OUR BASIC SITUATION
as human beings is very rich and full of resources. We have the ability to blossom
into a far richer and saner state of mind than we usually experience. This potential
is like having access to a very healing and effective medicine. If we apply
it and make use of it, it will bring health and well-being. The question is
how to do this. How do we use our resources?
First, we need to have the proper understanding of how to work with our resources in order to experience their meaning. For example, if we want to write something down so it will make sense and be purposeful, we need to have paper and a functioning pen. We also need the efforts of our hand and our eyes and, most importantly, the cooperation of our mind.
If any of these factors is missing, the writing is bound to be incomplete. If there is no ink, we cannot get anything written down. If our eyes do not look at what we are writing, we will make a lot of mistakes. Whether or not we would even be writing on the paper would be uncertain. If the mind is distracted with ideas other than those we were going to put on the paper, we will also make a lot of mistakes.
In this situation, which is very familiar to us, we realize the cooperation of all these different components is necessary. Similarly, in working with the mind and applying the appropriate techniques to develop an awakened state of mind, we must have the cooperation of certain elements and the sincere application of these elements.
In the sutras, the Buddha explained that in taming the mind we must bring ourselves to a place of solitude, or to a situation of solitude. This does not necessarily mean going to some deserted place in the wilderness. Solitude, in this sense, is more like security.
It is not a place of solitude if we have to worry because the place we are using belongs to somebody else and we might be told to leave, or because there might be some wild animals there, or because it is a place that is not physically stable so there is a chance that something could fall down. When we are subject to these kinds of apprehensions from an environmental or physical point of view, it is not a suitable place for meditation.
Also, we could be in a quiet place, a safe place, and yet internally our minds could be preoccupied by all kinds of thoughts. We could be thinking about things we need to do, certain mistakes we have made, or regrets or frustrations we have about our mistakes. We could worry that the phone might ring, that we have missed an important appointment, and so forth.
We could entertain our minds with all kinds of thoughts and distractions. In this case also, we are not really in a place of solitude or quietude, except in a superficial sense. Such indulgence does not produce the experience of taming the mind or directing the mind toward a saner approach.
The antidote to this indulgence lies in our commitment. When we commit ourselves to finding quietude, we must commit ourselves fully and sincerely. We must make a sincere commitment to ourselves that when we are involved with meditation, we will be totally involved, rather than continuing with our usual pattern of constantly recollecting the past, anticipating the future, or being entertained with all kinds of other thoughts, which are actually deceptive. We need to make a commitment that we are going to stay strictly with what we are doing.
The Seven Positions:
Building the Meditation Posture
The sutras go on to say we should settle ourselves on a comfortable seat where we do not have to lean to the left or right or too far forward or backward. That kind of leaning could result in imbalances in the workings of the physical systems--in the constitution of the body.
Then with this comfortable, level seat, we need what is traditionally called TING NGE DZIN BUR CHON. TING NGE DZIN means samadhi or meditation, and BUR CHON means cushion-meditation cushion. Traditionally, in Tibet, meditators would use a square meditation cushion four to five fingers high. Some people need it to be a little lower or higher, depending on their physical proportions. Sit on the cushion with it more to your rear than to your front and bring the body to the best possible position, sitting up quite straight.
After having taken your place on the cushion, place your legs, if possible, in the vajra position. [Editor's note: This has also been called full-lotus position, but that term is not used by Tibetans.] This is not an easy position, and if you are not used to it, the ordinary cross-legged position (the sattva position) is suitable. The vajra and cross-legged positions are referred to as the "positions of indestructibility" in the sense of being stabilized or grounded. This is the first position of the body.
The second position of the body is called "drawing up." After sitting in the cross-legged position, adjust the position of the body to bring in, or fold in, the buttocks. Then close and tighten the sphincter muscles and, with a certain amount of effort and without breathing, pull the abdomen and the inside organs upward. Then very gently and slowly relax everything back into a normal position.
What we are talking about here is how to facilitate an effective taming of the mind from the external point of view. This particular position, for instance, contributes to our health and to maintaining the vitality and warmth of the body. This definitely contributes to strengthening and taming the mind.
The third position is to touch the tip of the thumb on each hand to the first or second joint of the ring finger--the first joint being the one connecting the finger to the hand. The thumb can be on either joint, depending on which feels more natural for your hand, but not between the joints. Then close the fingers into a relaxed and gentle fist, and bring those fists palm-downward onto the knees.
Whichever position you are able to maintain naturally, the important point is that your back is erect and your knees are down on the ground as much as possible. If this is already pretty well established and you have these positions correct, you should not have to exert any effort, but just keep your elbows and arms straight. This has more to do with keeping the structure of the bones erect, rather than having any tension in your flesh, skin, or muscles, which should remain relaxed. Only the bone structure is kept erect.
