Logical and Spiritual REFLECTIONS

Book 4.More Meditations

Chapter 8.The four foundations and the core practice

In practice, meditation on awareness has to be combined with four lesser meditations, which serve as takeoff platform and supporting pillars for the main intent. These four foundations (as I shall call them) arebody awareness, breath awareness, thought awareness and awareness of surroundings.

At first, concentrate on your body:

  • Posture: stable seat, straight back, stretched spine, chin down, shoulders back and down, open chest, stomach relaxed out, hands in the “universal mudra”.
  • Tonus: relaxed yet alert body, immobile without stiffness, no tension around lips and eyebrows, or in neck.
  • Sensations: touch sensations on skin and inside the body, physical feelings and psychosomatic emotions, tastes in mouth, smells in nose, bodily sounds.

Next, become aware of your breathing:

  • Let it go at its own pace; don’t interfere with its speed or trajectory. If you find yourself breathing mostly through only one nostril, let it be, that’s natural.
  • Feel the air go in, follow it as far up your nostrils as it goes, then follow it down through your nose and out of it all the way. Again, the next cycle, patiently on and on.

After a while, notice your thoughts:

  • Are you thinking in any way, whether through memories or imaginations of sights and sounds, through emotions, through verbal discourse, or through wordless intentions, decisions, plans, hopes, fears, and such? Just notice the fact, without classification or other comment.
  • Thoughts may be voluntary, or impersonally produced by your brain (cerebral). The former require an effort, while the latter occur spontaneously. You may legitimately actively think for a while, to give yourself meditation instructions or learn lessons from current experience; but know when to stop that, i.e. stop it as soon as possible. As for involuntary thoughts (cerebrations), they may carry on as background noise throughout a meditation session, or they may calm down eventually; just watch them without encouraging them or getting upset by them.[1]
  • Allow thoughts to run a bit, but keep them on a short leash. You don’t want them to take control of you, but you cannot take control of them in a violent manner. Rather, let them pop up for a moment, but do not let them run wild: bring them to heel at the first opportunity and maintain mastery.

Now, pay attention to external stimuli, the context you are in:

  • The sights before you. Ideally, you are facing a wall or some natural scenery, so that what you see does not stimulate thoughts, but rather can be used to divert your attention away from your thoughts. To look out has a steadying effect. If your eyes get tired (they feel hot, red), just shut them for a while, and instead look inwards.
  • The sounds around you. Sounds made by your family or neighbors, mechanical sounds in your home, sounds of traffic in the city, sounds of water, birds and insects in the country. Hear them all with equal attentiveness; they usually disappear eventually. They too can be used to counterbalance thoughts.
  • Other sensations. The breeze or sunshine on your face, the air temperature, the smells around you, and so on.

These four meditations are merely foundations for the fifth, main meditation, which is meditation on awareness, remember. The four foundations are material or mental[2](perceptual and/or conceptual) meditations, whereas the main meditation is a purely spiritual (intuitive) one. However, awareness of awareness is not possible without some prior awareness of something other than awareness; hence, those prior meditations. But don’t get stuck in the preparation: do go on and make the extra effort of meditation on awareness!

Thus, we here propose a meditation program or package. One begins with the four lower meditations, giving one’s full attention to each one in turn, and then learning to do them all in rapid sequence or at once (more or less). Every so often one returns to each of them in turn: checking one’s posture is in order, assuring contact with the breath, verifying one is not involved in runaway thinking, and anchoring oneself in one’s surrounds.

When one feels ready, one changes gear and begins the meditation on awareness. This becomes one’s main focus; but even so, one remains peripherally conscious of the four foundations at all times. On average, let us say (without intending statistical precision) that the main meditation will take up 60% of one’s attention, while the four lesser exercises will take up 10% each. Thus, although the meditation on awareness is the core practice, the four other meditations ensure one gets to it and stays on course[3].

Meditation on awareness is a sophisticated form of meditation on the here and now. The four foundations center us in the here and now of body-mind and surroundings, while the core practice takes us deeper, into the here and now at the spiritual level. It is introspection par excellence. It is what Lao-tzu has described as[4]: “There is no need to run outside for better seeing… rather abide at the center of your being.”

Note that to be here and now, one should always peripherally be alert to moments when one isnothere and now. Ideally, one should focus wholly on the here and now. But in practice, one often swerves away from it, carried off by passing sensations, emotions and thoughts. Successful meditation depends on one being quickly aware of such moments of distraction, when one is no longer focused on the present tense. As soon as one notices such change in direction of consciousness, one should gently pull back one’s attention where it belongs. Thus, awareness of the here and now has two components: a positive one and an equally important negative one; both are needed to stay the course.

Consciousness of consciousness is experienced as consciousness within consciousness. That is, one is adding awareness to awareness, intensifying one’s attention as much as one can. This practice of mindfulness should be carried over from sitting meditation to everyday life. Every sensation, every motion, every intention should be lived with erect attention, as if one is about to perceive in it the secret of all existence. This is, I think, what Bodhidharma prescribes in order that we “behold the mind”.

[1]Of course, it helps considerably to have a coherent lifestyle. In general, one should try tolimit one’s sensory inputsto a minimum. If one lives in very exciting circumstances, one will naturally be assailed by numerous flashy and noisy thoughts, and one’s mind will require a lot of work to calm down. For this reason, many seekers become hermits; it just makes meditation so much easier! In any case, a serene lifestyle is essential.

[2]I use ‘mental’ here again in the narrower sense of the term.

[3]When thoughts run wild, as often happens, make every effort to focus on the other three foundations, with the emphasis on breath awareness. The latter is crucial to steadyzazen.

[4]According to Bynner’s translation of theTao Te Ching(v. 47).

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