I’ve meditated a lot. Thousands of hours. And I’ve done a lot of different types of meditation. There are hundreds of different types, and in principle one could easily come up with thousands once one understand how meditation works.

I had no teacher and was learning from books and I made a lot of mistakes. Some of them were damaging mistakes.

Like exercise, meditation is good for you, if done right, and can hurt or injure you if done wrong.

What I’m going to write about today is the basic Buddhist meditation synthesis. It consists of three parts: concentration, loving-kindness and insight. All of these styles of meditation date back to the Buddha, and in the case of case of concentration and loving kindness, pre-date him.

The Buddha is known specifically for Vipassana insight meditation, breath focused concentration (Shamatha) meditation and loving-kindness, most especially Metta but not only Metta. He did teach other types of meditation to students who needed them, along with ethical and lifestyle practices. (One meditation he had people do was go to cremation grounds and watch bodies being burned up, often for as much as six months. Not suggested for most people today.)

What Is Meditation?

At its simplest meditation is just mental exercise. It’s like lifting weights or practicing dance steps or throwing a javelin—over and over again to get better at what you’re doing.

Virtually all meditation is choosing a mental activity, doing it, noticing when you’ve stopped doing it, and going back to doing it.

If you were doing breath meditation (a form of concentration or shamatha meditation) you would pay attention to the sensations of breathing, keep your attention on your nostrils or belly when not breathing and when you notice you aren’t paying attention to your breath/belly/nostrils you would return to doing so.

It is that simple.

Meta-Attention: Of all meditation skills, this is the most important. All it means is being aware of what you’re paying attention to: to what your mind is doing. If you’ve ever started walking or driving somewhere you usually don’t go and realized that you’d spent the last few minutes heading to work or home even though that wasn’t your intention, you’ve experienced what happens when you don’t know where your attention is, or what your mind (and body) are doing. Every time you drift off in thought without realizing you have for a while, you’ve lost your awareness of what your mind is doing.

Most types of meditation, with trance states being the main exception, train meta-attention. You can’t control your mind if you don’t know what it is doing. Meta-attention is a large class, with a number of smaller classes. A good dancer or martial artist will know exactly how their body is moving, at least when practicing and in time outside of practice, but may not be as aware of thoughts or sounds or tastes or smells.

When you first start learning meta-attention it will be specific: if you do breath meditation you’ll become able to notice when you’re not paying attention to your breath. If loving-kindness, when you’re not paying attention to loving feels. If mantra meditation, when you’ve stopped saying or thinking your mantra. In time, your meta-attention will expand so that in your daily life you are more and more aware of exactly what you are doing and if it is not what you intended to do.

Without meta-attention you can’t control the mind because  you don’t know what the mind is doing. True concentration is less always doing what you intended and more noticing immediately when you stop or, as you progress, when something is about to occur that will make you stop.

Meta-attention is a necessary to make sure that your intentions are actually carried out.

Attention, Awareness And Consciousness

You have never experienced anything that is not yourself and you never will. It is literally impossible. Even if objects exist outside  yourself (an inference) everything you experience is your own consciousness, at best a representation of other objects. Your consciousness is everything you can be aware of.

The contents of your consciousness change. In dreams or certain altered states you may not be aware of your body, everything in your visual field or that you can hear can change, so much so that there may be nothing in common with any previous mental state. (This is worth contemplating, and there are types meditation intended to make that contemplation much more real.)

Your awareness is the broad field of what parts of your consciousness you are aware of. Awareness broadens and tightens. Everyone has had the experience where things were happening around them which they were not aware of.

Attention is where, within your awareness, you are focused. I might have my attention on typing this post, while being aware of the quality of light, the wall behind my monitor, the sound of my air conditioner and an itch in my armpit. While doing breath concentration my attention is on my breath, but I am likely aware of other parts of my body, without them being my focus. In fact, up until very late stages of concentration meditation, I do not want to shrink awareness too much, or drop it entirely and only be aware of my concentration object, because if I do so I will not be aware of arising sensation which might disrupt my attention before I can deal with them.

