Meditation Practices

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Meditation Practices 2017-02-16T09:34:49+00:00

The following are the Buddhist meditation practices that we cultivate at IMSB.

Mindfulness describes the capacity to be fully aware and present to our momentary experience. Called sati in the Pali language, mindfulness is supported by a nonjudgmental attitude in which one accepts and receives the present moment as it actually is. Naturally imbued with equanimity and free from reactivity, mindful attention is not distorted by desires or aversions, likes or dislikes, hopes or fears. We train ourselves to be fully awake to mental and sensory experiences by bringing our attention to a range of phenomena—breathing, bodily sensations, sensory impressions, thoughts, intentions, emotions, pain, pleasure, reactions, and perceptions. Mindfulness can be cultivated during formal meditation sessions while sitting, standing, reclining, or walking. Mindfulness can also be cultivated during physical exercise when reaching, bending, or turning, and in daily life activities such as eating, speaking, listening, bathing, cooking, working, driving, or making decisions.
IMSB teachers offer instruction for cultivating mindfulness by using a variety of traditional breath techniques. Some approaches emphasize concentration and the stability of mind; some approaches bring profound clarity to present moment experiences; other approaches emphasize direct insight into the changing nature of mind and matter. While sitting comfortably on a chair or cushion, with your back upright but not rigid, close your eyes, allow your attention to settle in the present moment, and become aware of the sensations of your posture. Feel your contact with the floor and the seat; sense the alignment of your spine; allow your shoulders, chest, and belly to relax. Breathe naturally, without controlling or exaggerating your breathing. Focus your attention on the sensations of breathing in areas of the body where you feel the breath most distinctly, such as at the nostrils, the abdomen, or the chest. Stay focused on sensations of the breath. When you find that the mind has wandered, gently return your awareness to the sensations of breathing.
There are a number of variations to the basic method for mindfulness with breathing that many people find helpful. You may, for instance, want to use a mental noting technique. Cultivating the breath as your primary meditation object, softly and silently make a mental note of “in/out” if focusing at the nostril or “rising/falling” if focusing at the abdomen or chest. Keep your attention on the changing experiences of present-moment phenomena such as heat, cold, tingling, pressure, feelings, intention, desire, tranquility, etc. Let the conceptual label be just a subtle whisper in the mind, while giving most of your attention to the direct perception of changing bodily sensations or mental states. You may also count the breaths, from one to ten, and then backwards from ten to one. Counting can increase concentration, reduce distractions, and intensify the focus on the perception of the breath. You may observe the duration of each half breath, also, attending to the beginning and ending of each in-breath and of each out-breath. Identify a long breath as a long breath, and a short breath as a short breath. Or simply bring mindfulness to the whole breath. Observe each breath without interruption from the very beginning of each inhalation to the end of each exhalation.
Even if you are using the breath as the primary object of the meditation, you may periodically bring mindfulness to other experiences of the body or mind, as well. When a perception—such as a sensation in the body like pain, or a sound, flavor, odor, thought, feeling, or emotional state—becomes strong enough to draw your attention away from the breath, mindfully direct your attention to the experience that has arisen. Observe the experience clearly, and observe how it changes. If you are using the mental noting technique, you may add a mental label to the experience; you may note, for example, “pressure,” “tingling,” “heat,” “thinking,” “judging,” “fear,” “sadness,” “irritation” …. Then, return your attention to the breath. It is often useful to alternate focus on the meditation objects—sometimes focusing on the breath, and sometimes noting the changing sensations in the body or changing states of the mind.
Walking meditation cultivates mindfulness while you are in a moving posture. You can walk mindfully at any pace. Begin by focusing your attention on the experience of the movement of your feet and lower legs. With each step, observe the sensations of lifting the foot, moving it forward, and placing it down. The mental noting technique can be used throughout each step and you may note “lifting, moving, placing, lifting, moving, placing” or “lifting, placing, lifting, placing” or “stepping, stepping” …. You may walk in any location. We generally recommend choosing a quiet place where you can walk back and forth at least ten steps in each direction without interruption or obstruction.
The Buddhist tradition includes a range of practices to augment, support, or replace attending to the breath as the primary object for developing mindfulness. Such techniques may emphasize body awareness, touch points, hearing and seeing, characteristics of the four elements (earth, water, fire, and wind), inspiring reflections, death awareness, or the use of colors as concentration subjects, inquiry questions, and engagement with meditative states. Classes may include guided meditation, instruction, lecture, discussion, and the exploration of alternative practices and lesser-known techniques for concentration, insight, and contemplation. Students can individually consult with the teacher to develop methods and techniques suitable to their needs. Shaila’s book, Wisdom Wide and Deep provides detailed instruction for many traditional practices. Basic meditation instruction is also included in Shaila’s talk on Vipassana Practice.
Concentration (samādhi in Pāli) describes a deeply stable unification of attention in a mind that has been cleared of agitation and hindrances. We develop this cohesive quality of attention through an exclusive focus on a meditation subject such as the breath or another suitable object, in order to quiet the busy mind, quell distracting thoughts, and settle disturbing emotions. When consciousness is purified of obstruction, the deep states of meditative absorption, called jhānas, become accessible. These states of radiant calm are characterized by profound unity, rapture, happiness, equanimity, and bliss. IMSB offers courses and retreats that teach practical methods for deepening concentration, cultivating skills for freeing the mind from preoccupation, abiding with undistracted awareness, and establishing the absorption states of jhāna. The twin practices of concentration (samādhi or jhāna) and insight (vipassanā) reinforce each other and lead to liberation. Shaila’s Books, Focused and Fearless and Wisdom Wide and Deep, explore the cultivation of concentration in depth.
The practice of generosity (dāna in Pāli) is a training in letting go and nonattachment. Giving supports compassion, loving-kindness, and interconnection. When we practice generosity and take joy in giving, we strengthen our capacity to delight in wholesome actions. IMSB relies upon the generosity of participants to support our teachers and cover expenses associated with our programs. See our Generosity page, and IMSB’s Outreach and charity projects.

