Monday, November 29, 2010

Meditation - Part 3 - "What do I meditate ABOUT?"

First let’s recap (without as much humor and sarcasm):

1.      For those new to meditation (and Buddhism), the process of discovery can be long, lonely, confusing, and frustrating.  (See Meditation Part 1)  Since the practice of meditation isn’t common to Western traditions, we have to do a bit of detective work first.  Since we (fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your perspective) live in a time where meditation (and Buddhism) is considered to be a “cool” activity, there are a ton of people out there claiming to be able to teach you how to do it… usually for a price.  Be careful, stay true to yourself, and keep it simple.  Don’t sign up for anything or subscribe to a particular belief structure before you do some solid experimentation on your own!

2.      Once you get informed and motivated enough to actually DO meditation, there’s a period of time where it really sucks, so prepare yourself.  Since meditation really is an individual, solitary pursuit, when you actually start taking the time to sit down and do it, there’s a lot of shit that comes floating to the surface of the mind/consciousness that can be discouraging and unexpected for a newbie.                          
       It's kind of like starting a new job at the bottom of the corporate ladder.  

      You have to go through all the shit jobs before you can work your way up to something better.  My last post about discovering your true “ugliness” was an exaggeration on this idea.  The first thing that usually happens to a new meditator is that they encounter a whole slew of negative emotions, physical discomforts, boredom, and psychological insight.  It is not uncommon to get “sick of yourself” before you even really get started.
             This feeling of self-loathing is due to the fact that the process of meditation subjects you to a whole new method of introspection.  Think about it - when else do you just sit around doing absolutely nothing?  Sleep maybe?  Since you’re (supposed to be) conscious during meditation, it’s common sense to assume that you’re gonna do some thinking about who the hell you are and what the hell you’re doing.  

       Thoughts about your life and the fact that you’re just sitting here breathing make you question the validity of the practice.  You begin to see just how stupid meditation is and these thoughts could force you to walk away from the practice before you even really get started. 
             Although you will eventually transition away from this self-introspective perspective and move onto more “important” Buddhist practices, in the beginning, meditation is all about getting a handle on yourself.  Think about it, how can you hope to transcend the “self” if you don’t even fully know what it is yet? 

 That brings me to my next topic:  What do I meditate “about?”

 Although Buddhism is a religion that seems to be particularly well suited to “converts,” once you’re knee deep in it, its hidden philosophical complexities can be confusing.  Sure, Buddhism does have a degree of “science” to it and it can certainly hold up pretty well to our “modern” Western logic.  But we cannot forget the cultural baggage that Buddhism carries with it and the vast multitude of philosophical perspectives within the many schools of Buddhism that influence it.  The diversity of these philosophical perspectives is particularly evident when you look at how many “kinds” of meditation there are.  This is particularly true with regard to some of the more “dogmatic” schools of Buddhism – i.e., Tibetan Gelug-pa.  (What's the deal with those hats anyway?)

 This situation leaves many new practitioners wondering, “What do I meditate about?”  Usually, when a teacher is present, he/she can provide guidance with this… but what if you don’t have a teacher?  Or what if (like me) you don’t want to enter into a strictly traditional teacher/student approach to meditation? 

 Here is a taste (by no means comprehensive) of what you (as a card-carrying Buddhist) can choose to meditate about:

           Suffering or the Four Noble Truths
2.                           Impermanence
3.                          This Precious Human Rebirth
4.                           Compassion
5.                          Anger
6.                          Emptiness
7.                          Dependent Origination
8.                          Karma
Then there are various “purification” practices you can do where you recite mantras to particular deities, do prostrations, and confess your "sins" to multi-colored Buddhas.  There is the whole realm of Guru Yoga practices, Tantric Practices, and other devotional, cult-like meditational rituals.  

All kinds of questions begin to pop up in your mind... Where do the prayers fit in?  Should I say them in English, Tibetan, Sanskrit, Japanese, or Pali?  Should I learn to chant?  What about the deities?  Which one should I worship?  Isn’t there some kind of sex involved? 

 You could meditate on a different topic, using a different text, focusing on a different deity, every single day for the rest of your life and never get anywhere with any of them. 

 So, what do you do?  Where do you start?

