Sunday, March 30, 2014

On the quality of meditation

I recently read this quote from the Buddhist teacher Hannah Nydahl:

"In practice, quality and quantity are united. Quality gives depth to the practice, it is connected with understanding, deep motivation, dedication to the teacher and compassion for other beings. Quantity means a consistent habit to not be lazy and using a little more time for practice than is comfortable for us at present. This will always be rewarded. Ninth Karmapa Wangchuk Dorje said, "If you meditate, strengthening diligence when confronted with difficulties, you wiil get rewards in the form of incredible qualities."

I have already understood that quantity is important. The more we push ourselves to sit on the cushion, the better. Sometimes our busy schedules don't allow for as much time as we'd like, but arrangements can always be made to increase our time. Waking up one hour earlier is an option, although not welcomed by everyone. It is also possible to use any "window" of time that opens up to us.

A friend of mine spends an incredible amount of time meditating. He has a full time job, but uses whatever free time he gets for meditation and ends up accumulating hours each day. Of course, this is not about putting hours upon hours of meditation every single day. It is about giving it your best, even if that means 20 minutes instead of 3 hours. The point Hannah Nydahl makes in her quote, I think, is the importance of meditating "a little more time" than what feels comfortable. Once again our teachers push us to go beyond our comfort zone, where all the magic appears.

What really shook my neurones this time however, was the comment regarding quality. As Buddhist practitioners, of course we feel a deep devotion to our teacher, and we work with compassion, spreading it more and more around us as we develop. But what is real quality in meditation?

As my friend Réka - who is a traveling teacher from Hungary - explained at a lecture a couple of days ago, it is only natural for thoughts to constantly emerge in our mind during our meditation sessions. However, meditation is about resting in the here and now, and the thoughts that arise in our mind are rarely conducive to "here and now", but are much more likely to take us to yesterday, tomorrow, or to the possibility of tomorrow.

Instead of following the waterfall of thoughts, which is our most natural response, we should simply notice the thought, and go back to the Buddha. It is a simple shift in our attention, and it transforms it into awareness. This of course requires discipline. But as practitioners we already know a bit about creating positive habits, so pushing a little bit more is simply taking the next logical step. The first reward we will reap is a focused meditation, which feels much shorter than a dissipated one, and gently invites us to stay longer in the practice.

Then, quite simply, and almost effortlessly, quantity and quality meet.

More about Hannah Nydahl