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