 Relax, I’m gonna explain: 

 It's good to understand how meditation works conceptually before jumping into it.  I find it helpful to understand that all forms of Buddhist meditation can basically be broken down into two categories.  Now, before all you “purists” out there start telling me that I’m wrong to break meditation down into these categories, let me offer this:  Take this categorization with a grain of salt.  Not all forms of meditation fit neatly into this distinction and some forms can be considered to belong to both categories.  This is merely to simplify meditation into something easy to understand. 


 Meditation can be broadly broken into two “kinds” or "types":

1.      Samantha - (Pronounced Sha-ma-tha) although there is a long, technical definition for this word, all you need to know right now is that it basically means "Concentration" meditation.  For this kind of meditation, you choose an "object" to focus your attention on and you simply hold it there with all your energy and focus.  A lot of stuff ends up happening to you when you get good at this kind of meditation.  For example, usually you feel a sense of calm and relaxation.  Also, your attention span increases and you are able to bring your mind to a place of intense focus that you've never experienced before.  

2.      Vipassana - (Pronounced Vip-ah-sha-na) in this kind of meditation, you use the mind to analyze various topics to understand what makes them tick.  Usually, Vipassana is done after a sufficient amount of Samantha has been accomplished because in order to focus on complex topics like "impermanence" or "dependent origination," you need to be able to focus your mind and concentrate on one object without getting distracted.  

A    A good way to understand the difference between Samantha and Vipassana is to look at it like this:  

       Let's say you've just been given a really nice looking Christmas present from your Uncle Bob.  He hands it to you all wrapped up in a pretty box with a big, red bow.  You rip it open.  It's a really cool hunting knife!
           "Holy shit, Uncle Bob," you say.  "Thanks!" 
           "Take 'er easy there, little fella," says Uncle Bob with a grin.  
"         "This knife is very old and very dull.  You gotta sharpen it before         you can run out and start huntin' with it."   
           "Geez Louise, Uncle Bob," you say.  "I'm just a little piss-ant.  What do I use to sharpen it?"
           "That's easy.  You just use a little Samantha, little buddy," he says.  "Samantha will get the knife good and sharp for you and then you can take it out there into the woods and slaughter any beast that gets in your way." 
           "Samantha?  That's great!" you reply, enthusiastically.  "I can do that.  I'll get started right away!"   

          This knife is your mind:
The holes in the handle are for your brain fingers!!!

        Use Samantha meditation to sharpen that shit and then you can go out and do some Vipassana!
          Wait, Wait, Wait!!! 
       How do you do Samantha meditation, you ask?  Well... you'll be pleased to know that this is the very subject of my next post!  

       Tune in next time for Meditation Part 4... "How to do Samantha meditation"


  1. "there’s a period of time where it really sucks, so prepare yourself."

    Glad someone is saying this, it totally caught me off-guard when I started, especially with so many other people talking about the deep relaxed feeling they got. This series is awesome so far!

  2. Yeah this is well done. Interesting, funny style and keeping things relatively straight forward. Good job!

  3. As far as I can tell, the period of time where it "really sucks" is forever. Gotta keep going, of course, but still...

  4. i love your analogy with uncle bob. it's super funny dialog and educational at the same time. keep it up! but i want more of that crassness you had in your first few posts... i like when you "go off!"

  5. Aren't we all, anonymous?

    Anyway, this is one of my favorite blogs. I've been experimenting with meditation and some Buddhist ideas for about two years now, and I echo much of the resistance to dogma and doctrine found here. Some of it simply /is/ ridiculous and deserves questioning, and indeed what I have learned of Sid(dharta) seems to indicate that he would've been all about tearing down preconceptions.

    And, like you, I am trying to find the Right Way(TM) to do this individually, without the fat, and without straying off into the weeds, as it seems like is so easy to do.

    Thanks again, and best wishes on your way.

  6. As my teacher, The Venerable Pee Wee Herman Rinpoche, once said: "I know you are, but what am I?"

  7. I'm enjoying this. It is rare I find a blog I can stand to read.

  8. Who's this 'Samantha' you keep mentioning? Is she related to Uncle Bob?

  9. I've been watching interviews with people who participated in the Finders Course experiment. They claim to be getting awakened/enlightened/nondual in 3 months or less. Has anyone else seen this? They are on youtube if you search for 'finders course'. It seems to be based on a big academic study from the center for the study of nonsymbolic consciousness. They have videos and articles about some of it here: