More Meditation Techniques
by Eric Van Horn
Copyright © 2015 Eric K. Van Horn
for free distribution
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Table of Contents
From what I’ve observed in my own practice, there is only one path that is short, easy, effective and pleasant, and at the same time has hardly anything to lead you astray: the path of keeping the breath in mind, the same path the Lord Buddha himself used with such good results.
- [Ajahn Lee Dhammadharo, Keeping the Breath in Mind]
The instructions given in the previous chapter are probably enough to keep you going for a very long time, perhaps, as Thich Nhat Hahn noted, many decades. To be sure, we will be going into some detail on what breath meditation reveals, and we will be expanding the use of the breath to investigate other topics of meditation.
The instructions just given are relatively simple. But just because something is simple, that does not mean it is easy. In baseball, pitchers spend their entire careers trying to throw the same pitches over and over, and batters try to perfect the art of hitting those pitches. Conceptually both actions are easy to understand and easy to explain. They are, however, extremely difficult to do consistently.
So over the centuries many techniques were developed to help cultivate the stable, concentrated, tranquil mind. A few of them are described here.
There are an almost infinite number of meditation techniques. This points to how hard it is to fully develop concentration. You should feel free to experiment. Just keep in mind that the goal at this point is to a) develop a broad-based form of concentration and b) to quiet the mind. If the meditation technique that you choose does not satisfy these criteria it will be counterproductive.
Another Beautiful Breath
This first technique is quite simple, but satisfies the criteria for being a “beautiful breath”. It combines both active and passive breath meditation.
In order to do this type of meditation you must be able to experience whole body awareness. You must be able to feel the breath energy expand to fill the whole body.
In this technique, when you breathe in take control of the breath and breathe in until the breath energy expands to fill the whole body. You will probably have to play with the breath a while to feel when the breath energy is full enough but not too full. One way to do this is to “bracket”, that is, intentionally breath in too deeply and, conversely, breath in a way that is clearly too shallow. The correct level of breathing will be in between. It should feel good.
Now when you begin to breathe out, simply let go of any control of the breath, and let the breath exhale naturally. It is like sliding down a playground slide. Now you just watch the breath and feel it as it goes out naturally. It should come to a nice, calm, quiet conclusion.
This type of breathing is especially soothing and satisfying. It is also a good introduction to simply letting the breath be.
The next meditation technique is breath counting. When I started to meditate – which was in a Zen group – this is what I was taught. I still find it useful.
There are many ways to count the breaths. The first way is to count once at the beginning of the in-breath, and once again on the out-breath. If you are new to meditation, this is the place to start.
The next way to count breaths is to either just count on the in-breath, or the out-breath. Try both to see which works best for you.
If you can see your thoughts, try this experiment. See whether your thoughts tend to begin on the in-breath or the out-breath or both. If one is dominant, count those breaths. My thoughts tend to start on the in-breath, so counting in-breaths works best for me. But see how it is for you, and see which method of counting helps get your mind settled, and which one helps you concentrate better.
See if you can get to a point where you can count just the in-breath or the out-breath, 10 breaths, 3 times in a row. When I started, it took me several months to get to this point. It takes time. Remember… patience and persistence.
Once you can consistently get to 30, switch to using just a single word, like “in” on the in-breath and “out” on the out-breath. In Thailand they use the word “buddho”, which means “awake”. They say (silently) “bud” on the in-breath and “dho” on the out-breath.
When you can use “in-out” or “buddho” consistently, you can drop the noting word and simply follow the breath.
One way to combine these is to use a countdown timer that repeats. Set it to four iterations of 5 minutes each. For the first 5 minutes count both the in-breath and the out-breath. For the next 5 minutes count just the in-breath or the out-breath. For the next 5 minutes use a noting word, and for the last 5 minutes just follow the breath.
Breath counting or the use of a noting word can be done off of the cushion as well. Put 20% of your attention on the breath and start counting or noting. This can be done while walking, driving, etc., and can be a pleasant way to calm down and be more in the present moment. If you are driving, of course, make sure that you pay proper attention to that. The world needs all the meditators it can get.
Sweeping is one of my favorite practices. As with breath counting, there are many ways to do it. I will describe two of them here.
Sweeping can have several different purposes. Here we are using it to develop tranquility and concentration.
In the first type of sweeping, start at the crown of the head. Take 5 or so breaths, breathing through that spot. Feel the breath energy coming through that spot. If there is any tension, try to release it. If there is a lot of tension there, keep breathing through that spot until it does not feel like it is improving.
