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To meditate is to make a sustained effort to increase one’s awareness, or at least to prevent it from decreasing from a certain level; this defines what constitutes meditation. This is to be distinguished from contemplation, which is steady, effortless, stable awareness (or increased awareness, in comparison with some previous state). Contemplation is a goal of meditation. At some stage, meditation (an effort of awareness) becomes contemplation (effortless awareness).
There are many ways and means of meditation, of which two may be mentioned here.
In breath awareness meditation, we make an effort to watch the breath entering and leaving the body, patiently, without interfering in its speed or trajectory. Calmly and single-mindedly, fix your attention on the sensory receptors inside your nostrils (which are static relative to the movements of breath); and persevere in this attentiveness for a long time. At the same time, be mindful (from the inside, if only peripherally) of the rise and fall of your belly with every incoming and outgoing breath.
Experience one breath at a time. You cannot achieve mindfulness of breath in a mechanical manner, merely by initially deciding to watch your breath and then doing so for a couple of breaths. You cannot just launch breath awareness – or any other sort of meditation, for that matter – and expect it to carry on by itself. Your attention will in such case naturally float away at the first opportunity. Awareness is not something inertial – it demands effort.
Thus, to sustain your interest in the breath, engage one breath at a time. At the end of the first in and out breath, remember to make a new decision and effort to attentively follow the trajectory of next breath, and so on – one step at a time. This principle is applicable to all sorts of meditation (e.g. to walking meditation or to calligraphy). Even when one reaches the level of free-wheeling contemplation of one’s breathing, feeling the emptiness within, one has to remain focused and not take things for granted.
In the words of Zen master Dogen: “the breath that comes in does not anticipate the breath that goes out”. You remain mindful of things as they are, at their own pace. This mental will (or more precisely, spiritual will) must be distinguished from the effort of breath control, which involves physical will (on the muscles of the nostrils, the diaphragm or whatever). It is more akin to the “presence of mind” (or again, more precisely put: presence of spirit, or spiritual presence) used in Tai Chi or Yoga.
If your breath is irregular in some way (whether ragged, uneven or however uncomfortable), the simplest way to calm it is to wait for it patiently to do so by itself (as it is bound to do eventually). If such waiting results in your forgetting to watch the breath, no matter – when you become aware of your loss of attention, just return to breath awareness. If you lack the patience to wait but want to do something about it, then count the breaths as they occur (whatever their speed and shape). But abandon words again as soon as possible, for they are ultimately a hindrance to progress.
In thought awareness meditation, we make an effort to watch our thoughts come, play out and go. This is again essentially a spiritual act, a willing of attention – to be distinguished from the effort of thought control, which involves willing one’s thoughts to take shape, to go in a certain direction, or to stop. It takes a lot of practice to get to the point where one can sit back and watch one’s thoughts flow without getting caught up in them and carried away by them; but, although the brain seems programmed to hinder it, such detachment is indeed possible.
Thought awareness is facilitated by body awareness, breath awareness and awareness of one’s surroundings. When thoughts run wild, you can rein them in more readily if you increase awareness of the here and now. The thinker is suspended in a cloud, unaware of his physical existence or his surrounds: return him to earth. If the thoughts are overwhelming, ask them only for a little room in a corner of your mind – a place for monitoring thought. Then slowly expand this observatory’s portion of the mind.
It would not be quite correct to say that one should just sit back and watch one’s thoughts, as one watches one’s breath. Breathing is not expected to stop (but only to calm down), whereas thoughts ought to eventually stop. Therefore, one has to use a certain amount of thought control, even while avoiding crude force. Paradoxically, true thought control is not possible without thought awareness; you cannot precisely influence what you are not sufficiently conscious of. That is to say, to succeed at fine-tuned control, one needs proportionate attentiveness. Therefore, meditation on thought is a cunning mélange of awareness and control, in measured succession, until awareness and control both reach their peak level.
At that stage, it is possible, not only to instantly stop thought by an act of will, but to sustain this interdiction for a long time. Eventually, even this act of will becomes unnecessary or unconscious, because we come to reside comfortably in inner stillness and silence. This is not the final goal of meditation, but merely an intermediate stage. Until now, thoughts were a distraction from deeper meditation; now, it becomes possible to contemplate the non-phenomenal self and its relation to phenomenal experience more precisely.