Five things to do at the end of a meditation session
Last week we looked at five things to do at the beginning of a meditation session, using a list from my teacher on the Early Buddhist side, Leigh Brasington. Leigh also has a list of five things to do at the end of each session, so let's take a look at those too!
(You can find Leigh's own thoughts on these steps on his website - what follows will be my interpretation of the same principles.)
(Leigh's term for this is 'recapitulation' but I find 'review' easier to remember.)
So, you've made it all the way to the end of your meditation session without screaming, throwing your timer at the wall or giving up and going for a walk. Well done! But before you rush off to do something else - and, by the way, if you've had a difficult sit, notice how much more relaxed you feel now that the bell has rung, even though almost nothing has changed yet - it can be helpful to review what just happened.
First up, what was the state of your body and mind at the beginning of the session (and, more broadly, especially off retreat, what were you bringing with you to the cushion)? Were you highly agitated, sleepy, hyper-caffeinated, ill, short on time? What effect did that have on the practice? Do you notice trends emerging over time (e.g. every time you sit down to do Silent Illumination when you're tired, you fall asleep without fail)?
Next, what was your practice or practices? What happened during the course of the meditation? Did your mind settle? If you were doing a samadhi practice, did you enter jhana or an equivalent state? If so, how did you get there?
(It's worth noting that Leigh teaches jhana retreats, and so in that context this step is mainly about looking at the quality of your jhana practice. The hardest part in the early days of jhana work is figuring out how to get into the first jhana at all, and so taking time to review which approaches worked and which didn't can be invaluable. Each person ultimately learns their own route into jhana, so it's essential to have a degree of introspection into the mechanics of your personal practice. That said, the same is true of other practices such as the Brahmaviharas too, so the review step is useful for all practitioners, not just people learning the jhanas.)
(Leigh puts this step third, but to me it makes more sense for it to flow naturally from the reviewing process.)
Something else to consider is what you learnt from the practice - whether any insights cropped up. Insights can come on the relative level, telling you something about yourself (for example, the discovery of a deep psychological mechanism which has been making unhelpful life choices for you for twenty years), or on the absolute level, telling you something about the nature of experience itself (for example, that all experience is mind-originated and we are not fundamentally separate from the rest of the universe).
Insights are tricky beasts. An insight is not the same as an experience - we can have a dramatic experience in meditation and learn nothing useful from it, or we can have a profound, life-changing insight with no experiential fireworks whatsoever, just a simple falling-into-place of understanding.
When we do have an insight, it's useful to take some time to reflect on it. My Zen teacher Daizan strongly recommends keeping a meditation diary and taking a few minutes for a 'brain dump' after every sitting, making a note of anything useful that you've learnt. At the same time, though, we should be careful not to over-intellectualise what we've learnt in practice. Meditative insight is transformative only when it's experiential in nature and fully embodied in our day-to-day life - otherwise it rapidly becomes just another spiritual trophy on the shelf, a story to tell other practitioners about 'that time I saw emptiness' to show what a great meditator you are.
(Leigh puts this step second, so I've switched Insights and Impermanence.)
One of the central insights in all forms of Buddhism is the impermanent nature of the phenomena of our experience. Everything comes and goes - civilisations, nations, loved ones, the food we eat, each breath we take. Nothing is ultimately stable or reliable, and trying to hold on to something and force it to be solid, dependable and permanent is a recipe for suffering.
Thus, we take a moment to recognise the impermanent nature of all things. Your practice is now over. Even if jhanas arose during the practice, they're gone now; if the practice has left you feeling peaceful, content or joyful, that's beautiful, but it too will pass sooner or later. While this might seem like a bit of a downer (what's the point in practising contentment if I'm just going to feel stressed again later?), it's really an opportunity to appreciate and celebrate whatever positive or beautiful qualities we experience in our practice and our lives right now, precisely because we know they won't be around forever. Sooner or later it all goes away, whether or not we choose to take a moment to enjoy it - so isn't it better to make sure we do take that moment when we can?
Impermanence is also particularly important to recognise if we've had an insight (noted in step 2) which was bound up in an experience. Experiences come and go, but insights change the way we see the world, and the deepest ones can't fully be un-seen or forgotten. However, if we associate the insight with the experience, we might start to feel like we're 'losing our awakening' when the experience wears off.
