When we talk about meditation on the SanghaSeva website we are referring to paying attention and deepening experience. Normally we are translating the Pali word bhāvanā for this. Unlike meditation, this is not a word used for contemplating or thinking deeply about life, rather it is rooted in cultivation: bringing something into being. Just as cultivation is not passive and restricted to stillness and silence, nor is meditation, it is a way of relating to all of life.
For us, meditation is the practice of attending to life to invite a better experience.
This is dependent on deeper listening. We feel of all the everyday words for meditation listening gathers a lot of what we mean by meditation. We’ll go deeper into this shortly, but for now consider that when we listen it isn’t neutral, is is actually creative. Partly this is because when we listen we listen through a way of listening. Such as, impatient or patient listening, attentive or distracted listening, to name a couple from an endless list. Listening is not neutral as an activity, nor is it neutral in impact: it is creative and a cultivation. To state what is probably obvious, when we talk about listening as a metaphor for meditation, we mean more than listening based on hearing. More on this shortly.
Because we wish to listen more deeply and with more clarity to what we attend to, and to how we’re attending to it, many times meditation is aided by a calming of the complexity of our lives; being more simple and slow. Again, it is worth noting already, this is to learn the skill better, not to aim to live at a slower pace, or to aim for a simple life. Further, the key principle of the simplification of retreat or in a meditation is born of a step away from the entangling complexity of our habitually less ethical behaviour. This is so helpful for the ease and openness it brings to the flow of emotions and supports a mind state of greater well being. It is probably profoundly clear how this would aid better listening.
Everywhere that we hear about meditation in ancient teachings it is referred to as a training. We train our heart and mind to be more present. We train the heart and mind to be more kind and compassionate. We train the heart and mind to be more flexible and sensitive. A training implies a gradual increase in ability. If at first we don’t succeed at a training that should be no surprise, and actually an invitation to contemplate how to train with this outcome for a better outcome.
Breaking down the task into smaller parts is often helpful. That is why a lot of meditation exists around mindfully paying attention to the sensations of breath or to the vibrations of sounds. Even these are endless trainings. But we wait to get an understanding of these, before looking at cultivating more on those foundations. Yet, as human beings with great aspirations (at times) we often try to run before we can walk. Although the aims of meditation are vast and possibly endless, it all starts with this next step.
We have habitual ways of shaping our sense of life. To use this moment as an example. As you read these words, a lot is happening: there are the sounds around you; there are ideas about what to do next; there are emotions flowing through… All will be having an impact on how you experience reading these words. And all are causing subtle reactions, responses, and conclusions: some will be negative, some positive, some more neutral. Further, much of this we don't consciously notice, yet it is affecting us, possibly very deeply.
Through techniques of meditation we can become more aware of what is happening in the background, and foreground, of our lives. This is important as much of these conscious and subliminal happenings will affect our moods, emotions and thoughts, and thence our actions of word and deed. And all of them are, to some degree, shapable according to what we attend to and how we attend to them.
At times, we can see much more by cultivating a wider less-judging awareness, and maintain an attitude and perspective of "knowing". We could refer to this as living with a wide angle focus. At other times it can be helpful in recognising more of the spectrum of our life experience by gathering or focussing our attention as fully as possible on that which we are actively listening to. Here we can zoom into the details of life.
Both these ways of attending have a significant impact on the way we view and feel about life. Each one, therefore, has specific practical uses. Finding out for ourselves in this moment the appropriate way of attending is a core skill of meditation practice. Just this change can bring a significant degree of freedom for us, and it also opens out further ways of perceiving and acting.
There is a Zen story where an octogenarian master is asked: what is fruit of your life of practice. The answer––an appropriate response.
Meditation could be called a training in letting go of the normal reactivity of grasping at the pleasant, rejecting the unpleasant, overlooking the not particularly pleasant and unpleasant. In place of the various habitual reactivity to the valences of life, we enhance an ability to respond with wisdom and care.
No experience is ever as fixed as it seems. Part of our meditative cultivation can be based on that concept. If we can remember the possibility of other possibilities we open the doors of perception just a little bit wider.
If we were to not introduce some esoteric sounding principles like emptiness and dependent origination it may leave us missing the greater potential of meditation. In short, what they mean is that things are conditioned by other things, in particular the condition of the heart and mind that is attending. As we said before the way we listen affects what we hear. There is always a way of relating operating in any moment of experience. This may feel like a limitation, but it is also the escape from limitations.
If we find a condition for something being a certain way, we also find a key to unlock a way out of it. A common piece of advice when we get anxious or angry is to stop and take a slow deep breath. Why does that work at all? Well if you pay attention to times of negative stress you may notice a condition there is short sharp breathing. Interestingly we can see that the stress conditions the breath to be shorter and shallower. But, the conditioned breath also feeds back a sense of stress into the system, a kind of feedback loop is created between heart-mind and breath. This is often called a vicious circle or cycle. When we change the pattern of breathing, we introduced a circuit breaker. Over time with gentle sustained diligence of returning to a more proactive and positive breathing pattern we begin to change our reality.
This is what it means for something to be empty. Anger is empty of independently existing if it depends on a breathing pattern. Nothing exists independent of conditions. Using meditation to both find conditions and shape conditions is what makes this a path of profound well-being.
Meditation, when pursued wholeheartedly provides a radical shift in a persons life. More or less all the major harms in the world are done by beings who are not well attuned to the well-being that is available to everyone. Further, a practice that is aimed at attaining deep peace, harmony, and happiness beyond limited conditionality is a net positive for the individual, and their community. For how we relate internally deeply shapes how we relate externally. This practice, then, is for the world, and the world we know deeply needs awakening of all beings to fulfil the ambition of providing all a life of freedom, justice, and friendship.