The practice of Calm Abiding Meditation
From the book Healing Relationships by Lama Choedak Rinpoche
We all have an instinct to be calm and have calm. There is never a time when we do not wish to be calm. Calmness is in our nature; it is in the hearts and minds of every one of us.
However, calmness should not be confused with inaction. We can only cultivate calmness through understanding the causes of agitation and making a deliberate act to transform our agitation into a calmer state of mind. Calm abiding is the safest way of being; it is in fact active peace.
To learn calm abiding meditation techniques we must understand that most of the time we are calm, but we must learn to abide in that state without becoming distracted. Seeing that the mind is calm and not letting any external stimuli distract the mind will allow us to dwell in a state of calmness. Calm abiding meditation techniques help our minds to become relaxed, focused and peaceful. This enables us to recognise the causes of our unhappiness and to recover from stress, anxiety and tension. Learning to have calm abiding as a way of being helps us to remove undesirable habits, improves our confidence and adds a touch of dignity and sacredness to our life.
Preparing for Meditation
Having the right conditions for meditation is important if we want to maximise our ability to meditate effectively. Just as we need the right conditions to undertake most of the activities in our lives, to practise meditation we also need certain requirements or conditions. The following list includes the five main requirements to establish a solid meditation practice for calm abiding meditation.
Find a peaceful and conducive place to meditate - If we live on our own, this will not be difficult; if we live with others, and especially if we live with our family, some negotiation may be needed to set aside a place where we can sit without intrusion or interruption. More accomplished meditators might find a `retreat' in the midst of nature, far from the numerous distractions of daily life, in which to meditate.
Arrange an area or space for meditation that will reflect our desire to cultivate calmness - The space we create might include some flowers, a lighted candle or an image of spiritual significance to us. We might care to burn incense or fragrant oils to help us establish a calming ambience. If we are devoted spiritual practitioners we might choose to practise meditation in. the presence of a simple shrine, with inspiring spiritual images or symbols to help instil a positive state of mind. And, of course, we need a meditation mat, cushion or seat, which may be an armless chair for those who have physical limitations that make it difficult for them to sit in a cross-legged position.
Allocate a specific time to meditate - This is one of the most important requirements for a meditation practice. In the beginning we may only spend 15 to 20 minutes sitting in meditation, but this will gradually increase as we become familiar with the practice and the benefits it brings. The regularity of our practice is more important; if we can commit to meditating daily, we will gain a significantly greater benefit than if we meditate only sporadically. It is also important to assign a time of day to meditate; many practitioners find that meditating in the early morning, when their minds are not so filled with distracting thoughts, is a more effective time for their practice.
Establish a positive motivation for your meditation - Simply reflecting on the benefits of cultivating calmness and mindfulness, such as reduced stress levels, greater tolerance of difficulties and improved relationships with others, can help us to establish a state of mind conducive to our meditation practice. However, the best motivation we can cultivate is the desire that we can be of assistance to others, and t hat, through our meditation practice, we will enhance our ability to help bring them happiness and to free them from suffering.
Reinforce your positive motivation by reciting inspiring words or verses - For those with a spiritual inclination, reciting prayers or spiritually inspired verses will be beneficial. The "Reflections on Calm Abiding Meditation" below is an example of uplifting verse that can help us to maintain an appropriate motivation for our practice.
The Meditation Posture
There are seven main elements of our meditation posture that will enhance our ability to meditate, which are as follows:
- Sit in a cross-legged position. This helps to give us a sense of stability or groundedness and acts as a foundation for the rest of our posture. We can think of it as a symbol of our promise to ourself to sit still for the duration of our meditation. This aspect of our posture helps us to harmonise the earth element of our body, the solid part of us: bones, flesh, sinews and so on.
- Place your hands in your lap. We place our right hand lightly on top of the left palm, with our thumbs gently touching. This is a symbol of the harmony of opposites, or avoidance of extremes. We no longer wish to succumb to restlessness or lethargy or to extremes of emotion, such as elation or depression. As the thumbs form a triangle and are pointed slightly upward as they touch, they can be likened to a candle flame. Just as a flame burns up objects in its path, so too we wish to eliminate obstacles to our development of calmness. This second element of our posture harmonises the fire element within our body ó the warmth that maintains our life-force and initiates growth.