If your back is not very straight and you have difficulty bringing your knees down, exerting a little effort and straightening your arms will eventually help bring the knees down a little closer to the ground, which will keep your back more erect.
For the fourth position, you may notice that even when your arms are straight, your back may still be curved or you may be slouching, perhaps because your hands have moved a little bit over your knees. If this is the case, as you continue sitting, you will get more and more out of position and slouch more and more, even though your arms are still straight. If this happens, you should straighten your spine. Maintaining a straight and erect position in this way is very important. Straighten the lower part of your back, which involves a slight tilt of the pelvis, moving the stomach area back to remove any arch in your lower back.
The fifth position concerns the gaze of the eyes. Without making a particular effort to look cross-eyed, bring the focus of both your eyes onto the nose, and from there bring the focus of the eyes down a straight line to a point an elbow's length in front of your body. Even if your back up to the point of the neck is erect, your neck may be tilted left or right or backward or forward. Placing the gaze in this way helps to keep your neck from tilting too much backward, forward, or sideways.
The sixth position is to let your tongue rest flatly and somewhat tightly against your upper palate. The tongue is slightly curved forward and rests in the mid part of the front of the roof of your mouth (neither at the very top of the roof of the mouth nor right behind the front teeth). Like all the other positions, this one has an immediate or temporary benefit, as well as a long-term benefit. In this particular case, the immediate benefit is that when you properly rest the tongue in this way, you do not have to go through the effort and the disturbance of swallowing again and again, and it also helps to keep you from coughing.
The seventh position of the body concerns the fact that your neck may not be properly erect. Even though it is basically straight from placing the gaze of the eyes downward, it may still be craned a little bit backward or forward. To avoid that, pull your chin in slightly so there is a light pressure on the voice box. In this way, the neck vertebrae are in alignment with the spinal vertebrae, creating a very correct and erect position.
These are the seven positions of the body, which are very highly recommended in the different levels of the teachings.
Because some of us are not accustomed to these different positions, or because of the difference in flexibility of our bodies and so forth, some people may be able to do the positions better and more immediately than others. Whatever may be the differences, it is important to understand these positions and to commit ourselves to getting into these positions as closely as possible in our meditation practice.
What are the defects of not being in the proper positions? For instance, if we meditate staring upward all the time, we might at first feel very light and comfortable and think this feels right in the sense of being clear. But after a while we may feel a sense of speeding up or floating and are more susceptible to anger or frustration. Because of the relationship of the body and the mind, poor posture can bring out these sorts of emotional patterns.
If we practice while slouching down, there may be a temporary feeling of comfort and relaxation, but actually we are not taming the mind in a disciplined way. It is said that continuing in this way is a greater cause for ignorance. We become more and more slothful and fall asleep.
According to the way the constitution or chemistry of the body operates, we are stimulating various patterns. If we tilt to the right side while meditating, we are more susceptible to being entertained by the more pleasurable kinds of distractions. If we tilt to the left side, we are more susceptible to unpleasant desires and that type of distraction. When we lean left or right, the different aspects of distractions will increase and we will be more susceptible to the different types of desire. With this understanding, we can see the importance of the positions of the body.
Keeping these seven positions in mind and training properly in applying them is very important. Failing to apply even one of these positions causes many defects in the taming of our minds. Initially it may not be very easy and comfortable to get into these positions. It may mean suffering a little discomfort or going through a little effort, but in the long run it will definitely be more than worthwhile.
For instance, as explained earlier, getting the pen and the paper and the mind and the hand and the eyes together might be considered an effort or inconvenience, but sometimes thinking of something as being inconvenient is not a true picture of the situation. If we have the cooperation of all these faculties, we can get a very important message conveyed properly, and the so-called inconveniences were worthwhile. On the other hand, if we did not work through these inconveniences, the lack of one of these factors means the important message does not get through.
In the same way, maintaining all these positions of the body contributes toward the effective taming of the mind and toward greater and greater calmness and sanity.
There are many different
techniques for working with the mind in meditation. If other people are not
using exactly the same techniques as you, that does not mean theirs is totally
different or wrong as far as basic meditation is concerned. For example, as
a method for developing mindfulness and one-pointedness of the mind, certain
objects can be used, such as a dot, a ray of light, a syllable or letter, or
something else. These are not the most effective or convenient techniques, however.
Initially, we may be able to relate to such an object easily. As a new situation, it may for a while be a source of entertainment, and we may feel more comfortable concentrating on it. Yet, for two reasons this may not be the most effective technique.
The first reason concerns the gradual progression of our minds from a state of thought to a state of non-thought, a nonconceptual state. It is not easy to let go of clinging to separate, substantial, solid entities and move to understanding nonsubstantiality, or the state of no reference point. If we have developed so much familiarity with a certain image that we cannot see how to stop viewing that image as real or solid, this can present an obstacle, although it does not necessarily have to. The second reason such an object of meditation is not the best is that it is not particularly natural. It is something outside ourselves and, in some sense, superficial. After the initial fascination subsides, we feel very much apart from it.
