Sample Religious Studies on East Asian Meditation Experience

The concept of meditation has existed for centuries, and is common in the East Asian region amongst Buddhist monks. Before, the 21st-Century, meditation was regarded as a myth in most Western nations, and hence, it received minimum attention. However, an increase in stress and anxiety levels among individuals in the contemporary society has led to increased attention on the concept and its effects. Psychiatrists and other experts in psychological development remain at the forefront in promoting meditation in Western countries that previously shunned the concept as a myth. Meditation is essential in the cultivation of self-awareness, happiness, mindfulness, and contentment. As part of this course, I have practiced meditation to increase my self-awareness and mindfulness; factors that are essential in curbing anxiety and stress. Attainment of mindfulness is a multi-pronged process, inundated by both challenges and personal insights based on constant meditation practice that is majorly built on focusing on the present moment.

Meditation and mindfulness are two phenomena that are quite different yet often confused to be similar. Meditation is a technique for training the human mind on both attention and awareness; factors that constitute mindfulness (Ricard 6). Due to the numerous activities that occur in the brain the human mind is naturally designed to maintain bare attention (Bodhi 76). The phenomenon of bare attention is defined in scientific circles as an impartial awareness of what is happening within and around the human body in the present moment (Bodhi 76). In the ordinary state of bare attention, the mind begins a cognitive process with an impression in the present and uses it to build a springboard for building blocks of mental constructs, thus avoiding the sheer facticity of the present (Bodhi 76). Thus, meditation is a training technique that enables individuals to focus their minds on the present by bolstering their self-awareness and attention levels. On the other hand, mindfulness is the state of astute presence of mind characterized by top-notch attention and self-awareness (Bodhi 77). Mindfulness, also known as Pali Sati by Buddhists, is a central theme of Buddhism which considers it the only way of achieving the ultimate truth of things (Bodhi 77). Mindfulness is only achieved when the mind can maintain constant attention and self-awareness. Mindfulness focuses on being and remaining in the present by suspending all judgments and interpretations that cloud the mind.

Throughout the semester, I integrated the basic concepts of meditation and mindfulness with personal experience to develop a deeper understanding of the concepts. Since I had never engaged in meditation activities in the past, I started my path to enlightenment as a beginner. The practice of meditation, predominantly in East Asia, is separated into distinct levels to allow for the gradual development and training of the human mind on matters of attention and self-awareness. Since controlling the mind is not an easy task, particularly for individuals at the start of their mindfulness journey, advancement in the practice of meditation is based on proficiency and mastery of individual self-awareness and attention (Norbu and Katz 50). The East Asian practice of meditation is divided into four main categories, also known as the four foundations of mindfulness: the body, feelings, states of mind, and phenomena (Bodhi 79). The core tenets of Buddhism hold that attainment of mastery of the four foundations of mindfulness result in the attainment of Nibbana which is characterized by achievement of purity and the overcoming of feelings such as sorrow, pain, and pleasure (Bodhi 79). Nibbana is the highest state of mindfulness, among the dictates of Buddhism, and is equal to the attainment of enlightenment.

As a neophyte in matters meditation, I based my practice on the first step of mindfulness, contemplation of the body. Contemplation of the body is the first foundation of mindfulness and, therefore, is the first step of the meditation process. In the Western world, contemplation of the body is generally known as the beginner phase or the starting point for meditation (Ricard 27). The contemplation of the body is normally based on mindfulness of breathing. Mindfulness of breathing, also referred to as the root meditation subject among Buddhists forms the foundation for the entire course of mindfulness (Bodhi 80; Haich 170). Moreover, mindfulness of breathing is quite simple to perform as it is based on respiration a function present in all human beings. Using the beginner’s guidelines of the Dao De Jing, I created a three-five-minute daily meditation schedule for myself, which I dedicated to mindfulness of breathing (Mitchell 34). In my meditation practice I focused my attention on my breath and this enabled me to train my mind on staying in the present moment.

In my meditation practice, I focused on maintaining awareness and attention on my breath for the entirety of the five minutes. Mindfulness of breathing is made up of four basic steps that are gradual in nature; with advancement from one step to another based on the meditator’s proficiency in self-awareness and attention (Bodhi 81). The first step requires the meditator to focus his attention on his breath by making long inhalations and exhalations while noting them as they occur (Bodhi 81). I found the first step quite easy as all I was required to do was note my inhalation and exhalation for the five-minute duration of the meditation practice. In the second step, the meditator is required to keenly observe their respiration and note whether the breaths are long or short (Mitchell 53). This forced me to focus more on my respiration and to track both my inhalations and exhalations.

