every religious tradition espouses some form of meditation or prayer, but because these practices are tied to a specific belief system, it can be a challenge to come up with a single common definition of meditation that unites them all. Even within Buddhism—my tradition—there are many meditative practices, each with different methods and goals. I would venture that a feature common to all meditation practice is “turning the light of awareness inward.” This means focusing the attention not on what is happening in the outside world, but on what is happening in the inner landscape of the mind, body, and emotions. While the ultimate goal for some meditation may be to directly experience the non-separate unity of inside and outside, usually before that can happen the inside needs to be revealed and explored.

Turning the awareness inward is not an exotic or mystical activity. It is part of ordinary human experience. In ancient times, when the world was a quieter place, noticing the inner life was something people could more easily do. In those days there were many times of undisturbed quiet—walking along a mountain path, herding cows or sheep, tending the fire at night—when the interior life of thought, dream, and vision could become vivid. It is our noisy world of today that is somewhat unnatural. The recent explosion of interest in meditation in the last few decades may be due to our need for an antidote to a world of cacophony and toxic overload.

That said, turning awareness inward is only the first step. For spiritual transformation and wisdom, more needs to happen. Such work requires good teaching, mental focus, sustained attention, and the ability to ask questions and inquire deeply into the nature of experience and of reality itself. Over countless generations spiritual seekers have devoted their lives to such a discipline, and their collective wisdom is one of the precious achievements of humankind. They are the good teachers that can help us in this work. I had the good fortune of meeting my teacher, Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, when I was a young man attending Christian seminary in the 1960s.

You may be familiar with the Zen concept of “beginner’s mind,” which was developed by Suzuki Roshi. He coined the phrase not so much to describe the mind of someone who is a beginner, but rather one who has the ability to set aside all previous assumptions and accept a given experience as though for the first time. Suzuki Roshi often said that “beginner’s mind” can be an advanced practice. So, whether you are new to meditation or you’ve been meditating for decades, in the deepest sense we are all beginners.

This is the art of meditation—paying close attention to what is actually going on.

At the root of meditative work is the conviction that the ordinary visible world that we see and hear is not the whole of reality. In fact, it is a kind of veil or smokescreen that can lead us away from what is wholesome and real. To truly understand how things actually are, we have to penetrate the veil of outer appearance and look closely at what is beneath it. This is the art of meditation—paying close attention to what is actually going on.

Thus far I have avoided religion-specific terms like God, Buddha, emptiness, enlightenment, the non-dual, the soul, and so on. Such terms are useful in teaching, but they are not the experience itself. The most important thing is to actually do the inner work. To illustrate this point I like the following story about Ikkyu, a Zen teacher of 14th-century Japan.

One day a wealthy patron came to Ikkyu and asked him to write a calligraphy expressing the most essential teaching of Buddhism. Ikkyu got out paper, brush and ink, and after a moment’s thought, wrote the single Chinese character for “attention.” This is not what the wealthy patron had in mind. Ordinarily, Zen priests write a lyrical poem with allusions to pine boughs, mountain streams, and other aspects of nature as a metaphor for Buddhist understanding.

“Perhaps the Master has not completed his poem,” the patron said politely.

Ikkyu picked up his brush and wrote the same character for “attention” again. This time the patron’s displeasure was evident. Ikkyu, also becoming annoyed, picked up the brush and wrote the character for attention three more times: “Attention, attention, attention!”

Pay attention!—this is indeed the essence and source of all wisdom. Ikkyu may have been suggesting that the patron pay attention to what was going on in the room right then. What Ikkyu might have meant was “What are you doing, my friend? What is your motivation? Do you just want a poem of mine to show off to your wealthy friends? What principles guide your life? The words I write, the terms I use, the inspiring phrases I write—those are not the essence of the teaching. Pay attention! That is what matters.”

It is interesting to note that the Chinese character for “attention” is a combination of two other ideograms—one for “mind” and one for “now.” Now-mind: meditation in a nutshell, courtesy of Ikkyu, ancient man of wisdom.

