Establishing a Mental Posture for Meditation
by Eric Van Horn
Copyright © 2015 Eric K. Van Horn
for free distribution
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Table of Contents
At Sāvatthi. Standing to one side, that devatā recited this verse in the presence of the Blessed One:
"Those who dwell deep in the forest,
Peaceful, leading the holy life,
Eating but a single meal a day,
Why are their faces
so bright and serene?”
[The Blessed One:]
“They do not sorrow over the past,
don't long for the future.
They survive on the present,
That's why their faces
are bright and serene."
“From longing for the future,
From sorrowing over the past,
fools wither away
Like a green reed cut down.”
- [SN 1.10]
Once you establish a physical posture, the next step is to establish a mental posture. This means leaving behind all of your distracted thoughts, your preoccupations, thinking about the past, worrying about the future, and bringing your mind completely into the present moment.
The process that I describe here is one that I learned some years ago at a meditation retreat. I still use it, and there is a certain comfort – a feeling of coming home – that you can get by having a set routine every time that you sit down to meditate. This process has five steps:
- Remembering why we practice
- Loving-kindness for yourself
- The five subjects for frequent recollection
- Turning your attention to the breath
Start by sitting on the cushion or chair, checking your head, hips and hands, getting the body into a position where you can leave it for the duration of the sitting, and then take several deep breaths. As you inhale feel the breath energy spread to the whole body. As you exhale, release any tension you have in the body and in the mind. Bring your body and mind to as calm a state as you can.
Then we want to establish a feeling of gratitude.
The Buddha said this about gratitude:
…one possessing four qualities is deposited in heaven as if brought there. What four? Bodily good conduct, verbal good conduct, mental good conduct, and gratitude or thankfulness. One possessing these four qualities is deposited in heaven as if brought there. - [AN 4.213]
You can establish gratitude in any way that works for you. You may feel gratitude for a friend, parent, child, situation, the gift of having a human life. It can be anything. You can feel gratitude simply for the opportunity to learn meditation. This is a "worldly way" to establish a mind of gratitude.
Traditionally in Buddhism, you establish gratitude for the Three Jewels: the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Saṅgha. The Buddha is the person without whom we would not have these teachings. He gave up a life of wealth, ease and comfort, and at great sacrifice – he almost died – he discovered the path to Awakening.
The word "Dharma" has several meanings, but in this case "the Dharma" means the teachings of the Buddha, the understanding of how life works. The Buddha left an enormous number of discourses – many thousands of pages – describing our state in life and how to improve it. It is a gift of immeasurable value.
The word "Saṅgha" – which literally means "community" - has in modern times come to mean anyone in the Buddhist community. However, traditionally there were two types of Saṅgha. One is the "monastic Saṅgha", the community of monks and nuns. These are the people who give up traditional pleasures to devote themselves full-time to this practice. They are also the ones who preserve the tradition, and embody it.
The second type of Saṅgha is the "Noble Saṅgha". These are the people who have attained an Awakening, people who are enlightened. Because there are lay people who are enlightened, the Noble Saṅgha is not a subset of the monastic Saṅgha. The Noble Saṅgha is especially inspirational to those who seek Awakening. They show it can be done; they are a model for our own aspirations.
Feeling gratitude for the Buddha, the Dharma and the Saṅgha is a transcendent way to establish gratitude. That is not to make the worldly way somehow inferior. Whatever works for you is fine. Sit with this feeling for a few moments, whatever feels comfortable for you.
Remember Why We Are Practicing
The next step is to remember why we are practicing. It is so easy to sit down and start to watch the breath and not remember why we are bothering to do this in the first place.
…there are these four kinds of persons found existing in the world. What four ? One who is practicing neither for his own welfare nor for the welfare of others; one who is practicing for the welfare of others but not for his own welfare; one who is practicing for his own welfare but not for the welfare of others; and one who is practicing both for his own welfare and for the welfare of others.
…The person practicing both for his own welfare and for the welfare of others is the foremost, the best, the preeminent, the supreme, and the finest of these four persons. - [AN 4.95]
We are not just sitting here watching the breath to kill time. This is important business. At stake is our own happiness and peace of mind. And as we become more skillful, we are of great benefit to those around us. These two things are inextricably linked. We practice to become happy and useful. This step is to bring those two purposes into the forefront.
The next step is to establish a mind of loving-kindness - good will - for ourselves. The Pāli word is "metta". It literally means "love", but the word "love" is so emotionally charged and abused that "metta" is usually translated as "loving-kindness".
It is important to have respect for yourself, especially in this practice. The mere fact that you are reading this makes you an unusual person, someone with a good heart and wise intentions. You should have respect for that. You should love yourself as much or more than anyone else in your life. You must be your own best friend.
There is this story from the Pāli Canon. King Pasenadi was the king of Kosala, one of the two superpowers in ancient India. Queen Mallikā had been a poor girl who King Pasenadi had made his queen:
I have heard that on one occasion the [Buddha] was staying near Sāvatthī at Jeta's Grove, Anāthapiṇḍika's monastery. And on that occasion King Pasenadi had gone with Queen Mallikā to the upper palace. Then he said to her, "Mallikā, is there anyone dearer to you than yourself?"
"No, great king. There is no one dearer to me than myself. And what about you, great king? Is there anyone dearer to you than yourself?"
"No, Mallikā. There is no one dearer to me than myself".
Then the king, descending from the palace, went to the Blessed One and, on arrival, having bowed down to him, sat to one side. As he was sitting there, he said to the Blessed One, "Just now, when I had gone with Queen Mallikā to the upper palace, I said to her, 'Mallikā, is there anyone dearer to you than yourself?'
"When this was said, she said to me, 'No, great king. There is no one dearer to me than myself. And what about you, great king? Is there anyone dearer to you than yourself?'
"When this was said, I said to her, 'No, Mallikā. There is no one dearer to me than myself.'"
Then, on realizing the significance of that, the [Buddha] on that occasion exclaimed:
Searching all directions
with your awareness,
you find no one dearer
In the same way, others
are thickly dear to themselves.
So you shouldn't hurt others
if you love yourself. - [Ud 5.1]
This, of course, is not narcissistic love. It is a genuine wish for your own happiness and well-being.
One way to establish metta for yourself is to think of someone who you love dearly, someone for whom you wish nothing but happiness. Babies and children are good objects of metta. Our agendas for them are more pure, and more altruistic. Once you have established that feeling for them, you can turn that feeling onto yourself. Another technique that is helpful is to think of yourself as a baby, and think how much you would love and care for that baby.
Five Subjects for Frequent Recollection
The next step is remembering the five subjects for frequent recollection. There is a discourse by this name chanted daily in monasteries around the world.
The five subjects are:
- We are all subject to sickness.
- We are all subject to aging.
- We are all subject to death.
- Everything that we know and love we will leave behind.
- The one thing that we take with us is our karma, the fruits of our actions, both good and bad.
This may seem a little depressing. It is not meant to be. The intention here is to conjure up a sense of urgency, and to keep us focused on the prize. What matters most in our lives is the basic goodness that we develop. We do this on and off of the cushion, and they reinforce each other.
Turn Your Attention to the Breath
Once you have reviewed the five subjects, it is time to turn your attention to the breath. In the next chapter we will discuss the topic of breath meditation. For now it is enough to understand that in the beginning we just want to know the breath.
There is this very poetic passage from the Pāli canon about this step in the meditation process. You may want to memorize it, and use it as the entry point to watching the breath:
And how, … does a [meditator] abide contemplating the body as a body? Here a [meditator], having gone to the forest or to the root of a tree or to an empty hut, sits down; folds her legs crosswise, sets her body erect, and establishes mindfulness in front of her, ever mindful she breathes in, mindful she breathes out. - [MN 10.4]
In order to establish a mental posture, perform the following steps:
- Take several deep, cleansing breaths.
- Establish gratitude in the mind.
- Remember why you are practicing.
- Establish loving-kindness for yourself.
- Remember the five subjects for frequent recollection.
- Turn your attention to the breath.