Here in Thailand, some temples offer meditation retreats. People who attend them sometimes fail to get anything out of them. They complain that they have to get up at 4am, have to endure tasteless vegetarian food, can’t eat after noon, aren’t allowed to talk, have to be in bed by 8pm, and – the ultimate horror for plugged-in netizens of the 21st century – they have no Internet access and have to leave their iPads, iPods, smartphones, Blackberries and mobile phones at home.
Meditation retreats in Thailand make the mistake of trying to impose the lifestyle of arahats (saints) on people who are only arahat wannabes. Many lay people do not adapt readily to a regimen designed for monks. This is like trying to force every foot into the same shoe, or teaching calculus to people who haven’t yet learned basic arithmetic. It expects too much of them, is counterproductive, and will drive them away. A meditation retreat should not be a boot camp.
The good news is that you don’t have to attend a meditation retreat to meditate. Once you know the method, you can do it on your own, although it’s always helpful to have a qualified teacher to steer you right in case you start to go off the rails.
Meditation can be practiced by anyone, any place, any time. But it works best if you’re open to new ideas and curious about the ultimate metaphysical underpinnings of the universe. It’s not a social activity, and is best practiced alone. A quiet, secluded place is desirable. Only an advanced meditator trying to test his skills – or a masochist – would try to meditate in a discotheque with flashing strobe lights, a yelling, dancing mob, and a sound system blasting at top volume.
You have to be awake and reasonably conscious, so early-morning meditation isn’t right for everybody. A full meal makes you sleepy, so after-dinner meditating is a bad idea. Sleep as long as you like, then wake up, wash up, and meditate alone in a quiet place.
Both intensity and duration are important. You’re not going to get much benefit if you’re always daydreaming, or drifting off into memories and fantasies. That also applies to five quick minutes of meditation before rushing off to work in the morning. If you lead an active life or think a lot, it may take a full hour of meditation just to get your mind calmed down. After two hours, you should start to feel something, and certainly after three. Anybody who dismisses meditation as baloney without sticking with it for at least three hours isn’t giving it a chance.
There are many methods of meditation, usually advocated by specific schools or religions. You can get the details from books. Basically it involves turning your thoughts inward and paying attention to whatever you may regard as ultimate. The goal is to evoke that “ultimate” and experience it in whatever way it may manifest itself. Often visualisation, mental chanting and prayer are involved. That covers a lot of territory, so an example may help.
Here’s a method that may work for Buddhists. You turn your attention inward and visualise your heart as a lotus. Then you mentally project an image of the Buddha seated on the lotus, radiating light and compassion. Keep your attention fixed on the image. It may change shape or assume different forms. Never mind. Keep bringing your attention back to the image and continue to visualise it. A different image may arise that still represents the Buddha, but it may be clearer or more pleasing. If that happens, and especially if the new image persists, let go of the old one and pay attention to the new one. The idea is to be continually conscious of the presence of the Buddha within you.
To strengthen this consciousness, mentally chant a mantra. Many people like the standard Theravada invocation, “Namo tassa Bhagavato Arahato Samma Sambuddhassa.” (“Homage to Him, the Exalted, the Worthy, the Fully Enlightened One.”) If that seems a little long. you might prefer a shorter one: “Namo Buddhaya.” (“Homage to the Buddha.”) Ajahn Chah used to teach his disciples to chant simply “Buddho, Buddho” with every inbreath and outbreath.
Some people like to use a rosary to keep track of the number of repetitions. That can become a distraction. The emphasis should be on the chanting. Don’t worry about the number of repetitions. Buddhadasa Bhikkhu once tried using a rosary, but he gave up because it reminded him of a Chinese shopkeeper totting up sales on his abacus. If a rosary works for you, use it. If it doesn’t, don’t. Meditation is not a marathon; nobody is going to give you a gold medal for the number of times you chant. Even so, duration does tell, so the longer you can meditate and the more repetitions you can chant, the better.
Practitioners of other religions can follow the same method – visualisation of an ideal combined with mental chanting of a mantra. But obviously they would focus on their own ideal of what is ultimate and chant a mantra drawn from their own tradition. Hindus can meditate on Rama, Krishna, Shiva or any of the Hindu deities. Christians can meditate on Jesus. Taoists can meditate on the yin-yang symbol. Jews might meditate on the Tetragrammaton, the four-letter Name of God in the Hebrew alphabet. Muslims might meditate on the Arabic phrase, “There is no God but Allah.”
People may wonder what the benefits of meditation are. To some, it may sound like self-hypnotism. A cynic might define it as reinforcement of deeply held delusions. It can be considered a system of self-conditioning, and it does look like self-hypnotism in the beginning. But eventually it takes on a life of its own, continues effortlessly, and seems to draw on hidden wellsprings in the mind to generate new ideas and insights. Above all, it generates a sense of the presence of something pervasive and indefinable that gives great comfort. This has to be experienced to be understood, and even those who experience it rarely understand it fully. Everybody interprets it in terms of his own tradition. Apart from that, meditation relaxes the mind and conveys a feeling of wellbeing.
So you don’t have to get up at 4am, eat tasteless vegetarian food, starve after noon, or go to bed at 8pm. But you do have to put away your techno-toys and do it alone in a quiet place. You also have to give it at least three hours to produce some effect before dismissing it as baloney.
If you ever have three hours to spare, give it a shot.
Paramananda Pahari is a writer and student of religions.