Part II: Why Meditate? The Purposes of Meditation

People come to meditation to fulfill a variety of needs, and there are many varieties and flavors of meditation to meet those needs. Sometimes a person’s motivation is conscious and clear; other times it can be a bit murky. That’s all right, as long as your motivation keeps you coming back to your cushion or chair. If your practice is sincere and you have good teaching, motivation will become clearer over time.

Among the reasons why people come to meditation are: to reduce stress and achieve mental ease and calm, to ease one’s own suffering, to understand the suffering of others, to cultivate compassion, to enter an altered state of pleasure or bliss, or to achieve spiritual realization. These goals are not mutually exclusive; in fact, to some extent they represent stages or milestones on the spiritual path. Each one is worthy in its own right.

Achieve Ease and Calm. When I ask my own students, “Why are you meditating?” they often say that they are doing it to achieve calm. From the perspective of ultimate wisdom, achieving calm may be a side benefit rather than a final goal. But a calm mind is able to see more clearly, and clarity is a prerequisite for wisdom. When I follow up and ask, “I understand that you are here to achieve calm. But can you think of another reason?” Then they may say, “To understand myself better,” “To become enlightened,” “To be more compassionate in my life.”

Calm can be seen as a gateway motivation. People have an intuition that a calm mind is the entryway to deeper understanding, and they are right. Calm leads to insight.

Ease Suffering of Oneself or Others. All beings suffer; this is the first teaching of the Buddha, and the principle reaches into other religions as well. For example, Christians identify with the suffering of Christ as a way to transform suffering. Indeed, all spiritual traditions have had to deal with the universal nature of suffering. Buddhism delineates many types of suffering, from physical pain to the impermanence and loss that is written into the very fabric of existence. Spiritually speaking, it is this existential suffering that meditation practice can most deeply transform. Spiritual teachers of every tradition know that what brings students in the door is most often their own suffering—sometimes physical, sometimes psychological and emotional, and at root always existential.

Since meditation begins with turning awareness inward, this also means to turn toward, rather than away from, one’s pain. This may seem counter-intuitive—Who wants to focus on pain?! But this is actually the best way to ease it and work on it. The pioneering work of psychologist Jon Kabat-Zinn in developing “mindfulness-based stress reduction” has scientifically confirmed this.

Love is the deepest reality, written into the fabric of the universe, and meditation leads there naturally.

Cultivate Compassion. Ancient sages as well as modern scientists have discovered the same truth: that meditation increases compassion. It may seem contradictory to think that by turning attention inward we increase our connection to what is outward, but when we come to appreciate the preciousness of our own life, we open our hearts to the value and dignity of all living things. There are many methods to cultivating compassion through meditation—prayer and visualization are two—but all these methods build on the truth that “big mind,” as revealed through meditation, is intrinsically compassionate. Love is the deepest reality, written into the fabric of the universe, and meditation leads there naturally.

Altered States. There are many ways to achieve an altered state of mind—including mind-altering substances and intoxicants. Certain styles of meditation can produce an altered state too. As a temporary means to ease anxiety, depression, or fear, an altered state is a seductive option. However, altered states have two problems—they are temporary, and they tend to become addictive over time. Altered states have their place, and every experienced meditator has encountered them, but they are a way-station, not a goal, for authentic spiritual life. It is no accident that one of the fastest-growing applications of meditation today is in helping people in recovery from drug, alcohol, and other addictions. Millions of people have been introduced to the concept of meditation through the twelve steps since that method was introduced by the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous in 1935.

Enlightenment. This English term means many things to many people, but it lacks specificity. Somewhat better terms are insight, awakening, and realization, but the underlying question remains: realization of what? The ultimate truth or reality of the universe? Direct apprehension of the divine or of God? These are open questions for the aspiring meditator.

In the Buddhist tradition it is taught that realization is innate. In other words, it is already a part of who you most deeply are, and the spiritual practice opens you up to that. There is a well-known Zen dialogue that illustrates this point.

Joshu, a student, came to his Zen teacher and asked, “What is the Tao?” (By “Tao” he meant ultimate truth or enlightenment).

