Sunday, November 28, 2010

Meditation techniques that I've been exposed to

An upfront caveat: I will have a few lines to describe the basics of each technique, but I really do not think it is possible to learn the technique from just those few lines. My description is based on my understanding of the technique and could potentially be incorrect. So please don't use this as a basis for practice. If something about a technique intrigues you, you should consult the references provided.

I earlier wrote about my journey into meditation and how I got started with the practice. I started in 2002 and since that time I've been exposed to several meditation techniques. This post discusses those techniques and provides references to the places and/or books from where I learned the technique.

Zen

As mentioned in my previous post, I was pointed to this technique by someone when I asked for help regarding challenges I was facing back in 1996. I was referred to Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind by Shunryu Suzuki, and that was my primary source for learning the technique. Zen meditation is simple -- it is all about focusing on the breath and gently letting go of all other thoughts. I only started regular practice of this technique in 2002 and only did it for about a year or so, at which point I started doing Vipassana.

Around that time, I also visited the Kannon Do Zen Meditation Center in Mountain View where they offer beginner instruction on Wednesdays.  I also stumbled upon Jikoji Zen Center during a random drive one weekend in the Santa Cruz mountains.

I spent a couple of days during Thanksgiving break in 2004 at Green Gulch, which is Zen monastery. By that time I was already practicing Vipassana, but I was looking for a place to get away for a couple of days. I spent a lot of time in sitting meditation. That was the first time I actually felt the tension in accumulated in my stomach (I've had hard-to-diagnose problems with digestion from as far back as I can remember). I wasn't able to release the tension, but at least I was able to feel it.

The Art of Living

I took an Art of Living class back in 2003. The class was 6 days -- Thursday and Friday evening, the entire day Saturday and Sunday, and then the evenings on the following Monday and Tuesday. The class taught several breathing exercises and the Sudarshan Kriya technique which was developed by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. Many of the people taking the class reported profound experiences, but I really didn't experience anything out of the ordinary.  (Searching for Sudarshan Kriya on the Art of Living website will yield several links on the benefits, etc.)

Following this class, I just returned back to "watching the breath".

Hong Sau

My next course in meditation was the Hong Sau technique taught by the Ananda Sangha organization of Paramhansa Yogananda (the author of "Autobiography of a Yogi"). I took this course at the Sacramento center around 2004. The course consisted of instruction once a week for about 2 hours for 2 or 3 weeks.

The technique is very similar to "watching the breath" with the addition of coordinating the mental repetition of "Hong" with the in-breath and "Sau" with the out-breath. ("Hong" means "I am", Sau means "spirit".) They also taught some basic yoga exercises for energizing the body, but somehow those never resonated with me.

I continued with this technique for quite a while (perhaps a few months) after which I again returned to simply "watching the breath". One of the things that I developed during this course, was the ability to sense the breath as it was entering and leaving the nostrils. Prior to that, my focus point had always been the belly.

Vipassana

Bear with me -- this one is going to be long. There are 2 different techniques which are commonly referred to as Vipassana and I'll be talking about both of them.

I first heard about Vipassana when I had just started meditating in 2002. A co-worker was putting up brochures for the visit of S. N. Goenka who was to speak about this technique at the DeAnza College in Cupertino. I was naturally curious about it since I was just starting out in meditation. I went for the talk, and the technique really appealed to me particularly because of its simplicity and non-sectarian nature, but also because Goenka mentioned that it had helped him cure his migraines. Vipassana means insight or wisdom, and practicing the technique is supposed to develop these qualities in the meditator. I was very inspired by this talk and wanted to learn the technique. However, the only way to learn this technique was to take a 10-day long residential course. An attractive thing about the course is that there is no charge to register or attend the course. However, the duration of the course was the biggest deterrent for me. I was also worried about things like getting brainwashed. So I tabled the idea of doing that course.

In 2003 while getting my wisdom teeth extracted in India, my dentist mentioned this technique to me and said that it had helped her a lot. Again, taking 10 days off to practice meditation was something I simply couldn't come to terms with at the time.

