When we start to meditate, we begin to notice that the initial experience can be like having three or four radios on simultaneously, all tuned to different stations.
We may feel that it would be nice just to stop thinking, to be able to switch off all the stations, that this would be peaceful. In that way, we can start to believe that the goal of meditation as wiping out all thoughts.
It is true that in meditation we train the mind to become calm and focused in order to reduce thinking to a degree, or even on occasion to make the mind completely quiet. But, just like having a conventional identity, a name and an address can be an extraordinarily useful tool, so can rational thought.
A few well-placed thoughts can save one a lot of confusion, even in meditation. We can use thought in meditation, for example, to realise that we are suffering because we are not getting what we want. This realisation can ease that suffering, as we begin to let go of wanting what we are not getting.
The nature of contemplation
Even though ordinarily we think about knowledge and ideas in terms of rational, discursive thinking, in this context "contemplation" does not mean using the mind to try to sort things out logically. Rather, when the mind is focused and steady, the quality of the attention we can then bring to whatever is experienced is spacious, open and embracing. The focus is not on a particular object like the breath. Rather, a thought or feeling arises naturally, and the mind can investigate it within that space of openness. One can do this with any attribute of life or aspect of spiritual teaching.
For example, we might notice the arising of terror at the thought of death, or the arising of excitement at the thought of a particular kind of experience. Or the thought arises that we feel most fulfilled when helping someone else.
When, through meditation, we have established a steadiness in the mind that allows for an open field of experience, then, within that space, we can choose to drop a thought into it _ such as the thought of death or of helping others.
We allow the intuitive wisdom of the heart that is present in that open and fertile space to be seeded by that thought, and then examine the nature of the experience. For example, we can look at why it feels good to be praised but uncomfortable to be criticised. You drop the question into the pool and then watch what crystallises from it.
This is very different from trying to figure things out logically; it's a much more spacious process. When you contemplate in this way, the thought or pattern being contemplated takes shape for a moment and then, through unbiased attention to the experience, one touches and becomes attuned to the nature of all things. This is because, since the heart and mind are both aspects of nature, they are part of the same reality as all the rest of the universe which, in Buddhist terminology, is described as dhamma; dhamma is nature. You can say that the fundamental nature of our being is dhama or reality, which is therefore intrinsically related to the nature of all things. In this way, through contemplation, we discover our intrinsic relatedness to all of life.
Being with the mystery
As humans, we are constantly asking questions like: "What is this about?" The response may arise in the mind that we can't understand it. With ordinary conceptual thought we try to substitute the mystery, or the not knowing, with an idea or a belief, or with an answer we derive by using logic.
When the ego meets the unknown, it experiences fear, anxiety or terror, and wants to fill it up with knowledge or a belief, with something that makes it feel secure. But with contemplation we find the heart is more at ease in not knowing, in leaving these questions as a mystery.
We approach them from the heart rather than from the ego or the thinking mind. The heart is much more at ease with not knowing, with experiencing the unknown as a mystery and with a feeling of wonderment.
The fundamental distinction between the ordinary conceptual mind and the mind in contemplation or insight practice, between "thinking" and "knowing", in the way that we use this term in Buddhist practice, is that this type of knowing is not a knowing about something. It is not about acquiring facts. It is the quality of awareness itself; this is the key piece.
We usually think of knowing as having data, recognising a pattern, knowing how something works. However, the aim of this other approach to knowing is to establish the heart in pure awareness, in intuitive wisdom; this is the quality of our being that is intrinsically attuned to the whole of the living universe.
Even just for a moment
This is not an easy practice. But this awareness can arise as even just as a momentary realisation; it can happen in half a second or less. In the time that it takes to snap one's fingers, as the Buddha taught, one can have the realisation that one is not one's thoughts or moods, that everything is changing, or that nothing can really be possessed, or that the story of experience is really just happening inside oneself.
In the Buddhist view of the world, one's actions have results, and one tries to act in ways that are good so that the results of those actions will also be good. This is the idea of karma. In Asia, where the Buddha lived and taught, the making of offerings, especially to monastics, is a very important practice for creating good karma, and therefore is a major part of the practice of Buddhism for laypeople. And the holding in the heart of an attitude of what Buddhists call metta or "loving-kindness" is another very important practice for creating good karma.
The Buddha taught that making offerings of valuable gifts to the poor, to the spiritual community, or even to the fully enlightened Buddha would not be as spiritually beneficial as bringing forth loving-kindness in the heart for the time it takes to milk a cow (which is about 20 minutes).
Even so, the Buddha taught that one creates even more good karma by holding the insight that everything is always changing merely for the duration of a finger snap. One finger snap of clarity into the nature of how things really are outweighs the good karma of any quantity of material offerings. Now that's something to think about.
About the author
Writer: Amaro Bhikkhu