Nansen, his teacher, replied, “Everyday awareness is the Tao.” (In other words, you already have it right now.)

Joshu asked again, “How do I realize it?”

Nansen replied, “The more you seek it, the farther you are from it.”

This teaching story offers a profound insight into what we are actually doing when we meditate. In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, the type of meditation that leads to realization pointed out by Nansen is called “resting in true nature.” In other words, you don’t seek awakening by doing anything special; instead, you let go of all ideas about what you are doing, and simply rest in Being itself. You don’t seek something you don’t have, but rather let go of what you don’t need. This is what the teacher meant when he said, “The more you seek it, the farther you are from it.”

All meditation, of whatever variety, includes some quality of resting in true nature. Eventually, all roads lead there. But the path is not simple. The student in the story was by no means a beginner, yet he still had the question in his heart, “How do I find it?” This student stands in for all of us. There are no shortcuts, only perseverance.

Part III: Types and Methods of Meditation

While the essential direction of all meditation is to turn the attention inward, there are myriad methods for how to do that. These methods fall broadly into three categories: focusing the attention on a single object, letting the attention follow a succession of objects (also known as “mindfulness”), and not focusing on anything in particular.

Single Focus. In the first category, the most common objects for mental focus are the breath, a sound, or an image.

Breath. In the Buddhist tradition, watching, counting, or following the breath are foundational practices, ones that strengthen one’s ability to focus the mind. Breath practice offers several benefits. Watching the breath turns the mind away from its habitual objects—thoughts and images—and focuses it on a single object. The breath becomes attention’s anchor, since the breath—unlike thought—is steady, rhythmical, and without distracting content. In fact it doesn’t really have much content at all! Breath practice enhances all the other meditation methods. Although it is everyday and mundane, breath also touches the transpersonal and the divine and is largely immune to ego’s self-clinging.

Sound. A common example of sound meditation is the repetition of a seed syllable or mantra, as practiced in Transcendental Meditation, some forms of yoga, and Tibetan Buddhism. This practice offers many of the same benefits as breath meditation; many people find that mantra is easier for maintaining focus than the breath. As a kind of primal thought, mantra crowds out other thoughts and stabilizes the mind. Mantra is an important adjunct to the breath as a vehicle to develop focus and stability.

Image. Meditating on an image is often called visualization, though it is more accurate to call it imagination. Indeed, much of what we call thinking is really visual imagination. I live in the San Francisco Bay area, so to illustrate this point to my students I often say, “Picture the Golden Gate Bridge.” Instantly everyone can do it. They can even tell you where they are standing when they picture it, what the weather is like, and how heavy the traffic is. Visualization is used in cultivation of compassion, in identifying with an archetypal spiritual figure such as Christ or Buddha, and in cultivating calm mind. It has secular uses too. Modern-day athletes use visualization to enhance their performance, and visualization is even being applied to achieving business success and other non-spiritual goals.

Mindfulness. Focusing on a succession of objects or events is a form of mindfulness. Mindfulness can be done while sitting still, but it can also be done in the midst of activity. Mindfulness means to notice, without judgment or elaboration, what is happening right now. And keep doing that, so that in the next moment, you notice the next thing that’s happening right now. The underlying attitude of this practice is termed “bare noting.” It is “bare” because you avoid adding any interpretation or value to the experience. It is noting because all you do is make note; you don’t follow up or pursue. So, for example, if you have a strong unpleasant emotion, such as anger, you note to yourself, “Oh, now I am experiencing anger.”

We may ask: “Who is making that observation?” In meditation study we call this “who” the observer. While some part of you is feeling anger, the observer is not himself or herself angry. The observer is simply watching what is happening. Mindfulness is used today in many fields, including psychotherapy, hospice care, pain management, and in the treatment of post-traumatic stress. However, mindfulness was originally a type of meditative investigation into the nature of our mental and emotional experience.

