A beginner’s guide to meditation and how it will help you lead a happier life: Rajeev Balasubramanyam

A past Fellow of the Hemera Foundation for writers with a meditation practice, and writer in residence at Brooklyn Zen Center, Rajeev Balasubramanyam is the author of the heart-warming story of a curmudgeonly middle-aged man's quest for happiness, Professor Chandra Follows His Bliss. Here he offers a beginner's guide to meditation and explains how it could help us all live more blissfully.

Rajeev Balasubramanyam

Samma Ditthi: Right View

If we’re going to use meditation to achieve our goals, then we need to understand what meditation is, as this understanding will influence our goals. Meditation is a way of life, a way to develop wisdom and compassion and thereby liberate us from suffering. It is not a mere concentration technique, and yet, occasionally, on retreats, I meet businessmen seeking to use it merely to boost productivity, or as a friend of mine who works for HSBC told me, a monk once came to his workplace and explained ‘meditation makes one more present, which is good for giving presentations’. The US Marines have taken this even further, using something they call Mind Fitness Training to help remain calm under the stress of war. But as the Buddha explained, if we meditate without a wholesome intention, we can’t expect wholesome results. For this we need to treat sila, or morality, as an essential part of our meditation practice, taking care not to harm others, paying close attention to our conduct and speech and to the manner in which we make our living.

Sila: Right Livelihood, Right Speech, Right Conduct

Professor Chandra Follows His Bliss

Right Conduct requires the following precepts: refraining from killing, stealing, and sexual misconduct. Right Speech prohibits divisive or abusive talk, lying, and idle chatter. These are not moral absolutes but rather guidelines to help us become more aware of our behaviour and how it affects others. But if we are going to use meditation to help us achieve our goals, then our goals must be consistent with this morality: that is, they must not entail killing or cheating or lying or sexual misconduct, even if these actions are legal. Instead, we should seek to set wholesome goals, ones which benefit others or, at the very least, do not cause harm.

Samadhi: Concentration

Often, when we hear about meditation, this is the only aspect of the practice discussed. In the suttas, the Buddhist scriptures that contain the teachings of the fully enlightened Buddha, samadhi is defined as one-pointedness, or focus: complete awareness on the object of meditation. In many traditions, the object is the breath, which the meditator observes, or counts; others use mantras or visualisations. The attempt is to develop a still— or empty – mind, though as any practitioner knows, this is very difficult. The ‘monkey mind’, as it is called, does all it can to resist being trained, leaving us feeling restless and agitated.

Panña: Wisdom

The end goal of meditation practice is the eradication of suffering. The Four Noble Truths tell us that the cause of suffering is craving, that if we eliminate craving from our minds we eradicate suffering. The Satipatthana Sutta explains how we can use our practice to become aware of the five khandhas, the aggregates, or bundles, that make up a sentient being’s existence: the body, consciousness, perceptions, sensations, and mental reactions. The idea is to become aware of how external phenomena come into contact with our senses, and how our minds evaluate these experiences according to whether we like it or not, which causes us to experience a pleasant or unpleasant sensation on our bodies, which results in craving (either for more, or for it to stop). If we can train our minds not to react to these sensations, to remain equanimous, then we can eliminate craving and aversion and thereby eliminate suffering.

Nirvana: the ultimate goal

Nirvana is the highest goal in Buddhism, the complete eradication of suffering. Of course, few of us are likely to attain this in our lifetimes, but by practising meditation daily, focusing on the elements described above—sila, samadhi, and panna—we can bring ourselves closer to nirvana, reducing our craving, and thereby reducing our suffering. The trouble with using meditation to achieve more specific goals than this is that by establishing such goals—finding our ideal partner or job or book deal—we are in fact increasing our craving and thereby increasing our suffering, moving, in other words, in the opposite direction to nirvana. If we are to use meditation correctly, meaning, in the manner that the Buddha intended us to, then perhaps the only goal we can hope for in 2019 is to suffer less, to become happier. Achieving this goal often means letting go of others, ones we hoped would make us happy but actually led us in the other direction. This is why I believe it is difficult to use meditation to achieve any other goals besides developing our wisdom and compassion, because most other goals tend to be projections of our egos. In fact, the teachings tell us we don’t need anything else to be happy; all we need to do is let go.

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