Preliminaries to Meditating

An Environment Conducive for Meditation

To actually engage in meditation, we need circumstances conducive for it. There are many lists of factors that will be conducive for meditation, but these are usually discussed or presented within the context of doing a meditation retreat, whereas most of us are meditating at home.

Even at home what will be most helpful is to not have distractions. The environment needs to be as quiet as possible. Many of us live on noisy streets with traffic, and so meditating early in the morning or late at night, when the traffic is less heavy, is better. In addition, the environment should have no music and no television in the next room. These sorts of things are quite important. If it’s not possible have a quiet environment, then try earplugs. They don’t necessarily block out all of the noise, but they certainly make it less intense.

Many of us don’t have the privilege of being able to have a separate meditation room. You can use whatever space you have available. Meditate on your bed if you need to, that’s not a problem. Most Tibetans living in India meditate on their beds.

Another factor that’s quite important is to have a clean, neat room. If the environment is clean and neat, that influences the mind to be clean and neat. If the room is sloppy, messy, or dirty, the mind tends to be the same way. Because of that, one of the preliminaries that’s always listed as a requirement before meditation is to clean the meditation room, and make some sort of offering, even if it’s just a single cup of water. We want to show respect for what we’re doing, and if we’re thinking in terms of inviting the Buddhas and bodhisattvas to be present, we would want to invite them to a clean room, not to a messy, dirty one. Even on just a normal psychological level, it’s important to have respect for what we’re doing, and to treat it as something special. “Special” doesn’t mean creating an elaborate environment, like a Hollywood movie set with incense and candles, but simple, plain, neat, clean, and respectful.

Posture

Across the different Asian cultures, the posture that people use for meditation varies. The meditation postures of India/Tibet, China/Japan, and Thailand are all different, so we can’t say that one specific posture is the only correct one. The Indians and Tibetans sit cross-legged. Often, Japanese, and some of the Chinese, put their legs folded under them. The Thais sit with their legs to the side. For tantra practice, in which we’re working with the energies of the body, then full lotus is required, but most of us aren’t at that stage of practice. If you aspire to be able to do that type of practice, however, it’s strongly recommended that you start at a very early age to sit in the full lotus position, because it is very difficult to begin using this sitting position later in life. For Western people, if you can sit in any of these traditional Asian postures, that will work nicely; if not, sitting in a chair is fine. The most important point is that the back is straight.

Directing the Gaze

As far as the eyes are concerned, some meditations are done with your eyes closed, some with your eyes open, some with your eyes looking down, some with your eyes looking up; it depends on the meditation. In general, the Tibetans discourage meditation with your eyes closed. Aside from the fact that it’s much easier to fall asleep when your eyes are closed, it also tends to build up a mental obstacle where you feel that in order to meditate, you need to close your eyes. If you feel like that, it becomes more difficult to integrate what you’re developing in the meditation into real life. For example, if I’m talking with someone, and in order to generate a feeling of love I need to close my eyes, that would be strange. So, in the Tibetan tradition, for most meditations, you keep your eyes half-open, loosely focused, looking down toward the floor.

The Cushion

If you’re sitting cross-legged, it’s important to choose the proper cushion to sit on. Some people can sit comfortably flat on the floor, and their legs don’t fall asleep. His Holiness the Dalai Lama, for instance, sits like that on his teaching throne when he teaches. But for most of us, if we sit without a cushion, our legs fall asleep much more quickly. So if you have that problem, try sitting with a cushion under your behind, so that your hips are higher than your knees. Choose the type of cushion that works best for you: thick or thin, hard or soft, and so on. Each person is different. The most important point is that you’re comfortable, and that your cushion prevents your legs from falling asleep, because that can be very unpleasant.Many Buddhist centers have thick, round or square zafus, but those Zen zafus are intended for sitting in the Japanese posture, with the legs underneath. Maybe some people can sit on these cross-legged comfortably. But for most people they are too high and too hard. If your center provides only thick zafus, and you’re sitting cross-legged, you may want to bring your own cushion.

