Introduction to a New Approach to Meditation

August 5, 2016

1. Recent emails from a few people about their experiences got me started thinking about a new way to think about meditation. Many people feel the positive effect of meditation, but seem to be “stuck” without being able to go past a certain point.

  • I must hasten to add that this “new approach” is fully consistent with Buddha Dhamma and not an invention of mine. It is just another way and — hopefully a refreshing way — to look at meditation.

2. What got me started thinking was the following email from a person (X) who has been doing mostly anariya meditation, including conventional metta bhavana (I am withholding the name for obvious reasons); highlights are mine. Anariya meditation basically means doing meditation without comprehending anicca nature, so most people start that way:

“..The other issue I wanted to ask you about was that I sometimes start wondering if meditation is just dulling my mind, making me less sensitive to what others are doing around me, like a sedative almost. Am I getting addicted to meditation that I need a constant dose, and when I stop I feel I am missing something. for example when I was meditating regularly I no longer felt like reading books or listening to music which I loved earlier so I felt like it was changing my core personality.

To experiment I stopped my formal meditation for a few weeks  and I found that I began to get agitated and anxious as before. I was also able to enjoy songs as before. I know that that is consistent with what you say about anariya meditations – that the effects are temporary.
So I am curious to ask you, have you experimented with stopping your meditation practice for a few weeks? I am asking because I understand that you are doing the Ariya meditation and that those effects should be more permanent. Or are you so used to your meditation practice that it would be a torture to ask you to stop even for a few days let alone a few weeks. But the trouble is – if you never stop how will you know if the effects are permanent or not…”
3. I am grateful to X for sharing this beautifully written description. I believe many people have experienced such thoughts at various times. Our tendency to always go back to sense pleasures is very strong, because that is what we have been doing through uncountable rebirths in the kāma loka in the past.
  • Whether it is Ariya or anariya meditation (including even breath meditation), the tranquility of mind (peace of mind) that comes during a meditation session is due to the suppression of the five hindrances (pancanivarana); see, “Key to Calming the Mind – The Five Hindrances“.
  • In simple terms, the five hindrances are:  sense cravings, tendency to be angry, sleepy or dull mind, scattered mind, and the inability to decide the right action. They are always in the background, “covering the mind” and constantly making the mind “agitated and anxious” as X described above.
  • What happens during a meditation session (or even if one a fully focused on some task that does not involve sense pleasures), is that the mind is taken off of all such hindrances temporarily. This is actually the first stage where one could experience the “cooling down” or “nivana” or “niveema“. It can be called a mundane version of Nibbāna. This is also called “niramisa sukha“.
  • When one is on a regular meditation program (or in a meditation retreat), that “cooling down” can last during that whole time — days or weeks — outside the meditation sessions.
4. Another person (Y) asked the following related question: “Niramisa sukkha is felt by which citta?”.
  • Niramisa sukha is not experienced by a specific citta. Rather, niramisa sukha APPEARS when cittā BECOME free of defilements, i.e., when the mind becomes (at least temporarily) free of hindrances; see, “Key to Calming the Mind – The Five Hindrances“. We will go into details in upcoming posts, but this is a CRITICAL point.
  • More examples: Water becomes clear and pleasant when all the dirt is removed. One feels good when a headache goes away; that relief was not gained by adding something, but by removing the headache.
  • Similarly, niramisa sukha is felt when hindrances and defilements are SUPPRESSED temporarily. When those are removed PERMANENTLY in four stages, one feels more permanent happiness of Nibbāna. At the Sotāpanna stage, a big junk of stresses associated with defilements are PERMANENTLY removed. At the Arahant stage, ALL defilements are PERMANENTLY removed, and the “cooling down” is complete.
  • Thus it is going to be a gradual process. It is mistake to try to go all the way all at once. Don’t even think about the Arahant stage (let alone the Anāgāmi stage where one has removed kāma rāga or attachment to sense pleasures), but concentrate on attaining the Sotāpanna stage.
  • It is when kāmachanda and other nivarana are suppressed that one is able to grasp the anicca nature, and become a Sotāpanna. This is easier when one abstain from dasa akusla too.
  • Thus, in order to grasp the anicca nature (i.e., to suppress the nivarana), the mind needs to be purified to some extent. Person X above is almost there, but you can see how hard for X to be not be tempted by sense pleasures.
5. I will go into details in the upcoming posts in this subsection, but through countless rebirths we have cultivated a craving for sense pleasures that inevitably lead to the five hindrances, that cover our minds and not letting us see the real nature of this world. Sense pleasures have the following key characteristics:
  • They are definitely “pleasurable”, i.e., the sense experience is palpable and enjoyable. The Buddha himself said that beings will not be trapped in this suffering-filled rebirth process unless they are seduced by these pleasurable sense contacts.
  • The price we pay for that “happy feeling” is that the mind gets excited and restless. Furthermore, that pleasurable feeling cannot be maintained for long times; we get tired of it no matter what it is. Think about anything (food, sex, watching movies, etc), and you will realize that soon we would have had enough of it and we just move onto some other pleasurable activity or “just take a rest”.
  • But that experience is addictive. The urge to do it again comes back very strong at later times. If we cannot experience it at that time, we at least tend to recall the past experience and try to enjoy that. This is due to the fact that we have a reservoir of mental impurities (kilesa) in our minds, as we discuss in an upcoming post.
  • Until one can realize the dangers in at least excessive sense pleasures (anicca, dukkha, anatta nature), one’s mind is easily tempted by those sense pleasures; one is afraid that one will “miss out” on the sense pleasures. This is what X was trying to convey above.
6. The meditation experience is the totally opposite of sense pleasures. Niramisa sukha can be maintained as long as one stays in the “meditation mindset”. But it is not an “enjoyment” in the sense of a sense pleasure. It is really a “peace of mind” (one could actually feel  a bodily sukha sensation in a jhāna, but we will discuss that later).This why X is tempted by them, even though they lead to general agitation of the mind (see the first highlighted sentences in #2 above).
  • Niramisa sukha BECOMES addictive (i.e., preferable over sense pleasures) only AFTER getting to the Sotāpanna stage (at which time it can be called beginning of the “Nibbāna sukha” or “nivan suva“). At that time, even though one may still be tempted by sense pleasures until the Anāgāmi stage, one will ALWAYS go back to meditation for relief. Until then it is always a battle that is so eloquently expressed by X in #2 above.
  • Furthermore, at that stage one will have voluntarily given up some of more excessive sense pleasures. This is something that just happens. One needs to forcefully give up only those things that are directly harmful to oneself or to others. For example, sexual MISCONDUCT needs to be forcefully given up, but not sex (We recall that one of the main upäsikä of the Buddha, lady Visaka, attained the Sotāpanna stage at age 7, but got married and had 22 children). The urge for sexual pleasure will AUTOMATICALLY go away only at the Anāgāmi stage.
  • Of course, one could start discarding some “conventionally pleasurable” but not directly harmful things like watching TV or going to concerts etc. (as X stated in #2 above). I also experienced the same kind of things in early practice.  I would rather learn Dhamma than watch TV even in the early days. “Pleasure of Dhamma” is different.
  • However, I still get pulled into a limited number of sense pleasures occasionally, so I know how hard it is to resist especially those activities that one has gotten used to. Getting rid of all kāma rāga (i.e., reaching the Anāgāmi stage) is the hardest. But once the anicca nature is comprehended to some extent, it becomes easy to discard most things as a waste of time.
7. Therefore, in the beginning it could be a “tug of war” between those addictive sense pleasures that we are used to enjoy and the long-lasting but not so addictive niramisa sukha of meditation. Here, meditation also includes listening, reading, and contemplation of Dhamma.
  • As one’s mind gets more and more cleansed, the “joy of Dhamma” WILL increase. One WILL BE able to grasp deeper and deeper meanings even from the same discourse or a post.
  • The time to contemplate on anicca (and Tilakkhana in general) is when one starts “liking Dhamma”, with the pancanivarana temporarily lifted. If one starts forcing the mind to accept the anicca nature, that may not be successful, and one may get discouraged. Of course, each person is different and some may be able to do it.