- Keep the back straight. This third point of our meditation posture is essential and is supported by the other six points of the posture. To be able to be calm and mindful when sitting in meditation, our back must be straight. If we sit too rigidly we are likely to be restless; but if we allow our back to bend and our posture to slump we will soon succumb to drowsiness. Maintaining a straight back allows all of the energies in our upper body ó our nervous system, lymphatic system, veins and arteries, as well as all the subtle energy channels that support our consciousness - to flow without obstruction. This enhances our alertness or awareness and we are less likely to feel sleepy or lethargic when we meditate. Our straight back also helps to harmonise the water element within our body; the blood, lymph and other bodily secretions.
- Bend the neck forward slightly. Bending our neck slightly forward helps us to maintain our straight back and avoid sitting too stiffly or rigidly.
- Keep the shoulders and arms balanced and relaxed. Our shoulders and torso should neither slump forward, nor lean backwards. This aspect of our posture ensures that the proper balance between the position of the head and spine is maintained. We should try to have space between our arms and body to allow air to circulate, avoiding overheating.
- Keep the eyes partly open and gaze softly down. The gaze of our eyes should rest relaxedly on a point about a metre in front of us on the floor. Our eyes are neither open wide, which would cause visual distraction, nor closed, which would make us feel drowsy. We should focus neither too sharply nor too loosely. The gaze of our eyes should reflect our desire to develop calm and serenity.
- Relax the face and jaw. Our mouth and jaw should be relaxed and natural. Our teeth should be either lightly touching or slightly apart. Similarly, our lips should be lightly pressed together or have a small space between them. The tip of the tongue should rest on our upper palate, behind our upper front teeth.
These last four aspects of the meditation posture - neck, shoulders, arms, eyes, mouth and jaw - help us to harmonise the air element in our body; the breath and other subtle energies that support movement in both the body and mind.By reflecting on these seven elements of our posture whenever we meditate, we create the conditions for developing bodily stability. We call this `mindfulness of the posture'. As we continue to meditate, our mindfulness of the correct meditation posture will help us to cultivate the mental stability we are seeking through meditation.
For those who need to sit in a chair, the most important element of posture is keeping the back straight. It is best not to lean against the back of the chair as this makes it difficult to maintain awareness of our back posture. Also, if we tend to slump in the chair we will easily become drowsy. Our feet should rest naturally on the floor, with our legs either straight or crossed, depending on which is more natural or comfortable for us. All the other aspects of our posture should be the same as detailed above, although the gaze of our eyes will rest on a point on the floor about 1.5 to 2 metres in front of us.
Mindfulness of our posture is important not only at the beginning of our meditation. It is vital to check our posture throughout our meditation session, especially to ensure that our back remains straight. The next step is focusing our mind single-pointedly on the breath.Mindfulness of the breath
Having first stabilised our bodily posture as discussed above, we can now turn our attention to the breath. To begin, we simply note the cycle of our breathing. First we feel the breath entering our body ó the inhalation. We may feel the sensation of breath as it enters the body at the tip of our nose, or we may note a sensation of movement of the breath at the top of our throat or in the movement of our diaphragm.
Next we become aware of the retention phase of the breath ó the pause or space between our inhalation and our exhalation. We may initially find this phase of the breath difficult to distinguish from the end of the in-breath and the beginning of the out-breath, but as our meditation progresses and we relax into our breath the pause between our inhalation and our exhalation will lengthen.
The third part of the cycle of our breath, the exhalation, follows when our body recognises the need to expel excess gases. Again we may feel the movement of air outward from our body in the diaphragm, the top of the throat or at the tip of the nose.
To begin with, focus for a few minutes on simply becoming aware of the three-part cycle of the breath. Then, when you can do so without distraction, move on to `qualifying' the three parts of the breath.
On each in-breath, imagine that you are inhaling positive energies, along with life-giving oxygen. You may visualise this energy entering your body as white light. The positive energies you inhale could be imagined as healing aspects of nature, or they could be qualities you wish to attain or enhance, such as generosity, patience or calmness.
At the point of retention of the breath, imagine that the positive energies you have inhaled are transported around your body, rejuvenating each cell in your internal organs, your flesh, your bones and so on. Imagine that this energy also dislodges exhausted body products or energy blockages in your body. Visualise this rejuvenating energy as a warm red light, which flows through all your body's energy channels, coarse and subtle.
As you exhale, imagine that you are releasing all the negative energies in your body ó any illness, discomfort and negative thoughts or emotions. Let these negative energies flow out of your body along with the excess gases; and, as you do so, visualise this negative energy leaving your body as dark-blue light. Once it has left your body, the negative energy dissipates, losing its force.
