States of mind are like weather conditions—they are constantly in a state of fluctuation.
Trying to organize impermanent phenomena into permanent categories of thought is an impossible task. It is like trying to herd cats.
With the thought of something attractive, we become excited. When we encounter something undesirable, we become defensive. This gives rise to paranoia. We feel like we have to monitor the environment for changing conditions. We invest a great deal of time and energy seeking out advantageous situations and trying to avoid unpleasant circumstances.
This paranoia breeds speed and chaos. It puts us at odds with our environment. We find ourselves in conflict with those who do not meet our expectations and clinging to those relationships that satisfy our demands. But no one wants to be pushed away or held hostage, so conflict is the inevitable outcome. Our tendency to grasp at our thoughts as solid or real is the cause of this. The problem is not the relationship itself; rather, it is our tendency to categorize these relationships as permanent phenomena and the subsequent attachment that gives us our troubles.
We have misunderstood the nature of thought. We relate to thought as if it were a solid, objective reality—rather than our subjective commentary on an ever-changing world. So the problem lies not in thought itself, but in the way that we relate to thought. We crave the false security and the illusion of certainty generated by our conceptual map of the territory. In other words, we are addicted to thought. We think about our own thoughts until we are hundreds of thoughts removed from the present moment.
In meditation, we are not looking to stop our thought processes. In fact, we are not really looking for anything in particular. We are simply observing. As Thich Naht Hahn says, “It is a practice of looking deeply.”
We just watch. In simple observation, two developments take place. First, we change the way we relate to thought. We do this by loosening our grip on thought. When we catch ourselves clinging to thought we simply return to the breath, to the present moment. We are letting go of the tendency to cling to thought by thinking about thought, and as a result we are no longer working toward preordained conclusions. In this way, we reconnect with the life of the body, the present moment.
No longer working toward preconceived conclusions opens the door to new discoveries. As we divest in dualistic thinking the apparent solidity of thought dissolves. This development takes place as the speed of mental activity diminishes. Ordinarily, one thought grabs a hold of the next thought so quickly that it creates the illusion of permanence or solidity.
This dynamic could be compared to an airplane propeller. When the propeller is spinning at top speed it appears to be a solid disk, but when the engine slows down the disk is revealed to be several propellers. Similarly, when thought ceases to cling to itself, the solidity melts away and chaos is minimized. We discover the gap between each thought. This gap is the basic awareness of the body. Resting in this gap is the practice of meditation. Rather than chasing after each emerging thought, we sit in the stillness of the body and watch as thoughts pass by like clouds in the sky.
The path of meditation co-emerges with the path that gives rise to suffering. The spiritual path is nothing more than walking backwards down the path of suffering. In this case, discontentment refers to the gulf between us and meaningful content. We feel separate or apart from life, and therefore lifeless or dis-eased. There is a void or a “hole in our soul,” so to speak. Shamatha meditation is the practice of peaceful abiding. Shama means “to pacify” or “peace.” Tha means “to abide.” Shamatha meditation is not about beating the mind into submission. It is about reconnecting with and learning to abide in the depths of our being.
Below are the instructions for aligning the body. This should be done first, and then we should align the mind by following the instructions for placing the mind. In placing the mind we are consenting to the body. If this posture is uncomfortable for you, sitting in a chair will be fine, but be sure to bring the basic principles of the posture into the chair.
Placing the Body:
1) Sit in the crossed-legged position
2) Place your hands, palms down, on your thighs.
3) Roll your hips forward in order to straighten the back and center the weight on the hips.
4) Pull your shoulders back slightly.
5) Look straight forward, forming a 90-degree angle with the neck and chin.
6) Allow your eyes to come to a soft gaze, or close them if you prefer.
7) Place your tongue in the roof of your mouth behind your two front teeth.
Placing the Mind:
1) Connect with the coolness of the in-breath at the tip of your nose. Allow the breath to guide your awareness into the body, feeling your chest and abdomen expand with the inhalation. Notice the gap between the in-breath and out-breath. Feel the stomach and lungs collapse with the exhalation. Notice the warmth of the out-breath.
2) Do not analyze the breath—simply notice it. Do not try to control the breath or breathe in any certain way; just pay undivided attention to the sensation of the breath as you inhale and exhale.
3) When you notice yourself thinking, do not become frustrated. Simply return to the breath. If you catch yourself in thought and return to the basic sensation of the breath a 1,000 times, that is great practice. Do not bother yourself with thinking about not thinking, simply return to the present moment as symbolized by the coolness of the in-breath and the warmth of out-breath.
If you are interested in learning more about meditation and contemplative spirituality, check out my book, Finding God in the Body: A Spiritual Path for the Modern West. It draws from a variety of different traditions, including Buddhism, contemplative Christianity, Judaism and 12-Step spirituality to present, not a smorgasbord, but a synthesized and actionable path structure that resonates with the modern Western mind. Click here to learn more about Finding God in the Body: A Spiritual Path for the Modern West.
Author: Benjamin Riggs
Editor: Travis May