The idea of Buddhist meditation is to free ourselves from suffering but sometimes the way we practise this technique creates more suffering. When we practise this simple way we can experience the absence of suffering right at that moment. So when thoughts come you don’t suffer, you just know it. When you hear sound you don’t suffer, you know that you hear it. When there is physical pain you don’t suffer, you just know that there is pain. When the mind is not calm you don’t suffer, but you realise that the mind is not calm. When you realise that you are not with the breath but somewhere else, you don’t suffer as a result of it, you realise that you have not had awareness, so you re-establish awareness and come back to the breath.
When we practise awareness of breathing, we think that we should not have thoughts, that we should not have other sensations, that we should not hear sounds, so we try to exclude them and only be with the breath, and that can create lots of tension and lots of suffering. I would suggest instead that we do it in this way: just knowing, just having awareness of what is happening and then allowing calm to come naturally. You can never get it by force, you can never get it by trying. This is maybe why in the text it is said that when there is loving-kindness the mind becomes calm naturally. So rather than hating things, rather than fighting things, resisting things, controlling things, you just know what is happening, then let calm arise naturally.
Awareness of the breath is a very simple technique – but somehow we manage to complicate it in many ways. And sometimes I think one problem might be with the word “concentration”. The word “concentration”, what does it mean, what is the picture that comes to your mind when the word “concentration” is used?
It’s interesting that you have to try very hard, so that effort is very much emphasised in that word, in it’s meaning. And maybe another meaning is ignoring and excluding things. So this is why by using the word concentration in this sense, the technique seems difficult.
But you must see what the technique really means: essentially the meaning is simply awareness in relation to the in-breath and the out-breath. So the whole emphasis is on just knowing what is happening. This is referred to in one of the texts which says that when we practise this technique, then we experience the four foundations of awareness or mindfulness. What it means is: you become aware of the body, you become aware of the sensations, you become aware of the thoughts, you become aware of the state of mind.
Try to use awareness to focus on one object at a time. The object can be the breathing when we are meditating. When we are eating, the object would be what we are eating. When we are walking and standing, the object is walking and standing. When we are in nature, we will use awareness to see some objects or hear things very sharply, with a very focused mind.
Drowsiness can have different causes depending on the type of person. One is the quality of that person’s sleep in the night. Sometimes you might have slept for long hours but if the sleep is not deep and relaxing, during the day you can feel sleepy as a result.
Another reason for feeling drowsy in meditation is the quantity of food that you have eaten. Sometimes if you have eaten too much or too little it is also possible that you might feel drowsy.
Another reason which I have discovered while working with meditators is that sometimes they don’t want to see what is arising in meditation. So sometimes sleepiness can be used as an excuse not to look at unpleasant things that are arising. It’s an interesting reason. And sometimes when we feel relaxed while we are meditating, then also sleepiness comes.
So whatever the reasons are, one thing that can be attempted is to change the posture. This is one of the recommendations of the Buddha also. So if you are sitting, you can do some walking meditation, you can do some very quick walking meditation, or you can try to walk backwards. The idea is just to induce more energy using walking meditation.
Another thing that can be attempted, and this is where awareness is important, is to sharpen your awareness so that when signs of sleepiness are coming, you’ll be able to catch it and then do something about it, either open your eyes or stand up or start walking.
The third thing is that sometimes when your effort is too weak, you can feel sleepy. So then you can make more effort to sustain awareness, you can try a little harder.
Let me say something about mental tiredness, how during the day, working with the computer, or being busy planning and so on, you get tired and then it is not easy to be aware because of this mental tiredness. Here it is very important that when you are very busy, when you have to do very hard work using your mind, that you should learn to relax. Now during the day there can be very short breaks, even just 5 minute breaks, and during these short breaks there should be practised techniques that help you to recover from this build-up that happens during the day.
When I say this, I would like to mention a very good friend of mine in Kandy. He’s one of the leading lawyers in Kandy. Now he is a very committed and serious meditator. In his house there are two meditation classes every week. This man has a family and lots of responsibilities, but he gets up at 3:30 in the morning for his practice. Now you can imagine how in a court of law he has to argue cases, he has to use his brain, he has to use his mind to win his lawsuits, so he can be in very intense situations. He says one of the benefits of meditation is that he can do this very sharply, very clearly. In the past he would get tired, but now with meditation, because he is relaxed, he is also calm and clear, he gets less tired or he doesn’t get tired at all. And because of the changes that his colleagues saw in him a few more lawyers have now taken to meditation.
When we are tired I think we all have the experience that it is not easy to practise awareness, we don’t have enough energy within us to practise awareness. So when we feel tired and when we don’t have energy, we might try to use some techniques, some devices, where we can try to develop some energy.
We will take a practical example which you can relate to, because here in Hong Kong I know that you have to work from morning to about 7:00 or 7:30 in the evening. And here I have seen people working and they are really working throughout the day.
After working so hard, when you go home you are really tired. Now an interesting question arises: When you go back home, how can you practise awareness? Here again, if you are really interested in the practice what you can do is maybe to take a shower and then try to recover to some extent from this feeling of tiredness.
So after taking a shower, if you can do some of the yoga exercises then at least this type of thing might help you to recover from this feeling of tiredness. And maybe do a simple meditation. I think that to have the motivation to sit may be asking too much, so this is why I have been encouraging you to use reflection. It is an interesting exercise just to reflect on how you spent the day. This can be a very useful kind of meditation, a useful kind of reflection to do each day, even for 10 or 15 minutes.
There is a nice phrase that is used: you become a spiritual warrior.
There are two types of warriors. One is the person who worries all the time, or most of the time. But in the practice what is encouraged is to be a spiritual warrior, to have trust, to have confidence in yourself, to have courage. So in this practice that we have been trying to do here, we develop these qualities and therefore we are open like a spiritual warrior to any situation, to any experience because we know that we can handle it, we know what to do.
We don’t have to push things away, we don’t have to deny things, there is no need to refuse to look at things. So with this courage, with this trust, with this confidence, we are prepared, we are being open to whatever arises because we know that whatever arises we can handle it, we can use the Buddha’s teachings in any situation.
In a way, we have to have a kind of expectation of what we are going to achieve eventually in meditation, but while practising I would suggest just to forget that, and then whatever happens becomes the practice. The simile I have thought of is like someone who is climbing a mountain.
The idea is, one day, to reach the top of the mountain but if we are so much concerned, pre-occupied with what we are going to see when we reach the top, then what is happening while climbing we don’t see clearly. But in this process of climbing, the adventures we have, the falls we have, the wounds we might sustain, all this we can really learn from, this can be the practice. So in the same way, we can have some idea of what we will eventually achieve in meditation but I would consider, I would suggest that what is more important is to learn about, to discover, to explore, to be open to what is happening from moment to moment.
We should have no model, no prior idea or expectation of what should happen or what should not happen. It is interesting that if we have such an idea, a model, an image in everyday life, and if what happens does not correspond to that model, then suffering arises. And this is exactly how suffering is created when we are meditating.
So if we meditate with an idea, a model of what should happen and what should not happen, and if the meditation does not correspond with this idea, this model, this can also create suffering. It’s not only that, but we might even start hating ourselves because we cannot achieve what we think we should achieve. I know some persons who have given up meditation because they tell me that they cannot succeed in meditation, they say they cannot concentrate when they’re meditating or whatever.
So we meditate with what can be described as a beginner’s mind, a don’t-know mind, and whatever arises – it can be pleasant, it can be unpleasant – that becomes the object of meditation. And this continues whether you are sitting, standing, walking, lying down – in all the postures. We are learning, we are finding out, we are having this awareness in all situations.