what is meditation?

Why do we meditate?

Meditation in this practice is not a simple technique of observation, but an important part of the overall aim of improving oneself and finding wisdom. Meditation alone without the rest would be like a stake planted in the earth without a tree for it to support – totally meaningless, totally useless.

The Buddha once answered to somebody that asked for a quick summary of his teaching: “I teach sila, samadhi, panña.” (Morality, concentration, wisdom.)

In this teaching, wisdom is gained through concentration in meditation (Samadhi), combined with and supported by the living of a highly moral life (Sila)

(We could also say this the other way round – that a highly moral life is supported and given strength through the practice of meditation. As the roof of a building supports and strengthens the walls, and the walls of a building support and strengthen the roof, Sila and Samadhi are the support and the strength of one another.)

With this in mind, let us now speak about what meditation actually is.

What is meditation?

In general, no matter what type of meditation one does, almost all meditation is essentially the same: it is the practice of making the mind calm by giving it one object of focus.

Why do we need to do this? Because the nature of the mind is to run in a million different subject every day like a crazy, agitated animal. When we give it one point of focus, the mind calms down and settles, allowing us to feel happier and more peaceful as long as we stay with the object of meditation.

As many leaves as you can find in a forest, as many objects of concentration as you can imagine, there are styles of meditation; which are all essentially different objects of focus one can give to the mind. The breath, a combination of words, a mantra, the sensations on the body, movement of the body, a fishing rod in one’s hand, music, an object of devotion such as a shrine to a god, a dot on the wall, a rock: all can be the object of one’s meditation, and all will serve the purpose of calming the mind and making it steady.

Is there a difference between meditation in this school and other meditations?

Meditation in the teaching that we practice has a slightly different aim to most others. We do not only want to make the mind calm, we want to become the mechanic of our own mind, hack it, and re-train it so that instead of leaving it running automatically, we can be in charge of the actions that we take. It is as if we had a self-driving car and we want to re-wire the engine to become a manually-driven car.

In practice, this means that right at the moment when – for instance – anger or fear arises inside, we have to be able to drop it completely, as fast as dropping a piece of burning hot coal that has fallen into our hands.

Rather than having its calming effect only as long as we are concentrating on our object of meditation, this meditation is meant to be applied everywhere, in every aspect of our lives.

It is not only an observation technique; it is an essential element in the work of developing wisdom, together with working on developing one’s qualities, and practicing morality.  It can therefore not work if it is learned just by itself as an observation. We do not say that it is better than other kinds, it just depends on what your aim is. The practice is like instructions for getting to Montreal; it works for the one who wishes to go to Montreal, and is irrelevant for the one who wants to go to Dublin, or who prefers to stay where he is.

What is “Vipassana” meditation?

“Vipassana” is a word often heard wherever people talk about Buddhist meditation. It is now most often spoken of in reference to a school of meditation known by the name “Vipassana” and made popular by S.N. Goenka. The school of Vipassana meditation teaches a meditation which focuses on breath and sensations on the body.

In this school we do not practice the meditation of the school of Vipassana, because, although we agree that it has many benefits and can be very good for calming the mind, in the end we found that it simply gives the mind another object on which to focus: one focuses on the breath or on sensations on the body in just the same way as one would focus on a dot on the wall or a sound; it brings the mind together in one subject but does not help us to deeply re-wire the mind itself. We cannot achieve the objective of dropping fear or anger like dropping a piece of burning hot coal in Vipassana meditation.

However, in another sense we do say that we practice “Vipassana.” Vipassana is a Pali word that is usually translated as “insight.” We prefer the literal meaning: “clear seeing,” or “seeing as it is.” When we apply this word “Vipassana” to meditation, we are talking about the difference between reading a manual of car mechanics, and opening up your car engine to see for yourself. It’s all very well to understand the theory of an important idea in the Buddha’s teaching, as in car mechanics, but it is quite useless until you see it and experience it for yourself, and the only way to see it is with the right kind of meditation.

For example, at the heart of the Buddha’s teaching is this: that everything you know, think, touch and everything you think you are is anicca, dukka, anata (impermanent, suffering, non-Self). It means:

“Everything you think you are is changing and impermanent. Everything you think you are is painful. If everything you think you are is changing, impermanent and painful, who do you think you are?”

Now, it’s possible to understand this by logic. It’s quite possible to appreciate the sense in it. It’s possible to agree with it in theory. And yet even if I can understand theoretically all this, it’s not the same thing as seeing it. I might understand it but I don’t experience the truth of it; still what I experience is Me, Mine, Myself. I am this, I am that, I am the other. I get hurt whenever anyone criticises MY thought. I get angry whenever anyone is disrespectful towards something with which I identify.

The aim of Vipassana, the meditation of seeing as it is, is to eventually see, to experience these truths in such a strong and fundamental way that after you have seen, you stop identifying and making a Me out of everything you touch and everything to which you are attached.

Vipassana – Seeing As It Is – can be understood as both the end goal of Seeing the Dhamma truly as it is, and the tool of meditation that allows the mind to be trained in such a way that this Seeing becomes possible. Instead of “meditation” we could say “focused observation.”

Vipassana therefore means: Observing as it is, so as to see reality clearly as it is.

There are listed four kinds of observation in Pali texts, which are the base for many objects of meditation: Observation on the body; observation on agreeable and disagreeable feelings; observation of just the pure mind itself, and observation of “Dhamma” – this last one is usually a question, or a specific topic in the Buddha’s teaching.

If you would like to read more about how meditation works and how it relates to practicing morality and developing wisdom, the following articles all talk about this in more depth: