Understanding of Meditation


The word for “meditation” does not actually exist in Pall or Sanskrit, neither is there a word to describe the practices of mental development. The words that are found include bhavana - which means cultivation, or to bring into existence - and citta, or the cultivation of mind. Citta means the spiritual and emotional centre of a person- their “heart” in the sense of being whole-hearted, or having one’s heart in something. These terms are used in other spiritual systems, probably because they refer to natural states of being - and as such states are natural they can be cultivated until they become, more or less, permanent.

Every school of Buddhism recognizes three stages to this cultivation, which is reflected in the three categories the Noble Eightfold Path is organized into. The first is the cultivation of moral discipline, the second is the development of concentrated absorption, the third is the attainment of wisdom. Bhavana is thus the cultivation of the heart and consciousness or mind, relating to composure, concentration, and meditation, which culminates in higher wisdom and spiritual emancipation. 

Insight and concentration

The practices that have become known in the West as “meditation” have two aspects to them: insight (vipasanna) and concentration (samadhi). By calming (samatha), that is quieting overactive thought-streams, insight will naturally arise, which in turn develops into awareness. The process is not mysterious – when “the heat of the moment” has dissipated and we are calm again we see things much more clearly. This “clear-seeing”, or insight, is vipasanna.

Many individuals have spent a long time in their agitated state, so to calm down their whole system gradually can take years of practice. The real insight, of course, is into the insubstantiality and impermanence of all existence, but there are many “lesser” insights on the way that contribute to an increasing sense of freedom and engender a warmth of heart. As the journey along the path progresses, we become calmer, we gain deeper insight, and we gradually become kinder and friendlier.

Concentration (samadhi), or absorption, is about becoming “at-one-with” what we are doing. Again, this is a simple matter and we do it much of the time, especially when we are interested in and enjoying something. Through spiritual practice of samadhi – often undertaken in a formal, cross-legged, seated posture – we can become immersed in the seemingly unappealing tasks and subjects. It provides one of the best ways to still a wandering mind. A classic tale from the Pall canon, “The Monkey”, reveals that the practice rests on the development of awareness. Another traditional tale, “The Samadhi Deer”, illustrates the importance of the part played by the practice of “counting the breath” in helping us to become familiar with the nature of mind – because as we struggle to sit still the thought processes seem to become more and more active. Humans have a tendency to become self-conscious: watching ourselves rather than forgetting ourselves. 

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