On Meditation…

The Tibetan word most commonly used for meditation is gom, which etymologically means something close to familiarization or habituation. So, in a sense we all already know how to meditate–how to familiarize ourselves with things. It’s just that we ordinarily ‘meditate’ without any self-awareness, just allowing the mind to habitually go where it will.

For example, when we’re really worried, then we are ‘meditating’ on fear. At such times, we can really be expert at contemplative meditation–thinking over and over again about all the things that could go wrong until we feel quite upset. At such times, our mind becomes good at focusing on the subject at hand and our thinking gives rise to a strong, visceral experience. The same sort of thing happens when we get very angry. At such times, we can have great mental focus on all the things that the person we’re angry at has done wrong, all of their negative traits, how harmful they can be, and even the bad things we wish would happen to them. If we look back on such experiences, we can see how the mind repeatedly contemplates our own negative feelings and the other person’s negative aspects, giving rise to a deep experience of anger.

Of course, from the perspective of Buddhist psychology, allowing the mind to become more habituated to negative states like anger or fear is a principle cause for our continuing to suffer. These are the wrong kinds of familiarization! However, they can teach us something about meditation. Often, when people begin doing contemplative meditations on subjects such as impermanence, gratitude, love, compassion, or emptiness, they will note that although they may be trying for a while to meditate, it’s not giving rise to a powerful, visceral experience. This happens because we are trying something new. We’re not yet very familiar with such meditations. If you’ve familiarized yourself for many years with anger, then even a few moments of thinking about the negative aspects of your enemy can give rise to a strong feeling of anger; that’s because you’re good at meditating on anger. So, when we start meditating consciously on Dharma subjects, if deep experiences don’t arise easily, this isn’t a problem and it certainly doesn’t indicate that one should give up! Instead, it suggests that one really needs to spend more time familiarizing the mind with that very subject. If you spend many hours contemplating again and again on gratitude or love–bringing to mind the good things about others, how precious others are, how much you depend on others for every bit of your happiness, how even enlightenment itself totally depends on having others to give love to and practice patience with, how others have done so much for you in this and past lives, how love itself is so essential to your own and others’ happiness, and so forth then gradually you will become more and more familiar with love and gratitude. In this way such feelings will gradually arise more easily and strongly within you. I sometimes joke that in our culture we have words for powerful experiences of negative emotions (such as terror or panic attacks) but we do not even have words for overwhelming experiences of positive emotions–imagine ‘rages of compassion’ or ‘love attacks’! This is in part because we don’t have traditions of regularly contemplating on such positive emotions.

Withing the Buddhist tradition, there are many thousands of different meditation techniques. All of them have in common that they help to habituate the mind in a way that decreases negative emotions or wrong views and increases correct views and/or positive emotions. Some methods such as focusing on the breath or on an image of the Buddha are mainly designed to help one learn how to calm and focus the mind. Other methods involve using a calm and focused mind to analyze various aspects of our experience in order to gain new insights or deepening insights we’ve had. And, other methods mainly focus on developing certain positive emotions like compassion. One important observation from Buddhist psychology is that the mind’s nature is quite pliable–with familiarization over time, the mind can eventually give rise to a strong experience of almost any state imaginable (and some not yet imaginable–such as enlightenment itself). This is why meditation with conscious awareness is so important. If we don’t learn how to calm the mind and direct it in realistic and positive directions, then wrong views about reality and negative emotions can gain greater power over the years, making the happiness we want unattainable. On the other hand, if we do make effort at being more aware and at consciously cultivating realistic and positive states of mind, then happiness arises quite naturally and spontaneously as an inevitable result of such efforts.

— Posted by Lorne Ladner


5 thoughts on “On Meditation…

  1. how exactly does one meditate with conscious awareness? what should we be thinking or how do we redirect the mind when negative thoughts arise(as it seems the negative thoughts always arise for me during meditation) how does one progress beyond negative thinking during meditation?

  2. Hi Margot,

    I’m not an expert on the subject and will happily defer to those that are, but I just wanted to add that I’ve found the book “How to Meditate: A Practical Guide” by Kathleen McDonald to be really useful. Among other things, it includes a chapter titled “Dealing with Negative Energy”, which offers various remedies for dealing with the negative emotions that may arise during our meditation practice (or at any time).

    For example, one remedy that she offers is to meditate on the inevitability of death if you find that you’re dealing with a lot of attachment. Anyway, it’s a great resource that I think would answer your questions.

    – Lisa W

  3. Dear Margot,

    I think your question about dealing with negative thoughts is great. That process of facing and applying antidotes to negative thoughts is so essential in Buddhist meditation. There are so very, very many Buddhist teachings on various antidotes to various different negative thoughts. In addition to the great book that Lisa mentioned, the great Buddhist classic by Shantideva entitled “Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life” is filled with such antidotes; it’s also a text that Khensur Rinpoche will be teaching on Saturdays in Reston when he returns. In general, Buddhism teaches so many antidotes to negative thoughts. For example, in regard to angry thoughts there are so many antidotes–other things to think about when angry thoughts start arising. So, as an angry thought begins arising, one can think about: the disadvantages of anger in terms of one’s own peace of mind, one’s health, one’s relationships, and one’s karma; one can empathize with the other person, striving to understand why they’re behaving as they are; one can develop compassion for the other by seeing how they are suffering now and how they will suffer in the future; one can think of impermanence and see how the entire current situation is fleeting–like a water bubble or a dream; one can contemplate on karma and see that oneself set up the causes for the current situation in the past; one can contemplate great compassion and bodhichitta, seeing how one’s own happiness and enlightenment is totally dependent on this other person and they are more precious than billions of dollars; one can contemplate on emptiness, recognizing how one’s own way of viewing this other person is created by one’s own mind based on one’s own ignorance of how things fundamentally exist and that one’s own view of them is illusory, like a dream, created by one’s own concepts and projections. And, those are just a few of the many ways to counter anger. Then also, each delusion or negative way of thinking has so many such antidotes. So much of Buddhist practice and Buddhist meditation is first studying so that we know numerous antidotes to our negative thoughts and then the much harder work of actually applying those antidotes in daily life!

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