Article subtitle: The two fundamental types of meditation found within eastern teachings, and a practical method for exploring both.
To a person new to meditation, the potential choice of different meditation types and traditions, together with all the different terminology that is used can make for quite a bewildering experience. The fact that the world is rich in spiritual traditions is a cause for rejoicing, but when it comes to the question “which meditation form should I choose” the diversity can be a challenge!
What I propose to do in this article is to point out a basic two fold division within which can be placed almost all of the meditation practices that one may find in the eastern traditions of meditation. Many of the western traditions of meditation also fall into these two categories, but I specifically want to focus on eastern traditions here, as they fit into the two categories much more obviously and systematically. By Eastern Tradition, I mean principally Buddhist and Hindu as these are the two eastern traditions from which spring most of the applied meditation systems that you can find and practice today.
The two fold division I am going to call one pointedness meditation and insight meditation respectively. Here is a brief summary of the meanings of both terms:
One Pointedness Meditation – Focusing the mind on a single object without distraction:
So, one pointedness meditation is essentially a training in concentration. Using one object, such as the breathing, a mantra, a feeling (love, compassion, joy etc…) or a visualized object, the meditator trains him/herself and her mind to focus attention on the object without distraction. The training progresses in stages; First the meditator is only able to focus for a few seconds before getting distracted, but gradually she builds focus until she is able to hold it for a few minutes, then ten, half an hour, one hour and so on, until eventually she can enter into meditation and hold the object in his or her mind without distraction for as long as desired.
For someone engaging in one pointedness practice, meditation is an act of will, one exerts effort to keep one’s attention where it is supposed to be, and not get distracted by extraneous mental activity. It is through this concentration that the meditator makes progress in his path of inner growth and development.
In Tibetan Buddhism this form of meditation is called tranquil abiding meditation, in Theravada Buddhism it is called the jhana or samatha meditation, and in Hindu and yoga meditation practice it is called dharana.
Insight Meditation – Going with the flow:
In the second form of meditation, insight meditation, rather than try and control the mind, the essential point is to witness the mind as an observer. No attempt is made to stop the mind working, the meditator simply sits and takes in all the information that is available to him. He notes the experiences coming from his senses, notes his breathing, the thoughts and feelings flowing through his mind. He also notes the spaces in between the thoughts and feelings in his mind. The only thing that the meditator must NOT do in insight meditation is to get caught up and identified with what is arising in his mind, if he does this then he has lost the thread of his mediation. As soon as he becomes aware that this has happened, he should immediately return to his position as an observer and witness.
As his practice progresses, gradually the flow of thoughts and feelings within his mind recedes, and the true nature of his mind is revealed to him, which is why it is called insight meditation.
In Tibetan Buddhism this is called mahamudra meditation, and/or dzogchen. In Theravada Buddhism is called vipassana meditation, although some vipassana traditions seem to emphasize meditation on the breathing in a way that is more like one pointedness meditation.
For us today in contemporary society, I think both meditations have their merits as both of them teach us useful skills that we can apply practically to our daily lives. One pointedness teaches us focus, strength and stamina whilst insight meditation shows us how to let go, how to allow, go with the flow and to develop our reflective wisdom.
With this in mind I am going to outline below a simple practice that you can do where there is alternation between one pointedness and insight techniques. Practiced together in this way they form a complementary whole where we can develop both skill sets.
Combined one pointedness and insight meditation form:
Setting up the meditation:
Find a comfortable meditation posture on a chair or cross legged on a cushion, the main feature of the posture should be a naturally straight back, with the muscles relaxed, doing only enough work to hold your posture upright and no more.
Once comfortable, make a decision to relax and take your mind away from the business of your life for the period that you have allotted for meditation.
Use the natural process of your breathing to start to bring your mind into the present moment, and onto your body. Once your mind has settled somewhat, become aware of the expression on your face. Raise the corners of your mouth just a few millimeters, so that you are now wearing the expression of a gentle half-smile **(see note below), note that the physical expression of a half smile if held consciously gradually gives rise quite naturally to a naturally positive inner smiling energy.
The main meditation form
Now, for five breaths, try and focus on the inhalation and out exhalation without distraction. As you breathe in focus your attention on your inner smile, and as you breathe out, feel the energy of the inner smile gently expanding through your body and mind. This is the one-pointedness aspect of the form.
Once you have completed five breaths without distraction, relax your exclusive attention on the breathing, and just take it easy for a few breaths. Be aware of the whole of your moment to moment experience, the breathing, your senses, your body, the flow of thoughts and feelings though your mind. The only thing you CANNOT do in this phase of the meditation is allow yourself to get lost in thoughts and distractions. You are a witness and observer as you relax and let go! This is the insight meditation aspect of the form.
For the next part of the meditation, just alternate between stages 1 and 2, focusing on the breathing and smiling for five breaths, then relaxing and observing for a few breaths. Do this for as long as feels appropriate.
Optional stage 3:
This is a slightly more advanced stage, but you should find that it comes quite naturally once you have been practicing stages 1 and 2 regularly in your daily meditation. You should find that as you do stages 1 and 2 above, a sense of space and clarity starts to appear quite naturally within your mind, like a clear sky emerging from behind clouds. So, with stage 3, As you do the five breath single pointedness section, rather than focusing on your inner smile as you breathe, focus single pointedly on the sense of inner space as you breathe in and out. Then, as you relax for a few breaths as in stage 2, rather than focusing on the stream of thoughts and feelings flowing through your mind, instead focus on the spaces between the thoughts and feelings.
In this way you can use the one pointedness part of the meditation and the insight part in a complementary way to gradually journey deeper into the experience of inner space and clarity within your mind.