This is me, meditating (not):
When one visualizes "meditation" and goes by the public imagery in wellness marketing, one will probably visualize some pretty 20-something, female or make, on a lonely mountain top, or at an empty beach, sitting in a standard meditation position.
The young, most likely female identified person above, must be having a hard time, as she is sitting nearly bare-assed on a spiky rock. Modelling is hard work, she was hopefully well paid. If - and that is very unlikely - she is seriously meditating instead of modelling, I bet that a high percentage of her attention is at the interface between skin and rock, rather than at the vast expanse of her mind.
If you meditate in the Mahamudra tradition, you know the solution to pain: simply focus on it as new object of meditation. And then the pain hopefully "self-liberates". So, if she meditates, no problem for her.
However, he type of cliché picture as above doesn´t give away much of what happens "before meditation", and what happens (or not) in the head "during meditation".
That´s because the fotos show the external optics of meditation in a specific phase when everything is already set up. But, there is more to a meditation session than just the sitting, and there is the internal world of the meditator.
The pre-pre-phase: chosing a meditation approach
When someone sais "I meditate", one has no idea what they mean. There is an endless choice of approaches, philosophies, Buddhist traditions, individual teachers´ quirks etc.
So, everyone who meditates, come with a specific set of theories, assumptions and techniques.
For example, one person may describe this as meditation: "I imagine a fantastic landscape in which I walk about, and where I meet my guiding spirit". This is a kind of guided nature meditation.
Others may say "I prefer Reggie Ray because of his sexy voice", and/or because he is somatically oriented ("Somatic Descent" is the name of one of his books).
Someone else may mean "I put my full attention (concentration) on the breath at the tip of my nose, and become aware of the most intimate details of my breath" etc. This is classical concentration meditation, following the elephant path approach. Maybe that person is a Culadasa fan, appreciating the 350 pages of instruction how to breathe with awareness as described in "The Mind Illuminated".
But others would say "that is ordinary mindfulness, because it takes things for real". They would do more complex stuff like holding simultaneous awareness of a boundaryless inner space and the mental events occurring within it. These may be Mahamudra adepts.
Others would have stopped doing any particular meditation strategy at all, since they are so advanced that their meditation is the "meditation of non-meditation. That is Dzogchen.
So, to be clear what I mean: I talk about meditation in the sense of three main teachers which influenced me deeply.
Culadasa: concentration meditation
From Culadasa ("The Mind Illuminated"), I take most of what I do when I do concentration meditation.
Daniel P Brown: insight meditation (Mahamudra)
From Daniel P Brown ("Pointing Out the Great Way: The Stages of Meditation in the Mahamudra Tradition"), I take my knowledge and approach to insight meditation in the Mahamudra/Dzogchen style.
"Mother Ayahuasca": insight through psychedelics
Yes - a psychedelic (or entheogen) was my very first teacher to introduce me into a Buddhist view - the mirror mind view.
My private phase model
So here is my private "phase model" for one of my individual meditation sessions. I have distilled it to the most simple version of what I normally do when I formally meditate. By that, I mean 10-40 minutes sitting meditation.
These are the phases:
Prepare setting: sit down in suitable location
Prepare body: take the 7-point position
Prepare set: create a positive learning atmosphere
Review session (optional)
I use the terms "set and setting" as they are used in psychedelic ceremony and therapy context:
The set: the internal mind-set.
The setting: the external environment, tools etc.
Each teacher has his/her own phase model for the session.
As a contrast, here my simple 2-step process for a meditation session while cleaning the kitchen floor, or driving a car, or standing in line.
Remember to do it.
Switch into a view (read about views here).
Preparing the setting for a formal meditation session
The setting includes place and sound.
This is about having a place to meditate. Actually it can be ANY place. Shinzen Young used to practice in front of a metal factory. I occasionally practice in the queue at the local supermarket. Or in front of a wide Atlantic beach in Portugal.
But, for my regular sessions at home, I prefer a fixed place and seat. A cushion, and some furs to put my crossed legs on. On the opposite window sill, I have a golden-colored metal object which serve me occasionally as object of visual concentration (or, as the "intended object").
There are times when I meditate with music. This has advantages and disadvantages. As in psychedelic events, where music is a core component, music can also guide the meditation. It does it for me by providing a frame of varying emotional intensities. For example, there high intensity phases and relax phases with a calmed mood. In order to keep distraction by novelty to a minimum, I usually listen to only one CD: "Music for psychedelic therapy" by Jon Hopkins which I find also very suited for meditation. Also "Day of the Beloved" or "Lanoiah" or "Monsoon Point" by Al Gromer Khan work well - they are all 60 minutes long.
Meditation with music is not uncommon. Here are some great examples.
Samaneri Jayasara on Youtube and in the Sam Harris Waking Up app
A Buddhist nun who has read, and is continuing to read, hundreds of classical mystical texts, usually (but not always) underpinned with a music selection that even I find extraordinarily useful and, by now, nearly indispensable to listen to her readings. Now, Samaneri is also a contributor the Sam Harris Waking Up app.
Sam Harris (Waking Up app)
The listener of the Sam Harris app now has the option to overlay the spoken meditations with music. The electronic music is, as to be expected, quite "neutral".
Pointing Out the Great Way Level 1 retreat
In the Level 1 retreat that I attended, the "finale" of the key meditation (One Taste, Ocean and Waves) was accompanied by Steve Roach music Structures of Silence).
And here are some psychedelic music examples of which one or the other may support meditation.
Preparing the set
Preparing the mindset has two components: (optionally) using mind expanding substances, and visualisations for success.
Using substances (optional/occasionally)
I occasionally use one or more substances to enhance meditation: coffee, Rápe, and a legally acquired (in Germany!) substance for microdosing. Sometimes I stack them.
