Who do you want to be?
In the early Buddhist tradition, meditation (and spiritual practice more broadly) is often described using the word 'bhavana', which means something like 'cultivation'.
It's a good metaphor. When you cultivate a garden, you decide what you want to grow, select and plant the seeds, ensure that the conditions are good for growth, weed out unwanted invaders that are taking resources away from your plants, and - most of all - you understand that it's a long-term project. While you can absolutely work to improve the conditions of your garden, you can't force your flowers into bloom overnight by watering them extra-hard.
So if we view spiritual practice in terms of cultivation, we might ask what's available - what varieties of seeds could we plant, how should they be cultivated, and what's it going to look like when things are coming into bloom?
Four dimensions of spiritual cultivation
For convenience, I've broken down spiritual work into four categories. This is my own invention rather than a traditional scheme of practice, and I'm sure it has some holes in it, but it'll do for now. In some ways it's a bit artificial to break things out like this - many forms of practice aim to cultivate multiple dimensions simultaneously, as we'll see below - but it may be helpful in terms of exposing the range of possibilities for a meditation practice.
The four categories I've chosen are: samadhi; wisdom; heart opening; and energy work. Let's take each of those in turn.
We all have the ability to pay attention - that is, to choose to focus on some aspect of our experience, at the expense of whatever else is going on. As I'm writing these words, I'm paying quite a bit of attention to the writing itself, while some portion of my attention is on the music I've got playing in the background (which acts mainly as a screen against other noises that might snag my attention). As a result, I'm not particularly aware of the room around me, or sounds from outside my house, or the precise alignment of my body, or any of the many, many other things going on right now that I could have chosen to focus on instead.
It turns out that this faculty of attention is very trainable - that is, we can practise it and get better at it. We're prone to distraction, particularly in the information-rich environment of modern urban life. We often find our minds wandering when we'd prefer them not to, and at times we can find ourselves beset by unwanted, intrusive thoughts, or caught in a negative spiral of anxiety or obsession, unable to break free.
So what can we do about this? That's where samadhi practice comes in. Samadhi training is fundamentally very simple: it's about putting your attention on an object, noticing when your mind has wandered, and coming back to that object. That's it! But if you do it over and over and over, you start to develop some serious concentration power. Your mind becomes more flexible and responsive, better able to stay with something for extended periods. In the traditional language, your mind can become 'purified, bright, unblemished, rid of imperfections, malleable, wieldy, steady, and attained to imperturbability.' Sounds pretty good, right?
Different traditions go about the cultivation of samadhi in different ways. Early Buddhism has dedicated samadhi practices - namely the jhanas - whereas Zen prefers to build samadhi alongside wisdom, using techniques like Silent Illumination and koan practice.
Speaking of wisdom...
This dimension of practice is about exploring who and what we really are and what's going on in the world around us. As meditators, we explore these questions from a first-person perspective, looking at our direct experience, as opposed to the third-person perspective that a scientist might take. In other words, we examine ourselves from the 'inside' rather than the 'outside'.
People are often drawn to spiritual practice because of the promise of wisdom. Perhaps they've suffered greatly in their lives and want to know if there's a solution; or perhaps they're simply curious to know what else is out there beyond the rat race. (Personally, I was attracted to meditation because of all the weird, incomprehensible, almost magical things that people would say about the results of spiritual practice - it sounded so far out there that I wanted to try it for myself to see what all the fuss was about. I haven't been disappointed!)
Early Buddhism has dedicated insight practices specifically for the cultivation of wisdom. These typically revolve around investigating some aspect of our experience very closely, perhaps exploring the impermanent nature of sensory phenomena, or studying dependent origination. As noted above, Zen's main practices (Silent Illumination and koans) tend to cultivate wisdom and samadhi simultaneously.
(So which is the better approach? Whichever one you prefer! Early Buddhism has a clarity and precision that I really enjoy, and I've found the combination of jhana practice to sharpen the mind followed by insight practice to investigate reality to be immensely effective. On the other hand, early Buddhism can come across as quite technical and fiddly at times, whereas Zen is fundamentally very simple indeed - but just as effective. Zen also tends to have more of an air of mystery and beauty, whereas early Buddhism is comparatively clinical. Personally I love both styles, which is why I continue to practise and teach them both, but to each their own!)
A third dimension of spiritual practice relates to the heart, and our emotional life. Meditation can allow us to connect with and cultivate some beautiful qualities within ourselves, such as loving kindness, compassion, joy and peace.
Some people are immediately drawn to this side of practice because, more than any other, it tends to make us feel good. It's nice to be happy! For others, opening the heart may be a slower process - perhaps we've been hurt, perhaps we have good reason to want to protect ourselves from the world around us.
The great power of heart-opening practice is that it shows us that we already have everything we need to be happy. If we find ourselves habitually craving the love and kindness of others (and maybe not receiving it reliably enough!), we can learn to meet our own needs by cultivating a deep well of love and kindness within ourselves. As my teacher's teacher, Ayya Khema, put it, if you feel cold, become a radiator - then you'll never be cold again.
