Do you sometimes feel lost in meditation? Overwhelmed by the vast amount of different offerings, methods, and promises? Unclear about the bigger meaning beyond stress reduction? (yes, there is much more!) Or are you curious to find out what awakening actually means and how to do so ? ( heads up: no promises it will be in this life;))
In the westernised versions, the foundations of meditation sometimes get lost in translation. This blog brings you back to the roots, based on one of the most widespread and original sources: Tibetan Buddhism. Understanding the foundations of meditation will help you deepen your ‘time on the cushion’ whilst at the same time further integrating meditation into your daily life.
As a leadership & team facilitator this practice is one of our strongest fundaments underlying the joy and impact we create with clients. This is why we integrate meditation in the core of our facilitator development program.
This high-level explanation is based on Tibetan Buddhism, the work of Rasmus Hougaard of Potential Project, Gita Bellin and the many other teachers, friends and sources of Wisdom I have encountered. And my own experience. As a Buddhist teacher said: "You can only hold something as a Truth when realized as a felt experience in the realm of your own body”.
The ultimate purpose of meditation (…and why we need it.)
The purpose of meditation is the release of suffering. This suffering springs from deeply ingrained, archetypal’ beliefs we hold about Life, which causes a reactive pattern that in turn perpetuates this suffering. Let me explain...
There are two default ways we react to reality:
1. we crave what we want
2. we push away what we don’t want
And on top of that: we are unaware of these reactions, ignorant! In Buddhist philosophy, these 3 are called the triad of clinging, aversion, and ignorance.
We are attached to things becoming, being or staying a certain way. Even when we seem to be in a neutral stance towards reality, the moment we start focusing, our mind will react. We either like or dislike this. Take a look at something neutral for a while, a wall for example. Follow your free-flowing mind and observe what arises. At some point your mind will start forming a judgement: ‘mmm, this wall needs paint, ‘I like that colour’, ‘boring looking at a wall’, ‘stupid exercise’, etc etc. At the subtlest level, these judgements fall either into the like or dislike, + or - category.
We are triggered all the time in an automated reaction. This might seem an innocent reaction and up to a certain point, it is so. Yet on a subtle and unconscious level, this reactive pattern of clinging and aversion, deeply influences our happiness. Especially when we are unaware. That is quite a big statement, right? And how come?
We are living in illusions instead of reality
Underlying this reactive pattern and driving our behavior, are archetypal beliefs. Or you could call them illusions, which go against the true nature of reality. Buddhism describes these illusions as follows:
1. Suffering (or stress, dissatisfaction, irritation, frustration etc.), Dukkha in Sanskrit. This stems from the observation that we are never satisfied with reality just as it is. There seems to be a perpetual void in us making our needs forever unmet. Or when the need is met, there is a fear about the need being unmet again in the future. We hold the belief that if we get more of this and less of that, then we will be happy. And we know how it goes: the next (fear of) deficit will arise, no matter how much we grab or push.
2. Impermanence, Anitya in Sanskrit. Nothing ever lasts. What we have we will lose, including our loved ones, our health, life etc. And although easy to see, we rather ignore and resist and are shocked when we cannot further deny. We rather hold the belief we can make things last and cling onto it, as if decay and death is not innate from the moment we are born.
3. Non-self, Anatman in Sanskrit. This means things do not have an inherent meaning or identity of itself. Phenomena do not have an independent essence of their own. Including the phenomenon we call ‘Self’. You can investigate this by asking where your ‘self’ is. The longer you will try to pinpoint, the more you realize it is an infinite interplay of endless and evermoving conditions and aspects, which cannot be attributed to a single object of ‘self’. Yet we hold the belief that things ‘own’ characteristics, such as ‘the flower is beautiful’ or ‘the spider is scary’. Not realizing it is just us attributing meaning which we mistake for reality.
Lifting the veil
Sounds a bit heavy? Well, the good news is we can wake up: once we become aware of the illusions we unconsciously live in, we no longer have to grasp for or resist to what shows up in reality. Or what has shown up, might show up, should (not) show up, …..etc. We will start living and acting in accordance with reality as it is. This eradicates a lot of fuss and frees up an enormous amount of energy, space and freedom as opposed to being busy, contracted and limited by our automated reactions. It opens the door to a more harmonious, loving relationship with Reality/Life itself. It is as if a veil is lifted, which makes us look with new clarity at reality. You might be surprised about the beauty and love you might discover behind the veil.
