At this busy time of year it is helpful to pause for reflection and renewal, to take a little time to turn within and find a sense of peace and relaxation to restore our energy and lift our state of mind.
Nowadays more and more people are discovering the beneficial effects of meditation practice. This ancient science enables us to take an inner holiday, free from the turbulence of busy thoughts, and discover a feeling of stillness and calm that is otherwise elusive.
To start to train in meditation all we need to do is take a little time, say ten minutes each day, to turn within and focus upon the sensation of our breath.
The key to success in meditation, as in learning any skill, is to practice it regularly and consistently without expecting results to come quickly. Initially it may seem that our thoughts are becoming more busy but this is because, for this first time, we are noticing just how busy our mind is.
With gradual familiarity we will become more and more proficient in gaining control over our “monkey mind” and the clouds of our busy thoughts are cleared away, revealing the natural clarity and of our mind.
Then we can be more flexible, creative and effective in our decision-making and see the bigger picture.
As my teacher, Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, says in his book The New Meditation Handbook: “By training in meditation we create an inner space and clarity that enables us to control our mind regardless of the external circumstances.”
With breathing meditation as a stable foundation there are six further practices that are very useful for both improving our self and benefitting others around us:
There are different types of giving – material things, advice, love, and fearlessness. How can we really help others unless we show them a good, kind and patient example?
This needs to come from within our mind. Part of this is to relate to others good qualities and not their faults, in this way we can help bring out their potential.
This is about controlling our mind, not trying to control others. Due to controlling our mind it becomes very powerful. Everybody needs discipline, even a dog needs it.
Our own practice of discipline is not something that can be effectively or sustainably imposed from the outside but we need to recognise its importance ourself. We can be our own best friend or worst enemy and that is determined by the choices we make.
This makes our mind strong. With patient acceptance it doesn’t mean we don’t do anything. We can make a distinction between an inner and outer problem. To solve our inner problem of anger we need to practice patience. If we can solve the outer problem we need to take the necessary steps to do that, while keeping a peaceful mind.
The trigger for anger is bad feelings. These are like the first sign of stormy weather within our mind. Just as there is space in the sky for a few storm clouds, so there is space in our mind for a few bad feelings. Instead of blaming other people for our own bad feelings we can just let them pass, like clouds disappearing from the sky.
Anger makes us lose control, and patience makes our mind as stable as a mountain and as calm as the depths of an ocean.
The four powers of effort are: joy, aspiration, steadfastness, and relaxation.
We need to enjoy what we are doing; sometimes we forget to do that. Seeing the bigger picture gives us a light and flexible approach and then we can be more effective in our activities.
With aspiration we are strongly motivated which gives us energy and drive. We also need steadfastness to keep going like a broad, ever-flowing river that is always moving instead of being like a sudden, gushing waterfall that releases tremendous energy but then trickles away to nothing. Also, it’s important to relax and recharge in order for our effort to be sustainable.
This means training in single-pointedness in meditation, using mindfulness. This is like building up a muscle, and we need to not be too relaxed nor too tight, striking a fine balance of being both relaxed and alert.
When our attention wanders from the meditation object we need to keep bringing it back and then maintain our concentration single-pointedly for as long as possible.
This is about having a flexible and light mind so we can make ourself and others feel good. There is a difference between intelligence and wisdom.
With wisdom we are able to make choices that accord with our wish to be happy.
A simple breathing meditation:
Our mind and breath are closely related, and focusing upon our breath enables us to control our mind and find stillness within. To practice this we choose a quiet place to meditate and sit on a chair or cross-legged on a cushion.
The most important thing is to keep our back straight to prevent sleepiness. We sit with our eyes partially closed and turn our attention to our breathing. We breathe naturally through the nostrils and try to become aware of the sensation of the breathe with each cycle of inhalation and exhalation.
This is the object of meditation and we need to focus on it without thinking about anything else.
We need to resist the urge to follow our thoughts and keep bringing our attention back to the breath whenever it wanders away. We repeat this until the mind settles upon the breath.
By practicing patiently in this way, our distracting thoughts will subside and we shall come to experience a sense of inner peace and contentment. Our mind and body will feel relaxed and refreshed. We should stay with this feeling of calm and well-being for a while and then bring it with us into our daily activities.
We will see from this meditation that we can experience inner peace and contentment simply through controlling and pacifying our mind.
Breathing meditation is a preliminary meditation, and in future articles I will explain about other wonderful meditations, on compassion and wisdom, that we can build upon this firm basis of stilling our mind.
Gen Pagpa is the resident teacher of Tushita Kadampa Buddhist Centre in Rondebosch and teaches regularly around the greater Cape Town area, including Somerset West and Wellington. For details, visit www.meditateincapetown.org
There is a drop-in meditation class on “The beauty of patience” on Sunday December 3, from 10am to 11.30am, at 14 Oleander Street, Heldervue, Somerset West. The cost is R60, and no booking is required. Call 021 685 3428 for more information.