I, like many meditators, use coffee for more alertness.
Rápe is very brain-stimulating through the nicotine. It gives depth (I find).
Microdosing: The (legal) microdosing substance enhances the ability to see into myself more deeply (at least that is my impression). The meditation / microdosing sessions also enhance the ability to deal consciously with psychedelics, as the mind learns to watch itself neutrally rather than being swept away.
Thus, in summary, it is sometimes me and my mind and body, sometimes, in varying combinations, enhanced or modified by coffee, nicotine and a microdosing substance. Never alcohol. Anyway I rarely drink alcohol, and for meditation it would be devastating as it would destroy the required clarity and precision of the mind.
I am of course aware, that this "substance abuse" does not comply with the purist branch of Buddhist meditators - but then, I am not a Buddhist, and so, Buddha´s views in this respect don´t apply to me. Apart from that, there is a large group of Buddhists who interpret Buddha such that he was against mind-numbing substances, not against psychedelics as such. This is discussed in the West since the book Zig Zag Zen appeared.
There is also insight, that altered states of mind can enhance meditation. In the text, following quote refers to the mind altering effect of devotion. But it is generally valid.
Alteration of the state of mind can make you more receptive to unfabricated experience and to recognition of the mind’s nature. (Ninth Karmaka)
And, given that Buddhism has likely originated from a psychedelic substance, I cannot find fault in my practice.
And there will be more research into microdosing and meditation (Hillier & Fielding, 2022), or (Robertson, 2021)
Preparing the mind
By now, the "prepare the mind" phase takes me roughly 2 seconds. it has become a habituated routine at high speed.
I learned this in the "Pointing Out the Great Way" 6 day retreat Level 1. They go for efficiency.
Following an old tradition, this preparation consist of mental routines that optimise learning and insight. In particular, this includes something taken from guru yoga:
I visualise in front of me teachers or persons of respect, who all wish me well. This is perhaps a bit spooky or cheesy, but I still do it. It may work via the placebo effect. And, in particular, I image letting them "implant" at rapid speed all the skills I need for a "good" meditation. In essence, this is a routine o remove doubt in an imaginative, nearly childishly playful way.
This routine is always a part of the meditation sessions of "Pointing out the Great Way".
[updated 3 months later: I don't do it anymore]
Preparing the body
This is mostly about taking up the so-called 7-point posture, a classical meditation posture.
I don´t do this for the sake of tradition, but because research has shown, that it enhances the mind´s alertness and ability to concentrate.
One can of course also "do it" while sitting on a chair, or lying on the sofa, but I regularly tend to get sleepy on the sofa. Also, it´s good to have a kind of "body-image" of meditation.
However, I find that the hand-over-hand position where the two hands are in the lap is not optimal for me. The sensory feedback of skin on skin pulls my attention downwards. I now prefer to meditate with hands on my knees, palms up, to reduce this sending of my hands. That's like the foto of the girl above.
This is if course the real thing.
What I do now? This can be different from session to session. And, it may evolve, so this is a snapshot as of 2022.
Maybe, I describe here my general "thing": I settle into a view. This is a complex theme, so you may check out the linked post.
But in general, it means that I adopt a particular perspective, a point of view, or, a "base of operation", a way of looking. These "views" are an extremely important concept, so you may really want to check out the post on views.
With open eyes, I look into the space before me. Then, I slowly "realise" (ie, I get an inner representation of) a giant unlimited changeless space in which EVERYTHING occurs (or, arises, as Buddhists would say). The "everything" are thoughts, emotions, sensations, memories etc.
I take an inner perspective, whereby I hold my focused visual attention on some outer object as a kind of "anchor" of stability. Instead of an outer object, I sometimes use my breath. And sometimes, I don´t use any particular object at all. If I am very alert, I do not need an anchor.
Then, I set the intention that my awareness (the general background awareness, not my focused attention) watches over what happens in the giant inner space. That´s while I continue seeing the external world.
Also, I extend my awareness to my whole body, without preference for some particular part. I may feel my body like a tingling mass or field (with Rape, it is easier to feel as a field).
I try (yes, it´s still a "doing" and "striving" at this point), to be aware of everything at once, in a multisensory surround sound mode. This takes some time to stabilise.
When in the following I say "my" awareness, that´s not quite correct - or at least not always quite corrects. That´s because more and more often, I am not meditating as "me" but "as" the field of awareness. There is then no center of awareness, but really only a big field of awareing.
Then for example, my awareness may notice somewhere in the infinite inner space a subtle movement of the mind which is NOT YET a word or a thought, but some kind of pre-verbal undifferentiated "movement" happening within the giant space.
The, my awaress may notice that this undifferentiated brew is forming into the beginning of a thought. When that happens, usually this beginning thought (the head of the snake) "sinks back" and does not continue to spread. The, awareness may notice some satisfaction about successfully catching the snake arising as new event, and it too subsides. Or, a thought begins to form that in Mahamudra there is no need to suppress anything. This thought too subsides under the light of awareness.
The automatic recognition of events, which deactivates their potential to "grab" the mind, is called "automatic emptiness / self-liberation".
Or it may notice that - oops - a fully fledged thought had developed.
I also notice (with what is called "meta-cognitive introspective awareness") that my awareness is noticing.
Actually, here it gets a bit difficult to say "I notice". At this point, there is often a more general "being aware" that is not so much coming from a Self. It is more like a process of awaring that does itself.
Sometimes I do a kind of "meditation gymnastics", as when I switch back and forth between different views. For example, one exercise is switching rapidly between the "mind view" and the "event view". The mind view focuses on an inner perception of the infinite boundless space in which everything occurs. The event view has more focus on the arising events. Not that holding these two views together are called "the inseparable pair", and holding them together is a sign of mastery.