A friend sent me these questions from a beginning meditator. I thought I’d post them along with my answers (opinions really, after all, who am I to say?!).
1. How do you know you have entered a meditative state or do you really know? I was startled both times when the alarm went off so I think that says something, however, I am not sure what.
While it is arguably true that “jhanna” or “absorption” IS a meditative state, I would suggest, that in general and particularly for a beginning meditator, that “meditative state” is perhaps not a helpful or meaningful term. To me, it sounds like an affectation even. Meditation is not about blissing out or numbing out or zoning out (though forms of it can be used to these ends). Rather meditation is learning to practice staying present, deepening attention, awareness, and concentration. It’s not an altered state it is a state of profound presence. To meditate is to sit without agenda or goal. Don’t judge your practice if thoughts arise of if you wander off mentally (they will and you will), simply return to the breath with as much gentleness and compassion as you can.
The practice of “labeling” can be used when you notice you’re no longer with the breath. When you notice you’re no longer with the breath simply label whatever is arising and then gently return to your object of meditation. One might say (to themselves) “thinking, thinking, thinking” and then return gently to the practice. (The operative word being “gently” – IMO – its’ far too easy to judge our meditations harshly when we have distractive thoughts, so as gently and with as much compassion as possible, label and let go of the distraction and return to the breath.)
The reason for the gentleness is because, as I see it, my consciousness is like a small rowboat or sailboat on a placid lake (sometimes the lake is assailed with storms, high winds, raining frogs, angry drivers, etc.). My job as a meditator is to stand at the stern of the boat and simply observe everything going on. If I see that I’m no longer present and am NOT gentle in returning my attention to the breath, then it’s like I’ve suddenly found myself peering over the bow, remembering I’m supposed to be at the stern and then quickly running to the back of the boat! Obviously the running is going to upset the boat even further than my unintended trip forward! I need to gently and nimbly step back to the stern being careful not to step on any of my crew!
So meditation is not a “state” so much as simple, uncluttered awareness and attention to whatever is arising. If frustration or negativity is arising, don’t try to suppress it or paint over it with “optimistic” thoughts. Simply acknowledge the feeling with a label and return to the breath.
“The moment you realize you aren’t present, you are present, because you’re present as the watcher of your mind.”
If you are startled when the timer goes off, it sounds like you are perhaps not as present as you could be (that’s not a judgment – it is a fact – it happens to ALL meditators) simply notice you were surprised as you end your practice period.
2. I noticed my breathing seemed to change over the course of the 10 minutes. At first it was fairly normal, then I would take deeper breaths and at the end it seemed to be slower and more shallow.
This doesn’t appear to be a question. It is true the breath will vary. The breath is an utterly fascinating thing to base our practice around. It is an autonomous process but one over which we can exert control. Watching it closely always seems to exert at least some influence over the character of our breathing. Some authors claim to simply notice when it’s long, when it’s smooth, when it’s shallow, etc. Others have different things to say on this. Thanissaro Bhikku recognizes that we will inevitably modify our breaths by observing it and says (in effect):
“Try to breathe in a way that is as gratifying as possible.”
This approach strikes me as a thoroughly pragmatic recognition of the phenomenon and encourages his students to use it to a positive end. (The idea being – of course – that if one is thoroughly gratified by his / her breathing, they are going to be less apt to quit meditating.)
The changing breath is nothing to be concerned with. It happens.
3. How do you know you are getting any benefit from the meditation other than study results?
Now that is a good question!
While it is not possible to practice without some goal – ultimately we (speaking as a Buddhist) seek to eliminate all craving. But the desire to end suffering is in itself a “desire.” One would not practice if one didn’t wish to suffer no more or even just suffer less.
I think a lot of the benefits we reap from meditation occur in the form of “reductions;” a reduction in my grasping, a reduction in overly-identifying with my thoughts (or somehow equating my thoughts with “reality”), a reduction in stress, etc.
In Buddhism the three poisons are generally thought to be greed, hatred, and delusion. The more I entertain thoughts that are rife with such poisons, the lower my consciousness will be and the more I will suffer. To the degree I can decrease or outright eliminate such poisonous thoughts, the less I will suffer, and the higher my consciousness will be.
If I have a jar of mud and set it in the sun, eventually all of the dirt will settle to the bottom of the jar. Our consciousness is like this jar of muddy water. If we can wait, our mud, sand, and dirt will settle to the bottom and we will be able to see clearly. Meditation is waiting for our water to clear.
Do you have the patience to wait
till your mud settles and the water is clear?
Can you remain unmoving
till the right action arises by itself?
Tao Te Ching – Chapter 15 (excerpt)
In pursuit of knowledge,
every day something is added.
In the practice of the Tao,
every day something is dropped.
Tao Te Ching – Chapter 48 (excerpt)
Of course, this is all just my opinion.