The most effective and natural meditation technique is to work with the breath. From the moment we are born until we take our last breath and die, it is like our life force. We have a very intimate relationship with it. We breathe constantly. Considering the possible shortcomings of other methods, relating to the breath is a most effective technique.
Entering into the Practice
After having first understood the importance of both inner or mental solitude as well as solitude in your immediate environment, you apply the seven positions of the body. There is not a specific order in which to apply the positions, but initially you should be certain the positions are correct. You should not anticipate anything once you are able to comfortably get into these positions and maintain them. What happens when you apply the positions is that you sense you are in a state called "harmonious surprise." There are no distractions, and you are surprised because you are not bothered by all kinds of thoughts.
Not all surprises are pleasant or harmonious, of course, but this one has a harmonious air. Those who are not used to the positions and experience certain discomforts will not easily find themselves in this sort of environment of openness. Because of our long history of habitual and emotional patterns and upheavals, we may not remain in the state of harmonious surprise for long--maybe just for a moment. This depends on how long we have been practicing, among other things.
After this initial period
of time, distractions or thoughts arise. When these thoughts arise, take a slow,
gentle, deep breath into your nostrils and bring the sensation of the breath
down below the navel. Then without holding the breath, simply breathe out. This
breath automatically breaks the chain of thoughts or distractions and centers
you. It also brings in purer air and lets the stale air out.
Having centered in this way, simply follow your breath. When the breath is going out, your mind follows the outgoing breath; when your breath is coming in, your mind follows the incoming breath. There is nothing artificial about it at all after the first deep and slow inhalation. From then onward, follow the normal pace of the breath, whatever it is, not trying to make any point, not making any effort to slow down or speed up. Simply follow the normal course of the breath without any ideas about how far it is going out or what the location is of this and that. Just let the mind watch the breath, or follow the breath, or be one with the breath. This is how to relate to the breath as a vehicle of concentration. We only relate to the breath and have no relationship to anything else.
More experienced practitioners, who are able to maintain the concentration of the mind in this way quite easily without distractions, can work toward some degree of improvement where they just follow or are aware of the sensation of the breath going out of the nostrils--following only the outgoing breath. In this way, they shift from two references--the outgoing and incoming breaths--to just one vehicle of concentration.
There are two main obstacles
that interfere with the effectiveness and steadiness of meditation practice.
The first one, as is said in the sutras, is restlessness or "wildness."
This happens because we are very strongly or very acutely involved with a particular
emotion (such as anger, aggression, or attachment) or with an exciting argument
or physical activity.
When this is the case, you may place yourself in the meditation positions, but you do not seem to get settled; in fact, trying to correct your positions makes things even worse. If you keep meditating like this, you may gradually become more angry or frustrated. You try to tighten things up, but that does not work, and you have more thoughts and get more hyper and restless and become very frustrated.
To work with this, the sutra recommends lowering your focus and relaxing your positions. Just relax, letting the head bend downward to your chest and closing the eyes very gently. Your breathing also should be very gentle. Visualize that your breath becomes very dark and very subtle and goes down into the earth, deep into invisible depths. Then slowly inhale. As you inhale this dark and almost invisible breath, it is as if your whole being is becoming darkness.
Remain in this state of darkness, repeating this several times if needed. By doing this, you will feel more stabilized and normal and not as involved with those wild mental patterns. Then resume the standard positions. If you apply this antidote for too long, you might fall asleep, so as soon as you feel relaxed, or normalized, get back into the positions and relate to the breath as before.
Another obstacle is
sluggishness. Sometimes the place where you are meditating is warm and humid,
or you are very full with a heavy meal, or it is dark, and so forth. Maybe you
have done a lot of work and are somewhat tired. Then when you try to meditate
in the normal position, you feel you are being pulled down somehow. You have
a sense of being physically pulled down out of your positions. Mentally, following
the breath becomes more disconnected or vague. It is even difficult to tell
if you are being distracted or not. It is almost like going into a state of
When such a situation arises, it is not very effective and skillful to keep trying. Instead, shift your position and straighten up your overall posture--your whole body, not just the bone structure. Exert some effort, tightening up your position more than ever. Look straight upward with your eyes, turning your head upward as well. Visualize a very bright light above you and imagine that your breath is going out to the light and coming in from the light as you exhale and inhale. In this way you will feel more awake and more normal, physically and mentally. From there, go back to the regular positions and relate to the breath as before.
Do not stay with the antidotes after you feel more normalized. Once you feel more balanced, go back to following the breath, either both outgoing and incoming or only the outgoing, whichever is best for you. These are useful antidotes for the two basic obstacles. There are also more details and variations of these methods that you can get from a meditation instructor.