Last Sunday, we talked about seven benefits of meditation, and if you were not here for that, if you can go online and listen to the talk, and we also talked about how it is helpful to create an altar at home and decorate it however you wish and have a little chair or cushion in front of it just to remind you to practice regularly, as much as you can.
So, today I would like to share about some meditation methods. There are many, many methods. Whatever style of meditation you are learning, there are several kinds, but I am just going to present to you some very popular and basic methods within the Buddhist tradition especially that relate somehow to mindfulness and Zen, etcetera.
So, my teacher—our teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, really emphasizes awareness, mindfulness of the breath. It is because the breath is always with us, so some people like to focus on a candle, but a candle might blow out sometimes. Or someone might want to focus on something else, but anything external, it may or may not be there. But our breath is always there. It is always nearby, and it is a good place to start, to just feel the breath. And the way our breath is, whether it is shallow or fast, staccato or strange or long or short, those indicate how our mental and physical energies are doing. So the breath is almost like a way of telling what is going on in your body-mind. So we just rest in the breath.
Now, there are some techniques of meditation where we use a lot of active willpower in making the breath a certain way, such as making the breath deep and long or breathing in through one nostril and out the other, etcetera. But that is more of a yogic technique, which is also very helpful. But tonight we are going to focus more on the mindfulness aspect of the breath meditation, which is actually letting go of control. We let go of control.
Now if you need to breathe in and out three times in the beginning of the meditation just to help kind of get jump started, that is fine. I do that a lot. But then after that first initial moment of deep breathing, let go of control, because mindfulness is about being aware without trying to control, allowing and flowing with reality rather than trying to fix it right away. So we just allow ourselves to just rest into reality as it is, and the interesting thing is that we start to realize when we let go of the mental, analytical ego mind, which thinks that it is in control of everything—which it is not.
When we just let that rest and relax a little bit, we start to realize there is already so much already here. You know? Because we are so tied up in the upper mind, thinking mind, you know, we kind of get used to the idea that if we stop thinking, then everything will go wrong, and we are not going to get things done. But actually, if we can just relax the mind enough, we start to realize there is already so much richness in reality already without our conscious control of it.
For example, as you go deep in meditation, you start realizing, wow, this body is amazing. It breathes on its own, and the heart beats on its own, and all the different organs function on their own without our conscious control. And then I should go even deeper, you start to realize, oh wow. Plants grow on earth without me having to make it so. Sunshine is on the earth giving warmth without me making it so. The air is sufficient for both those who need oxygen and those who need carbon dioxide. There is a harmony there that makes life possible without my conscious control.
So basically, when you go deeper, if you start to realize that the point of mindfulness meditation is—or at least one of the points is to relax and rest into the vast, deep love, wisdom, and power already present in the universe. And then those little things that don't go quite right or seem to be out of harmony, we see them in their real context, which is very small in comparison to the great, vast harmony of the universe. So any little disharmonies that we have created humans, they are so small in comparison. And then when you realize that, you do not get so overwhelmed by any disharmonies that you choose to try to figure out, you see?
So first, realize there is already a great power in reality in the body, in the universe already, and we can typically flow with that power, cooperate with that power, rather than resisting that power. And then we can do the next aspect of meditation, which is meant to be actively creating ways to heal in harmony and cultivate harmony, but in the context of there is already such great harmony and power in the universe, and we are just allowing that to manifest through us.
See the difference? Because if you think everything is like on our shoulders—the whole world is on our shoulders—and everything is up to us to create harmony only, it is like that is a lot of pressure. And in fact, because of that overwhelming pressure, it actually can create more disharmony when you try to act out of that kind of ego energy. It is a fear and anxiety.
But instead if we allow ourselves to think into how there is already such great richness and power and harmony in the universe, then the little part that we do to contribute to healing disharmony and supporting the harmony that is already there gets a lot easier. There is much more flow to it. It does not come from ego energy anymore. It comes from a deeper place that is one with the universe.
So, when we are mindful of the in breath and the out breath, it might seem boring at first. It might seem too simplistic, but there is great wisdom in feeling the breath. It opens doors to great insight and wisdom eventually in your practice. It is kind of like in breath, out breath, in breath, out breath. It is like a balance, a yin and yang to your body energy, and there is a balance in the universe, too.
