How I Meditate

The topic of meditation is a hard one to write about. There are many many different types of meditation. And with each type, there are hundreds of variations. It can get very confusing. This post is about how I currently approach meditation.

When I use the word meditation in this post, I mean my formal meditation practice where I sit down and deliberately practice meditation for a set period of time. This formal practice is like working in a lab where you can somewhat control the environment. However the distinction between formal practice and informal practice has to come together eventually so that there is no difference. Ultimately, every moment becomes the practice.

For now however, my typical formal practice looks like this:

A: Motivation for Meditating

Here I might recite certain phrases that I have resonated with. Although I find reciting to lack the oomph that I seek to begin my meditations. So often I will tap into creativity and say whatever is a genuine motivation for wanting to meditate right now.

This varies from, “I need a break to calm and settle my mind” to “I’m meditating for the benefit of all beings”.

B: Mindfulness of Breathing

This part might last longer than 15 minutes. Sometimes I will spend the entire hour on this part, or even longer. The practice is sometimes called ‘samatha’ which translates as ‘calm-abiding’. And that is what this is about – to calm, settle and relax the mind, but also have it be extremely sharp and attentive.

The foundation of this practice lies in relaxation, and really that is what I am doing. I am relaxing body and mind, yet maintaining alertness. This state of relaxed yet alert allows me to move onto part C and have a much more productive session. It increases my likelihood of discovering insight and cultivating wisdom.

‘Mindfulness’ can be defined as non-forgetfulness, or non-distraction. So mindfulness of breathing is all about never forgetting the breath, never getting distracted away from the breath. This is the practice.

C: Investigating the Domain of Body/Feelings/Mental Events/All Phenomena

These four domains – body, feelings, mental events and all phenomena come straight from the Satipatthana Sutta, which translates as the four applications of mindfulness. Again, mindfulness is defined as non-forgetfulness. I direct my attention to one domain (e.g. feelings), and ideally my attention stays there for as long as the session lasts. This doesn’t always happen and I lose steam. When that happens, I downshift to B and continue cultivating my attention with mindfulness of breathing.

When I can direct and sustain my attention on one domain, I can start to investigate the nature of it more thoroughly. This paves the way for insight to arise.

When I say investigate, what I do is bring in an inquiry. For example, say I have placed my attention on the domain of mental events (specifically mental images) occurring in the space of the mind. Each time a mental image arises, I observe it as best as I can without getting caught up in it. In that observation I pose a question – Is this mental image permanent? Is this mental image ‘my’ mental image? From where has this mental image come from? From where does it dissolve into?

These questions are posed not in an intellectual way. Sometimes they are not even voiced mentally. When I pose these questions I am not looking for a spoken answer. The questions act as an arrow – they direct my attention to an area that I might not have observed before. They offer a different perspective. I observe the mental image and see it’s nature. In this way I begin to directly experience the answers.

The better my attention, the longer I can sustain it on a domain of experience. I can also observe with greater clarity as my attention skill increases. If I don’t continue cultivating my attention skill, I end up reaching a plateau in my practice.

D: Loving-Kindness Meditation

Finally I end the formal sit with a few minutes of loving-kindness practice. Depending on how deep into the session I was able to go, this either involves mentally saying, “May I be happy. May I be joyful. May I be compassionate”, “May others be happy. May others be joyful. May others be compassionate” or it might involve a felt-sense of love and compassion within my heart, extending that feeling towards all other sentient beings. A combination of mentally saying and also feeling loving-kindness can happen.

This final bit also provides a bit of a plaster to C. Sometimes difficult things can come up, which can be quite unsettling and uncomfortable. The loving-kindness meditation soothes this, and is especially useful while I am still living a fairly normal life and have practical things to get on with.

Principles of Deep Work

My friend Fayomi recently shared Cal Newport’s latest book, Deep Work with me. I believe applying some of the principles from this book to my meditation practice will prove fruitful.

A formula shared in the book is this:

High-Quality Work Produced = (Time Spent) x (Intensity of Focus)

In meditation, instead of producing work, I am looking to discover insight. I believe the formula of (Time Spent) x (Intensity of Focus) also applies for gaining insight. With the exception that (Intensity of Focus) has to be grounded first in relaxation.

