Experiences in Meditation
It was eight years ago, amid the material comforts of city living and the demanding pressures of academic pursuits, that I first encountered the gentle and profound teachings of the Buddha. At that time a natural curiosity about the nature of the mind, and encounters with the concepts of biology and theoretical physics, had awakened in me a healthy appetite for intellectual nourishment. It is therefore not surprising that I was immediately attracted to the philosophical and psychological genius of the Buddha. What I at that time accepted intellectually of Buddhism led me, in due course, to the practice of meditation, which is the central axis of Buddhist spiritual life.
I began my meditation practice with mindfulness of breathing (anapana-sati) and cultivation of loving-kindness (metta-bhavana), two techniques widely practised by Theravada Buddhists in Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Burma. As I had no teacher at the time, and consequently had to rely on a small paperback manual on Buddhist meditation, my practice did not really take off. It remained intermittent and rather unenthusiastic until some five years ago, when I met my Buddhist teacher, the Venerable Shravasti Dhammika. He became instrumental in launching me into serious and committed meditation practice, practice that has continued to the present day.
The above preamble sets the background for this account of my subjective experiences during some two years of practising mindfulness of breathing and loving-kindness meditation. In the first half-year, this comprised a daily average of fifteen minutes of mindfulness of breathing followed by ten minutes of loving-kindness meditation. By the second year, the daily average for the two types of meditation had increased to about forty minutes and twenty minutes respectively. That second year also included two semi-intensive retreats. The first retreat lasted four days, during which the daily practice time totalled four and a half hours; the second was of three days duration, with the daily practice time increased to six hours. This, however, was not the whole of my meditative regime during the period in question. I was also practising general mindfulness (satipatthana) as far as possible when not engaged in formal mindfulness of breathing and loving-kindness meditation. However, that mindfulness practice is not described here.
The Meditative Techniques
Mindfulness of breathing, or anapana-sati, is a traditional Buddhist meditation technique aimed at purifying and unifying the mind through sustained concentration on the breath during inhalation and exhalation. Attention is fixed at the nostrils, at the point against which the moving air strikes, because it is there that the entry and exit of breath can be observed. No attempt is made to hold or stop the breath, or to deliberately deepen or force it into a definite time rhythm. As Nyanaponika Thera states, “The only task here is to follow the natural flow of the breath mindfully and continuously, without a break or without unnoticed break.” Any thoughts that arise in the course of the meditation are merely noted, and attention is gently returned to the point of observation. A major goal of the practice is the attainment of states of deep unification called jhanas, characterised by total immersion of the mind in its object and a progressive elimination of thoughts and emotions.
Meditation on loving-kindness, or metta-bhavna, is another traditional Buddhist meditation technique. It has the twofold aim of (a) strengthening the quality of unbounded and universal loving-kindness within the mind, and (b) attaining the first three jhanas. The practice begins with sitting quietly with fully or half closed eyes and back erect, and arousing within oneself the emotion of joy and kindness. One then silently wishes “May I be well and happy,” while suffusing oneself with kind and loving emotions. This is followed by evoking the image of someone that one respects or likes, and extending these emotions to him or her, while wishing, “May you be well and happy.” The same procedure is then used in turn for a neutral person, a disliked person, and finally for all sentient beings. It thus involves a gradual progression in the extension of loving-kindness, from the individual to all living beings without exception, and in all directions: in front, to the right, behind, to the left, below and above. The commentarial advice given for beginners in this practice is not to extend loving-kindness to someone of the opposite sex, as this might evoke emotions of lust or attachment. A dead person who was dear to one is also an unsuitable object, as this might arouse emotions of grief and sadness. It is stressed that the first person to be suffused with loving-kindness should be oneself, since self-acceptance forms the basis of any genuine acceptance of other beings.
The First Four Months
I began meditating with fifteen minutes of mindfulness of breathing each day. During the first few weeks of practice, I was overwhelmed by the barrage of thoughts, images, emotions, and even sounds or voices, that were constantly “swimming” in the mind. This was not evident to me until I had to make repeated attempts to focus attention on a single object (the breathing). I started to become aware of how unaware I had always been of these ubiquitous mental states and contents. The constant flow of images and inner sounds would so often occupy the entire field of consciousness that it was extremely difficult to pay concentrated attention to the breath. This led to a gradual build-up of frustration and doubt, which on certain days grew almost unbearable. On such days I would abandon my fruitless attempts to attend to the breath and instead engage in chanting traditional praises to the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha. This would often result in a certain degree of upliftment and purity of mind that imparted a quiet tranquility to my otherwise difficult practice.