Continue to maintain your attention on the three phases of the breath in this way for as long as you can. It is important that you try to recognise the quality of each of the phases of the breath as you concentrate. If you become distracted by external sensory objects, such as sights, sounds or smells, try to gently bring your focus back to the breath. Similarly, if your concentration is interrupted by thoughts, simply return your attention to the breath. In this practice, it is important not to push away your thoughts or reject them. You should also avoid following the distracting thoughts, or being swept up in a `conversation' with yourself, but merely note your thoughts arising and bring your attention back to mindfulness of your breath.
To complete your meditation session simply reverse the order with which it was begun. From the qualified rounds of breath, gently bring your mind back to just noting the three cycles of breath. After a few moments of noting these three cycles, review the elements of your posture in reverse order: the relaxed mouth and jaw; the serene gaze of the eyes; the balanced and relaxed arms and shoulders; the neck slightly bent forward; the straight back; the joined hands in your lap; and the solid base formed by your crossed legs and your bottom. Feel the earth beneath you and the presence of any other objects in your meditation space. As you rise from your meditation, try to retain your more relaxed state of mind.
If you began your meditation session with the right preparation, having developed the right motivation for the practice, end followed these instructions, you may feel lighter, more relaxed and more centred afterwards. After your meditation, dedicate your practice to the benefits it will bring both to yourself and to those with whom you relate. You might dedicate your practice for all beings so they will attain the same state of calmness and serenity that you are trying to cultivate.
Reflections on Calm Abiding Meditation
These verses composed by Lama Choedak Rinpoche can be recited before each meditation session to inspire the mind and recall the essential instructions of the technique -
My mind has long been lost in search of happiness.
Without knowing how transient all things are.
Seeing the unsatisfactoriness of real life experiences,
I will not let my mind wander outside.
Turning back the forces of harmful habitual inclinations,
And holding firm to the peace and tranquility within,
I rejoice in the store of joy I have discovered
in the happiness of observing the intrinsic calmness.
Let this clear and luminous nature of the mind
Not be overshadowed by my habitual tendencies;
Abiding in the natural calmness of the mind
Let me see all perceptions as nothing but mere reflections.
Neither grasping nor rejecting any sensory perceptions,
I shall see them as adventitious ripples and waves
Of the sea of my mind in deep meditation
And absorb them into the ocean of clear mind.
As I focus my mind to sit in the correct meditation posture
Let the physical self express the deep yearning
To experience the calm, still and spacious nature of the mind
And transcend the problems I have with this body.
The incoming breath brings in all the positive things outside me
And permeates the whole nervous system of my body;
Like the rays of the morning sun dispelling the darkness
It soothes the pain and temporary discomfort.
As I retain the breath, let me sustain
The vital energy of wakefulness and alertness
Enabling me to let go and forgive the past
And to enjoy the fresh manifestation of this bare moment.
My outgoing breath releases all feelings
Of tension, anger, stress, anxiety and worry;
Let the adventitious circumstances elapse
To dawn a new beginning
Breathing and observing the bare moment of awareness
Without assuming what it will become
May I live every moment with pristine awareness,
Without waiting for an unforeseen future to cultivate it.
Following the wise sages by respecting their words of wisdom
Let me remember skilful ways to apply them in everything
I do, say and think, so that my conduct brings no harm to others
And I do not become a victim of what I do, say and think.
While watching the constant flow of thoughts
Without discriminating between those that are good or bad
Let me neither be overjoyed with my meditation
Nor depressed by my lack of concentration.
Sinking in a withdrawal of the senses
Is relaxation of the conscious self, but not meditation.
Let me not be excited by the slight virtues of concentration
I have just begun to experience.
Holding the rope of mindfulness and the hook of alertness,
May I resolve to tame this mind, which is like a wild elephant.
Steadily focusing the mind with a moderate application of antidotes,
May I discover what causes its restlessness.
When I find no sensory objects which are not my own reflection,
All visions and experiences are circumferences of myself.
Like trees, mountains, rivers and the earth
My existence is to give and share what I have with others.
How can I cling to and grasp what I have obtained from others?
As soon as I let something go, I create space and experience joy:
As soon as I give things away, I find a joy not found in keeping them.
Learning to cherish others will bring me a happiness that will last.