Tranquility meditation

If you have not yet familiarized yourself with the preferred sitting posture, please check this page out first.

As you have reviewed the sitting instructions, I assume that you’re sitting comfortably. That’s good in itself. One old Tibetan text suggests that a beginner at tranquility meditation should spend their first few sessions not actually meditating, but just sitting - acclimatizing to the meditation posture and getting used to the cushion, etc. So, to start, why not try just sitting for five minutes? You’ll need some kind of timer, whether a cell phone app or a burning stick of incense. And try to keep the sessions short at first. Try a couple of weeks of five-minute sessions before increasing it to ten minutes. Also, these short sessions may be repeated throughout the day. Keep the practice light and joyful. If it ever seems like a chore, you’re just striving too hard. The answer is simply to stop for a couple of days. It’s also a good idea to make sure that you don’t give up permanently by setting a firm date for re-starting. Then, when you do re-start, keep the sessions relaxed and very short, even just a minute or two, not lengthening them until the joy and freshness returns.

Some years ago, I had someone stay at my farm for a couple of months, Jake by name. When he was in India, Jake had “learned meditation” at a Vipassana center run along the Goenka system. In Jake’s view, this consisted of just watching one’s thoughts and he boasted of being able to meditate for up to five hours at a time. As he did not strike me as being an advanced meditator, I suspected him of indulging in day-dreaming and calling this mind-wandering “meditation.” I did not voice my suspicions but merely taught him the basics of śamatha (tranquility) meditation. I did warn him, though, that as tranquility meditation requires constant vigilance, beginners find it tiring and should keep sessions very short. My specific advice was “no more than ten minutes, at first.” I must say that he kept meticulously to all my meditation instructions. Except for the duration, that is. Being “experienced” and able to meditate for five hours (!), he just knew that he could safely ignore my warnings and his first session lasted three hours. His second was just one hour, then half an hour, then he gave up. When I questioned him about why he was no longer meditating, he said that the very sight of his meditation cushion depressed him.

Perhaps this is why the Tibetan tradition is to learn tranquility meditation first, before insight meditation.

Something which is rarely mentioned in Tibetan texts is striving for an objective. In our goal-driven lives we are constantly striving to achieve something or to free ourselves from something else. This is where we need patience. The benefits of meditation are real and palpable, but they do not come from strenuous effort. Rather, treat yourself kindly, forgive yourself when distractions arise, perhaps even develop a sense of humor and silently chuckle in amusement as you return to the object of meditation for the 47th time in five minutes. In a way, meditation is like a scientific experiment. If an experiment doesn’t produce the expected result, the scientist doesn’t get angry. She doesn’t say, “The experiment’s gone wrong!” Instead, she investigates the causes and considers all the factors, and repeats the experiment. In the same way, we should never say, “I’m an awful meditator” or “I get too distracted to meditate properly” but simply take note that “the experiment didn’t have the expected results” and be prepared to repeat it, later.

Tranquility with an object

Theory

The aim of tranquility meditation is a calm, clear mind but it also teaches focus. Not the intense, furrowed-brow concentration we have when stuck on a crossword clue, but a stable “thinking of nothing else” resting of the mind. Many kinds of physical object may be used. Just staring at a stick thrust into the ground, at a pebble, a small image of the Buddha, or a colored disk, are all suggested by classic texts. One technique taught by Buddha Shakyamuni himself was mindfulness of breathing. To do this, we simply observe our breath. Feel every little sensation caused by breathing – the rise and fall of our chest, the air on our nostrils, allowing the entire bodily symphony of breathing to wash over us and immerse our every fiber. As long as we’re alive, we’re breathing so, as a subject of meditation, the breath is always available. More convenient than even a stick and cheaper than a Buddha image, our breath is always present, ready to occupy our rapt attention.

Practice

Sit comfortably, as described here. Relax and immerse yourself in all the sensations of breathing. Should a thought arise, a memory of the past, an anticipation of the future, or even a reflection on the present moment, we simply return to the sensations of breathing. Some teachers, especially from the Theravada tradition, suggest counting the breath. That is,

  1. on the first out-breath mentally count “one”
    • on the in-breath think “in”
  2. on the next out-breath mentally count “two”
    • on the in-breath think “in”
  3. on the next out-breath mentally count “three”
    • on the in-breath think “in”
  4. etc...

When an arbitrary small number is reached (5 is good), repeat from 1. This an exercise in following the breath, not controlling it. So, remember to breathe easily and naturally, watching its ebb and flow. If you should happen to lose count (it happens all the time so don't beat yourself up), just wait until the next out-breath and start over from 1. And, yes, it always starts on the out-breath.

Another practice, from the Vajrayana tradition, similar to this uses silent mantras: the “seed syllables” OM, AH, HUM, and HRIH. In this practice, one counts the in-breath as well as the out-breath but, this time, with mantras. On breathing out, imagine the sound of OM, when breathing in, immerse yourself in the sound AH, and so on for a cycle of two breaths and four syllables.

  • on the first out-breath "hear" OM
  • on the first in-breath "hear" AH
  • on the next out-breath "hear" HUM
  • on the next in-breath "hear" HRIH
  • repeat

This can be enhanced by visualizing the written syllables as you "hear" them. In color, they are as follows...

  •   OM
  •   AH
  •  HUM
  •  HRIH

Such practices as these may be repeated for as long (or short) as one likes. But remember to dedicate the merit from the practice when you have finished.