As a neophyte advances in his or her meditation, the meditator can follow their breath throughout the entire course. Therefore, advancing into the third step of mindfulness breathing, I focused on following my breath from the beginning of my inhalation to its end and similarly tracked my exhalation from the lungs all the way to the nose. The fourth and last step of mindfulness of breathing is also known as calming the bodily function (Bodhi 81). Calming the bodily function requires the meditator to quiet down their breath and all of its associated bodily functions until they are subtle. In my meditation practice, I found this stage quite technical, especially with regard to regulating my breath and subsequent body functions. Mastery of the last step of mindfulness of breathing is used to gauge whether a meditator is ready to proceed into the next step of his or her mindfulness journey.

From the first foundation of mindfulness I ventured into the second step of meditation practice known as the contemplation of feeling. According to the teachings of the Buddha, feeling is not used in the common context of emotions but rather to denote the hedonic quality of experiences and how they affect the attention and awareness levels of the mind (Bodhi 85). Moreover, feeling in the East Asian meditation practice is divided into three principal categories: pleasant, painful, and neutral feeling (Ricard 42). According to the principles of Buddhism, the feeling is an inseparable concomitant of consciousness as every act of knowing is characterized by a feeling (Bodhi 85). Thus, in my subsequent meditation practices, I focused on discerning and conquering my feelings in order to achieve mindfulness. First, I had to focus on identifying my arisen feelings and note their distinctive qualities which enabled me to classify them into the various categories of feeling: pleasant, painful, or neutral. I had to note the feelings without identifying or being carried by them in order to strengthen my mind’s focus and attention. Contemplation of feeling is essential as it enables individuals to develop a stoic mindset that is not easily detracted by feelings.

Due to time constraints, my meditation practice did not progress into the third and fourth foundations of mindfulness. Both the third and fourth foundations of mindfulness are quite essential in the achievement of enlightenment as they primarily focus on consciousness and mental factors that inhibit awareness respectively. The third foundation of mindfulness is based on the contemplation of the state of mind and requires meditators to turn their focus from feeling, a mental factor, to the general state of the mind itself (Bodhi 88). The teachings of Buddhism reject the scientific principle that the human mind is a permanently fixed organ that is characterized by a rigid identity, form, and structure (Ricard 42). In East Asian meditation practices, the human mind is thought of as a fluid sequence of momentary mental acts, each discrete and separate, with their connections with one another casual and not substantial (Bodhi 88; Ricard 42). This enables meditators to note and track each mental act, also known as consciousness. Consciousness contains the whole spectrum of mental factors ranging from feeling, perception, volition, and emotions (Bodhi 89). I am interested in understanding how to control my consciousness and will venture into the contemplation of the state of mind in the near future.

The contemplation of phenomena is the fourth foundation of mindfulness and the last step in meditation practice. According to Buddhist teachings, phenomena is a nexus of both mental factors, covered under the third level of meditation practice, and elements of the actuality that form the building blocks of experience (Bodhi 90). Contemplation of phenomena requires a meditator to focus on and note elements such as desire, ill-will, dullness and drowsiness, restlessness and worry, and doubt; factors that are considered as impediments to the liberation of the mind (Bodhi 91; Ricard 47). In this last stage of meditation, the meditator must understand how the impediments to mindfulness arise, how they can be removed, and how they can be prevented from arising in the future. A meditator who masters the contemplation of phenomena is deemed to have achieved enlightenment.

Despite not having completed all the four foundations of meditation, I also incorporated the practice of connecting with nature in my mindfulness plan to bolster my self-awareness and attention abilities. Being mindful of one’s natural environment is a key factor in improving mindfulness, particularly for beginners in the domain of meditation (Mitchell 98). Nature enables an individual to connect with their surroundings, thus becoming more self-aware and attentive to the mundane environmental activities that often go unnoticed in the course of their daily activities (Merton 118). The human mind is characterized by the elaboration of conceptual proliferation that blocks out the presentational immediacy of phenomena by jumbling up the cognitive field (Ricard 32). Connecting with nature in a harmonious and mindful manner is essential in minimizing the conceptual proliferation of the cognitive field (Ricard 34). This allows the human mind to focus more on remaining in the present.

Utilizing the guidance of the Dao De Jing, I designed my mindfulness of nature activities around my immediate environment. This enabled me to cut on costs that I would have incurred had I chosen to connect with nature in a different setting, such as at the park. Thus, to connect with nature I took a mindful walk around my backyard and a nap under the sun daily. Moreover, I mindfully listened to sounds of nature, such as birds chirping and the rustling of trees in the wind and this proved to be a soothing and calming experience. In my daily engagements with nature, I found myself increasingly being in the present and acknowledging things I had taken for granted in my neighboring environment in the past.

