Meditation is a mental technique (or set of techniques) used for training the mind. In traditional Buddhism, meditation is used to liberate oneself from suffering, by obtaining the ability to see reality for what it actually is. Someone who lives in a constant state of seeing reality for what it truly is, is said to be enlightened.

What is the purpose of meditation?

There are many people who meditate, and every person has their own reason for meditating, often with reasons very different from one another. At the surface level, meditation has many proven health benefits, both physical and mental. In many spiritual traditions, meditation is used as a tool for mental development and personal growth, with the ultimate goal being enlightenment. At this point, it may not be clear what “enlightenment” is, why someone would want to become enlightened, or how meditation can help accomplish that goal. Lastly, non-dual traditions (such as Zen or Advaita Vedanta) teach that there is no reason for meditating other than to meditate, and there is no goal to be achieved (we are already enlightened, we are just not aware of it.) This kind of teaching can be very confusing, especially from a pragmatic standpoint, so this article will focus on the so-called “gradual path” where spiritual development progresses in a linear manner, as opposed to “direct path” methods which are less straightforward.

Enlightenment and Models of Spiritual Progression

At this point some readers may be saying to themselves, “Wait a minute… enlightenment? I just want to be happier and healthier!” Although happiness and health are worthy goals, one of the key teachings in Buddhism is impermanence - simply put, nothing lasts forever. The Buddha pointed out that human lives are plagued by old age, sickness, and eventually death. The fading nature of our health, and the transitory nature of our positive emotions causes us to suffer. Permanent happiness is not possible, but all is not lost, because we can still hope to transcend our suffering. The enlightened state is one that is beyond both pleasure and pain, and is characterized by perfect equanimity. While this may seem like a boring and pointless goal to some, those who have achieved this goal make it clear that the journey is worthwhile. Contemporary teacher Shinzen Young has said he rather spend a single day in the awakened state than a lifetime living as a successful, healthy person. Also worth noting is that many modern teachers reject the idea that an enlightened being cannot experience negative emotions - they simply do not suffer as a result of them - although this idea is still quite controversial.

At this point, it is important to bring up the fact that there are many different models of the spiritual path, and while there are similarities, specific meanings are often disagreed upon. The reader is advised to investigate as many of these models as they can until finding one that they resonate with. The rest of this article will describe the model of spiritual development in the Theravada Buddhist tradition, as interpreted through the eye of the Pragmatic Dharma movement. (Look out for future articles on Tibetan Buddhism, Non-dualism, Hinduism, and Mahayana Buddhism.) While many modern Buddhist traditions deny the possibility of enlightenment for all but the most dedicated practitioners (and even then it could take years), the image presented in the Pali Cannon (the oldest recorded teachings of the Buddha) is one where hundreds of average people were becoming enlightened, and often in very short time periods. Certain Theravada traditions (significantly, the ones from Burma) have retained this idea, and have influenced the modern Pragmatic Dharma movement, which developed in the West, and can be thought of as applying a scientific eye to the spiritual path, but without dismissing that the ancient spiritual traditions may have been on to something. Pragmatic Dharma is about figuring out what works, and applying that knowledge to make actual progress. (Note: In this style of thought, it is presumed that there [i]is progress[/i] to be made in the first place. Some modern teachers distinguish between a gradual and direct path to enlightenment, both being equally valid.)

The Science of Enlightenment

The materialists reading this article are probably wondering what spirituality has to do with science, how could we ever know anything objective about something that is by definition subjective – the mind? First, there are many interesting parallels to be drawn between the states described by Buddhists and those described by neuroscientists. For example, the unique mental states called jhanas can be correlated to special patterns of neural activity. Hundreds of studies imply that there is definitely a physical basis to meditation, and there are many studies emerging that attempt to discover what is going on in more advanced meditators.

Types of Meditation

There exist a wide variety of meditative techniques, from a wide variety of sources, both modern and ancient. This article will focus on the meditative techniques taught traditionally in Theravada Buddhism, as well as more modern techniques inspired by the Pragmatic Dharma movement. In Buddhism, meditation is broken down into two categories: Shamatha (concentration) and Vipassana (insight).

