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Notes on Meditation practices….

July 25, 2012

[note: this is a developing article; upon completion this notice will be deleted.]

The basic or generic meditation practice throughout a variety of traditions initially entails concentrating one’s awareness on a single “object”, with seemingly the most often referenced object recommended to use being one’s own full breathing cycle.  

The point in doing that is for the cultivation of both a deep “calm abiding” and a lucid, clear-headed wakefulness that simply, non-reactively, and without “conceptual elaborations” observes the rising and passing of thoughts, perceptions, emotions, sensations, etc.

If finding oneself starting to be distracted from abiding or resting in this calm wakefulness, when becoming absorbed in, or entranced by, the stream of thoughts, etc (including thought chatter commenting in reaction to our sense perceptions), the practice is to simply return attention to the single object of attention.

If that is the breathing cycle, the most widely taught way seems to be to focus on feeling the breathing fully throughout the whole body rather than a focus on the sensation of air going in and out at the tip of the nostrils (which some teachers suggest).  Another method taught is counting the breath.  

On inhaling, simply feel and enjoy the sense of energy filling up and enlivening the whole body.  On exhaling, enjoy the sense of emptying or dissolving into all pervasive space.  In between, enjoy the thought free stillness and spaciousness.

It is traditionally rx’d that an initial position for sitting be one that is going to remain comfortable.  It is important to keep the back straight to assure alertness.

Teachers typically tell beginning meditators that they may be surprised and frustrated by the level of thought chatter initially experienced in practice.  Hence, the tool of single pointed concentration is basic to meditation practices.  

There are a wide variety of ways that people can practice a single pointed concentration.  The focus on breathing was a primary emphasis of the Buddha when teaching and this vehicle for concentration remains widely practiced and taught.  But, all meditation practice traditions include so much more in the tool box.  From “The Shambhala Guide to Yoga” by Georg Feuerstein, a work largely introducing the classic Yoga system as described in the primary 2000 year (estimated) old Yoga Sutra by Patanjali, page 85: 

“In Yoga the voluntary stoppage of the outgoing tendencies of the mind is called dharana, meaning “holding” or concentration.  Patanjali defines concentration as ‘the binding of consciousness to a [single] place’.  (Yoga Sutra, 3.1). It is clear from the commentaries on Patanjali’s aphorisms that by ‘place’ is meant any focal point inside the body-mind, notably the psychoenergetic  centers (or chakras) at the base of the spine, sexual organs, navel, heart, throat, forehead, and crown of the head.  But the yogin may also focus his attention on a specific thought or image, or on a single sound or sound pattern, whether heard externally or internally…..”

The wide usage of mantras as a concentrative tool has become, for some time now, something fully integrated into the awareness of western cultures.  Georg Feurstein in The Shambhala Guide to Yoga gives some background on the sacred and primal sound, OM or AUM, page 108-109:

“The Mandukya-Upanishad, consisting of only twelve verses, correlates the sacred syllable OM with the four states of consciousness taught in Vedanta.  This ancient text begins by stating that OM is the entire universe, past, present, and future.  It analyzes the sacred syllable in it’s four constituent parts: a + u + m + the soundless pause following the pronunciation of the other three constituents.  Then the text goes on to correlate the letter “a” with the waking state, “u” with the dream state, and “m” with deep sleep.  The fourth state, which is mere silence, is said to transcend the other three states.  It is identical with the universal consciousness of the Self, which is neither inwardly aware nor outwardly aware but pure consciousness, incomprehensible, without distinctive mark, and nondual [advaita].  This Fourth is declared to be the goal of yogins.”

Another concentrative tool uses our capacity to imagine.  Meditation practice systems in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism in particular have very elaborate meditation practices that use visualization, and the concentrative focusing involved in that, to gather, stabilize or harmonize, and awaken energy in order to provide the necessary supportive conditions for sustaining an awakened and nondual awareness.  

Closely tied to the condition or state of both our awareness and energy is breathing.  There are practice systems of breathing exercises, like the fourth limb of yoga practice called pranayama, designed to calm the body and mind and further awaken our feeling connection to the energetic underpinnings of existence.

The focusing of awareness in a single pointed way is not in itself a “state of meditation”.  In the classic Yoga system, with its 8 limbs, concentration is limb number 6 and meditation limb number 7.  As framed in the language of the classic Yoga system, meditation begins when the sense of seperation and self conscious effort involved initially in a “subject” focusing single pointedly on an object significantly dissolves and relaxes.  

Some systems have a more dissociative, inward, world denying, and dualistic orientation due to philosophical frameworks presenting the picture of Liberation as the ascent of our essence and spirit from the bondage of matter.  But, the deepest and fullest enlightening realizations entail the primary awareness of “not two”.  And, in fact, conceptualizing, compartmentalizing, objectifying, and characterizing 
profoundly ease up in meditation and so do notions of reality as being either “spiritual” or “materialistic”.  The capacity to conceptualize, etc. is not of course incapacitated by meditation and remains important in creative expression, problem solving, and more.  Instead, we loosen our entanglement with the thought stream.  We break the nearly chronic spell of entrancement with seemingly solid internalized pictures of what is.  And, thus it is important to note that meditation is not an escape route to go somewhere else better.  In fact, it has no “goals” and doesn’t involve reaching one!

Over the last several decades we have seen an incredible infusion of information regarding the deepest “secrets” related to formerly esoteric meditation practices.  I found a footnote in Buddhism, A Concise Introduction by Huston Smith and Philip Novak that refers to practices (and accompanying realizations) that today are being taught with many preparatory and preliminary traditional practices no longer required for such teachings, page 216, note 5:

“Dzogchen, or “great perfection”, is one of the Vajrayana’s many practice regimes.  It refers both to a comprehensive path of training and to a specific form of meditation on that path.  Traditionally regarded as a culminating effort that follows years of preparation, it has in recent years been taught sooner by a number of Tibetan teachers.  Because Dzogchen meditation teaches that the practitioner in some sense already is the great perfection she is working to achieve, it has been likened to the Zen doctrine of the oneness of practice and enlightenment and to shikantaza or ‘just sitting’, form of meditation associated with that doctrine.  Dzogchen and shikantaza appear to be potent combinations of (1) a great effort to sustain sharp awareness and (2) a non-effort, a letting go of everything one becomes aware OF……[A] similiar strategy appears to lie at the heart of vipassana practice.  Sustained awareness coupled with non reactivity seems to be the holy discovery of Buddhist psychologists, the double-edged blade that is thought to slice through every sclerosis of conditioning that lies between bondage and freedom…”

To be continued….

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