The next spot is the center of the forehead. Repeat the same process. Go through the entire body in this way: the nose, the joints of the jaw – which is a very common place for tension – the throat, the center of the chest, the base of the sternum, the abdomen, the base of the neck, then down through both arms – the shoulder, upper arm, elbow, forearm, wrist, back of the hand, the tips of the fingers, the palm of the hand – then the center of the back (where the kidneys are), the base of the spine, then down each leg – the hip, upper leg, knee, lower leg, ankle, top of the foot, tips of the toes, and the soles of the feet. It may take 20 minutes to do one entire sweep of the body. But this is not a race. Take as much time as you want. Relax into it. The objective is not to finish a circuit of sweeping. The purpose is to get the mind to settle down.
Some spots in the body will have stronger energy than others. These are good spots for you to put your attention for breath meditation, alternatives to the nose. On different days these strong spots may be different. Those of you who are familiar with chakras will see that they are listed here. The major chakras are the top of the head, the forehead, the throat, the center of the chest, the base of the sternum, the abdomen, and the base of the spine. See what the breath energy feels like in particular at these places. However, you may feel strong breath energy anywhere. I have strong energy in the palms of my hands. The Thai Forest Monk Ajahn Lee had a strong energy center at the base of the neck. This is – again – part of the fun of meditation, this process of discovery. You are getting to know your body in an intimate way. And it is not static. It may and will be different on different days.
Conversely, you will have more trouble feeling the breath energy in other areas. Joints can act like closed valves, preventing the breath energy from flowing into the extremities. Energy tends to flow along the long bones, but likewise the energy may not flow along one or more of them. Simply try to get the breath energy flowing. Work on an area until the effort is not producing any result, then move on to the next spot.
Sweeping is especially good at fostering a broad sense of awareness. At a certain point when you breathe in, the breath energy will flow to fill the whole body. Sweeping is a way of breaking the body down piece by piece. Eventually you will be able to put all the pieces back together and feel the whole body on the in-breath, and the whole body on the out-breath. That is what we are after. There will be some days where the energy flows freely as soon as you start to do breath meditation. On other days it will not flow as well. This is an indication that sweeping may help you.
You can do this sweeping practice for as long as it is useful. I heard about a retreat where for the first six months all they did was sweeping practice. You can make this your main practice. Once you feel it no longer has value, you can use it as necessary, on those days when the breath energy is not flowing freely. You can also do it just for fun. It is a very soothing practice, and there is nothing wrong with doing something just because it's fun. This is what the Buddha called the “pleasure born of seclusion”. There is no danger in this type of pleasure, it is very pleasant, and was a fundamental part of his journey to enlightenment.
(For some reason people think that meditation is dull, hard, serious work. That is quite contrary to what we are trying to do here. The objective is to develop a state of mind that has joy and happiness as its primary traits. It is hard to do that if you are feeling grumpy.)
The first form of sweeping goes through the body one spot at a time. The second form of sweeping follows energy flows.
Start at the center of the head. Feel the breath energy move from that spot in and out of the openings in the skull: the eyes, the ears, the nose and the mouth. You can also feel the energy moving from that spot through the top of the head and the forehead. Really, you can use the center of the head to feel the energy moving through any place you like.
A common problem in the head is tension at the temples or the hinges of the jaw. If this is true for you, work through that tension. One way to work with tension at the temples is to feel the breath energy move out through the entire head, as if the head is encased in a balloon and you are blowing the breath energy out through the entire balloon. Another method is to feel the energy flowing from the center of the head down into the center of the chest, drawing the tension down with it. As with all these techniques, continue until you feel the tension is not getting any less, then move on.
The next two energy channels are in the arms. Place your attention at the base of the neck. On the in-breath feel the energy flow down the arms and out the fingers or the palms. (Try both.) Feel for blockages in the joints. If you are feeling the flow out through the fingers, imagine the energy flowing all the way out to the walls of the room. If you are outside you can project the energy as far as you like.
On the out breath you can choose to either feel the energy flowing back up the arm to the base of the neck, or you can feel the breath energy flowing out through the entire arm. Try both of them to see how that feels.
Next feel the energy flowing from the base of the neck down the left side of the spine to the base of the spine. Then switch to the right side of the spine. Then feel the energy going down the neck through the spine.
Now follow the energy from the base of the neck all the way down the spine and then all the way down the left leg and out the toes or the soles of the feet. As with the arms, try both, and if you are using the toes feel the energy flow all the way out of the toes to the walls of the room. On the out-breath you can choose to feel the energy flow back up to the base of the neck, or out through the entire energy channel. Then do the right leg.
Move your attention to the base of the spine, and follow the energy from there out the feet, first on the left leg and then out the right. On the out-breath you have the same choices as with the arms.
You might think of sweeping practice I as being static, and the sweeping practice II as being dynamic. They both have value. These are practices that are extremely valuable in your meditation toolbox.
We have added a number of useful breath meditation techniques:
- A new type of breathing practice
- Breath counting and noting
- Two forms of body sweeping