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Types of Meditation


(I wrote this essay on 12/13/02)

I claim to be a Buddhist, but I've never attended a Buddhist worship service, and I'm certainly not an expert in the various terms and schools. I graze.

So ... what does it mean to me to be a Buddhist?

Right now, the most important part of being a Buddhist is acceptance of myself exactly as I am, seeing myself exactly as I am, allowing myself to be exactly as I am, and loving myself exactly as I am. I am complete, as-is. I need no additional friends, lovers, possessions, traits, goals, skills, or activities. There are no characteristics I desire to change or improve. Buddhism is the WYSIWYG religion.

But, a lot of people think Buddhism is about meditation, they visualize a bunch of people with shaved heads sitting cross-legged on little mats for hours at a time ;-) Such a boring image!

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I meditate, I've been meditating for years now, though the amount of time I spend meditating has been increasing over the past year. Meditation has almost completely replaced my at-home reading time, so I don't subscribe to newspapers and I only get a few magazines (and I'm not even keeping up with the few I get!).

I also meditate while commuting, and while traveling, and while eating -- I don't often read while eating anymore, whereas I used to read the newspaper at lunch every day. I meditate at work too.

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I do 3 basic kinds of meditation. I don't know the fancy names for them, I don't know if there are more kinds of meditation than these. For me Buddhism is a personal exploration, and I'm not interested in conquering the entire field of knowledge (this isn't law school!) ... this is about my own spiritual journey through the chaos. Buddhism has a huge amount of crud attached to the hull -- more crud than hull, in my own humble opinion -- I try to focus on my own little boat as it takes me where I need to go.

Breathing Meditation -- this is the simplest kind of meditation, the kind I do most often while at home or on the Metro train. The idea is to focus on my breath, often counting with each breath to 10 or 20 and then starting over. My thoughts are allowed to drift if they must, but I try to focus on the breath. The idea is to center myself in my body and its autonomic survival processes, to feel self-sufficient as-is, to understand my place in the world as a single breathing body-in-the-now.

Breathing meditation is what most of those pillow-sitting Buddhists are doing for hours at a time ;-) Some Buddhists think it is important to sit in a particular posture while doing this. I don't give a fuck about posture. I do it sitting in my rocking chair, or flopped on my futon mattress, or standing on a moving Metro train. Some Buddhists think it is bad to do breathing meditation while lying down, because you might fall asleep, and some of them drink a caffeinated tea before meditation to remain alert. I think falling asleep is a good thing! If, after a few minutes of meditation at home, I discover that I'm sleepy, then I go to sleep, regardless of the hour.

Awareness Meditation -- there is a fuzzy boundary between breathing meditation and awareness meditation, perhaps breathing meditation is a subset of awareness meditation. I most often engage in awareness meditation while walking, but it can be useful at any time and place. Awareness meditation involves bathing myself in the ever-changing sensations of now, from all of my senses, in all directions. It helps me to recall that most of the thoughts in my head have absolutely nothing to do with present sensations. It helps me to enjoy my surroundings, and to value my body and environment as they are. When I'm engaged in awareness meditation I do not invoke negative judgments, I do not scan the environment for imperfections. Even if a sensation is initially unpleasant, I embrace that sensation as a valid and important part of my life experience. Awareness meditation is about acceptance, loving the world as it is, even those parts of the world we wish we could "fix" or change. Becoming aware, without judging or desiring anything else.

Generally, through awareness meditation I discover that I love so much about the world as it is! The view from my apartment, the sensation of kissing a valued inanimate possession, floral scents, wind, temperature, precipitation, other people, plants, and animals ... clouds, architecture, the changing arcs of the sun, the phases of the moon, sounds and vibrations ... massaging my own body, tasting food, marveling at the sensitivity of my fingertips ...

Insight Meditation -- perhaps both breathing meditation and awareness meditation are truncated subsets of insight meditation. Insight meditation happens accidentally, usually while I'm practicing awareness. I'll be aware not only of my external surroundings, but also my internal thoughts, and I'll suddenly realize that my self-talk isn't making any sense. I'll realize that something about the world, myself, or my place in the world, something I used to believe is not actually true. Sometimes these realizations hurt mightily, other times they launch spontaneous euphoria ... but either way the insights leave me a changed man.

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All of these forms of meditation serve the same goal, which is to focus on the world-as-it-is rather than the world-we-wish-it-were or the world-that-we-thought-it-was or the world-that-will-be-later.

Rather than seeing the glass as half-empty or half-full (both of which are judgments) ... meditation is about seeing the glass, the contents of the glass, the table upon which the glass rests, the transparent air between us and the glass, the walls surrounding us and the glass, the ceiling sheltering us and the glass, the light reflecting upon all of these surroundings, the sounds, smells, vibrations, stillness, drafts, temperatures, emotions, fleeting thoughts ... we see everything, we realize we can't see everything at once, we realize that things are changing while we watch them (and while we don't) ... that the universe is a fascinating place to watch as-is.

As a Buddhist, I don't care whether the glass is full, empty, or in-between. I don't care whether there is a glass at all. I wonder why we are focused only on this glass, why we are so caught up in whether it is full or empty. Just drink the damned milk and taste it as it flows :o)


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