For me, the idea of meditation and its practice are one and the same, but then again, who doesn’t make such claims when they believe their ideas to be right? In this case, however, I can safely share my ideas about meditation with you, because the question is a subjective one: What is meditation according to you?
From my standpoint, meditation can be anything that helps me focus on the present time, so the Buddhist term Bhavanga (meaning “the foundation of being”) is regarded as a mental development and practiced in five different ways:
- lingering (sitting or lying down)
- moving (walking or working)
- reading (about Truth)
- listening (about Truth)
- talking (about Truth)
These five actions have some prerequisites in common: a state without expectations, objectivity, a state where you don’t hold onto anything, awareness, and concentration. Standing on “the foundation of being” (Bhavanga) means being in the now, because existence cannot exist in any other place.
Unfortunately, the idea of being in the now or the present is widely abused in our daily lives. Staying in the present is impossible because the “now” is not a time to stay in. However, the only time to “be” in is the present. This paradox is one of the characteristics of meditation that makes it indefinable and transcendent.
Meditation can be practiced in many different ways. Buddha alone taught forty different methods of meditation. Today, the most widely practiced of these methods are those that focus on breathing, although many masters have attained Nirvana through walking meditation. Buddha’s closest follower, Ananda, awakened by meditating on the four basic elements of the body, just before the first Buddhist council after Buddha’s death. As you can see, there are many ways to meditate, but the characteristics that make them meditation are the same throughout.
But what’s the purpose of meditation? We can talk about two basic purposes: Firstly, it’s to purify the mind, and secondly, it’s about attaining an absolute mindfulness by being drawn to the absolute “now.”
Although meditation is regarded as a pleasant activity by many people, this is not entirely true. Specifically, if your mind is sufficiently purified, meditation is certainly a pleasant experience, but if the opposite is true, meditation can become something troublesome, painful, and frightening. For this reason, it can be helpful to consider the seven steps of purifying the mind before attempting meditation. Until the mind is purified, “all karma results in ‘the foundation of being’ (or in our consciousness) in the present time.” Yes, it’s true. Whenever you sit to meditate, you begin to struggle with your karma and the results it carries. I always tell my pupils, “Sitting and meditating is like entering a vicious arena.” All your delusions, beliefs, flaws, and incorrect actions, as well as the results of these actions, assault you in this arena. If you can manage to observe these assaults calmly without taking sides, your mind starts to slowly purify and strengthen. This is especially true if you have this attitude during your daily life, because the mind will purify and strengthen in no time.
When the mind is sufficiently purified and strengthened, you can start moving toward the depths of the mind, the depths of the physical and metaphysical universes, and the depths of existence and nonexistence. This journey is completed in eight steps. The first four steps involve the physical world and its boundaries, while the next four are about the metaphysical world. The latter two steps of this metaphysical stage transcend existence and ultimately nonexistence. After completing these eight steps, we arrive at the end of existence and nonexistence. Beyond this last step is Nirvana, the Absolute Truth.
These eight steps are mentioned in many different cultures. Teresa of Ávila, a Christian saint, talked about six inner chambers in a spiritual place she called the Interior Castle. These six chambers are comparable to the eight steps of meditation. Similarly, Meister Eckhart, another Christian mystic, talked about the same eight steps in great detail.
When the mind/consciousness is purified enough, it’s ready to be drawn into the present. At this point, assuming our technique is good enough, meditation will take us through a series of phases. Firstly, we need to go through the five phases of the first step. We attain a state of thought, evaluation, joy, happiness, and complete concentration when we complete these five phases. We don’t need to think or evaluate during the second step, so these are abandoned, and so we’re drawn into the present a little more. On the third step, joy is discarded, followed by happiness in the fourth step. This means we take a solid step into the present. In this phase, the physical existence separates from the metaphysical one, and we step into a new level of existence free from the boundaries of the material world.
During the fifth step, the body’s perception starts to expand because of our relaxation and dissolution. We realize that, in a sense, we’re moving toward the border of the universe. We begin to observe other fields of energy, such as planets and celestial bodies. During the sixth step, the expansion of the body is joined by the expansion of the consciousness, and by the end of this step, we’re already at the border of existence. The body is abandoned at the fifth step, followed by the mind at the sixth step, and we step into the level of “nothingness” at the seventh. The eighth step is what we call “neither existence nor nonexistence.” Beyond this point lies the Border, Paramita, Nirvana. However, meditation alone is not enough to cross this border. In order to attain this level, we need both meditation and The Perfection of (Transcendent) Wisdom (Prajna Paramita).
Meditation is not a state of having no thoughts—it’s just a state where thoughts don’t invade the present. An uninterrupted flow can only exist in the present, because this flow is not about past or future. We cannot think about the present time, because all our thoughts are about either the past or the future. After all, why would we need to think about the present? This is why thinking, specifically thinking in a way that engulfs the present, has no place in meditation. That said, thoughts can come and go during meditation. In fact, we can even do it as it should be. If we can manage to observe the flow of thought that occurs in the present, then there’s no point for thoughts to form during meditation, or even for us to think them. The only catch here is to not lose our connection with the present.
Meditation is not about making ourselves believe in something. Meditation is merely about drawing ourselves into the present. Purifying the mind is the only way to do this. Any other method is nothing more than entering a trance, and a trance is certainly not the right way to grasp the nature of the Absolute Truth.
The best way to learn meditation is to find a teacher who can do it thoroughly. If you’re not one of those rare people with the ability to spiritually develop by themselves, the fastest way to learn is to consult a master and experience his or her wisdom first hand. Technically speaking, meditation is a cakewalk. The most important thing is to improve one’s level of consciousness and understanding. Your teacher will take chances, endeavor, and finally try to help you improve your technique, understanding, and sense of freedom.
So, what’s the most important secret to awakening and enlightenment? Here’s a story:
The renowned Tibetan yogi Milarepa works with his enlightened master for a while. Before he leaves for his last retreat, he thanks his master and, as is the custom, asks for the last and most special secret. The masters keep this secret until the very end and only give it to those who they can trust with their lives.
“Oh, that,” says Milarepa’s master, “I almost forgot.” He then turns and lowers his pants, showing Milarepa his bare ass. His buttocks are callused from his long hours of meditation. “That’s the biggest secret of all,” says the master.
There’s only one secret: The right technique and enough effort.
I’ll finish with a hope to see you beyond the border of wisdom…
I hope this article will promote a deep sense of understanding in all beings, reverberating through them and acting as a stepping stone for their awakening.