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.
10 thoughts on “Meditation works – the happiness on button”
Meditation practice in the Thai Forest Tradition within Theravadin Buddhism is a function of ardency, alertness, and mindfulness, the latter being a remembering of why you’re practising. This is quite a different take than prevalent notions, secular and otherwise, about mindfulness. For more on this approach, please see http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/thanissaro/mindfulnessdefined.html
Thanks for the addition. Those who want to know more about Buddhist Mindfulness should look into ‘sati’, which has four levels. The higher levels are very close to what is called ‘analytical meditation’, ‘jnana yoga’ and sometimes ‘vippassana’ (or vipasyana).
Interesting thoughts…thank you for them.
I was told many years ago that the best way to meditate was to do it *THOROUGHLY* and I must say that does help!
It is so easy either to meditate in what I would call a ‘slipshod’ way or to go really overboard and sit there gritting one’s teeth, clenching all one’s muscles and muttering sotte voce ‘I WILL meditate if it kills me!’ Well it won’t, but these approaches won’t bring any benefits either.
One of the most beautiful aphorisms on the true ‘art’ of meditation (and I think it is an art as much as a science) is the following from the ‘Book of Fo’:
“Verily thy five windows are the five senses of thy Soul. He who closes them and admits not the light of this world shall see the Light of his Spirit. But he who opens them to all the world, shall sit in darkness, not letting his Spirit put forth any of her own glorious internal Light.”
If we DO close our outer senses and CAN enter into a condition of complete inner silence, then…well…things happen! Just what may happen will be different for each person, but practise makes perfect and a even a dozen meditation sessions, of say ten minutes duration, can open the door to a new inner world of undreamed-of marvels in which we see and hear that which our physical senses can never see or hear.
As for ‘danger’, I guess meditation CAN be dangerous if one approaches it in the wrong way or combines it with all sorts of weird breathing techniques, mantras, candles, incense, and all the rest of such adjuncts.
But I think that if one approaches meditation in a devout and reverent way, and predede and close the session with a silent prayer to God, than all will be well, and we will receive the benefits our sincerity and devotion deserve.
It is the attitude of Mind and the Spirit of devotion that one adopts which I think matters most. If we can and do achieve that in our meditations, then we will attune with the minds of the great hierarchy of the positive powers of the Universe under God and with our own Higher Self, or real ‘Ego’ as Blavatsky sometimes called it.
Tibetan Buddhism is a tradition rich in spiritual practices, including what you call weird breathing techniques, mantra’s, light offerings (aka burning a candle), burning incense and more.
I do agree with you that for most people it’s best to start small. However, for many people lighting a candle in front of a sacred image (whether it’s Jesus, Krishna or Buddha) can be a meditative and devotional moment. I know people who love to do water bowl offerings, for instance. Reciting mantras, when done properly, is not much different from some Catholic prayer practices.
Watching the breath is, for most people, a very effective and simple meditation exercise. It’s hardly a ‘weird’ meditation technique. My personal hangups with it are not unique, but they are the exception, not the rule. As a result, for me, more complicated breathing exercises are definitely not a good idea. But for people practiced in any kind of breathing exercises, whether they be yoga, Chi Gung or Buddhist – the more complicated exercises may be very beneficial.
The main thing, I think, is to find out what suits you and go step by step.
I do agree attitude matters most – and though devotion will always help, loving kindness or simply the felt need to change your life will also do.
What Blavatsky warned against was becoming a medium because of unguided meditation.
Also, in a book on spirituality and madness I read a story of someone who went over the edge over excessive meditation. We’ll never know what would have happened if the monks who were uneasy about her attending a week-long meditation retreat had put their foot down. Maybe instead of floating off into madness, she would have come down on earth.
The point: there are definitely risks.
Underlying your response is a piece of advice that the Dalai Lama has often stressed: it’s safer to stick to practices that make sense to you, that fit into your cultural setting. So yes, if prayer to a God and a set of higher powers makes sense to you – that’s definitely what you should do.
For many of us who have become Buddhists, one of the reasons for doing so is precisely that this does NOT make sense to us. I find I can be devoted to Buddha, to my Higher Self (aka my Buddha Potential), to my teachers, to the dharma, to the spiritual community and to my path. God or gods don’t come into it for me.
I do not disagree with anything you have added, Katinka. Perhaps I should have been more specific in my reference to ‘weird’ breathing techniques and ‘mantras.’
I know of at least two promising occultists whose health (and lives) were ruined by practising so-called ‘Yogic’ breathing exercises taught to them by a Reiki ‘master’ who shall be nameless. In one case the gentleman in question became a chronic asthmatic, and in the other a young woman became mentally ill and depressed, ultimately resulting in her suicide at the age of just 27.
In the case of ‘mantras’, there is a well-known occult vade maecum which I will also not name as it contains some extremely dangerous teachings in regard to ‘words of power’ – vowel sounds in this case. A close friend practised these sounds (against my advice) and ended up in a dreadful state, both mentally and physically. So dreadful in fact that I don’t wish to go into details here…
This is not meant to frighten anyone, but seekers should be aware that there ARE real dangers in both breathing techniques and mantras, especially if one is not under the direct guidance of a genuine Teacher.
Blavatsky says all this so much better than I in her various writings on spiritualism and the occult arts, and nothing has changed since she wrote those words. If anything, things have gottem much worse.
Meditation if done in a right way can heal all your pain and stress. You must be careful while doing it and should be done in a right way.
There is also centering/contemplative prayer in the Christian tradition. I find it helpful to get instruction through Father Thomas Keating’s book, “Open Mind, Open Heart.” Where I live, groups of people gather to do centering prayer together. I have found it is a very powerful experience to do group meditation or silent prayer.
meditation does helps.empirical evidences are available.watching breathing in other time also helps in coming closer to being .as personal experience of meditating in last 06 yrs ,it takes 05 to 10 minute with approx 80% time to reach that state from where some other centre starts working where thoughts and breathing become weak or negligible . a kind of clear flow of joy and peace. 20% i fail to reach that state .i have a feeling that my personal karma will decide the amount of grace in meditation and in getting a clear consciousness.
It may sound strange, but when I tried meditation it got me really on the edge. What did the trick for me was “progressive muscle relaxation”, where you lie down and in turn tense all the muscles in the body.
I do think everybody needs to try out what works for them. On the other hand, perhaps if you had stuck with it, facing up to that feeling of being ‘on edge’ might have worked too.
Then again: progressive muscle relaxation sounds like a form of mindfulness of the body to me.
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