And you start to realize that this breath doesn't just come from me. This breath comes from the atmosphere, which is contributed to by all of the beings on our planet. Especially us who are human animals, the vegetation of the planet gives us oxygen, so we breathe in and we are breathing in the gift of the vegetation, of the trees and grass and the vegetables of the planet. And when we breathe out, we are breathing out something they love and appreciate. Plants require a little bit of carbon dioxide to grow, to flourish. Of course in our modern world, we are making too much carbon dioxide, so we need to kind of re-balance that, but originally there is this beautiful harmony in the ecological system of the planet, where it is giving and receiving in this flow.
And so you can actually—you start with mindfulness of your own breath, but it opens you up to the whole planet, and it opens you up to the whole universe. You just start realizing that everything is in this beautiful giving and receiving and inter-relational, interconnected interbeing. So something as simple as the breath can lead you to such profound oneness with the universe. So do not think that it is boring. It might feel boring at first but let your practice and deepen so that you push through the initial boredom into the vastness.
And so, that is a foundation for all of the other practices that we do. The next method is then to count the breath, one through ten. And this was developed especially in Mahayana Buddhism, which flourished in China, Vietnam, Korea, and later Japan, as well as Tibet. And counting the breath in tens developed a very popular method in Mahayana Buddhism, especially at the beginning year of our practice.
For some people, their level of concentration power is quite weak and scattered, so for those people, it can be very helpful to practice counting the breath because it gives you a little small goal to reach, and then you just repeat, and then you also kind of have something anchoring you into the present moment so that you are not always going off into wandering thoughts. Now having wandering thoughts is okay during meditation, but it is just random thoughts. But what we are trying to do is allow a random thought to come and then go.
Now what we usually do is when we have a random thought, we do not just let it go. We look at it, hold onto it, and then create more out of it. You know, you might have a random thought about just a picture in your mind about maybe what you had for lunch today, but you don't need to hold onto it. Have that thought once, and then let it go. What we usually do is when we have thoughts, we tend to cling to that thought and think, oh, lunch! And you know what? It makes me think of dinner. And you know, I have to go to the grocery store tonight before meditation, and these are the things I have to get on my shopping list. You just start to create the whole story around this random thought.
So in our meditation practice, we try to very gently not allow ourselves they keep making those worries around random thoughts. Having random thoughts? Totally okay. Totally normal. But not what we want to do, not to cling and create stories around the train of thought. Okay?
So counting the breath can help with a little bit of this, and it is a nice easy goal for some people.
Maybe after a few days, weeks, and months of this practice, when you get the hang of really being present your breath and reality here and now, eventually you can let go of counting the breath. But for some people, it is very helpful at first.
Another method of meditation is mantra. When I talk about the counting of the breath, that helps with concentration, but mantra helps with opening the heart. So some people really do need the mantra method more than others because they may have a close, contracted heart. So I have noticed some people who are very fixed in their practice of Zen or Vipassana or some other method of meditation, it can lend itself to being very arrogant or dry eventually if you do not also cultivate the openness of the heart.
This is why in Mahayana Buddhism, especially in China and the other surrounding countries, many meditation masters recommended that you combine both the silent Zen practice of just sitting meditation plus the mantra practice of chanting, especially chanting a mantra of a Buddha or bodhisattva to access those qualities that that Buddha or bodhisattva represents.
For example, Amitabha, when you use that in your silent mantra or your vocalized chanting practice before you sit, you can open your heart to the infinite love that is already there and within you. And of course, some people prefer just one Buddha to focus on and go deep in that. Other people like to have a variety, so they may have different bodhisattvas, angels, guides, or whenever. So it just depends. Some people like a variety that helps them, and other people really like to focus on just one. So it is up to you. I actually like to focus only on one, Amitabha most of the time, but then once and a while, I will focus on other Buddhas and bodhisattvas as well.
But your mantra can be in a sacred language, like Sanskrit or Hebrew or Aramaic, or just even in English. It doesn't matter. You can pick one that really resonates with you, and you can switch mantras, too, if you wish, or you can stick with one as your primary mantra. And maybe next time I might go over a little bit of detail about how you can use affirmations as well as mantras in your practice, and I will present on ones that I found particularly helpful.
So in normal use of mantra, you do not necessarily coordinate with your breath, but because our teacher Thich Nhat Hanh really loves to emphasize the breath, then I recommend that you can if you wish coordinate a mantra with your breath, because then that way, even if you're doing a mantra method, you are also still utilizing the breath as the foundation, so breathing in on the first half, breathing out the second half of the mantra.
And it is good to keep it short. I would say not more than six syllables. Four to me is really sort of ideal. Two is good, too, but some people find that is too short with two. But it is up to you.