Devotional practices, such as chanting and symbolic offerings of light, flowers and incense, while not essential to Buddhist practice, have often been found useful in calming and unifying the mind — a valuable preliminary to formal meditation practice. With persistent effort, and a firm, affirming confidence in Dhamma, I was gradually able to maintain concentration on the breath for increasingly longer periods without unnoticed break. By the end of the fourth month of practice, I was able to maintain concentration for twenty minutes at a time with comparative ease.
Each day, following my mindfulness of breathing, I would proceed to the practice of loving-kindness meditation. This involved extending loving thoughts and feelings to myself and others without undue thinking and emotional involvement. My initial attempts brought the feeling that the whole procedure was rather contrived and artificial. I had felt, at the time, that the practice was not very different from the psychological technique of auto-suggestion and therefore was suspect. Nevertheless, I decided to temporarily suspend my scepticism and critical appraisal of the practice so as to give it a fair trial.
Another difficulty I encountered in the course of this practice was constant emotional involvement in the images I had evoked, whether of a loved one or of a disliked one, often resulting in a whole train of discursive thinking connected with the images. At such times I would forget the aim of the practice and become completely immersed in my personal mental melodramas. It usually took me some time to notice that I had wandered. This recognition had the effect of automatically re-establishing the practice. By the end of the first two months, I was feeling increasingly doubtful about the value of this practice. The sense of its artificiality came to me with greater intensity than before. I persisted nevertheless. By the fourth month of practice, I found myself more able to stay with the practice without being sidetracked. I also began to feel more natural and at ease with the procedure.
The First Year
By this time in my breath-watching practice, the flow of thoughts was no longer the main problem. Instead, the increased ability to sustain attention elicited an intensifying boredom in the observation process. The breath was by nature not at all interesting to watch, and I was very quickly overcome by a dullness and drowsiness of mind. There came a point when brief periods of awareness would be interrupted by longer periods of a semi-consciousness, sleep-like state, during which the mind was totally inattentive to the breath. The meditation sessions often resulted in a heavy, uncomfortable pressure in the head that would subside whenever the mind was aroused by some object or activity of great interest. This made me more aware of the intimate link between the body and the mind, and of how profoundly psychological states influence one’s physical condition.
By the beginning of the seventh month of practice, I was sitting in meditation for a total of forty-five minutes per day: half an hour of mindfulness of breathing, followed by fifteen minutes of loving-kindness meditation. Drowsiness continued to be a problem in observing the breath, but never seemed to interfere with the practice of extending kind and loving thoughts. This seemed to be because radiating loving-kindness to mentally-evoked images aroused more interest than watching the breath at the nostrils. It was not until the end of the seventh month of breathing practice that I began to experience a relative freedom from drowsy episodes, except on days when I was physically tried.
There were days when the benefits of meditation practice became apparent to me, as the mind began to grow in calmness and alertness. Such times were often characterized by a pliancy and lightness of mind coupled with a seemingly effortless attention to the breathing process. During these periods, I noted a sense of enthusiastic interest in the practice. Whenever this mental quality was present, boredom and drowsiness would be absent. With this noticing of the mutual exclusivity of incompatible mental states, I felt I had realized a simple but significant and fundamental aspect of the nature of the mind. On certain occasions, this enthusiastic interest in Dhamma practice would manifest as an emotion of uplifting joy which would pervade the whole upper body. Any thoughts that were still present seemed to have lost much of their force and energy, such that they no longer had the power to distract the focused attention.
Upon terminating the meditation session, I would experience a deep sense of peace and relaxation, which would linger on throughout the day, as long as activities were not too rushed or emotionally intense. Also, such occasions would result in a spontaneous and expansive flow of warm and kind feelings, which naturally led to a deep and genuine experience of loving-kindness for all beings. On such days, and for a long time after that, my earlier doubts about, and resistance to, loving-kindness practice dissolved. I was finally able to touch a deep and loving part of my heart to a degree I never thought possible. The gradual extension of loving-kindness from myself to all beings resulted in a state of consciousness which, though brief, was blissful, expansive, and non-limiting.
The Second Year
In the second year of practice, I increased the mindfulness of breathing to forty minutes daily and the loving-kindness meditation to twenty minutes. It was also during this period that I did the two semi-intensive retreats mentioned earlier. My ability to attend to the breath without unnoticed break steadily improved, though it was still not without the regressions into excessive discursive thinking, worries, fantasies, and occasional bouts of drowsiness. I noticed that whenever the mind was immersed in trains of thoughts, there was almost invariably some underlying emotional state that seemed to be generating these thoughts: worry, fear, anticipation, excitement, or (more subtly) a state of apathy or lack of interest (resulting in thoughts as a means of distraction or entertainment). Generally, however, there was improved concentration and a heightened capacity to be relaxed yet alert and relatively tranquil in the course of my daily life.
