Kamalashila, the great eighth-century Indian Buddhist scholar, offers five essential elements that should form every meditation session.
These may seem unfamiliar even to long-time practitioners because they are not rooted in a secular-scientific worldview but an Indo-Tibetan one sensitive to the paradigm of interdependence and psychological causality.
These five elements are taught at the outset of traditional Tibetan Buddhist education. They are accessible to beginners, and can vitalize and deepen a more established practice:
As a farmer prepares the soil for planting, we prepare the ground of mind for meditation.
Three preliminaries—(a) create a sacred space, (b) set up an altar and make offerings, and (c) prepare your body and mind—are the foundation of preparation.
We create a comprehensive sequence of activities that purifies psychological hindrances, obstacles, and karmic imprints that might keep us from liberating insight or realization—the aim of meditation.
At the same time, we cultivate positive energy or merit that will foster insight and the development of virtuous qualities, uplifting our practice with the blessings of our mentors and lineage.
Preparation also entails reciting prayers and scriptures largely abandoned in our scientific paradigm but essential to any spiritual culture. … I encourage you to internalize and embody them, not just read about them—reading them is more than an intellectual activity.
Contemplation is the practice of focusing the mind on a theme, internalizing it, and actualizing it.
A common misunderstanding about meditation is that it is exclusively a nondiscursive practice, but here we are using our analytic minds to focus on concepts, exploring them more deeply.
Depending on the extent of the presentation, the Lam Rim can be made up of many themes, such as the preciousness of human life and the immediacy of death, each arranged in a well-curated sequence. …
Our “practice” is to acquaint the mind with each theme systematically and repeatedly until they are all internalized in the depth of our being.
Only from there can they rouse a realization, causing a transformational shift in consciousness.
In the monastic universities of India and Tibet, two devices foster the process of internalization: memorization and studying the related context, and reasoning. Westerners don’t seem to memorize anything anymore (not even phone numbers) because we’ve become so reliant on technology, but if you think about it, memorization brings information in from the outside, making it internal and retrievable and us self-reliant.
Those great Tibetan lamas such as Gelek Rinpoche, Lama Yeshe, and Lama Zopa, who were forced to leave their possessions and flee their homeland during the Chinese occupation, safeguarded their practices and the lineage because they had memorized much of the Tibetan Buddhist corpus of extant spiritual literature.
By learning the stages of the Lam Rim, for example, you will internalize them, and they will become part of your inner lexicon, retrievable as needed, and thus easier to metabolize at the soul level. In other words, the stages of the Lam Rim will become part of your spiritual DNA.
After preparation and contemplation, we can begin what most of us associate with meditation—better described as nondiscursive, pinpointed concentration, or focal attention, on the resultant affective experience.
For example, if upon contemplating the preciousness of human life, a feeling of gratitude and appreciation arises, that’s when you transition to meditation, focusing your attention on the feeling, not the theme, to “seal it in.”
This shift in quality of attention is what deepens the process, fosters internalization, and ripens as realization.
If, when we are meditating, the affective response fades, we can return to the theme, the commentary, and the lines of reasoning to reactivate the emotional response, and then return to focal attention.
In this way, we vacillate between the activation of both brain hemispheres—the left is associated with linguistics, analysis, and attention, and the right with affective response and the scanning mindfulness that brings attention back to its object so that it can serve as a laser beam of internalization.
Dedication occurs at the end of your practice and is a way of capitalizing on the karmic energy (momentum), affective response, and insight produced in your practice session.
As you grow to understand how karma works, you’ll appreciate why dedication is so central to the overall schematic of meditation and other ritual activities in Tibetan Buddhism.
Think of it like this: When I can save a little extra money, I bank it in my kids’ college fund. That ensures it won’t be spent on something frivolous because it is “dedicated” toward a specific, meaningful goal, in a place where it can accrue interest over time.
Likewise, karmic merit accrued as a result of virtuous activities can be earmarked for an ultimate goal: awakening for the benefit of others.
Karmic investments need to be handled wisely or they will ripen for mundane reasons instead of altruistic ones. Thus, it’s best to dedicate them for our highest spiritual aspirations. There are many dedication prayers one can choose from.
The final step is to bring the skill, insight, emotional quality, and inspiration we have cultivated during practice to bear in our everyday life.
The whole point of our meditation practice is to prepare us to live in the world with greater skill, yet often meditation practice feels confined to a specific time and space, and our skills do not transfer off the cushion.
There is a real opportunity to create a fluid experience during and between meditation sessions.
After dedication and before people end their practice session, I recommend they reflect and previsualize the ways they will apply what they experienced.
Specifics are important. Practice becomes a soul contract to encourage yourself to think, speak, and act differently in daily activities.
This contract becomes the blueprint for the new life we are designing using karmic causality, cultivating virtue, eliminating vice, and using mindful awareness, insight, and ethics to construct a new way of being.
After we previsualize and leave our cushion, we seamlessly transfer mindfulness to the application of virtue and insight.
This is what a basic session might look like:
• Begin with preparatory activities. The simplest version is to clear your mind with a few rounds of breath meditation, take refuge, and generate the altruistic intention.
• Then, contemplate a theme, such as the preciousness of human life or the kindness of living beings.
• With this contemplation, a sense of appreciation or gratitude may arise, moving you to the next point. Now focus your mind on the sensate or visceral experience in your body, thereby sealing in the gratitude.
• If the visceral experience fades, you can return to the prior point of contemplation and review, or move to the next point. Dedicate the merits by directing your positive karmic momentum toward your original aspiration, such as self-healing, personal liberation, or the welfare of others.
• Before ending your meditation, previsualize how you will carry this sense of gratitude and purpose into your daily life. Perhaps you prime the mind for the next time you’re disappointed, stuck in autopilot, or wondering what the hell it is we are doing on this planet.
Autosuggest this to your mind: the next time I feel that sense of loss, I will remember this sense of gratitude born of the reflection of the precious human life.
• Remind yourself of the word mindfulness, which comes from smirti, “to remember,” to bring the mind back to the storehouse of positive emotions gathered during meditation.
Source: Excerpted and lightly adapted (to suit the context of this website) from Neale, Miles. Gradual Awakening. Sounds True. Kindle Edition.
[Photo credit: Eva Peck]