But again, it does open the heart much more. So counting helps to build concentration. Mantra helps to open the heart. And visualization can help to utilize our random wandering mind and use that energy of the random wandering mind for our benefit. So if you are having a lot of wandering thoughts and images and daydreaming and all of that, perhaps you could use visualization to bring all of that creative imaginary energy and focus that into using that imaginary creative energy in that specific positive way. So instead of just having random crazy thoughts and images that are running wild in your mind during meditation, you can take that energy of your mind and then focus it into a specific visualization.
I like to keep visualization as simple as possible during the first year of your practice. Maybe you can visualize the outer Buddha and all of the beautiful light and love and the qualities. It can also be Jesus or an angel or another being of light—whatever you wish. But the main thing is it doesn't matter what the meaning is. What matters are the qualities of that being that you are visualizing.
So if that being of light has the qualities of love, compassion, peace, wisdom, healing, then that is a good visualization. This is the outer Buddha, and it is really, really helpful to visualize the outer Buddha just radiating love and light and filling the world with blessings.
But you can also visualize the inner Buddha within you, your own inner divine light. Perhaps you might visualize it in the center of your body in the upper abdomen maybe or a little bit higher up in the heart. There are different sorts of energy centers you can focus on, but I always recommend, especially to beginners, do not start with the higher energy center right away.
I like to recommend to beginners in meditation, start a little bit lower, even in your lower abdomen as you are sitting. This is the traditional Zen practice of really grounding yourself on the earth, grounding yourself in the body, grounding yourself in reality. And then the once that is firmly established, it is okay to also go up and focus on the other higher energy centers.
But I always recommend start low first to get grounding, because if you are not used the energy of meditation and you start at the third eye in between your eyebrows, sometimes it can cause a little bit of a feeling of lightheadedness and kind of almost a disconnection from being grounded, and you can kind of start getting a little bit delusional sometimes with a lot of the imagery. Not always, but I just recommend that the safer way is to start grounded first and then go up.
And of course, another way of visualizing is to visualize the entire universe as a beautiful manifestation of divine light, divine love, and divine life. The whole universe is actually Buddha, you could say. The whole universe. So we are actually sitting right here and now in the Buddha field of enlightenment in the Pure Land. In other traditions, you might call it something else—in paradise, right here and right now. Heaven is right here and right now. You can also visualize that.
So you can visualize the outer Buddha, the inner Buddha, or the universal Buddha. There is also a fourth. I don't usually share that unless you have been practicing for several years, but I will just tell you. The fourth is the ultimate Buddha, and that is beyond words, beyond images, beyond thinking. It is just pure consciousness, pure being. But you do not need to concern yourself with that right now, especially if you have only been meditating for a few weeks, months, or years. But outer Buddha, inner Buddha, universal Buddha, and ultimate Buddha.
These are some very basic ways of meditating, and then whatever your method is, I like to close meditation with blessing prayer or metta. You can even actually do metta as your entire meditation, and there is a very detailed process in Buddhism of how to do that, which we will talk more about later in the year when we talk about love, joy, and peace. But I will just briefly share with you that basically it is using prayer and a meditation.
And all religions have prayer, but here we can also utilize prayer as a meditation, and it is a kind of prayer of blessing. It is a positive prayer. Some forms of prayer may be about just kind of venting. You are kind of venting to God or whatever, and that is okay, because sometimes we just need to vent and get it out of our system. But that is not what we are talking about here in the blessing prayer.
Other forms of prayer are maybe sort of pleading, pleading with God or the universe for help. In some cases, that can be helpful because sometimes if you are in a lot of distress or worry, or it is a crisis situation, that is probably the only kind of prayer you can think about at that moment, and that is okay. It is better to pray than not.
But a deeper form of prayer is simply called gratitude. Thank you. And blessing, giving to others. So the deeper form of prayer is gratitude and blessing. Just allow yourself to say thank you for all of the wonderful things in your life and to also give blessings to others. Think about people that need our blessing.
So that is all I have to share about that. Let's see if there are any questions. Yes?
Audience Member: I find it easiest to do the visualization, but I focus on doing the counting the in and out breath. That is where I am not strong. Is that kind of what you would recommend?
ChiSing: Yeah. It just depends on you. Sometimes it is better to focus on what is easier for you because if it motivates you to keep practicing, great. Then sometimes it is also better to focus on a method that is harder for you because it might be something that you need more of, because you need more concentration energy, or you need to open your heart more or whatever. So it is up to you how you want to balance that. You may even want to do both kinds alternately.
Well thank you very much for listening and practicing.