How We Meditate

After writing yesterday about why we meditate, I thought I’d follow up with how we meditate. First, though, you might want to read the excellent post my blogging and dharma friend Peace Paul shared with me on calm abiding meditation. It will help set the stage.

I’ll review a few types of meditation that I’m familiar with.

Vintage retro style image of stone pyramids.A friend asked me recently about Transcendental Meditation, or TM, made famous in 1967 when the Beatles met Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and decided to learn TM. I took the TM training in the 1970s and still use it on occasion. It is a simple technique, involving the silent repetition of a mantra you are given — a couple of syllables with no meaning. Because it’s simple and powerful, I use it when I am highly stressed, with my mind on super-high revs. It helps slow my mind down to where I can use other methods that I have grown to prefer.

Mindfulness (sati) meditation and insight (vipassana) meditation are not exactly the same, but they are so close to each other that I’ll be damned if I can explain the difference. You are sitting with your back erect so air can flow easily. Your eyes are lightly closed or focused gently down in front of you. Generally, you start with your breathing, aware of everything you can note about your in breath, your out breath and the spaces between them. Not forcing anything, just aware. As thoughts enter your mind, you accept them and let them go.

You may sit like that in silence throughout the meditation, gently returning to your breath as thoughts come and go, or a leader may guide you for a while, suggesting words to go along with the breathing, such as:

On the in breath, I know I’m breathing in
On the out breath, I know I’m breathing out

On the in breath, I’m a flower
On the our breath, I feel fresh

On the in breath, I know I’m alive
On the out breath, I smile to life

On the in breath, I am still water
On the out breath, I reflect what’s true

Some people count their breaths to stay focused. The emphasis is to be aware of the sensations throughout your body, and to be aware of what your thoughts are doing or trying to do. By gently accepting the sensations and the thoughts, you learn what’s going on in your body and your mind, but you let the sensations and the thoughts go. You want to neither struggle against them nor to let them take over, but if that should happen, you have not failed; you’ve learned by observation.

It’s natural to seek a quiet space for this type of meditation and to react with irritation if a dog barks outside the window or brakes screech down the street, but remember that the Buddha is in everything. We treat these sounds with acceptance and let them go, as we do with our thoughts and sensations.

The last type of meditation I’ll try to explain is from the Dzogchen Buddhist tradition. In Dzogchen, we often chant first, do some deep breathing, and then meditate with our eyes open and gazing toward the horizon. We try not to identify or classify what we see but just let it be. The emphasis is on openness — eyes, ears, nose, throat, pores, heart, all open. As thoughts come, we watch them like a movie, watch them from outside our worldly self.

My descriptions are just that and not a substitute for a good teacher. My hope is that they help you understand the subtle differences and encourage you to seek a teacher. TM comes out of a Hindu tradition; the others are Buddhist, and the Buddhist forms of meditation have similar intended outcomes, awakening to the world as it really is for the good of all its inhabitants.

— Mel Pine (Fearless Lotus)

Copyright 2016 © Mel Harkrader Pine

7 Comments Add yours

  1. Peace Paul says:

    Aloha Mel,

    Thank you for your another nice post.

    I would say, from a Mahayana perspective, that the difference between Sati and Vipassana (Insight) is that the former is a technique whereas the latter is actual insight into Sunyata. Vipassana is the arising of prajna (wisdom). As you have observed there is a lot of confusion around why we meditate and what the “goal” of meditation is. Mindfulness, as a technique, can be taught. Mindfulness is valuable and can be life changing. Vipassana, arises when self falls away and their is experiential insight into emptiness. Vipassana is closely tied to Right Understanding / View in the Eightfold Path. Generally, Vipassana arises as a result of a methodical examination of non-self in connection with mindfulness of the movements of mind.

    Peace, Paul

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Help me out here, is Sati similar to shamata or calm abiding?


    1. melhpine says:

      Words in Pali and Sanskrit tend to have a wide range of meanings, and I’m no expert. But shamata is the calming of the mind. Sati (mindfulness) is a particular type of meditation. I think all meditation involves shamata, and sati is one type of shamata.


      1. Ok so sati is one type of shamata. Cool to know. I would say that you are correct a out the fact that most meditation contains forms of shamata. It is also my understanding the although shamata and vipassana are different things, they are only so in the beginning of ones practice. I am told that after years they do merge into one.
        Man the more I learn the more I find out what is still yet you know.

        I am really appreciating reading you past blog entries and the little chats.
        Keep well.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Reblogged this on black irish dharma and commented:
    This is a really cool post about the differences in meditation styles – we don’t always feel the same way when we first sit, so it’s nice to have a few tricks up the ole’ sleeves:)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. melhpine says:

      Thank you. I’m glad you find it helpful.


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