In developing a meditation practice, the first issue we face is what to do with the mind-heart when nothing particular is going on. Left to its own devices, the mind likes to drag things out of the hall closet or rummage through the kitchen junk drawer. It nurses old wounds, devises new arguments, sings themes from movies, re-organizes tasks of the day, ruminates on novels, and on and on.
When we begin to meditate, the mind needs a job – it needs a wholesome way to occupy itself. Many schools of meditation give the mind the job of focusing on a single object, such as a mantra, mandala, koan, prayer, or affirmation. For three decades I used the feeling of the breath: watching the sensations of the belly rise and fall or the brushing of the air as it entered and left the nostrils. If the attention wandered off on some errand, I gently reminded it of its job and guided it back the breathing.
The advantage of using the body is that sensations are simple, here and now, and relatively easy to know. Attending to the breath tends to pull the mind’s attention away from thinking and helps it settle into the present.
However, there are disadvantages to focusing on the breath. It can be boring: when the mind is uninterested, it ambles off in search of amusement. This is its nature. Lacking other instructions, we might force the attention back to the breath. That is a form of greed – wanting something to be different than it is. Greed is not a wholesome quality to be encouraged.
Another disadvantage is that meditation is not about the body. It’s about the mind-heart. Exclusive focus on the breath can sidetrack attention to physical sensations rather than mind-heart qualities. If we don’t learn to observe the mind-heart, meditation won’t go very far.
The primary disadvantage of exclusively focusing on any object is that the goal of meditation is wisdom. Wisdom is seeing what’s going on in the natural flux and flow of life. If we block out all but one thing, we’ve excluded the vast majority of life. We can’t cultivate wisdom because we’re only attending to a single item. We’re trying to control the mind-heart rather than observe it. We can’t do both at once. We may become wise about the breath, but not so wise about the rest of life.
If a hypnotist were to hypnotize us, he’d ask us to focus on a single item like a shiny spoon, candle flame, or tack on the wall. Most of us have some ability to be mesmerized. As we focus and become entranced, he could say, “You’re a chicken.” We’d answer, “Cluck, cluck.”
If we use our most rudimentary intelligence, we know we’re not a bird. But when we tell our mind blocks out everything but a single point, the hypnotist says, “You’re a cow,” and we say, “Moo.”
The goal of meditation is wisdom, not gullibility. Wisdom needs awareness to be open, supple, and fluid rather than so laser-like that it ignores most of life.
Nevertheless, the breath meditation can be helpful for a limited time for some people. The Buddha talked about it in about ten places in the suttas.
However, he talked about kindness as an object of meditation in hundreds and hundreds of places. Kindness is one of the brahmaviharas or wholesome qualities – qualities that have little tension or that move in the direction of lessening tension.
The brahmaviharas mentioned most often are kindness (metta ), compassion (karuna ), joy (mudita ), and equanimity (upekkha ). But less formally, the brahmaviharas include any uplifting attitude: peacefulness, generosity, gratitude, happiness, empathy, light heartedness, and more.
Using the brahmaviharas as objects of meditation has the advantage of attending to the healing essence of the mind-heart from the very beginning. We learn to become aware of the attitudes in the mind. And through this we become aware of awareness itself.
If we use a sensory sensation as the anchor of awareness, our meditation may move along very well in the beginning. But soon it plateaus and stays there until we learn to observe the movements of awareness. Awareness of awareness can take us as far as we can go – even to full awakening.
So a wholesome job to give the mind-heart is to attend to kindness, compassion, joy, peace, or other uplifting qualities, and then to send them to yourself and to others. The booklet, Beginning the Journey, describes how to begin this practice. The book Buddha’s Map, describes the entirety of this style of meditation.