We cultivate virtue through careful attention to our actions and training on the five precepts. The five precepts incline the mind toward wholesome states that support concentration and insight. They manifest as right action and help ensure kind and wholesome community relations. The five precepts are:

  • To abstain from killing and harming living beings
  • To abstain from stealing or taking what is not freely offered
  • To abstain from sexual misconduct
  • To refrain from lying
  • To refrain from taking intoxicants
Meditation requires mindful attention, steady calm, and intelligent, dynamic investigation. We do not merely relax the mind; we look into the mind. The Buddha’s teachings offer a means to penetrate the deepest truths of reality. Whatever we experience in meditation, we see it clearly. In order to free the mind from ignorance and attachment, we experience directly the impermanent, unsatisfactory, and unsubstantial characteristics of mind and body. When the mind is calm and undistracted, we are poised for the profound investigation of perception and inquiry into whatever we experience—sensory and mental patterns, mind and body interactions, the formations of self-constructs, processes of attachment, and the presence or absence of suffering—in order to know for ourselves the truth of things.
The Discourses of the Buddha offer a rich source of inspiration and wisdom that has been preserved for over two and a half thousand years through a vibrant oral and written tradition. As a community, we read English translations of the Pali Canon for the purpose of contemplative reflection. Through discussion and reflection, we approach these powerful teachings as the spark for awakening. The aim of our sutta study course is not so much to attain an intellectual or academic comprehension of the texts, but rather to allow the teachings to permeate our hearts, to recognize the contemporary implications of ancient Buddhist wisdom, and to realize the liberating potential of the path. When listening to contemporary dhamma talks we practice with full attention. The practice of intelligent receptive listening requires no adherence to religious dogma. We simply open ourselves up to experience what may be true and useful.
Four heart qualities—loving-kindness, compassion, appreciative joy, and equanimity—are cultivated in the Theravada Buddhist tradition. Together they are called the Four Brahma Viharas. Each quality can be developed as an antidote for its opposing tendency. Loving-kindness, for instance, is the antidote for ill will; compassion is the antidote for cruelty; appreciative joy is the antidote for jealously and boredom; and equanimity is the antidote for attachment to personal preferences. Loving-kindness, compassion, appreciative joy, and equanimity are systematically developed by reciting phrases that elicit these intentions. Practitioners who have developed these qualities come to abide with deep confidence in the purity and trustworthiness of their own intentions. As an example, loving-kindness (mettā in Pāli) refers to a profound quality of friendliness toward all life. This ancient systematic practice cultivates a heartfelt wish that all beings be happy. The practice begins by cultivating loving-kindness toward ourselves, and gradually expands to embrace those we love and those who are difficult to love, until this caring radiates to all beings without exception. Loving-kindness is a practice of happiness that heals the heart, meets the pains of life with sensitivity, and strengthens the inner serenity essential for concentration.
Sit in a comfortable posture. Close your eyes and bring to mind friendly thoughts, recollections of your good qualities, or memories of virtuous or generous deeds. Then begin to recite inwardly the following phrases directed to yourself: May I be safe from harm. May I be happy, free from mental distress. May I be healthy, free from illness and pain. May I have the ease of well-being. You may develop your own phrases, using words that resonate with you. Repeat the phrases slowly, over and over, contemplating the meaning of these intentions and allowing feelings of friendliness to suffuse your body and mind. Once loving-kindness for yourself becomes strong, you may begin to extend this goodwill to others, such as friends, neighbors, the community, the nation, animals, and the world—even to people you dislike. The traditional sequence of categories used to develop metta includes self, respected ones, dear friends, neutral people, difficult people, and all beings. Instead of using “I” for each phrase, use words such as “you,” “we,” or “all beings,” as you focus your intention on a particular person, being, or group. Instructions for practicing metta are also included in Shaila’s talk on Loving-kindness.
Try meditating at the same time every day. This helps to make meditation a regular habit. Start with 20 minutes a day of meditation and lengthen the sitting period in 5 minute increments each week, until you are sitting for 45 to 60 minutes, or longer if you like. Allow yourself to find a length of time that helps makes it likely you will do it again. If you find yourself making the excuse that you don’t have 20 minutes to spare, then resolve to sit for only 5 or 10 minutes—it is easy to find 5 or 10 minutes to sit each day. If you meditate at the same time every day for even 5 minutes, it will become a routine and you may find that you start looking forward to sittings and naturally desire to sit longer.

Create a meditation space in your home where you can sit without interruption. It can be a room, a corner of a room, or even a special chair. Sitting in the same place can impart a sense of specialness to that location, which may help to settle and focus the mind when you enter that space. Reduce potential interruptions: turn off your cell phone, put your computer to sleep, ask your family for quiet time.

Attend a weekly meditation group to support your practice and deepen your understanding of the link between practice and insight. Get involved, participate, meet other members, and volunteer. Involvement in dhamma groups supports sustained commitment, and will help you remember to integrate mindfulness into the activities of daily life.

To further strengthen your mindfulness, pick one activity that you regularly do each day and resolve to be mindful when you perform that activity. It can be something simple, such as washing dishes, showering, opening doors, driving, or answering the phone.

If you struggle with not feeling motivated to sit, reflect on why you wanted to learn to meditate, recall the benefits of meditation, and contemplate what inspires you to practice. Do this as your meditation time approaches. Don’t wait until it’s time to meditate—get inspired beforehand so you can practice when it’s time.