2. The Basics in Meditation

Revised August 17, 2019; March 16, 2021

The top 10 posts in this section describe the fundamentals of Buddhist meditation. The rest of the posts in this section discuss meditation subjects. They clarify unresolved questions and help gain samādhi. The first 11 posts should be followed in that order, at least initially.

1. Those who are doing breath meditation or “watching the stomach rise and fall” know that it is relatively easy for some to calm the mind compared to others. Some cannot even keep a calm mind for more than a few minutes; distractions start “popping up.”

  • This “popping up” is due to the five hindrances (pañca nīvaraṇa) that I have described in a post. These are the “residues” or “gunk” that we have deep inside our minds that start bubbling up to the surface when we sit down to meditate.

2. Let us take the simile of water well contaminated with all the rotten stuff fallen into it over many years; our minds have accumulated gunk over repeated births, not just in this life. When we are engaged in stressful day-to-day activities, those activities stir up the “gunk,” and the mind gets clouded; it is like taking a long pole and stirring the well water; the “gunk” at the bottom comes up.

  • The two “primary rotten things” we have are the first two on the list of the five hindrances: kāmacchanda (excessive greed) and vyāpāda (deep hate). Even though the word vyāpāda is commonly used, the correct Pāli word is byāpāda.
  • Vicikicchā is a set of person “likings,” which can be likings for material things OR things that one likes to “hate”; one does these because of the ignorance of anicca, dukkha, anatta. Vicikicchā is sort of like a “favorite list” from the main ingredients of excessive greed and deep hate, the first two hindrances. Kaṅkhā vicikicchā is a worse form of vicikicchā that arises due to the wanton disregard of correct views.
  • The other two are more like “stirrers” that stir up these bad habits and bring them up on their own: thina middha (“trapped” or “frozen” mind), uddhacca-kukkucca (a restless mind).
  • Thina middha or inability to concentrate on Dhamma concepts usually happens when tired or after a meal. But it can be a personal characteristic or a habit; we will call this the “lazy mind.” An “unsettled” or “excited” mind (uddhacca-kukkucca)  is also personal and arises when one feels “superior” or “inferior” compared to others.
  • The five hindrances discussed at “Key to Calming the Mind – The Five Hindrances.”

3. When we are engaged in day-to-day activities, we see, hear, smell, taste, touch, and also think about all sorts of things; all these are “external stirrers” that make our minds look like whirlpools. All these gang up to get the mind to stress out and “heat up.” That is the tension that we feel in a busy day. We need to “cool down”; we need “niveema.”

  • One way to “cool down” is to turn off those external stirrers temporarily. Some people do this in a breath meditation session: One goes to a quiet place and closes eyes; this will turn off mainly the five physical senses (i.e., we do not see, hear, smell, taste, touch). That helps to calm the mind for some people, especially if they have practiced it.
  • But it is not possible to turn off the sixth one, the mind itself. The mind likes to move around and not to be focused. Many people try to fix the mind on one object, say the breath or the rising of the stomach. That provides only a temporary solution.
  • Some people try to “turn off the mind” or try to stop thoughts from arising. That is DANGEROUS. We need to PURIFY the mind, not to turn it off. The Buddha had a perfectly pure but very active mind. When one follows the Path, one’s mind will become sharper, not inactive.

4. However, if we have too much gunk (defilements), then they can contaminate our minds even without the aid of “a stirrer.” It is like an abandoned old well. It has dirty water, and one needs to REMOVE the existing dirty water first.

  • Similarly, if one is engaged in immoral behavior, then the mind is like a well that has dirty and turbulent water. That is due to the BIG EIGHT defilements: killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, gossiping, slandering, harsh speech, and getting “drunk” with not only drugs or alcohol but also with wealth, fame, power, etc.
  • Just by focusing the mind on one object, like the breath, cannot remove those defilements. That is the fundamental problem with “breath meditation.”
  • The mind calms down (or gets to samādhi) when one lives a moral life (sīla.) Stopping the BIG EIGHT is the start of a moral life (sīla.) With that calmed mind (samādhi), one can comprehend deeper aspects of Dhamma and cultivate wisdom (paññā.) That is the initial order: sīla, samādhi, paññā.

5. Thus, it would be hard to achieve calmness even with breath meditation if one is actively engaged in the BIG EIGHT (unless one has had a lot of practice.

  • That is Kāyānupassanā, the first step in Satipaṭṭhāna; see, “Satipaṭṭhāna – Introduction.”
  • If one is habitually engaged in one or more of those eight activities, the first thing to do is try to get rid of them. First, start with the worst habit and proceed gradually until all are bad habits removed. It is like emptying the well of the dirty water.
  • That is a BIG STEP. It may take a little while, depending on how much “gunk” is there. But one thing is not to rush out and try to do much. That could be stressful too. The best thing to do is abstain from one or two big ones and experience the “cooling down” that results from it.
  • Vain talk is a habit that should be gotten rid of early. It does not do any good for oneself or others. One will inevitably say something inappropriate (possibly slandering and lying too, which are also in the BIG EIGHT) when one gets carried away during the vain talk. Getting rid of it will help with being able to calm the mind quickly.
  • The mind needs to see the benefits of doing something before it gets on board. That is why, initially, it may take a lot of determination to stick with the plan.
  • It is important NOT to get used to the breath meditation; if you are used to it, I urge you to gradually stop and try the procedures described here at least for a couple of months. We want LONG TERM results. Many people get addicted to breath meditation to get temporary relief. THAT IS A MISTAKE.

6. Getting rid of bad old habits and installing new good habits is a KEY in the meditation practice; we will talk about habits (“gati,” which become “āsavas” over time) in more detail in the next section. Here are some basic ideas that would be helpful:

  • To form a new habit takes some effort initially. I tried it out by making a new habit of peeling oranges with my left hand (I am right-handed). Initially, it was hard, and the main problem was that I kept forgetting to use the left-hand. I had to set the alarm to remind myself first. But after a few days, I started remembering, and after a week or two, the new habit was working. Now I automatically do it, and now it is a bit strange to try to peel oranges with the right hand!
  • When we make a new habit, a set of neurons in the brain start to wire together for that task; the more we do it, the stronger the neural connections become.  That is what happens when we learn to ride a bike, drive a car, or zillions of other things that we do without even thinking about it; see, “Truine Brain: How the Mind Rewires the Brain via Meditation/Habits” and “How Habits are Formed and Broken – A Scientific View.”
  • In breaking a habit, one needs to do the reverse. When one starts to smoke less and less, the neural connections for that task will become weaker. After a while, it will become more natural not to smoke. The brain will stop giving that signal. So it is critical to have the determination to hold off the urge in the beginning. Try to replace that activity with something else at that time. One can remove any bad habit that way. It is the same principle.

7. The primary formal meditation technique is in the next section. Those who need time to get rid of the BIG EIGHT can also monitor the progress by doing such formal meditation sessions. It is essential to realize that all defilements (bad habits) are removed only at the Arahant stage. So, there is no point in getting discouraged if it takes time to stop bad habits; the key is to make progress and not go backward.

  • Sometimes when one starts on the Ariya Bhāvanā, things may look worse before getting better. It is like trying to cool a hot iron by sprinkling water on it when all that smoke comes out and may appear to be getting worse. But one needs to be persistent. One needs to keep in mind that uncountable beings have attained “cooling down” by having faith in the Buddha.

Next, “The Second Level – Key to Purify the Mind“, ………..

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