No Focus. The third category is meditation without any specific focus or goal. “Resting in true nature” is the Buddhist term. In an interfaith context, I sometimes call it “resting in divine presence.” Since this practice requires good stability as a pre-requisite, it is often considered advanced. But it is also the most intuitive or natural of all meditations. In the deepest sense, we are always resting in true nature. The problem is that true nature is so fundamental and subtle that we aren’t usually aware of it, and thus can’t draw on it to transform our lives. To do this we need good teaching and teachers, as well as sustained meditative effort.

All these categories of meditation are not really separate. They exist on a continuum of self-awareness. To some extent these different approaches to meditation exist because people have different temperaments and find some methods more intuitive or appropriate. For example, I have students who find it difficult to sustain concentration on the breath, but find visual imagination much easier. Which practice works best for you is partly a matter of individual preference, but can also be discovered with the help of your teacher or mentor.

Part IV. Meditation in Daily Living

My teacher once said, “You think meditation practice happens for an hour when you come here to my temple to meditate. But actually it is happening all the time. Every moment of living is a moment of practice.”

It is not immediately clear what Suzuki Roshi meant by this. Certainly, for most people, how they feel when meditating and how they feel in their busy lives is rather different. Many people regret that they are not able to be more “meditative” in the course of their busy day. There is no need to be critical that way. What you feel while formally meditating is only a small part of what is actually going on. The deepest activity of meditation happens outside of your conscious experience, in the “back of your mind” as opposed to the “front of your mind.”

I sometimes liken it to pouring water into sand. It looks as though the water quickly disappears. But actually the water is not lost. The fruits of meditative practice come to rest in a deep reservoir, growing the more you practice. This reservoir holds the transformative benefit of meditation during busy activity, whether you are aware of it or not. You may not know it or feel it, but it is there—supporting and helping you. We can trust what Suzuki Roshi says, and practice meditation in the faith that its effects ripple out into all aspects of daily living—not all at once, but gradually, week by week and month by month.

The life you live, day by day, is the crucible in which the practice of meditation truly proves itself. As I often say to my students, what really matters is the kind of person you are and what you do. Some people practice meditation in order to attain an altered or blissful state, or to experience an epiphany after which their life will be permanently improved. It is natural to yearn for such an experience, and many popular books on meditation seem to offer that kind of promise. Indeed, Suzuki Roshi sometimes seemed to inhabit a different realm of spiritual knowledge or deep inner wisdom. But as I got to know him better, I came to see that what made him truly extraordinary was not some mysterious spiritual magic, but the way he treated each person with deep compassion and respect, the way he acted from genuine humility, the way his ready smile and easy laughter lit up the room.

Once, when he was asked if spiritual awakening is gradual or sudden he said, “It is both.” He paused for a moment and added, “But really, it is gradual.”

If you think about it, how could it be otherwise? No matter how deep your spiritual transformations, how earth-shattering your meditation epiphanies, you still have to get up the next morning, wash your face, get dressed, and go about your business. The ordinary and the extraordinary are not really different; they are two different ways of looking at the same reality.

In closing, I will tell one more Zen story, one in which the Joshu of the earlier story is now older and a teacher in his own right.

A young monk came to Joshu. Joshu asked him, “Have you had breakfast?”

The monk said, “I have.”

Joshu said, “Then wash your bowls.”

This story is told in a kind of spiritual shorthand; it needs a bit of interpretation to become vivid. Joshu’s question really means, “Have you had some deep spiritual experience through your meditation?”

After the monk’s affirmative reply, Joshu’s response means, “Okay, that was then, this is now. Forget about it. Do the next thing. Continue your life.”
May we all have the humility and courage to ply our spiritual path in such a spirit!

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Lewis Richmond
Lewis Richmond

Lewis Richmond is a Buddhist priest and meditation teacher and author of four books including the national bestseller Work as a Spiritual Practice (1999) and the recent Aging as a Spiritual Practice: A Contemplative Guide to Growing Older and Wiser. Lewis was one of the early disciples of Zen Master Shunryu Suzuki Roshi and is an authorized teacher in the Suzuki lineage. He leads a meditation group based in Tiburon and Mill Valley, CA and is a regular contributor to the magazines Tricycle, Shambhala Sun, Buddhadharma, and The Huffington Post. More at http://www.LewisRichmond.com