So, one thing that has always bothered/intrigued me a bit since beginning my study of Buddhism 5 years ago was the plethora of available meditative techniques, the apparent inconsistencies or contradictions between them, and the sometimes heated dispute over which was historically representative of the Buddha’s teachings (not to mention which was the most effective in general, which sometimes arose as an additional tangent during debates).
What I discovered was that while I strongly disagree with the idea of the perennial philosophy - that all religions point to the truth - I do think that the same sort of framework (looking for the similarities and giving them preference over the differences) can be put to good use when looking at the different kinds of Buddhist meditation, particularly within the Theravada tradition.
In the past few months, I’ve done a lot of trial and error in my own practice, along with a healthy dose of contemplation on the merits of different meditative traditions and techniques. I don’t believe for a second that my findings are in any way revolutionary or able to stop the constant debate surrounding this topic, but they were important and helpful enough to me that I thought I would at least share my findings here. Again, these is just my ignorant opinion on the topic, so don’t think I’m trying to reinvent the (dhamma) wheel here!
To be quick about it, allow me to state what I’ve taken from different teachers, and then I’ll run down how I put them together to make a technique that works well for me.
Ajahn Geoff’s teaching about working with the breath energy in the whole body was always something that clicked with me. It’s so much more holistic feeling that the “breath at the nostrils” brand of breath meditation, and keeping the breath focused on the whole body provides a sense of ease and relaxation in the practice that I find indispensable. Likewise, Thanissaro’s suggestion of viewing breath as energy moving throughout the whole body, similar to the Indian concept of Prana or the Chinese concept of Qi, is a more constant object of meditation than the physical sensation of breath, which can be hard to detect as it becomes more tranquil and subtle. There’s also a bit of similarity with Goenka’s style here, in that the sensations in the body are included in the breathwork, and any knots of tension or tightness can be “kneaded” and massaged with the breath energy as needed. Not body scanning per se, but worth a mention.
As there is so much misinformation about the Mahasi method out there, I’d like to post a quick summary of an important point made by Patrick Kearney, a long-term practitioner and teacher of the Mahasi method:
This is a crucial point that I’ve taken into how I approach Thanissaro’s breath meditation that I previously outlined. I stay with that object, content within the body, almost waiting to see the moment attention finally moves. Continuous attention is an important point across the board with meditation techniques, but I find the emphasis on continuity of attention rather than continuity of object to make a lot of sense.Patrick Kearney wrote: The meditator watches some phenomena -the rising movement of the abdomen, for example - then suddenly realizes his mind has wandered and is now in a day-dream. His attention has moved from one experience to another. This movement is not a problem - it is natural. What is a problem is that he has failed to notice the moment of change, the moment when the physical experience of movement, pressure, tension became the mental experience of drifting, dreaming. There has been a failure of attention.
Note here a fundamental principle of satipatthana meditation: it does not matter what the object of attention is; what matters is the continuity of attention. The objects of attention - the flow of experiences that make up the mind-body - change, but the meditator’s attention is continuous. As the meditator cultivates continuous attention; he develops momentary concentration.
I’ll be blunt. I don’t really love Bhante V, as I find some of the things he has said to be very narrow-minded and his devout followers a little too zealous (no offense meant!). That being said, I do like the results of the “relax and smile” portion of his message, and I’m associating it here with his name because many people only know of it due to his emphasis on this aspect of meditation.
I don’t continuously focus on trying to smile or sending goodwill, but when I recognize that I was totally lost in thought, I will consciously relax and smile to bring about a better state of mind for continued practice.
The TL;DR version of the practice is as follows:
The “primary object” of meditation is the breath, with an emphasis on feeling the energy in the body; this is somewhat intuitive as it will, almost by definition, be a slightly different experience each time. Just get sensitive to what’s going on, relax, and see what you can do to spread this energy further throughout the body.
While I’m focusing on the breath energy, I’m almost waiting for the mind to run off somewhere else, and if it does, I’ll note it, though I might not necessarily label it. (I am using “note” to mean acknowledge and “label” to mean the literal labelling or placing of a word on the experience to categorize it.)
So, I’m aiming for continuity of attention, not necessarily continuity of the primary object (the breath energies in the body). However, once I inevitably lose continuity of attention and become aware of that (the “recognize” step of the 6R’s), I will apply the “relax and smile” portion of the 6R technique.
To me (can’t stress that part of it enough), this is a really nice way of meditating that checks all the boxes I’m looking to tick. There’s tranquility, concentration, notes of positivity via the smiling (as a skeptic I’m amazed at how powerful this can be during longer sits), and insight with the continuity of awareness and the noting.
Really, all of this exploration has just turned me into a Mahasi fan more than anything. I’m just taking Thanissaro’s idea of breath as the primary object and remembering to relax and smile if I note any tension or become completely aware that I’ve been distracted. More than anything, it’s taught me that being open to how these techniques may work together at least puts a few more tools in the meditator’s toolbox, and that’s never a bad thing.
I typed this out mainly to sort out my own thoughts on all of this, but if it’s of any use to all you lovely folk here at dhammawheel, I’ll be thrilled!
Wishing you all much success,