Beginning Meditation Class
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Beginning Meditation Class
Beginning Meditation Class

The practice of meditation that we are going to learn is called vipassana or Insight Meditation. This practice comes from the traditions of the Buddha. It is not Zen Buddhism, nor is it Tibetan Buddhism. These traditions arose later in history as Buddhism spread over Asia. Vipassana is the original form of meditation practice developed by the Buddha himself in India 2,500 years ago. Vipassana means "insight." Over time, as you continue to meditate, you will experience insights--flashes of understanding that can be life changing. That is why it is called Insight or vipassana meditation.

Historians agree that the Buddha was an actual historical figure, and that it is likely that his teachings were passed down by his followers faithfully. Buddhists emphasize that the Buddha was not a god; he was just a person like you and me. The freedom that he gained was through his own efforts and is available to any person.

Pali is a language that existed in India at the time of the Buddha, similar to Sanskrit. The Buddha spoke a language similar to Pali. During his lifetime, a strong oral tradition existed, and some of his disciples prided themselves on being able to recite all of the Budddha's talks word for word. Eventually, his teachings were written down in Pali in what is referred to as the Pali Canon. There are many Pali words used in the teaching this practice, some without perfect English equivalents. For example, vipassana is a Pali word. I will make every effort to stay in English, but a few Pali words may creep in. I will define them whenever I use them.

The Insight practice offers many different specific forms of meditation that can be useful at different times, and at different points along the way. Usually we begin with the practice of mindfulness of breathing. In this practice, we learn to watch the breath. This is the primary practice, the one we start with and the one that continues to serve as our "home base" and anchoring practice. The breath will be our object of meditation, our focus. The breath is a great object to use for various reasons. You can never forget to bring it with you, for one thing. The breath begins at our birth, continues through our entire life, and ends at our death. So it is a metaphor for our life, and is something we take seriously.

Generally we don't notice our breath at all, unless there is some problem. So pause for a moment now, and bring your attention to your breath. Notice what it is like. Close your eyes for just a moment to try this out. In fact, there is a lot going on with our breath that we normally take completely for granted. Meditation brings our attention to things we don't usually notice. As we explore these things, we gain a new facility for appreciation, for noticing the small things that make up our world. Noticing small things makes time pass more slowly. Like children who have wonder about everything, we awaken to the details of the realities around us.

Insight meditation is really all about being present to what is going on at this very moment. In western culture we spend a lot of time being busy, rushing to the next task or meeting, focusing on the next thing that is going to happen--the future. Or we may find ourselves reviewing, rehashing or regretting things that happened in the past. But if you really stop to think about it, neither the past nor the future are actually available to us at this moment. By spending time in the past or future, we ignore what is actually going on in our lives right now. So insight meditation teaches us to be present for our lives.

The practice of concentrating on the breath brings us right into the present. The breath is only happening now. To be with it, we need to be right here, right now.

Insight meditation is about being with things as they are without judgment: just being open to whatever is happening with curiosity, with interest, and with a sense of exploration. We begin by bringing this curiosity and interest to the simple reality of the breath. Gradually we expand our interest out to include whatever arises during meditation. Suppose we are in a meditation room, and a group of people outside in the hall are making a lot of noise. We may find this annoying, and then we notice that we are experiencing a sense of annoyance. We work with our state of annoyance just like we work with the breath. We notice it. We own our annoyance. We notice how it makes us feel. Rather than blame the "annoying" people in the hall, we take responsibility for our own emotions. Annoyance and other difficult emotions are valid parts of our experience that we don't want to reject. So are the voices in the hall. Everything that is happening is part of the present moment, part of our lives, part of what we are exploring and experiencing fully without rejecting any part of it.

With the breath, we focus very carefully. We notice the quality of the breath. Is it deep or is it shallow? Is it long or is it short? Is it smooth or is it irregular? Just experiencing the quality of the breath without trying to put it into words is a valuable thing to do. That's my breath. This is what it is doing right now. We don't need to improve it or change it; we just notice it and experience it. We can trust that the breath knows what it is doing, and we don't need to interfere and control things. There is no right way to breathe.

Practicing concentration by keeping our attention on the breath has benefits. You may notice an increase in your level of awareness over the next 24 hours. Watching the breath increases our capacity for concentration in daily life. Staying in the present with concentration does not leave room for many stressful mind activities like worry about the future or regrets over the past. Our stress level decreases.

In fact, a program called Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) has been adopted in many hospitals. Jon Kabat Zinn, a Harvard medical professor, developed this program. MBSR is now commonly taught at most major hospitals in the United States and worldwide. MBSR is actually Insight Meditation, but under a different name and without references to Buddhism that might put off many in contemporary culture. It is an excellent practice for reducing stress of all types. It is especially useful as a treatment for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. It is currently being used to treat many United States veterans returning from combat. You can learn more at the University of Massachusetts Center for Mindfulness website at http://www.umassmed.edu/cfm.

To intensify our experience of the breath, we can notice the in-breath and then notice the out-breath. We can even notice the in-breath, notice the space between the in-breath and the out-breath, notice the out-breath, and then notice the space before the next out-breath. Once we are really focused, we can try noticing the beginning of the in-breath, the middle of the in-breath, the end of the end-breath, the space in between the in-breath and the out-breath, the beginning of the out-breath, the middle of the out-breath, the end of the out-breath, and then finally the space between this breath that has ended and the next breath that is coming. Eight things to notice for every breath. Keeping up with each of these small parts of every single breath can help us to stay intensely focused in the present moment.

A very important part of meditation is to maintain an internal state of kindness and acceptance towards ourselves. Just like there is no wrong way to breathe, there is no wrong way to meditate. All we have to do is close our eyes and meditate. Whatever happens is ok. There is no such thing as a "bad" meditation.

Of course you will get distracted. Our minds, untrained, jump from one topic to another. Beginning meditators are usually astounded at how unmanageable their thought processes are. The mind leaps from one subject to another, like a monkey swinging from branch to branch in the trees. We call it the "monkey mind." We may wander down a long train of thought or along a fascinating story we are telling ourselves for quite some time. At some point we realize we are no longer watching the breath. This is an important moment. It is a moment of awakening. It is a moment to just be with the reality that we have wandered, without judgment. At this moment we can be grateful for waking up, and for the opportunity to return the practice of watching the breath. We can notice the impulse to censure and judge ourselves for wandering off and not doing what we were "supposed to be doing." If we can catch that impulse before making ourselves miserable with it, that is a great step. Once we notice that we have wandered, we gently bring our attention back to the breath.

The meditations in this course are all guided, to help you keep your attention focused. As the weeks go by, there will be more and more unguided, silent time during the meditation. This will help you work towards your own silent meditation without any guiding. Turn now to the audio file and try the 20 minute first guided meditation.

Proceed to Lesson One Guided Meditation (21 minutes)

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