By Daniel Scharpenburg
Meditation used to be done by only a select few people. Long ago it was limited to monks and nuns.
When this new branch of Buddhism arose in China, they named it Chan (later Zen). It just means, “Those Buddhists over there who meditate.”
Because, although sitting and meditating under a tree was the practice that brought the Buddha to Enlightenment, after a few hundred years it wasn’t always the main practice of the system he started. So if for many years only monks and nuns really practiced meditation, what did lay Buddhists do? They supported the monks and nuns.
Now meditation is a lot more common in the different branches of Buddhism, and it’s common outside of Buddhism too. But, as regular people, you and I can’t meditate for hours and hours every day like monks and nuns do. We are out there living regular lives. In addition to meditation we can learn how to cultivate a kind of “everyday mindfulness,” which has been called a “not moving mind.” It’s when we can put down our baggage and our views and just see a situation as it is. We can just act and when we’re doing something, just do it.
This is everyday zen.
I want to say that compassion is more important for us lay people out in the world, but I’m not sure that’s true. We come across people we don’t want to deal with and compassion helps with that, but monks and nuns come across people they don’t want to deal with too, even if they live in a far away monastery with only other monastics.
Only a true hermit is perfectly safe from meeting jerks.
If we can have this kind of everyday zen, then we can make better choices; we can meet every situation as it is, and we can bring better attention to our families and our work. Our meditation practice doesn’t begin and end when we’re sitting. We want to take what we’ve learned from sitting out into the world with us.
There are many different kinds of meditation, but I’m focusing on the ones that are meaningful to me. Some of these are often explained with fancy Sanskrit or Chinese names. I’m steering clear of that and giving them names that are easy to understand.
Everything I’m writing about here is a sitting practice. It begins with sitting down in a way that’s comfortable, straightening your back, and resting your hands in a way that’s comfortable. In my practice, meditation always begins with a few deep heavy breaths.
Following the Breath
This is a practice that’s usually suggested for beginning meditators. For some, this is the only practice they ever do. Bringing attention to the breath helps still and focus the mind. The breath is like our connection to the outside world, and also the link between our bodies and minds.
When we’re upset, we breathe heavy. When we’re relaxed we breathe gently. We do this practice by bringing attention to our breath. We can either focus on the breath coming into and out of our nose, or the rise and fall of our belly with each breath. We just bring attention to it and whenever something comes to mind to distract us, we just go back to the breath. It is our anchor. Many, but not all, people recommend using a counting practice. Mentally count one or your in-breath and two on your out-breath. Every time something comes to mind to distract you, just go back to one on the next in-breath.
This is said to still the mind and strengthen focus. The practice is to have a thing that you repeat mentally over and over, using the mantra instead of your breath. We mentally recite this phrase constantly, paying attention to it and letting other thoughts drop away. This is challenging because we can learn how to think of the mantra and what we’re doing for dinner at the same time if we aren’t careful. We just want to bring the mantra back to mind whenever we can.
OM is the most well known mantra, I think. We can use that. It’s been called “the sound of the universe” and other weird stuff like that. Just mentally recite OM over and over. A long time ago I learned a Korean zen mantra that’s used to represent compassion: Kwan Seum Bosal. But, honestly these days I often think it’s great if we use things in the language we actually understand, so I suggest the mantra, “Calm Mind.” We can mentally recite “Calm Mind” to ourselves instead of using unfamiliar foreign words. That being said, if you love any mantra, use it. Don’t let me stop you.
Keeping a Question
Having a great question is part of the Zen tradition. I’m not sure if this practice exists anywhere else. In this practice we just have a question that we repeat to ourselves over and over, instead of using the breath or a mantra. What kind of question? BIG questions that we can’t really answer. “Who am I?” “What is this experience?” “Why am I here?”
Hsu Yun used the great question, “Who is dragging this corpse around?” That’s a much more mental way of saying “Who am I?” So, whenever something comes to distract us, we are just going back to that question. Sometimes it’s taught as just reciting the question over and over. Other times it’s taught as reciting the question on the in-breath and reciting “I don’t know” on the out-breath. The truth is we don’t know who we are. We can try to define and label ourselves, but ultimately that isn’t going to work.
This is my favorite and the one that is usually not recommended for beginners. It’s like meditation without the training wheels. In this practice we don’t use an anchor at all. We just sit and are just aware of what is going on at this moment. We’re trying to cultivate a moment-to-moment awareness.
When we hear cars outside, we just hear cars outside. When we have a memory, we just have that memory. We notice what our minds are doing, but we also try not to let our minds carry us away. When we have a memory, we try not to go down a rabbit hole into other memories or predictions about the future. We try to just have that memory and let it pass, like clouds in the sky. This is usually not recommended for beginners, but it is something that gets easier when one has had a lot of practice with other methods.
So, an introduction to a variety of meditation styles. I did focus on the ones that mean something to me. There are many many more techniques than the ones I have presented but these are by far my favorites.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Editor: Dana Gornall
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