Choosing a Time to Meditate

For most people, the best time to meditate is either first thing in the morning or last thing at night, so that there are fewer distractions in terms of daily activities. Some people are more awake in the morning, and others are more awake at night – so-called “morning people” and “night owls.” You know yourself and your lifestyle better than anyone else, so you can determine which time of day is best.

What’s never recommended is meditating when sleepy. If you’re sleepy at night, but you try to meditate before bedtime, you may start falling asleep in the middle of your meditation, which is not helpful at all. And likewise early in the morning: if you’re still half asleep, your meditation will not be very effective. Judge for yourself what works best. There’s no problem with having coffee or tea before you meditate early in the morning, although most Tibetans don’t have that habit.

My teacher, Tsenzhab Serkong Rinpoche, was one of the teachers of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. He would describe how they meditated in the tantric college monasteries in Tibet where he trained. All the monks sat in the meditation hall, and they would sleep there, sitting in their places, sort of leaning over with their head in their neighbor’s lap. Tibetans have no problem with physical contact. The bell would ring for them to wake up very, very early in the morning, and they were expected to just sit up and start their meditation, their recitations and so on. But unless you’re a doctor accustomed to being woken in the middle of the night and instantly getting up and performing surgery or something like that, it would be quite difficult to begin meditation immediately upon waking.

How Long to Meditate

When you’re just starting a meditation practice, it’s also important that your meditation sessions be brief, but frequent. As a beginner, trying to sit and meditate for hours at a time becomes an ordeal. In some places they do follow that type of regime, but in general the Tibetans would discourage it, because if meditation is an ordeal, you won’t want to do it! You’ll be anxiously waiting for the session to end. So in the beginning, meditate for just five minutes or so – that’s enough. In Theravada monasteries, they alternate sitting meditation with walking meditation, so they aren’t doing the same type of practice for an overly long time.

The analogy that the Tibetans use is that if a friend is visiting and he or she stays too long, you become impatient for the person to leave. And after your friend leaves, you’re not very anxious to see him or her again. But if the friend leaves when you would like to continue spending more time together, then you’ll be very happy to see that friend again soon. Likewise, our meditation posture, the meditation seat, and the length of the meditation session should all be comfortable, so that we’re enthusiastic about our practice.

Setting the Intention

Before meditating, it’s important to set your intention. In fact, setting your intention is something that is recommended as soon as you open your eyes, first thing in the morning. As soon as you wake up, while still in bed, you can set your intention for the day. You can think: “Today I will try to not get angry. I will try to be more tolerant. I will try to develop more positive feelings toward others. I will try to make this day a meaningful day, and not waste it.”

There’s a wonderful Zen koan, my favorite one: “Death can come at any time: Relax!” If you think about it, that’s a very profound thought. If you’re very uptight, if you’re very nervous and upset that death can come at any time, you won’t be able to accomplish anything. You may have thoughts such as: “I’m not doing enough; I’m not good enough.” But if you know that death can come at any time, and you’re relaxed about that, then you’ll do whatever you can, in a meaningful, realistic way, without being anxious, nervous, or uptight. So try to remember that death can come at any time, and relax!

Before meditating, we set the intention that “I will try to meditate for ‘x’ number of minutes. I will try to concentrate. If I find myself starting to fall asleep, I’ll wake myself up. If my attention wanders, I’ll try to bring it back.” Take this seriously, don’t just say the words – really try to keep your intention in mind, and follow through. Keeping true to your intention can be very difficult. If you get into the bad habit of using your meditation sessions to think about other issues, even if they’re other Dharma concepts, that’s a very difficult habit to break. I speak from experience: it’s really a difficult habit to break, so try to set, and follow, a correct intention before your meditation session.