Early Buddhism really shines where heart-opening is concerned - the Brahmaviharas are my go-to set of practices for cultivating these qualities. I've found them to be hugely helpful, and wouldn't trade them for anything. By comparison, Zen doesn't place so much emphasis on the heart, preferring to allow it to open organically as a consequence of other practices; that can work well for some people, and tends to result in a more down-to-earth, practical kindness and compassion rather than the more ostentatious 'spiritual kindness' that you'll sometimes find in other traditions.
We've looked at cultivation of the mind (samadhi, wisdom) and heart - what about the body? Is spiritual practice purely something that happens from the chest upwards?
Well, for some people the answer is yes - the phrase 'disembodied meditators' refers to people who have spent years cultivating their minds, but their bodies haven't really come along for the ride. And in early Buddhism you'll often find a fairly negative slant toward the body, which is seen as the source of sensual cravings which are to be overcome through diligent practice.
In Zen, it's a different story. Perhaps influenced by the Daoist tradition, where longevity and good health are very highly regarded, Zen places great emphasis on having an embodied practice. Within Rinzai Zen in particular, we find a whole set of energy practices, which aim to cultivate our bodies' natural vitality, grounding and energising us. This is a big topic in its own right, and I've written previously about how to go about getting into energy practices in a safe way, so check out that article if you're interested.
How cultivation unfolds
On a practical level, how do we achieve this cultivation?
The first (and, in many ways, most important) step is to clarify your intention. What are you hoping to achieve? What are you drawn to? To be blunt, what do you want?
My Zen teacher Daizan likes to say that people tend to get what they want out of their practice. If you have a clear intention, you'll gradually move in that direction even if your technique is far from perfect. If your intention is vague and muddled, you can spend decades sitting without really getting anywhere - and that's a sad state of affairs. So be clear! Maybe the menu of options I've presented above can help with that; maybe you'll find another system you prefer. But, whatever you do, don't skimp on this step!
OK, so you know what you're trying to do. Next, you need a practice. There are literally squillions of meditation techniques out there, and each and every one will have its fierce, ardent defenders, who are convinced from their own personal experience that their favourite technique is the One True Way to enlightenment.
In truth, there's no 'best' technique, and you can waste a lot of time looking for it. People tend to be big fans of what worked well for them, and if a technique brought about enough of a pivotal shift for someone, they can get very passionate about it. I was pretty obnoxious about the importance of jhana practice for quite a long time, and I probably still am to some extent!
The key is to find one or more techniques that you like well enough to be willing to spend a lot of time with them. Spiritual cultivation is more of a marathon than a sprint, and most people will need to log some serious hours to get where they want to go. So find something you don't hate, and stay with it long enough to see where it takes you. That means getting past the initial hump, where sitting is uncomfortable and nothing seems to be happening - having a group to sit with can really help here, providing social support and normalising your experiences of discomfort and mind-wandering. If you can stick with it, though, soon enough you'll start to see changes in your life, and you'll know the value of the practice.
When we first start practising, having a specific technique is very helpful. We need to know what to do! Being clear about the mechanics of what we're doing can be very helpful, particularly for those of us in the West who like to understand things rather than simply blindly following along with what a teacher says even though nothing seems to be happening.
However, I said above that there's no 'best' technique, and that's true. Over time, you may encounter other techniques which point at the same target as the ones you're using. Maybe you've been working with the Brahmaviharas and then you encounter tonglen; maybe you've been using the breath to develop jhana and then you get into the fire kasina. Or maybe you simply start to wonder why other people seem to be getting similar results to you despite doing such different practices.
To quote the late, great Bruce Lee, 'It is like a finger pointing away to the moon. Don't concentrate on the finger or you will miss all that heavenly glory!' Each technique simply points us toward an underlying principle. For example, in samadhi practice, the underlying principle is steadying the mind on an object. We can do that with many techniques - by focusing on the breath, or using a candle flame, or reciting a mantra - but all techniques point to the same principle. And, once we recognise the principle, we can start to see how it shows up in many other techniques, including techniques which ostensibly serve another purpose - continuing the samadhi example, we may begin to notice more clearly how working with a koan or an energy practice can build samadhi, for example.
This is a very liberating stage of practice, because it frees us from our dependency on any particular method, and opens the door to a lot of creativity. The danger is that we then fall into doing just whatever we fancy at the time, which can turn into a subtle avoidance strategy. Hopefully, this is the point where a good teacher will keep us honest.
We can sometimes get to a point where our formal meditation practice feels like it's going very well, especially if we have the opportunity to go on retreat, but the benefits don't seem to extend much into daily life. And, indeed, it may be that our practice needs to evolve, to break down the barrier between 'practice time' and 'everything else'.
Nevertheless, in the long run 'practice' and 'life' ultimately become inseparable. Particularly once we've reached the principle that the technique was pointing to, we can start to see and apply that principle more and more widely. Continuing the samadhi example some more, maybe we can begin to approach simple tasks in daily life with the focused attitude of our samadhi practice, rather than allowing our minds to wander as they usually do. Gradually, we come to use our mental sharpness in more and more aspects of life, until it becomes fully integrated - an effortless, natural part of our being. Our garden is in bloom; we have fully become what we sought.
May you become what you seek.
Matt teaches early Buddhist and Zen meditation practices for the benefit of all. May you be happy!