Shamatha Meditation

The word Sanskrit word shamatha (pronounced SHAH-mah-tah) has been translated as “tranquility”, “serenity”, “calm abiding”, and “concentration.” Most of the commonly taught forms of meditation would be classified as shamatha meditation, including meditations that involve focusing on the breath, “mindfulness” meditation, mantra meditations (including Transcendental Meditation), and visualization. In short, a shamatha technique is one that involves repeatedly and continuously bringing the attention to focus on a particular point of the sensory or mental field, which is termed “the object.” The purpose of shamatha meditation is to train the ability to focus on a particular object exclusively and for a significant duration. While there are obvious benefits to sustained attention in the real world (better performance on the job or at school, better memory, etc.), there are two benefits to training in shamatha unique to its context in a spiritual practice. Firstly, training in shamatha will enable one to access unique states of consciousness called jhana (pronounced JAH-NUH), which literally means “wisdom”, but is more accurately translated as “absorption.” The second purpose of shamatha training is that some basic level of concentration is needed for insight into the true nature of reality to arise. In Buddhism, enlightenment can be achieved through either concentration practice alone, insight practice alone, or a combination of the two. Traditionally, it is recommended to start with concentration and move on to insight practice once a basic level of focus has been achieved.

How to Practice Shamatha Meditation

First, choose a meditation object. This can be a visualized object (eg. the body of the Buddha, or something as simple as a red disk), a mantra (a simple phrase that you repeat mentally, a good one is Om Mani Padme Hum, the mantra of the Tibetan Buddha of Compassion), a sound (simple sounds are best; a good one is the ringing in your ears), or physical sensations such as the breath. For beginners, the breath is often recommended, because it occurs automatically, and it is made up of gross (as opposed to subtle) sensations that are readily apparent to the novice meditator. For the purposes of this article, breath will be used as the meditative object.

Next, place your focus on the object. If the object is the breath, one should focus on the area at the tip of the nostrils, and attempt to narrow in on the physical sensations caused by the air flowing in and out of the nostrils. Keep your attention on these sensations until a distracting thought pops up. For beginners, this will probably happen within several seconds (if that), but with practice, one can easily go several minutes (or even hours and days in the advanced stages) without losing focus.

Once a distracting thought occurs, patiently return the focus to the object. It is important to note that process of returning is just as important as the process of continuously focusing. When focusing on the breath, it helps to pay extra close attention at the time in between inhaling and exhaling (pay attention to the area where the sensations were.)

Access Concentration

The first desirable state that can be reached when training shamatha is known as “access concentration.” The requirements for what constitutes access concentration vary wildly by tradition, but typically one must be able to remain focused on the object of meditation for a certain duration of time (anywhere from several seconds to several days) without any other thoughts arising. In the realm of Pragmatic Dharma, a good milestone is when you can focus on the object for with very few thoughts arising, and when the thoughts arise you can easily divert the attention back to the object without getting distracted. Once access concetration has been obtained, the meditator can either start practicing insight meditation, or can try to obtain the first jhana.

The Jhanas

The jhanas are special states of consciousness brought on by shamatha meditation, and are characterized by increasing levels of tranquility and absence of suffering. In the Theravada tradition, there are eight jhanas split into two sets of four: the first four are known as the rupa jhanas (or form jhanas) and the second four are the arupa jhanas (the formless jhanas). Each jhana is marked by the presence or absence of several jhanic factors.

First Jhana

The first jhana is a state of “one-pointed” focus on the object and marked by the jhanic factors of joy (piti) and happiness (sukha). Joy is experienced as a blissful physical sensation in the body, similar to the sensation of frission that can occur when listening to music. When focusing on the breath, this is often experienced as pleasant feeling sensations at the tip of the nose. With practice this sensations will spread to the rest of the body. Happiness is a more subtle mental bliss that is best described as a warm feeling of contentment. In the first jhana all of the hindrances (desire, aversion, and ignorance) are said to be absent. In the Pragmatic Dharma movement, first jhana is said to occur when the focus on the object narrows to a pinpoint. Some sources advise to switch focus from the object to the pleasurable sensations at this point, but to do so would be more of a vipassana practice, and may interfere with the ability to cultivate further jhanas.

Second Jhana

The second jhana is similar to the first, but without the factors of repeated and sustained focus on the object. In the second jhana, all distraction is gone, and meditation happens “on its own.” The factors of joy and happiness are still present, but the focus has shifted from a pinpoint focus, to a slightly wider view. When meditating on the breath, the focus may spread from the tip of the nose to a small circular portion of the face (or even the whole face).

Third Jhana

The third jhana occurs when the jhanic factor of joy fades away, leaving only the subtler factor of happiness. This shift can be confusing to beginning meditators, because it is also accompanied by a shift from a centralized focus to a focus on the periphery, and the object itself can become difficult to perceive clearly. When focusing on the breath, this is often experienced as a jarring shift from the pleasurable sensations in the face (which may have become quite intense at this point), to the subtler feelings of happiness in the rest of the body and in the mind.