4. Dedication of merit
In last week's article we saw how Leigh's suggested things to do before a sitting helped to create a positive, supportive environment for meditation in part by connecting our practice to a wider context beyond ourselves.
In the same way, the dedication of merit at the end of any period of practice is a traditional Buddhist ritual used to re-connect ourselves with our wider community. Sometimes I'll end a day-long retreat by ringing a meditation bell three times and saying 'May any merit from our practice today be for the benefit of all beings.'
But wait, what's this 'merit' stuff? And where did this suspiciously religious-looking ritual business come from?
The concept of karma is found throughout Buddhist teachings - and it often means subtly or even wildly different things depending on the era of the text you're reading or the teacher who's talking about it. In modern-day Thailand, for example, it's common to hear people talking about 'making merit' by doing good actions, like if you do enough good stuff then it 'balances out' the bad stuff you've done on some set of cosmic scales. (I read a book once where the main character was involved in activities that she regarded as creating negative karma, but it was to earn money to send her highly intelligent kid brother to university so that he could become a doctor and help many people, and by her calculations the positive karma he would create through his work would outweigh the negative karma of her actions, so she regarded it as a net positive.)
In the Pali canon, we find the Buddha talking about karma (kamma in Pali) as 'intention'. He points to something that modern neuroscientists also recognise - whatever we do frequently becomes habitual, as our minds become trained to move in that direction naturally and instinctively. So if we routinely meet difficult situations with anger, we'll be more likely to respond with anger in the future, whereas if we practise responding with compassion instead, we'll be more likely to display compassion instinctively in the future. Personally, I find this a more useful way to relate to karma than the 'cosmic scales of justice' thing, because otherwise we have to explain why bad things happen to good people and so forth, which gets into multiple lifetimes and all that jazz.
Whatever you think about karma, though, the ultimate purpose of practice in the Buddhist context is the alleviation of suffering - and, with my Zen/Mahayana hat on for a moment, not just our own suffering, but the suffering of all beings. Our practice goes far beyond ourselves - the changes we make in ourselves are reflected in our relationships and interactions with other people, and those people will go on to interact with others, and on and on - the web of influence that spreads out from our personal thoughts, words and deeds reaches far and wide.
So it can be worth taking an explicit moment to remember that web of interconnection at the end of a practice. Even if you've just had the best sit of your life, experienced lots of wonderful jhanas or had lots of deep insights, this isn't ultimately about how great you are, and please don't run around telling everyone how much more enlightened you are than them. Dedicate the merits of your practice to the benefit of all. The interesting thing about this work is that, the more you give it away, the more you have...
5. Continuing mindfulness
In the context of a jhana retreat, off-cushion mindfulness is really important, because the concentration that you build up in your meditation practice is easily frittered away if you return to a scattered state when the practice ends. If you're trying to learn the jhanas, it's helpful to have the best concentration you can possibly muster, which means guarding the sense doors and paying attention to what you're doing between sits.
More generally, perhaps the biggest pitfall for experienced meditators is to 'compartmentalise' the practice. It can be easy to think that, because you meditate for twenty minutes every day, that's all you have to do - and yet, after a few years, you start to notice that you have a lovely experience whenever you go on retreat, but it all falls to bits when you come back to daily life, despite your best efforts to hold on to whatever peace of mind you found on the retreat. But if you've established a boundary between your 'spiritual life' (which happens all day on retreat, but only for 20 minutes a day off retreat) and 'normal life', even unknowingly, you'll tend to find that most of the benefits of your spiritual practice are confined to those moments when you're engaged in your 'spiritual life'.
Ultimately, the practice goes far deeper if we widen our sense of 'spiritual life' to include everything that we do. Our relationships, our work, our most mundane activities can all become opportunities for practice - which is not to say that we start having artificial conversations with our loved ones because we're trying to 'practise compassion' or whatever, but simply that we continuously work at bringing clear, bright awareness and total presence into whatever situation we find ourselves in, rather than spending most of our lives only half there, always thinking about what we'd rather be doing.
In the long run, we do this practice not to reach some final point where we don't have to practise any more. Rather, we practise so that this way of relating to our experience - with presence, clarity and openness - becomes who we are.
May all beings benefit from the merit of our practice!
Matt teaches early Buddhist and Zen meditation practices for the benefit of all. May you be happy!