Meditation – the cornerstone of the contemplative life
I always enjoy reading the basic meditation instructions from noble teachers because, while they may seem simple, I know there is a great richness to them. What they are describing in these apparently simple teachings are the cornerstone of their contemplative life and practice. And they invite us with these instructions to unfold the fruit of the practice for ourselves…
Here is a basic method of meditation, as taught by Thich Nhat Hanh in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. Feel free to use this, if it works for you.
This method uses mindfulness of breathing, along with what are called ‘gathas’, or short meditation poems. We can be in the sitting position, or walking.
In sitting meditation, we sit with our back straight, in a posture that is both relaxed and attentive. Then, we simply breathe naturally.
In mindfulness of breathing practice, gently, patiently, and with clarity, we aim to bring one hundred percent of our attention to the breath. Our full awareness is given to the breath, all throughout the complete length of the inhalation, and the exhalation.
To show how we practice this, Thich Nhat Hanh gave us this illustration of mindfulness ‘following’, or staying with the breathing: He held up a pen in his left hand, lengthwise, and said: ‘Let’s say this is the length of your breath’. Then he held up the first finger of his other hand and said, ‘And let’s say this finger is your mindfulness. When mindfulness touches the breath, it’s like this: (so saying, he placed his finger on one end of the pen).
When we breathe in, if we choose to, we can think ‘in’ (and as he said this he moved his finger along the length of the pen to the other end), and when we breathe out, we can think ‘out’ (and so saying he moved his finger back along the pen to the starting point). ‘In’ (moving along the pen to the end), ‘Out’ (moving back to the beginning). This is how we should practice, with mindfulness staying in contact with the breath.
He continued, ‘When we leave our object, it’s something more like this: It would be like thinking ‘In’ (finger moving along the pen), ‘Out’ (and back), ‘In’ (and then) ‘Oh!, I forgot to turn off the light in my room’ (and with this the finger leaves the pen and flies off into the air…) This is called leaving the object, or distraction. Instead of being distracted, we should simply stay in touch with the breathing, all throughout the entire length of the inhalation, and the exhalation.
If at times you find that your mind is restless, it can be useful to practice counting the breaths. Mindfully follow the inhalation, and the exhalation all the way through, in a relaxed way, and at the end of the exhalation, count gently to yourself, ‘one’.
Breathing like this, you can count up to three, or four, ten, or twenty-one, as it suits your needs, and then start over again at one. If your attention wanders, just bring it back to the breath, and start over.
Another technique, offered by Ajaan Buddhadasa, in his book Mindfulness with Breathing, is to count the duration of an inhalation and exhalation, (for example, to the count of 5) and then to experiment with increasing this number (to 6, 7, 8, 9 or 10, or more). This automatically makes the breath longer, which relaxes us, quite naturally.
Practicing like this, conscious breathing with counting can be done at the beginning of a session, to settle and focus the mind, and to make it firm, before moving on to other methods, or it can be done for the whole session, as you wish.
When using the method of a gatha, in addition to this mindfulness of breathing, each line of a short meditation poem is repeated, to oneself, as many times as one likes before moving on to the next line. The first word is brought to mind on the inhalation, and the second word, on the exhalation. We can use one gatha, or more than one.
The first gatha offered here is:
in – out ( a few times) (and then)
deep – slow (a few times…)
calm – ease
smile – release, and
present moment – wonderful moment
(or, ‘present moment – there are wonderful things in this moment…)
The gathas are a means to direct and to quiet the mind. When the mind is calm, stable, and clear, we can choose to continue working with the gatha, reciting a line one or more times, and then letting go of words and just being with the inhalation and the exhalation for a few breaths. Or we can let go of the words completely, and just be with the experience of breathing in and out quietly, calmly and lucidly. See for yourself what works best for you.
As a general rule, we should keep our practice as simple as we can, and use only the minimum amount of method necessary to bring our mind to a settled, calm and clear state.
A second gatha, if you wish to use more than one, has both a long and a short version. After learning the longer meaning, if we wish, we can just use the shorter one. It goes like this:
Breathing in, I know that I am breathing in,
breathing out, I know that I am breathing out
(practice as described above) (and then)
Breathing in, I see myself as a flower,
breathing out, I feel fresh
Breathing in, I see myself as a mountain,
breathing out, I feel solid
Breathing in, I see myself as still water,
breathing out, I reflect things as they are, and,
Breathing in, I see myself as space,
breathing out, I feel free
The shorter version of this, then, would be:
A third gatha is as follows. In this one, each line is said to oneself along with the exhalation:
I am home
In the here
In the now
I feel solid
I feel free
In the Ultimate,
To wake up and steady the mind, or for a change of pace, to freshen the mind, you can practice walking meditation in a manner similar to that of sitting practice. Here, walking a little more slowly than usual, attention is placed on the breathing and on the contact between the feet and the ground. This is very soothing, very relaxing.
One method for walking meditation is to measure the length of the breath by the number of steps that are taken with the in-breath and the out-breath. (‘one step, two steps, three, four… one, two, three, four…’) (or, if walking more slowly, ‘one…, two…, one…, two…’). Or, if you prefer, you can use a gatha, or you can just quietly follow your breath and the feeling of your foot touching the ground.
On the subject of walking meditation, Thich Nhat Hahn said, ‘The quality of your walking depends on the degree of your concentration.’ ‘Don’t lose any steps. If you have 100 steps, these 100 steps should be like 100 gems.’, and, ‘Each step can bring you peace and joy.’
Practice with patience, and with care.
My best wishes to you in your practice.