In loving-kindness practice there was becoming evident an increased ability to feel genuine and sincere acceptance of, even warmth for, a disliked person. As I practised looking deeply at the image of the disliked person in question, with a non-judgemental mind, and without entering into unprofitable conceptual proliferation about her faults and weaknesses, I found myself more able to appreciate her as another being who shares in the universal ailments of greed, aversion, delusion, and hence suffering. With this change in perspective came a corresponding decrease in dislike and an increase in warm, positive feeling for the person. These manifested in an improved and more harmonious relationship between us. It was also becoming increasingly easy for me to extend deep feelings of love and acceptance to myself, to those dear to me, and in fact to all beings. While it was technically impossible to conceptualize each and every living being in the universe, it remained possible for me to visualize as many beings as I could recall (both human and non-human) and to relate similar feelings of warmth and love to them without judging or discriminating.
One profound experience I had in the course of this practice left a deep and lasting impression on me. On the occasion in question, I sat and commenced with mindfulness of breathing as usual, which left my mind with a sense of lightness and happiness. As I proceeded to wish myself well and happy, a sudden gush of rapturous joy welled up within me in the region of the middle chest, then spread and permeated my neck, face, head, shoulders, hands, and even down to my lower abdomen. With this pervasive and uplifting feeling came a momentary one-pointedness and an expansion of the spatial boundaries of consciousness. In retrospect, I realised that in that moment of oneness and expansion the mind was totally still with not a single thought. However, slight trickles of thought soon re-emerged as the experience of mental concentration and expansion gradually faded. These thoughts seemed to move much more slowly than usual and lacked the power to disturb my tranquillity. In such a state, I continued with the expansion of loving-kindness to a dear one, a neutral person, a disliked person, and finally to all beings, with a depth, authenticity, and naturalness that previous sessions had lacked. I was left with an openness of heart and a sensitivity of spirit that carried over into the next two days or so.
There were also three related experiences worth mentioning here. The first was an ability to notice increasingly minute details of the breathing process. I noticed that every inhalation ended with a short pause, during which no movement of the breath occurred; then followed the movement of exhalation, which ended in another short pause. This cycle repeated itself with the commencement of the next inhalation. I also observed that even the fleeting phenomenon of a single breath (one inhalation or exhalation) had extension in time, a distinct beginning, middle, and end of movement. The attention, however, was not equally keen and clear in all three phases, the middle and end of each breath often being more distinct than the beginning. It seemed to me that the reason for this was that breathing had been so much an unconscious and involuntary process that I was normally unaware of its existence, let alone of the distinct phases of the whole process. It was thus to be expected that any attempt to observe the process keenly would result in an intermittent awareness, which often arose somewhat more slowly than the inhalation itself. The task was, therefore, to cultivate an evenly-applied mindfulness that would sustain itself through all three phases of the inhalation — and indeed through the whole breathing cycle, incorporating the pauses and and the three phases of each inhalation and exhalation. The recognition that an evenly-applied mindfulness was my next task proved to be another important insight into how the mind is to be focused — an insight that has greatly facilitated my concentration practice since then.
I therefore put an increased amount of energy into watching clearly the distinct phases of both inhalation and exhalation together with the pauses, with the aim of sustaining an even, continuous attention throughout. With repeated effort, I finally succeeded in achieving this for an extended period. Following this a new type of sensory experience became apparent. I felt vivid tactile sensations, in the form of subtle rapid vibrations, at the tip of each nostril and around the upper lip. These tactile sensations became more distinct and concrete whenever mindfulness increased in intensity and duration. At this stage, when strong continuous mindfulness was present, the three phases of the breathing were no longer apparent, as they seemed to have dissolved into a rapid succession of minute vibrations. The flow of rapid vibrations occupied the whole field of consciousness, and there was a deep one-pointedness and an immense vacuity of mind. For an instant, my whole physical world would seem to have collapsed into oblivion, with a total loss of bodily perceptions except for the concentrated awareness of rapid vibrations.
From this second experience, and apparently as a direct consequence of it, there immediately followed the third experience. Sustained application of attention to the vibratory sensations would gradually lead to a point where the vibrations would suddenly disappear, leaving a spacious ground of greatly expanded awareness that seemed to have no distinct boundaries. It was as if the threshold of consciousness had been reached. This altered state of consciousness was, however, very short-lived, lasting only for a finger-snap. Its termination was followed by the preceding experience of tactile vibrations. This profound experience occurred very rarely, and mostly during the periods of retreat when the pressures and distractions of mundane existence were largely absent. It would invariably result in a state of strong mindfulness and mental clarity, heightened perceptual sensitivity and calmness, which would then persist for hours or even days on end.
The above is a phenomenological account of my experience with mindfulness of breathing and loving-kindness meditation. It is of interest to compare this account with the Buddha’s descriptions of meditative experience as recorded in the Pali suttas.