Motivation

Next is the motivation. In a Tibetan Buddhist context, motivation is made up of two parts. The first is the goal: What are we attempting to accomplish? The standard goals are described in the “graded stages of the path” (lam-rim). As described in the lam-rim, the aims are: (a) improving future lives, (b) gaining complete liberation from rebirth, and (c) reaching enlightenment so that you can help everyone else gain liberation from rebirth. The second part is the emotion that drives us to reach that goal.

In thinking about our motivation, it’s important to be honest with ourselves. Do I truly believe in rebirth? Most of us don’t, so to say “I’m doing this in order to ensure that I get another precious human rebirth in my next life,” or “I’m doing this in order to get liberation from rebirth completely,” or “I’m doing this to become enlightened so I can help everyone else gain liberation from rebirth” – those are just empty words if you don’t believe in rebirth.

So, if you’re practicing meditation as a part of what I call “Dharma-Lite,” which is Buddhism without rebirth, that’s perfectly fine. You don’t have to tell anyone else, but be honest with yourself about your motivation: “I’m doing this to improve my situation in this lifetime.” That’s a legitimate motivation, as long as we’re honest about it. On the other hand, it’s important to have respect for what the authentic long-term goals are in what I call “Real Thing Dharma,” and not to think that the practice of Buddhism is only for improving things in this lifetime.

As for the second part of our motivation – the emotion that’s driving us in toward reaching our goal – the first level of Real Thing motivation is “I’m aiming for a precious human rebirth in future lives (the goal), because I’m afraid of how horrible it will be to be reborn as a fly, or a cockroach, or any other lower rebirth (the emotion). I really want to avoid such a future, and I’m confident that there’s a way to avoid it.” The Dharma-Lite version of this would be “I’m aiming for things to continue well later in life and to go even better (the goal), because I’m afraid of how awful it will be if things got worse (the emotion) and I know there are constructive things I can do to avoid that.” In either case, this is not a paralyzing type of fear, such as “The situation is hopeless. I’m doomed,” but rather it’s a healthy sense of “I really don’t want that, and I see that there is a way to avoid it.” Similar to my fear of having an accident when I’m driving – I’ll be careful, but I’m not so paralyzed by fear that I’ll never drive at all.

The second Real Thing level is “I’m totally disgusted, bored, and fed up with all the suffering that’s involved with rebirth (the emotion) and I want out (the goal).” The essence of the emotion behind renunciation is “It’s unbelievably boring to be a baby again, to learn everything all over again, to have to get an education and figure out how to make a living. It’s tedious dealing with getting sick and growing old over and over. It’s like seeing a bad movie over and over and over again. I mean, how boring. I’ve had enough!”

The most advanced motivation aims with bodhichitta for becoming enlightened (the goal) and is moved by compassion (the emotion): “I just can’t take it that everyone is suffering so much. I’ve got to be able to reach a state where I can help everyone overcome suffering.”

Motivation also encompasses what we’ll do once we achieve our goal. When we’re practicing in a Mahayana tradition, each of the levels of motivation is in the context of working ultimately toward enlightenment. Reaching enlightenment, then, colors what we’ll do once we reach our goal.

On a Dharma-Lite level, we would want to make as much progress toward enlightenment as possible in this lifetime, without being so naïve that we think it’ll be easy and then we get disappointed and depressed when we approach our deaths and are still unenlightened.

  • Out of the three Real Thing levels of motivation, the first is “I want to gain another precious human rebirth in order to continue on the path toward enlightenment, because it will take many lifetimes to accomplish my goal.”
  • The second is “I want to gain liberation from karma and disturbing emotions, because I can’t help others if I’m getting angry with them, if I become attached to them, or if I have compulsive behavior. I can’t really help others if I feel proud and arrogant about it. So I need to gain my own liberation.”
  • The highest motivation is “I want to gain enlightenment so that I have complete knowledge of the best way to help each person individually.”