Fourth Jhana

The fourth jhana is experienced when the jhanic factor of happiness fades away, leaving an even subtler sense of equanimity - a state that is neither pleasurable of painful, and is said to be a subtler form of bliss than both joy and happiness. The focus in this state shifts from the periphery to a more unifying, panoramic focus that includes both the object and the periphery. With breath as the object, this is experienced as a shift back from the body to a more unifying focus that includes the body, the face, and the mind as one singular object. With practice, it is said that the breath will cease entirely, and that in this state the meditator will not hear or be disturbed by external sounds. In the Pragmatic Dharma movement, extreme states of jhana like this are known as “hard jhana” and are thought to take much more practice to obtain than the “softer” forms of jhana with questionable levels of usefulness.

The Formless Jhanas

The fifth through eighth jhanas are named as follows: the Jhana of Infinite Space, the Jhana of Infinite Consciousness, the Jhana of Nothingness, and the Jhana of Neither Perception Nor Non-Perception. In these Jhanas even subtler jhanic factors fade away, first a sense of location disappears, then physicality disappears entirely leaving only infinite consciousness, then consciousness itself fades into nothingness, which fades into an even subtler state that is not nothing, but yet not something. The eighth jhana is thought to be so subtle that vipassana cannot be practiced in it. These jhanas are not as often practiced, since it is thought that the fourth jhana is all that is required to reach enlightenment with vipassana practice. Note: one can spontaneously obtain shamatha jhanas with vipassana practice alone, and one can spontaneously obtain special insight with shamatha alone, but only special insight leads to enlightenment. Since the higher jhanas can be so pleasant that they become addictive (someone who is addicted to Jhana is known as a Jhana Junkie), it is recommended to switch to vipassana practice once a sufficient level of focus has been achieved (ie. access concentration), and return to jhana practice once progress has stalled in vipassana.

Vipassana Meditation

Vipassana meditation is a form of meditation unique to Buddhism, in which the meditator learns to see every physical and mental sensation as having the Three Characteristics of the true nature of reality: impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and not-self. Most vipassana techniques focus on the aspect of impermanence – by seeing that all experiences are transient, we see that attachment or aversion to experience is what causes us to suffer, and importantly, the illusion of a permanent self is crucial to this suffering.

How to Practice Vipassana Meditation

A popular method of vipassana mediation is the method known as Mahasi Noting, created by the Burmese teacher Mahasi Sayadaw. To practice this technique, one begins by focusing on the outward and inward movement of the abdomen during breath. (This is because the movement of the abdomen is a very gross sensation that is easy for beginners to perceive. If you have some experience with breath meditation, the sensations at the tip of the nose may be used.) When inhaling, notice the physical sensations associated with the movement of of the abdomen expanding and mentally note “rising, rising, rising.” When exhaling, note “falling, falling, falling.” Each mental note should be a one word label, and each time a physical sensation is noticed, a mental note should be repeated. Once comfortable with noting the rising and falling of the abdomen, one can notice the physical sensation of sitting during the spaces in between breaths. At this point your mental notes may look like “rising, rising, rising, sitting, falling, falling, falling.” If a distracting thought occurs, simply note it! The power of the vipassana technique is that distractions can be noted and the distraction can be turned into focus. For example, if you have a thought about what you want for dinner, note “thinking.” If you feel an itch somewhere on your body note “itching.” If you experience difficult noting, note “difficulty.” If you run out of things to note, simply return to the movement of the abdomen.

Eventually, noting will become so fast that it is hard to note something before another sensation appears. In this case, one can drop the mental labelling, and simply mentally notice the sensation. (Alternately, one may note a simple sound, such as “blip.”) Soon enough, the meditator will begin to experience some strange mental states known as the vipassana ñanas. There are sixteen ñanas, split into four sets of four, with each set corresponding to the vipassana jhanas (which confusingly, are similar to the shamatha jhanas). This progress through the ñanas is known as the Progress of Insight, and culminates in an event called Fruition, an event where one experiences Nirvana for a brief moment. This moment is also known as a “path moment,” and the meditator is said to have “obtained a path.” In Buddhism there are four paths, and the attainment of each is rewarded with a special title. Someone who has attained first path is known as a Sotapanna (or stream-enterer), and is said to have obtained “stream-entry” – a metaphor for entering the stream of Dharma, which eventually leads to the ocean of Nirvana. One who has attained second path is known as Sakadagami (or “once-returner”), and will be reborn as a human at most one time before reaching enlightenment. One who has attained third path is known as an Anagami (or “non-returner”), and will be reborn in a Pure Abode, where they can practice until they acheive enlightenment. With fourth path, one is known as an Arahant, or a fully awakened person. In Theravada, this is the final goal, and is synonymous with the enlightenment obtained by the Buddha. In the Pragmatic Dharma movement, there are several known people who have claimed to have obtained this stage - notably Daniel Ingram, author of the book Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha.

See Also

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