One conception of meditation is that it is nothing but learning to control attention and awareness. It’s not quite true, but it’s almost true. There are types of meditation (Mahamudra, for example) where you learn to reduce attention and attempt to have only awareness (this is very relaxing and is also improves your ability to do many things which require awareness, like fight.) The extreme of concentration meditation removes awareness outside of attention entirely: you are aware of only the object of your attention.

You have done mild version of attention and awareness control all your life, often without realizing that was what you are doing. Just as an athlete becomes much better at natural activities like throwing, running and lifting, a meditator becomes far better at normal mental activities than anyone who is untrained and eventually learns to do things no untrained person can do.

Sense Objects

Everything you have ever experienced is a sense object. You will never experience anything but a sense object. Thoughts are sense objects. Emotions are sense objects. Sounds are sense objects. Pain is a sense object and so is suffering.

In concentration meditation you learn to control attention and awareness. In emotional meditation techniques you learn to generate specific types of mental objects: emotions like love or compassion or authority or, well, almost any emotion.

In some types of insight meditation  you learn to see sense objects more clearly. For example at its most basic, every bodily sense object has three characteristics: its feel (itchy, pressure, warmth, cold, etc…), its location and its affect: pleasant, neutral or unpleasant. Pain can feel warm, be located in your toe and has a bad effect. You could also have a warm feeling in your toe but have it be pleasant.

These constituents (which are only the most gross ones) are often first noticed in concentration meditation. If you concentrate hard enough on your nose at some point you will experience your nose as a few feet away from your face. If you concentrate on pain hard enough, at some point the unpleasant part of the pain (the affect) and suddenly there’s no pain. It may even switch to feeling good.

As you proceed as a meditator you can gain some ability un-bundle sensations at will. You may also start getting access to data the brain doesn’t normally provide to consciousness or you may convince the brain to stop doing some of its pre-processing. These are advanced topics and other than mentioning them I won’t discuss them much in this article, but they are fundamental to the spiritual project of meditation, which is in large part about understanding how reality is created by the mind.

Balanced Meditation

Just as a weightlifter who does only one exercise over and over again will likely wind up injuring themselves, it is rarely a good idea to do only one type of meditation, unless you do very little meditation, say a mantra 20 minutes a day.

You always want to balance out meditation types, and one of each of concentration, positive emotion and insight is a good balance.

This is particularly true of insight meditation. People who do a lot of insight meditation (such as Vipassana) without the other two and especially without a positive emotion meditation, are the ones who drive themselves insane most often.

If I were in a teaching relationship with someone, which I’m not, this is something I wouldn’t just emphasize, it is something I would enforce. If someone would not follow my instructions in this matter, I would stop teaching them. That is how important it is.

I would rather you did NO meditation than do it incorrectly.

Basic Concentration Meditation

The most common form of Buddhist concentration meditation is on the breath. Place your attention either on your nostrils or your belly, and then watch the sensation of breathing. Between breaths, keep your attention on your belly or your nostrils.

Your intention in this type of meditation is to notice when you have stopped paying attention to your breath. This is important. Your intention is not to pay attention to your breath, but to notice when you have stopped paying attention to your breath.

When you notice your attention has moved off your breath, congratulate yourself for doing so (never be angry or upset you lost the attention object) and move your attention back to your breath.

Do as much of this as you can, until you’re doing 20 minutes a day or so.

Basic Loving-Kindness

Once you’re able to regularly do 20 minutes of concentration meditation and your attention is on your breath most of the time, you will start doing loving kindness meditation AFTER you have first done twenty minutes of concentration meditation.

Loving kindness meditation requires the ability to generate a positive feeling of love or compassion or sympathy. It must feel good.

There are multiple ways to do this, and you will have to experiment to see what works best for you. The classic Metta meditation involves first saying (mentally) towards yourself:

May I be happy. May I be well. May I be safe. May I be peaceful and at ease.

Keep saying it till you’re feeling relaxed and warm emotionally then skip down to where it says “Once you have this feeling”.

In later sessions, when you can reliably get the warm feeling , you do this for someone you love, directed at them. “May Fred be happy. May Fred be well. May Fred be safe. May Fred be peaceful and at ease.”

Then you do it for people you feel neutral towards, perhaps as a group “may everyone”, and last you do this for people you hate.

Stick with yourself or your friends at first. Keep doing it till you have a stable positive feeling. If you don’t generate one at first, don’t worry (I sure couldn’t), just keep doing it day after day until you do.

Another form is to imagine a loving experience. Perhaps imagine a puppy licking your face and wriggling and being obviously happy and loving you. Hugging and being hugged by a beloved grand-parent works for some. For others imaging someone like the Buddha or a God or a person like the Dalai Lama or some Saint who you feel would or does love you, doing so, works.

If you’re imagining a person or a God you MUST only use someone who you have no negative feelings towards. Parents, who have often been harsh to us and who we are scared of are often a bad choice (though if you had ideal parents, go for it.) For Christians and Muslims and Jews “God” is usually a bad choice because there are strong currents of punishment and fear related to most monotheistic gods.

In addition you should not choose someone you have sexual feelings toward as you want a pure feeling of love or compassion or happiness, without the admixture of lust.

Once you have the feeling, locate it in the body, and then proceed to do concentration meditation on the feeling. Pay attention to the feeling, have as your intention to notice when you are no longer paying attention to the feeling and bring your attention back to the feeling.

If the feeling goes away, generate it again, then go back to concentrating on it.

Once you can do this easily, there are more advanced techniques and there are very good, non moral reasons for wanting to eventually to feel kindness or love towards people you hate or who are bad people.

When you can do this for about twenty minutes, reliably generating the emotion and spending some time paying attention to it, move on to insight meditation.

Basic Vipassana Insight Meditation

You will do this after you have attained 20 minutes of concentration meditation and 20 minutes of loving kindness meditation which actually generates the emotion. Do not do it before. Once you can do those two types regularly you may choose to do 20 minutes of just one, then 20 minutes of insight, but better will be to all three, in order, and if you do only a 20/20 session, alternate meditation types.

In Vipassana you will notice a feeling in the body. You will put your attention on it for two to three seconds, feeling it as best you can, then you will mentally describe it, usually with one or two words “itchy, pressure, warm” or whatever. Gently release it, relaxing away from it or feeling compasson or love towards it (this is the most important step). Then you will go to another feeling and do the same thing. Do this for 20 minutes. Have as your intention, again, to notice when you are not doing it.

There are a great number of Vipassana techniques and alternatives and even more insight alternatives but master this first. Again, never do Vipassana or any other type of insight meditation without concentration and/or (but ideally both) loving-kindness meditation.

Dealing With Problems

If something seems to go wrong, if this is causing you much in the way of suffering, STOP. Consult a teacher, or take a couple weeks break, then start up again.

This style of meditation will make your mind much calmer and in time what happens to most people is that as the “chatter” of their minds calms, subconscious material comes up. That is often negative (though it also includes positive material) and certainly if you have trauma it will eventually come up.

When a strong negative emotion comes up, treat it with love if you can, and with basic Vipassana techniques. Observe it or feel compassion for it for about three seconds, name it, and move back to your meditation.

If it keeps coming up and is getting stronger, STOP. If you weren’t doing loving-kindess take a brief break, come back and do loving kindness meditation. If that doesn’t help, then stop meditating entirely for a time and you may wish to seek out a psychiatrist, in most cases one who specializes in trauma.

Do not force yourself to meditate in these circumstances, because you can re-traumatize yourself.

That’s the bad scenario: alternatively, with your concentration and loving-kindness you may be able to reduce the intensity over time. But don’t push thru if that isn’t happening.

Concluding Remarks

It’s possible to go very far just with this set of instructions and meditations, but if you actually get to the point where you’re doing an hour a day for a few months you’ve done very well and at that point you may wish to seek further instruction.

If there’s interest in this topic, I’ll write more.

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