I thought up the phrase ‘the happiness on button’ months ago as I thought about writing about what meditation has done for me. However – it sounds so very glib, and who knows whether it lasts?
Still after having meditated on-and-off for over a year I thought it was time for an update on the topic. And yes, as the title suggests, I find that for me meditation does help. It really is as though I’ve found a happiness ‘on’ button. Not that I always think to press it. Not that I can always find it. Still – when I do, it works and I get happier just reminding myself to be happier. Or something.
It’s not a linear effect. I’ve cried during many meditation sessions, for instance. At others I find myself smiling even as I have tears in my eyes. I’ve experienced heart-ache and pain over the last year. Still, on the whole, I’ve never been happier.
The longer term effects seem pretty clear: I find myself using new muscles in my face to get that smile going.
Sometimes I want to kick my younger self for taking the theosophical warnings against meditation too seriously. Sure – meditation may be a risk, but so is driving a car or crossing the street. I’m pretty sure that 5 minute meditations – the kind that beginners should start with – aren’t a risk for anybody.
The clearest risks I can think of are either due to misunderstanding meditation or going in too deep, too fast. For the first a good book on the topic will help, but a real teacher is the best option. While I meditated and blogged about it almost two years ago, meditation really started doing something for me when I found a teacher (though it took me months to recognize him as my teacher).
For the second: if you’re the type that finds meditation easy, if you’re the type who gets overwhelmed (positively or negatively) with some of the things that come up in meditation, do take it slow. I’m sure my Tibetan teachers would recommend prostrations instead (from 3 to hundreds a day – again, don’t overdo it).
What should also be mentioned here is that the kind of meditation I ended up doing isn’t the most common type. No mindfulness for me. Don’t get me wrong – in a sense I’ve been doing mindfulness for decades. I’ve been watching my body, thoughts and emotions since my teen years. Learning to take a deep breath is never routine, but it’s definitely part of my toolbox. The only issue is remembering to take out the tools from that toolbox. Not unlike that ‘happiness on’ button.
In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition there are a lot of visualization and analytical meditation exercises. I’ve gone through the most basic of the latter: Lam Rim meditations. I love the book plus CD by Thubten Chodron. These include meditations on love, empathy, death, the continuity of consciousness through our past lives, attachment etc. The Lam Rim is said to contain the complete path to becoming a Buddha. As such it includes the most important Hinayana (and Theravada) analytical meditations as well as meditations on bodhicitta and interdependence of phenomena (aka emptiness).
Mindfulness of the breath is part of the meditation routines the teachers in Amsterdam teach, so I have been practicing that as well. This was a struggle, because in watching the breath I often tense up and hyperventilate (or nearly). I had bronchitis a lot as a child. Letting that go, and yet trying each time it came up, I find that I’m better at that than I was. Still, it doesn’t seem likely that watching my breath is ever going to be a relaxing exercise for me.
One of my teachers in Emst said it wasn’t about watching the breath – it’s about stilling the mind. If you can do that, watching the breath isn’t necessary. So that’s what I did for a while, but what really does work for me is analytical meditation.
Analytical meditation is close to what theosophists call ‘jnana yoga’. Jnana yoga as theosophists have explained it to me is mostly about thinking theosophical teachings through. The difference with analytical meditation as taught by my Buddhist teachers is that the main aim there is to make it personal. When contemplating death, you’re encouraged to think not only about death in general or your own death, but of the death of loved ones as well. When learning to love all sentient beings, you start by feeling equanimity for friends, people you’re annoyed at and strangers.
In other words: analytical meditation may be about ‘thinking’ but it’s a thinking that targets very personal and strong emotions. As another of my teachers has often repeated: it’s about moving from the head to the heart. This sounds like mere words – till you find your heart chakra awakening and filling with joy regularly.
Again – don’t get me wrong: you’re really supposed to still the mind and only then do analytical meditation. In my tradition you’re also supposed to do a lot of prayers. However – in practice I think everybody finds their own path. Some people love the prayers, some the visualisations, some get serious about analytical meditation (which doesn’t even require a cushion). For me it’s the latter two. Which isn’t to say that stillness doesn’t come along sometimes as well.
My main practice is a combination of the basic prayers (of which I do a varying amount each morning) combined with a complex visualisation involving the Dalai Lama. The practice is really not recommended for most beginners, but you can look it up in Lama yeshe’s Becoming the Compassion Buddha: Tantric Mahamudra for Everyday Life. In fact, I would not even recommend that book till after you’ve read: Introduction to Tantra : The Transformation of Desire.
What I would definitely recommend if this visualisation thing sounds like it might work for you is, aside from finding a local FPMT centre, is How to Meditate by Kathleen McDonald. Many of you will find this type of book a bit overwhelming. Read it like you would a cookbook: you can ignore all the recipes (aka meditation exercises) you’re not doing that day. You do them one at a time and it’s definitely recommended sticking with one for at least a week. I admit: I never had the patience for that. The most I’ve done is the same meditation three days in a row and that rarely.
Why would I recommend the visualisation meditation in that book? It’s where I started – it’s a basic visualisation of the Buddha (quite complex in fact, even if the one I now do most days is even more involved) and it has made me happy ever since I first did it. Which is quite something, I think.
The book Guided Meditations on the Stages of the Path (with 15 hour mp3 meditation CD), by Thubten Chodron also has that basic visualisation in there, using less words. That works for me, but by the time I read that book I’d already had the instructions for the meditation to start with, so that wasn’t what I wanted the book for. Personally I like Thubten Chodron’s writing style: less words. I only need pointers when meditation. Kathleen McDonald fills whole pages full of visualisation instruction, which are only a distraction for me. However her book is very popular as well.
In conclusion: meditation definitely works for me. It helps me get in touch with my emotions, makes me happier and calmer in the face of trouble. There are a lot of different types of meditation, so try them out and find out what works for you. Remember that it’s training of the mind. Whichever meditation practice you end up with, it’s always going to be tough, because learning is tough.