What we commonly call ‘meditation’ today, goes back to ancient contemplative wisdom traditions. These are rich and varied. Where we come into contact with them, such an encounter is often surprisingly concrete and personal: shaped not only by the tradition encountered, but also by our own biographical background and that of the teachers of that tradition.
After first encountering meditation in a Christian context during my school years, I practiced for a few years in the Soto Zen lineage in mainland Europe; following that, my main access to meditation has essentially been through early Buddhist traditions. Many of the people who taught me the practical steps of contemplative understanding in the years to follow, were monastic and non-monastic teachers and kalyāna-mittas (‘excellent friends’), particularly from the Thai Forest tradition and its Western offshoots. In later years my therapeutic trainings have led me to a deeper recognition of specific needs in practitioners and have sharpened my sense for developmental, temperamental, relational and trauma issues in practitioners. My encounters with teachers and study of the broader Indian Buddhist tradition have deepened my appreciation for the psychological and contemplative wisdom beyond the Forest tradition.
When early Buddhist accounts speak of meditation, it becomes clear how misleading the occidental term ‘meditation’ really is: the Latin meditari‘ – ‘to reflect, to ponder’ – has precious little to do with what Buddhist traditions generally understand by the term bhāvanā, ‘cultivating the mind’, literally ‘calling into being’. Indian Buddhist traditions use this term to refer to a broad notion of training of:
(i) the body (kāya-bhāvanā) and our relationship to the physical world (including taking care of the planet’s biosphere!);
(ii) a training in ethics (sīla-bhāvanā) and the relationship to the social sphere;
(iii) maybe most famously, a training of the mind (citta-bhāvanā) that includes calming the mind and the practice of ‘unfolding the heart’ (brahmavihāra) in the dimensions of kindness, compassion, joy and equanimity – topics to which many of the Buddha’s discourses are devoted;
(iv) finally, a training in deep and transformative understanding (paññā-bhāvanā) of conditionality and its implications and the practical wisdom to outgrow our particular predicaments, mature into competent and caring human beings and become independent in our vision of the path and the necessary steps to take.
Such an unfolding generally entails supportive friends, teachers and a path-community, an acknowledgement of the formative forces and patterns in one’s own background, a sustained training in attentional, emotional and relational practices, acquiring skill in establishing mindfulness (sati) beyond the meditation cushion, sustained collectedness of mind (samatha) and comprehensive insight (vipassanā).
During each stage of such a training the cultivation of bodhicitta, the genuine wish to awaken and find freedom, to respond empathetically and act in compassion towards all sentient beings is essential.
Mindfulness and Presence of Mind
The indispensable basis for all these aspects of unfolding the heart, is the training of mindfulness and the bringing about of presence of mind: a sustained and inquiring awareness (sati) from moment to moment, allows the clarifying and transforming insight into the entanglements of the mind and at the same time opens up the unimagined powers of one’s own heart. The practical exercises in the course of a meditation retreat begin with body awareness (kāyagata-sati) and breath awareness (ānāpānasati) to gain inner stillness and an embodied presence of mind. Gradually, meditative awareness is expanded in practical exercises and trained in ‘bringing about presence of mind’ (satipaṭṭhāna) in four areas as handed down to us in the ancient wisdom tradition of early Buddhism.