Making the practice your own
When you first learn to meditate, it’s appropriate and helpful to take on structured practices. There are plenty of such practices available – ones for cultivating absorption, such as mindfulness of breathing, or for ‘positive emotion’, such as metta bhavana, or general overall mindfulness, such as systematically cultivating awareness of the ‘four foundations’ – body sensations, hedonic feeling-tone, mental activities and dhammas or ‘ultimates’.
Structure is usually very helpful for learning the ropes. All Buddhist practices are pragmatic – the main question to bear in mind is ‘is this working’? Is it effective in cultivating the quality that it’s intended to cultivate? If it is, then it makes sense to continue pursuing this approach as long as it is effective. If not, then it’s necessary to review our approach and try another.
For example, we may have learned the mindfulness of breathing as a way of settling the mind. If we’ve never tried anything like meditation before, it’s very likely that the first thing we notice is that the mind wants to do anything but settle! Pragmatically speaking, it’s often useful to give the thinking mind a simple ‘task’ to do, so that there’s less likelihood of it getting carried away with endless thoughts. Hence, it’s often recommended to start the practice using counting of breaths – this can be very effective in keeping the mind from wandering while focussed attention is being paid to the sensations of the breathing itself.
Note that we’ve got two quite distinct things going on here. First, there is the counting, which is a conceptual activity. Second, there is the directing and settling of attention (i.e. awareness) on the sensations of the breathing, which is non-conceptual. Being unclear about this basic distinction is where unhelpful views can appear. For instance, the thinking mind can subtly take over and make it into ‘mindfulness of counting’ rather than ‘mindfulness of breathing’. Or it could ‘usurp’ the function of awareness so that we are attending to thoughts of the breathing rather than the immediate tactile sensations of the breathing itself.
These views may be unhelpful but nevertheless, if we recognise them, they represent a great opportunity to learn something about how the thinking mind functions. It functions by taking over! That’s to say, it literally thinks that it is experiencing the breath (and everything else that we experience through our senses). In fact, all the mind can do is abstract from our direct experience. We can think of the taste of a strawberry or an orange and, in imagination at least, there is some ‘sense’ of what that taste is like. This is presumably how we recognise the particular flavours of those fruits when we eat them. However, the memory of a taste is completely different to the immediate experience of the taste when eating a juicy strawberry or orange right now. Similarly, we can think of the sensation of the breathing without realising that this is just a mental activity and not the actual experience of the breath.
Clarifying this distinction between mental activities and immediate sense impressions is crucial to learning to meditate. In fact, it’s always crucial, however long we’ve been practising. Attempting to focus on thoughts won’t lead to very much real tranquillity or absorption because thoughts are, ultimately, precisely what underlies our lack of tranquillity. All we have to do is notice the difference – ‘this is a sensation’ and ‘this is thinking’. We don’t have to eliminate thinking in order to become more absorbed – all we need to do is to let it fall into the background as we recognise the actual object – the immediate tactile sensations of the breath arising in awareness.
Another unhelpful view comes from an attitude of ‘should-ism’, e.g. ‘I’ve been taught the practice in this particular way, so I should always do it in just this way’. This kind of view can be insidious as there’s often a positive basis – e.g. respect for the tradition, method or teacher. ‘lf thousands of people have meditated in this way for thousands of years, who am I to do it differently?’ Well, if such thoughts do arise, rest assured that the only people who meditate according to exactly the same structure for their whole ‘meditation career’ are those who give up before very long! And they probably give up because they don’t seem to be getting anywhere with their meditation.
Structure enables us to learn more effectively, but the implicit question we always have to bear in mind is, as I mentioned above, is this effective? We learn what’s effective by doing it, and by making mistakes. ‘Mistakes’ is a misnomer really because we’re simply learning from experience. This experiential and exploratory attitude is fundamental to the Buddha’s teaching. According to one sutta (discourse), he tells a group of lay followers not to depend on what they’ve heard, or on tradition, or revered texts, or views, or reasoning or what seems to work for someone else, or what’s said by a respected teacher. Rather, he says, when you know in direct experience that an approach is good, blameless and wise, and leads to benefit and happiness, that’s self-evidently how to practice.
So, with the mindfulness of breathing (though this applies to any practice), there comes a point sooner or later when it’s appropriate to diverge from the way it’s been taught. It’s not indispensable always to start by counting the breaths. How the practice goes is contingent upon many factors – you might be doing the mindfulness of breathing before or after a busy and hectic day, or you might be doing it in the middle of a meditation retreat. In the first instance, counting breaths is likely to be helpful, in the second, it could well be unnecessary as the mind is already quite settled and tranquil. If your intention is to enter the absorptions (jhanas), any structure will naturally drop away. In fact, if you ‘religiously’ keep to the structure or cling limpet-like to instructions like ‘cultivate one-pointed effort to stay with the breathing continuously’, deeper absorption will be prevented from arising even if the conditions are otherwise very supportive.
Once the basic structured practice has been explored sufficiently (what is ‘sufficient’? Adapt the Buddha’s advice above!) you can make it more ‘your own’ by approaching the various stages you’ve learned as ‘tools’ that you can use as appropriate, rather than as an invariable format. Keeping to the basic practice is a bit like a piano player never playing anything but scales – to discover our potential we have become competent at the basics and then be prepared to let go, explore, make ‘mistakes’, learn, and eventually discover how to improvise, letting go of the form altogether.