Motivation is very important. Tsongkhapa emphasizes that motivation is something that we need to have throughout the whole day, not just at the beginning of the meditation session. And the motivation should not be just nice words; we should actually mean it. And mean it means what? It means that we have internalized the motivation so thoroughly, through the practice of meditation, that the motivation is an authentic, natural emotion, and it becomes an integral part of how we live our everyday life each day.

Quieting Down before Meditating

Once we’ve created the right physical environment and set our intention and motivation, we need to quiet down. Often that’s done with some sort of breathing meditation, such as counting the breath. There are various more elaborate exercises we can do with the breath, but simply breathing normally through the nose and counting a few rounds of eleven in- and out-breaths will usually suffice. Calming our minds in this manner makes a quiet space between what we were doing up till now and the meditation we’ll be doing next. Creating such a space helps us to make the transition between our busy life and the meditation.

The Seven-Limb Practice

It’s often recommended that we build up some positive energy at the start of the session, and for that we utilize what’s known as the “seven-limb prayer” or “seven-limb practice." In this context, “limb” means “step.”

(1) Prostration, with Refuge and Bodhichitta

The first limb is prostration, which means showing respect to those who have reached enlightenment; showing respect to our own future enlightenment, which we’re aiming to achieve with bodhichitta; and showing respect to our own Buddha-nature, which will enable us to reach that goal. Thus, it making prostration is done in the context of putting the safe direction of refuge and the bodhichitta aim in our lives. The safe direction that we wish to go in is indicated by the Buddhas, their Dharma teachings and attainments, and the Sangha community of those who are well on the way to attaining liberation and enlightenment themselves. With a bodhichitta aim, we set our minds and hearts on becoming Buddhas ourselves.

(2) Offering

The second step is making offerings, which is also showing respect.

(3) Admitting Shortcomings

Next comes openly admitting our mistakes and shortcomings. That does not mean feeling guilty about our mistakes; guilt is not appropriate. Guilt is holding onto something that we’ve done and ourselves as having done it, labeling both as bad, and never letting go. It’s like not throwing the garbage out, but instead keeping it in our house and thinking: “This garbage is truly horrible. It smells so bad.” Rather than the emotion of guilt, the third limb is regret for our mistakes: “I regret my actions, and I will try my best to not repeat them. I will try my best to overcome my shortcomings.”

(4) Rejoicing

The fourth step is rejoicing in the positive things that we and others have done, so we have a more positive attitude toward ourselves and toward others.

(5) Requesting Teachings

Then we request the teachers and the Buddhas to teach: “Please always teach. I’m open and receptive.”

(6) Beseeching the Teachers Not To Pass Away

The next limb is: “Don’t go away; don’t pass away. I’m very serious about learning, and I beg you to stay with us.”

(7) Dedication

Finally comes the dedication. Dedication is, in a sense, directing the energy in a certain way. We think: “Whatever positive force, whatever understanding has been built up, may it contribute toward accomplishing my intention.” The analogy that I like to use is saving our work in a computer. If we don’t save it in a special folder, the folder for “Liberation” or “Enlightenment,” then the default setting is that our work will automatically be saved in the “Improve Samsara” folder. Saving our work in the “Improve Samsara” folder is fine, but if that’s not our aim, if we want our work to count toward gaining liberation or gaining enlightenment, then we need to purposely save it in the “Liberation” or “Enlightenment” folder. That’s the dedication. And we really mean it; we don’t just say the words. We dedicate the positive energy with some emotion behind it, with compassion, and so on

After the seven-limb prayer comes the actual meditation, and at the conclusion of the meditation, we make another dedication.

Summary

Meditation is a very sophisticated process and the instructions for how to do it are quite precise. Here one the general instructions has been presented; each specific meditation will have its own specific instructions. But in all cases, it’s very important to know what are we doing, how do we do it, and why are we doing it.

There are some Buddhist traditions, as Zen, that just say, “Sit, meditate, and you’ll figure it out as you go along.” Although this might work for some people, it could be quite difficult for others. Many people find that approach very difficult, so what has been presented here is the Indo-Tibetan tradition.