8. Finally, in X’s last (highlighted) statement in #2 above, the question was: If I stopped meditating for two weeks, would I be able to “switch back to enjoying sense pleasures” as X did?

  • I am quite sure I could abstain from meditating for two weeks if I really wanted to. But, such an abstinence would not change “my core”. It just cannot. Sometimes when I go on a trip with my family, I do not get to meditate for several days. For example, last month there was a break of about 7-8 days during such a trip. But when I get back, I automatically get back to my normal schedule of meditation.
  • In addition, most of my “mediation” is not formal. I think about Dhamma concepts whenever there is time, sitting in a car, just before falling asleep, first thing when I wake up, etc.
  • Furthermore, I don’t feel “missed out” on those cravings that I have lost, even though I can still experience that “sense pleasure”. For example, while I was working I used to have an alcoholic beverage daily for over 30 years, even though I did not really get “drunk”; it was just a habit. Nowadays, that habit has automatically disappeared. Still, If I am out with an old friend (who does not know that I have changed) and he has a drink, I may have one just to keep him company. But the “urge” to have a drink at the end of the day is never coming back. A big chunk of “mental impurities” (or kilesa) have permanently been removed from my mind.
9. What we are going to do is to look closely at what these defilements are that needs to be removed in order to purify the mind, so that those pancanivarana will be permanently lifted and the mind can grasp deeper and deeper concepts easily.
  • It is easier to solve a problem when one figures out what the problem is, and the root causes that lead to the problem.
  • Our problem here is the defiled mind. The root causes are the mental impurities (or kilesa, keles, or kilesa in Pāli, Sinhala, and Sanskrit respectively) that have accumulated in our minds over the beginning-less rebirth process. These are ultimately responsible for the five hindrances (pancanivarana) that cover our minds.
  • We will discuss these kilesa in the next post. They provide a simple way to identify and quantify mental impurities, and how they are to be discarded step-by-step.

This section has been moved to, “Living Dhamma“. Please check there for the follow-up posts.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email