I did eventually take the course in 2007. I'll devote an entire post to the course (see here), but in short, there are two parts to this technique -- Anapana and Vipassana. Anapana is the development of concentration by observing the breath. Once the mind has achieved a reasonable level of concentration, the practice of Vipassana in which the sensations are observed begins. Observing the sensations without reacting to them eventually leads to liberation from craving and aversion. And as taught by the Buddha, craving and aversion are the cause of all suffering.

I have since found two other resources for learning this style of Vipassana, but I haven't used either. I just thought I'd mention them for someone that might be interested in finding out more about the technique without having to spend a full 10 days on it. One of them is Marshall Glikman's book Beyond the Breath: Extraordinary Mindfulness Through Whole-Body Vipassana Meditation. The other is another organization by S. N. Goenka's teacher, Sayagyi U Ba Khin, called the International Meditation Center which allows you to experience just the first 3 days of the course.

Before I took this course, between 2004 and 2007, I practiced a slightly different technique, but one which is also commonly referred to as Vipassana.

When I relocated to the Sacramento area in 2003, I looked around for a group to practice and learn meditation with and came across the Sacramento Buddhist Meditation Group. They meet every Sunday and have a guest speaker. Every month they have someone teach a 15-minute introduction to meditation to either the Zen or Vipassana styles. I went for an introductory course which was being taught by Dennis Warren. A few months later, I signed up for a 8 week course that met Monday evenings taught by Dennis at his group, Sacramento Insight Meditation. When I went for this course, I thought that the technique would be similar to that taught by Goenka. It is only much later that I found out that the two are really quite different.

In a nutshell, this technique uses four foundations -- the breath, the body, the mind, and the emotions. The observation of breath is used as an anchor to develop concentration and then as other things arise, e.g. a sensation in the body such as pain or tingling, a wandering of the mind into the past or the future, or an emotion such as sadness or anger, those are explored in further detail, and we return once again to the breath.

One of the best books I've found on this technique is Mindfulness in Plain English by Bhante Gunaratana. The book is available on the Internet for free in both html and pdf formats. The author runs a monastery called the Bhavana Society in West Virginia. Other places where this technique is taught are the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts, and Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Marin County, California.

Other techniques

Along the way, I was exposed to Jon Kabat-Zinn's work on Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR), of which Mindfulness Meditation is a part. This was around 2004-2005. I bought the Mindfulness Meditation CDs and used them a few times. For some reason, though, I never felt drawn to this.

Another book that I found interesting was Osho's Meditation: The First and Last Freedom which describes 63 different meditation techniques! Fortunately, they are described very briefly, probably to just give a reader a flavor of each technique.  (While the link points to the edition that I have which is now out of print, a newer edition may be available at the Osho Bookstore.)

I've also heard a lot about transcendental meditation (TM). TM is taught by the organization of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and also by other spiritual teachers such as Radha Soami of Beas. I have not had a chance to practice the technique taught by either of these. The latter is much less accessible because, before being initiated into the technique, one has to accept Radha Soami as one's spiritual teacher and take a vow to follow all of his precepts for one's entire life. From what I understand, TM is a "mantra-based" practice where you mentally repeat a specific mantra given at the time of initiation.

What do I practice now?

I'm back to just watching the breath. I found Vipassana too difficult to practice on a daily basis so I fell back to just doing Anapana. When practicing Vipassana, I felt my life getting harder and harder, and I thought meditation was supposed to make things easier! For now Anapana seems to be working reasonably well for me. It keeps me practicing and also seems to offer benefits through the rest of the day. As always, this is true only as of this writing and is subject to change.

2 comments:

  1. Excellent blog Anoop. Thanks for all the pointers!

    ReplyDelete
  2. I stumbled into this book in my local library last week. I liked the book a lot - has some good tips on anger mgmt and mindfulness. Free PDF version can be found at:

    www.baus.org/baus/library/PolishingTheDiamond.pdf

    Check it out.

    ReplyDelete