One of my first glimpses behind the veil, after a week of daily meditation, was seeing colors with a whole new intensity: as if the sky was a deeper blue, the grass a richer green. On that same road I had been traveling each day for years.
The process of meditation
The Sanskrit word for ‘to meditate’ = ‘to become familiar with’. What meditation helps us to do, is to become familiar with our own mind so we can understand how it relates to reality. The practice ultimately leads to the extraction of the root causes described above. This allows us to let go of illusions, allowing a non-conceptual awareness of the true nature of reality. This experience or state is difficult to describe but is often referred to as Unity Consciousness, Source, Bliss, Oneness, sparks of enlightenment. This is where we can have experiences and realizations such as ‘Life is its own reward’ as Gita Bellin said. When this state becomes spontaneous and continuous as a new way of being, one is said to be awakened or enlightened.
A. Focus meditation
The first, most well-known step in meditation is Shamatha, or focus meditation. We stabilize our attention using concentration on a single object, such as breath, body, candles, sounds etcetera. This way we become aware of our distractions and train our ability to regain focus. Plus we become aware that our distractions are just what they are: thoughts, feelings, sensations etc. We become the observer of our own mind and learn to make a conscious choice where we focus on rather than getting lost in our own projections and stories. This form of meditation existed well before the Buddha and is the basis for the next step which Buddha developed.
B. Insight meditation
The second step is Vipassana or insight meditation. When we are able to stabilize our minds, we let go of the focus on a single object. Instead, we expand our awareness to anything arising in our minds (ideally practiced with eyes open). This is a state called ‘calm abiding’ and is the bridge between Shamatha and Vipassana. In calm abiding we can see our mind as the vast blue sky and all the phenomena such thoughts, feelings, sensations arising and passing as the clouds in that sky. Next, in order to activate insight, a very gentle discernment is added by holding a question, in a very light touch. These questions make us ‘look’ at the three reactions of our mind to reality, in line with above-described illusions:
1. Does this phenomenon arising in my mind make me happy or suffer? Or: is there a tendency for me to cling to it or push it away?
2. Is this phenomenon permanent? Or: can I see it arising and fading away?
3. Who is observing this phenomenon? Or: where is the ‘self’ observing this phenomenon?
Holding these inquiries lightly and with a clear and open awareness (as opposed to analytically solving or fixing) the automated reactions of your mind start naturally pausing and falling away. This creates a space allowing you to drop into a non-conceptual awareness of the true nature of reality. Just being with reality as it is, free from clinging and aversion.
Liberate yourself from your illusions
Each time we cling or are being in aversion, we resist to reality. This resistance, as opposed to having life’s experience flow through us, creates blocks of stuck energy in us, called Samskara’s in Buddhist terms (and triggers, trauma or upsets in psychological terms). These blocks further solidify our reactive patterns enforcing future upsets when some new experience, instead of effortlessly flowing through our body, hits this block. Instead of automatically reacting again, meditation allows us to pause and take the balcony. From the balcony, in open awareness, we can pause and observe the energy moving through rather than resisting to it. And the more we pause, and refrain from adding more upsets/stuck energy through resistance or clinging, we create space for detoxing. Just as when you stop drinking alcohol, old toxics stored in your body can start releasing. Yet whilst we keep on living guided by our illusions, the next moment we will get upset again adding toxics to our bodies.
With practice we can free ourselves from old blocks, and prevent new blocks from settling in. And at the end even liberate ourselves from the root cause of our suffering, our beliefs and illusions.
In Buddhism the path to wisdom and liberation is always a combination of study and practice. Thank you for taking this time to study. I hope it will support your practice, both ‘on the cushion’ but even more in your daily life, becoming aware of our own triads of clinging, aversion, and ignorance. Stay gentle and kind to yourself whilst doing so and do have a good laugh about it. We humans are quite funny creatures.
Meditation and awareness is a cornerstone in my personal live as well as in my professional life as a facilitator, where I work with leaders and their teams. If you are interested in learning more how to integrate meditation and awareness in your work as a facilitator you might want to check out our facilitator development program.
Or contact Jeroentje van Joolingen via firstname.lastname@example.org to explore further.
 Also here we will get a bit lost in translation: there are many different lineages in Buddhism which have different namings to these characteristics. Which in order not to get lost in detail we will limit ourselves to these.  Preferably in combination with the eight folded path, which also includes living an ethical life.  ‘looking’ is to be understood as using all senses including the mind which is considered the 6th sense.