In the book, Cal Newport talks about how a maximum of 4 hours of deep work per day is about as much as one can handle before needing to stop and have a break. However for deep and irreversible insight to be discovered, my hunch is that I’ll need to be able to sit for more than 4 hours. When meditation is grounded in relaxation, it is not exhausting. In fact it is the opposite, with proper practice, one can sit for hours in meditation and come out of meditation feeling refreshed.

Together with Deep Work principles, the principles of deliberate practice are also important:

  1. It’s designed to improve performance.
    “The essence of deliberate practice is continually stretching an individual just beyond his or her current abilities. That may sound obvious, but most of us don’t do it in the activities we think of as practice.”
  2. It’s repeated a lot.
    “High repetition is the most important difference between deliberate practice of a task and performing the task for real, when it counts.”
  3. Feedback on results is continuously available.
    “You may think that your rehearsal of a job interview was flawless, but your opinion isn’t what counts.”
  4. It’s highly demanding mentally.
    “Deliberate practice is above all an effort of focus and concentration. That is what makes it ‘deliberate,’ as distinct from the mindless playing of scales or hitting of tennis balls that most people engage in.”
  5. It’s hard.
    “Doing things we know how to do well is enjoyable, and that’s exactly the opposite of what deliberate practice demands.”
  6. It requires (good) goals.
    “The best performers set goals that are not about the outcome but rather about the process of reaching the outcome.”

I believe Shinzen Young has translated deliberate practice principles beautifully for meditation with his ‘Three Accelerators. I have copied excerpts of the practice from his blog, but check out the links for the full explanations:

1) Trigger Practice
You expose yourself to a sight, sound, or physical-type body sensation that would tend to create a mental and/or emotional reaction within you. The stimulus could create a certain type of pleasant reactions (love, joy, interest…) or a certain type of unpleasant reaction (anger, fear, sadness, shame…). You vary the type, intensity, duration, and spacing of the stimulation so that you’re working against an edge but not overloading yourself (as in weight training).

2) Duration Training
Refers to learning how to maintain “practice in stillness” for longer and longer periods of time. By practice in stillness I mean formal practice where you don’t move much or at all. One traditional form of Duration Training is known as adhiṭṭhāna (strong determination sitting or “breaking through a posture”). In adhiṭṭhāna, you decide to sit for a period of time (1 hour, 2 hours, 3 hours, 4 hours, a day, a week…) with little or no voluntary movement. If you’ve never tried this, it may sound daunting if not impossible. But remember you can gradually work your way up to this sort of thing.

Duration training is based on a freeing perspective about how to achieve unconditional happiness. The assignment: “Find happiness independent of conditions!” is a daunting one. Where does one start? What direction do you turn towards in order to make that journey? It’s difficult to get a tangible sense of how to go about getting unconditional happiness. On the other hand, the assignment: “gradually deconstruct all sources of unhappiness!” is tangible. You can do that through experiencing each source of unhappiness so fully that it literally becomes clarified, i.e., transparent and insubstantial. As pain, confusion, fear, and such, become transparent, the light of unconditional happiness, which was always there, can now shine through.

3) Challenge Sequence

Take any meditation technique you relate to and attempt to maintain it through a sequence of progressively more challenging activities. Stay with each stage for however long it takes you to get as deep as you were in the previous stage.

Here’s an example:

1 Lying down
2 Seated eyes closed
3 Seated eyes open
4 Standing
5 Slow walking
6 Faster walking
7 Walking in a sensorily impactful environment
8 Simple exercise
9 More complicated exercise
10 Washing dishes
11 Cooking a simple meal
12 Cooking a more complicated meal
13 Carrying on a vacuous conversation
14 Watching low-impact TV
15 Watching high-impact TV
16 Carrying on a substantive conversation
17 Carrying on an emotionally charged substantive conversation

I hope this post was valuable. As I shared in my post on why I meditate, the practice for me is way beyond just wanting to de-stress or overcome anxiety. It’s about enlightenment. And for such a lofty goal, I believe a strategy is necessary – or a path. But ultimately, even that has to be dropped too ;-).

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