The first jhana, the first stage in the process of mental unification, is repeatedly described in the suttas as follows:
Being thus detached from sense desires, detached from unwholesome states, he enters and remains in the first jhana, which is with thinking, and pondering, born of detachment, filled with delight and joy. [D.i, 73]
As mentioned earlier, there was a time during my breath-watching practice when, in the absence of certain “unwholesome” states (namely frustration, doubt, drowsiness, excessive thinking) and the presence of enthusiasm and joy, the mind was effortlessly attentive to the breathing process, pliant, and light. “Thinking” and “pondering” were present but the thoughts lacked the energy and power to distract the mind from its object of concentration. This experience seems to correspond very closely to the Buddha’s description of first jhana.
In the Tevijja Sutta, the Buddha describes how the noble disciple goes forth into the holy life, practises the moralities, attains the first jhana (account similar to the one above), and then proceeds to loving-kindness meditation:
Then, with his heart filled with loving-kindness, he dwells suffusing one quarter, the second, the third, the fourth. Thus he dwells suffusing the whole world, upwards, downwards, across, everywhere, always with a heart filled with loving-kindness, abundant, unbounded without hate or ill-will. [D.i, 250-251]
As mentioned before, when my loving-kindness meditation was preceded by a pliancy and lightness of mind with relative freedom from thoughts, spontaneous feelings of joy and warmth would arise from within and lead to an almost effortless pervasion of the whole world with loving-kindness. In that state, the mind was filled with a sense of delight and openness. This experience seems to correspond to the Buddha’s description just quoted. More importantly, it lends credence to the idea of sequential progression in meditative training: prior attainment of the first jhana greatly facilitates successful practice of extending loving-kindness.
The sutta description of the second jhana is as follows:
Again, a monk, with the subsiding of thinking and pondering, by gaining inner tranquillity and oneness of mind, enters and remains in the second jhana, which is without thinking and pondering, born of concentration, filled with delight and joy. [D.i, 74]
In describing one profound experience I had in the course of loving-kindness practice, I mentioned three specific mental factors present, namely an uplifting joy permeating my body, mental one-pointedness, and a momentary but total absence of thoughts. This experience was, therefore, significantly similar to the Buddha’s description of the second jhana.
The sutta describe a further set of advanced meditative attainments, namely the arupa or formless jhanas, four distinct and progressively more subtle stages. The first arupa jhana is described as follows:
By completely transcending all perception of matter, by the vanishing of the perception of sense reactions, and by non-attention to the perception of variety, realising: “Space is infinite,” one enters and abides in the Sphere of Infinite Space. [D.ii, 71]
I described above the experience of rapid subtle vibrations that occupied the whole field of consciousness, with loss of body sense and of perception of distinct breath phases. This bears a loose similarity to the sutta account just quoted. The disappearance of body sense and of distinct breath phases seems to correspond to the “vanishing of the perception of sense reactions” and “non-attention to the perception of variety.” The sense of limitless expansion of the mind-space — filled completely by the perception of subtle vibrations — and the apparent disappearance of the breath and the physical world, further suggest that my experience was of the first arupa jhana.
The second arupa jhana is described thus:
By transcending the Sphere of Infinite Space, thinking: “Consciousness is infinite,” one enters and abides in the Sphere of Infinite Consciousness. [D.ii, 70]
This invites comparison with the third set of experiences described earlier. The sudden disappearance of the vibrations, accompanied by dissolution of the boundaries of consciousness and thus attainment of a wider-encompassing awareness, can be seen as corresponding to the characteristics of the second arupa jhana as just quoted.
Some Final Thoughts
Diligent and sustained practice of mindfulness of breathing and loving-kindness meditation is a fruitful and spiritually fulfilling endeavour that results in an enhanced state of awareness and a transformation of unwholesome mental patterns in one’s daily life. The above comparison indicates, furthermore, that the altered states of consciousness to which these practices lead correspond closely to certain of the jhanas as described in the Pali texts.
An important point to note is that the jhanas are not permanent states which, once arisen, will remain unfluctuating. Persistent diligent, and insightful practice is essential to the consolidation of such positive mental states in one’s meditation and life.
Personally, I find that these practices have brought a deeper understanding of the following words of the well-known meditation master, Sumedho Thera:
[The Buddhist texts] are not meant to be “sacred scriptures” that tell us what to believe. One should read them, listen to them, think about them, contemplate them, and investigate the present reality, the present experience with them. Then, and only then, can one insightfully know the truth beyond words.
[Originally published in The Meditative Way: Readings in the theory and practice of Buddhist meditation, edited by Rod Bucknell and Chris Kang (Richmond: Curzon, 1997).]
Sincere thanks to Ti.nh Tue^. for providing this article.