To track my progress with regard to mindfulness, I tested my sleeping and eating limits and recorded my meditation activities in a personal journal. An essential part of mindfulness is knowing one’s limit with regard to daily activities, such as eating, sleeping, and work (Tulku 41). As I improved my meditation practice, I pushed myself to know my limits, which helped me to avoid over-indulgence and exertion. For example, I would ensure that I took my meals only when hungry and never to overeat. I also ensured that I slept early and for a minimum of six hours. In a bid to prevent over-exertion, I took breaks whenever I felt tired and divided any exerting work that I performed into sizeable chunks that could be performed easily and with optimum satisfaction (Tulku 43). To track my progress, I would record in a journal the meditation activities I had engaged in, how I felt about them, and whether my awareness was improving or not. Writing down the activities in a journal enabled me to track my mindfulness journey on a day-to-day basis. Journaling is also essential in the achievement of mindfulness as it enables individuals to expressively examine their thoughts and desires, thus improving their attention and awareness. Thus, through incorporating journaling in my meditation practice, I was able to track and adhere to my meditation practices, as well as develop my attention and awareness capabilities.

My mindfulness journey was coupled with various challenges. First, my meditation practice at the start was quite problematic as I could not tame the voices and opinions in my head. In spite of my efforts, the voices in my head could not be silenced, and this frustrated the mindfulness of breathing technique I had employed. I almost gave up my meditation practice as the thoughts constantly disrupted my focus and attention on my breath. Second, I kept overthinking during the meditation practices, particularly at the start, and this impacted negatively on my attention. During the meditation practices, my mind could not settle in the present as it kept wandering both into the future and past. The constant wandering and jumping of my mind on ideas resulted in my overthinking; a factor that frustrated my initial awareness training. Moreover, during the meditation sessions, I focused on the limits of the meditation process rather than on its aims. In my meditation practice, I emphasized the limits of the process, such as what I was supposed to engage in or abandon. I realized that this limited my focus and attention since I focused on non-essential issues instead of focusing on my breath.

To address the challenges faced, I came up with appropriate solutions to ensure that I remained on track in my search for enlightenment. To reduce the noise inside my head that prevented me from focusing on my breath, I opted to listen to relaxing music during the meditation sessions. I found the relaxing music better at drowning the noise inside my head, and this enabled me to focus more on my breath. To deal with the problem of overthinking during the meditation sessions, I came up with a solution of picturing black holes or repeating the word ‘nothing’ in my meditation sessions. Consequently, I retained my focus on my breath. Lastly, to deal with the issue of focusing more on the limits of the meditation process, I took actions that corresponded with my present feelings as I meditated. For example, initially, I would focus solely on my breath without even allowing myself to cough, and this made the meditation process feel awful. By deciding to take actions I felt relevant to my present feelings, I allowed my body functions to operate normally during the meditation process.

During my meditation practice, I gained key insights that can be applied by beginners seeking to gain mindfulness. First, it is essential to focus on specific goals and needs before seeking mindfulness. The journey to enlightenment is quite long and full of challenges. Notably, without predetermined goals, an individual can easily lose hope and give up. Daily meditation is a daunting and boring task that can be difficult to implement without having specific goals in mind. Thus, individuals should focus on establishing what they want to achieve through meditation before starting on their mindfulness journey. Setting goals before embarking on meditation significantly reduces the possibility of individuals giving up on their mindfulness journey before attaining enlightenment. Further, from my practice I learned that the secret of mindfulness lies in the present and not in the future nor the past. Therefore, individuals should focus on being present and limit themselves from drifting into either the past or the future. Individuals should understand that mindfulness does not focus on the performance of actions but rather the opposite as it deters judgments, opinions, or reaction to feelings.

Meditation is a century-long practice that is widespread amongst East Asians and Buddhists globally. The process of meditation is essential in the training of attention and self-awareness, which are factors that contribute significantly towards the attainment of mindfulness and enlightenment. Meditation is a slow multi-faceted process that ensures that meditators’ minds are fully prepared for mindfulness, as well as its impact on their lives. The practice of mindfulness is growing steadily, particularly in the Western world where its psychological benefits have been acknowledged in recent years. Based on my meditation experiences, I am of the opinion that beginners interested in seeking enlightenment should be goal-driven and focus on being in the present rather than the past to realize tangible results.

 

 

Works Cited

Bodhi, Bhikkhu. The noble eightfold path: The way to the end of suffering. Maha Bodhi Book Agency, 2012.

Haich, Elisabeth. “Yoga and Destiny.” (1974), https://philpapers.org/rec/HAIYAD

Merton, Thomas. The way of Chuang Tzu. Boston, Mass: Shambhala, 2004.

Mitchell, Stephen. Tao te ching. 1989.

Norbu, Namkhai, and Michael Katz. Dream yoga and the practice of natural light. Snow Lion Pub., 2002.

Ricard, Matthieu. Happiness: A guide to developing life’s most important skill. Atlantic Books Ltd, 2015.

Tulku, Tarthang. Skillful means. Dharma Publishing, 1978.