Additional Aids in Meditation
by Eric Van Horn
Copyright © 2015 Eric K. Van Horn
for free distribution
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Table of Contents
...it was the Buddha himself who first taught walking meditation. In the Great Discourse on the Foundations of Mindfulness, the Buddha taught walking meditation two times. In the section called "Postures," he said that a monk knows "I am walking" when he is walking, knows "I am standing" when he is standing, knows "I am sitting" when he is sitting, and knows "I am lying down" when he is lying down. In another section called "Clear Comprehension," the Buddha said, "A monk applies clear comprehension in going forward and in going back." Clear comprehension means the correct understanding of what one observes. To correctly understand what is observed, a yogi must gain concentration, and in order to gain concentration, he must apply mindfulness. Therefore, when the Buddha said, "Monks, apply clear comprehension," we must understood that not only clear comprehension must be applied, but also mindfulness and concentration. Thus the Buddha was instructing meditators to apply mindfulness, concentration, and clear comprehension while walking, while "going forward and back." Walking meditation is thus an important part of this process.
- [Sayadaw U Silananda, "The Benefits of Walking Meditation"]
I have been given a lot of instruction over the years on walking meditation. However, the best instruction I have been given was never in a meditation retreat. It was given in a Tai Chi class.
Walking meditation has some of the same aims as sitting meditation, mainly a) keeping your attention in the present moment, and b) maintaining a broad-based sense of awareness. It is – as you might suspect – a body practice.
Sometimes the walking meditation instructions are to keep your attention very narrowly focused, like in the soles of the feet. But this is not what we are looking for, and it is certainly very hard to go through the day in normal activities trying to keep a narrow focus like that. You’ll start walking into walls. One of the purposes of walking meditation is to bring the practice into daily life. So try to keep the same kind of broad-based attention that you are working on in the sitting meditation. The main difference is that the 80-20 rule will be 80% of your attention on walking and 20% on the breath. Your main focus of attention is the whole body.
The typical way to do walking meditation is to start by finding a place where you can take 20-30 steps, then turn around and go back the other way. Your objective is to take those 20-30 steps without losing your attention on the walking and the breath.
The Tai Chi aspect of this is that when you take your next step, transfer all of your weight onto the foot, and then put your weight on that foot in such a way that the other leg can swing freely. You balance completely on one leg. You may even want to swing that leg back and forth a few times to make sure that you are properly balanced. Then you take the free leg and step out, still keeping all of your weight on the other leg. Likewise, to make sure that this is the case, you can bring the free leg back and forth a few times. Then you step forward and transfer all of your weight – completely balanced – onto the other leg.
Transferring your weight completely from one leg to the other helps keep your attention completely focused on the walking. That is why I prefer Tai Chi walking as walking meditation.
Another thing to do is to get your walking in sync with your breathing. You can play with this. Take one breath for each step, or two breaths for each step. Or take two steps for each breath. There are no rules other than maintaining your attention. If you are feeling tired, you may want to walk as quickly as possible to generate some energy. If you are restless you may also want to walk quickly to burn off some energy. Some people think that very slow walking is more “spiritual”. There are no bonus points for slow walking. Adjust your walking speed to match the needs of the mind and body.
There are several types of Tai Chi walking. You should feel free to explore them. There are some very good instructions on the Internet (Internet search: "tai chi walking marantz"). But I think the main point to all of them – particularly as a meditation exercise – is to keep transferring your weight from one leg to the other, and for each step maintaining your weight and balance on one leg at a time.
If you want to raise the stakes, a very interesting advanced exercise is to use the old “balance a book on your head” routine. This requires even more concentration. But it also can make it more fun, even a little silly.
Finally, you may find that this type of walking makes the muscles stiffen. This is another case where doing some stretching afterwards is beneficial.
There are many guided meditations available on the Internet. Guided meditations are particularly helpful if you are having a hard time maintaining focus.
Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu has a plethora of short Dharma talks that he gives at the beginning of their evening one-hour meditation sessions. They usually run from 10-15 minutes. These are highly recommended. You can find them at Dhammatalks.org in the section labeled "talks→evening talks".
One of the really wonderful Dharma teachers of the 20th century was Ayya Khema. There is a web site devoted to her teachings called ayyakhematalks.org. There are two sets of guided meditations on metta called "Loving Kindness Classic" and "Loving Kindness New Style". These – and all of her teachings – are also highly recommended.
There are many other guided meditations on the Internet, but be aware of whether they are consistent with these particular teachings. You may find yourself running into conflicts if they are not.
There are a number of chakra guided meditations (Internet search: "chakra cleansing activating guided meditation") on YouTube. Just keep in mind that strictly speaking chakra practice is Hindu, and Hinduism has some different beliefs from Buddhism (most notably "self" vs. "non-self"). Nonetheless, if you can tune out the theism and the self-ness, these can be helpful.
Finally, there are also guided concentration meditations (Internet search: "concentration complete exercise"), some of which use breath counting. Look for these as another supplement to what is here.
A "gāthā" is a poem. We have already seen this word in the books "Theragāthā" and "Therigāthā".
Gāthās have been used for many years to keep the mind focused. In some Zen traditions there are gāthās for everything from getting up in the morning to brushing your teeth to eating to – well – you get the idea. There is a gāthā for almost everything.
As with the metta phrases, you repeat them silently to yourself. Thich Nhat Hanh teaches this one for mindfulness meditation:
Breathing in, I know I am breathing in.
Breathing out, I know I am breathing out.
As my in-breath grows deep,
my out-breath grows slow.
Breathing in, I calm my body.
Breathing out, I feel ease.
Breathing in, I smile.
Breathing out, I release.
Dwelling in the present moment,
I know this is a wonderful moment.
You say the odd-numbered phrases on the in-breath, and the even-numbered phrases on the out breath.
(Note: As Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu notes, not every moment is "wonderful". But I think the idea here is clear, and that is to use this as a way to help calm the mind.)
There are gāthās for almost every activity of the day (Internet search: "thich nhat hanh gathas here and now").
Concentrating on Multiple Spots
Sometimes the harder it is to focus on an area the more it forces you to concentrate. One way to do this is to focus on more than one spot. We have already used one method for doing this by using the breath and some other place as a way to concentrate. This is something else you can play with. Pick two spots on which to place your attention, and play with different ones.
One combination that Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu suggests is the back of the hands and the tops of the feet. You can also try using the palms of the hands and the soles of the feet. You will notice that when you breathe in a slight tension is created on the backs of the hands and the lower part of the forearms. The same thing will happen on the tops of the feet, but it is more noticeable in the hands. Notice that tension on the in-breath, and see if you can smooth it out so that the feeling on the in-breath is the same as the out-breath. This is an excellent way to quiet the mind.
Meditation in Daily Life
Apropos of the discussion on gāthās, this practice does not have much meaning if it is limited to the cushion. You should bring the practice into everything you do. You can use the breath – using the 80-20 rule – during almost any activity. Remember, the object is not to put your attention fully on the breath. The object is to use the breath to keep you fully in the present moment. In this way you can bring more awareness to your thoughts, actions and speech.
I also recommend that you look at the list of gāthās to see how thoroughly and completely we want to bring our attention into the present moment. Thich Nhat Hanh has a lovely gāthā for washing the dishes. I used to hate doing dishes, but now I enjoy it, and one of the reasons is the lovely notion that you do the dishes as if you are washing the baby Buddha. There are gāthās for getting out of bed, for washing your hands, and so forth. It is not so much that you need to memorize every one. The idea is to bring your undivided attention to every moment of the day. You use the breath to help in this way. And I think you will find that every time you find the breath that it will have a calming effect on the mind. The day simply becomes much less stressful.
In this section we added a number of techniques to our meditation toolbox. These include:
- Walking meditation
- Guided meditations
- Using the breath during the day to bring mindfulness into every moment
- Concentrating on multiple spots