The Art of Meditation
One Sentence Summary: Meditation, apart from numerous proven beneficial effects, allows us to develop our comprehension of the way our mind works, to better comprehend reality, to be less of a prisoner to our emotions and to be freer, thus attaining an abundance of true happiness; this book takes us by the hand to teach us in a simple way different methods for learning how to meditate and progressively arrive at becoming better versions of ourselves.
By Matthieu Ricard, 2008, 150 pages.
This book has not yet been translated into English, but like all of Matthieu Ricard’s books have been up to now (see for exemple The Monk and the Philosopher or Happiness), it is just a question of time before it is available in English. Here you are getting a fore-taste before it premieres 🙂
Note: I have just finished the 10 books in the Productivity & Effectiveness category of my crazy personal MBA challenge and I have learned several concepts and several techniques, methods and tricks for developing my productivity, my creativity, my ability to manage complex projects, etc, and integrated several concepts which I have not stopped thinking about, and which are changing my view of many things in the world (I am going to write an article next summarizing these concepts). However, as one reader pointed out – a little clumsily – in a comment about my article 10 Pearls of wisdom taken from my reading and my experience as an entrepreneur, being highly productive without seeking to be happier and finding real meaning in your life is obviously not a solution. It seems to me, actually, necessary to accompany research on performance and efficiency with finding your way and the significance that it brings to your life: “Science without conscience only ruins the soul.” If not we will become as absurd as the eating machine in Modern Times; we will be at the center of a system that is performing but has no soul, turning round and round, and exploding one day because it’s out of balance.
It seems to me then that the need for spirituality, whether religious or not, is a fundamental need with us humans – and it astounds me therefore that it does not feature in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, since it must eventually be used in personal accomplishment. There are several ways to seek and find meaning in your life, trying to be happier and feeling like a greater being on the inside. Meditation is one. I have chosen to experience this path because:
- It can be practiced independently of any religion – I am 150% atheist – alternatively, it can be completely integrated – all religions practice forms of meditation.
- It can be practiced for about 15 to 30 minutes a day, without requiring any special considerations or costly equipment – all you need is a quiet place and a little time. This allows us to integrate it completely within the constraints of our lives and makes it accessible to everyone.
- You can practice it to fulfill many objectives; to relax, to improve your self confidence, to find meaning in your life, to communicate with your god, the universe, etc. Therefore each of us can try to find what we are looking for.
- Many scientific studies, like this one (Harvard University), this one (University of Montreal) or this one (see also the conferences of the Mind & Life Institute or all these other studies) – have discovered or proven the many benefits of practicing meditation, such as:
- Considerable reduction in stress
- Reduction in anxiety, tendency towards anger and tendencies towards depression
- Noticeable reinforcement of the immune system
- Reinforcement of positive emotions and powers of attention
- A reduction in artery pressure among those with high blood pressure
Meditation is however a subject about which I know nothing, and which I have never practiced. How do I find my way through the jungle of books on the subject? By doing research on Amazon, I discovered this book by Matthieu Ricard. Matthieu Ricard is well known to the Buddhist community – he is a Buddhist monk and the French interpreter for the Dalaï-lama – he has the added advantage of being educated in the sciences – he has a doctorate in cellular genetics – and of writing in a very simple, accessible and measured way in his books. I have had occasion to look through his book , The Quantum and the Lotus and found it to be very relevant and interesting. I therefore ordered The Art of Meditation, which I am reviewing for you today, as well as Meditation for Dummies because the “For Dummies” collection is good for getting started in a subject – and this one is no exception, it’s excellent 😉
Summary and Book Review:
In the West, because of the hectic pace of our lives full of activities which keep us busy from morning till night we have little leisure to ponder the fundamental causes of happiness. Many of us think, more or less consciously, that the more we increase our activities, the more our feelings are intensified and our the more our dissatisfaction is eradicated, but in actuality, many of us are deceived and frustrated by the contemporary lifestyle. Unfortunately, we are often defeated because no solution seems viable, in particul`ar because the tradition that called for self transformation has fallen out of favor.
Meditation techniques, then, aim to transform the mind, without having to practice any special type of religion. We all have a mind, we can therefore all work with it. But is it desirable to change ourselves? Some people advocate a special chemistry between positive and conflicting emotions, qualities and defects, which come back to accepting oneself, loving yourself with your qualities and defects. The risk becomes living with chronic dissatisfaction so that you can improve yourself with a little effort or thought.
Imagine that you have been offered to spend a whole day experiencing jealousy. Would you accept that with pleasure? Not likely. On the contrary, if you were offered to spend the whole day having a heart full of love for others, would you accept it?
Our mind is frequently disturbed, and we are often tormented by sad thoughts, by anger, by the hurtful words that others say to us. At these moments, who doesn’t dream of controlling their emotions the better to be free and in control of himself? Very often, we pass through this suffering voluntarily, but we don’t know what is possible, because we believe it is “human nature.” However, we can train our mind to cultivate positive emotions, develop our altruistic self, our lucidity, out internal peace and our love and meditation is a superb way to do this.
However, improving our mind is not the work of a single day. It’s normal to spend years learning how to walk, read, write, acquire professional skills, and become better at different activities such as sport or art. By what miracle would the mind avoid this logic and be able to transform itself instantly without work? This would no more make sense than wanting to become a champion swimmer by swimming twice a month. We spend much more energy improving the external conditions of our existence, but in the end, it’s always our mind that experiences the world and translates it into well-being or suffering. If we transform our way of looking at things, we will transform the quality of our life. And this change is the result of training our mind, which is meditation.
What is meditation? It is a practice that allows us to cultivate and develop certain fundamental human qualities. Primarily it is a matter of becoming familiar with a clear and fair vision of things and cultivating the qualities that we all have inside us but which are often left fallow, in a latent state. The general idea is to improve oneself, and to transform ourselves in order to transform the world.
A full life is not created by a succession of pleasurable sensations, but from a transformation in the way in which we understand and overcome the hazards of existence. Meditation thus allows us to counteract mental toxins, our negative emotions, such as hate, obsession and anger, but also to acquire better knowledge of the way in which our mind works, and a fairer perception of reality.
Furthermore, meditation is, at the same time, a multitude of beneficial effects on health and well-being, as I said earlier. Let’s take a look at how to practice it.
- Chapter 2 : What should you meditate about?
The object of meditation is the mind, which is often confused, agitated, rebellious and subjected to numerous effects of conditioning and automatic reactions. The goal of meditation is to make it clearer and more balanced.
Meditation is subject to numerous clichés. Meditation does not consist of emptying your mind and blocking your thoughts – which is impossible – nor of engaging the mind in endless cogitations to analyze the past or the future. Nor is it a simple process of relaxation, even though there is an element of relaxation in meditation – but it is more like the relief associated with “letting go” of the attachments and whims of the ego that feed our internal conflicts.
Meditation consists of taking control of the mind, familiarizing yourself with a new understanding of the world, cultivating a way of being that makes you more free. Being free is being your own master. It does not mean doing everything and anything; it is overcoming the constraints of suffering that dominate and darken the mind, and taking your life in hand, by setting a course for a destination that you have chosen in complete awareness, rather than being the prisoner of destructive habits and mental confusion.
Meditation is not a way of escaping reality, it is a way to seeing reality as it is, up close and personal, and of unmasking the deep cause of our suffering and our mental confusion. To arrive at a fair vision of things, we meditate, for example, on the interdependency of all phenomena, on their ephemeral nature, and on the non-existence of the ego, in as much as it is seen to be a solid and autonomous entity which which we identify. Meditation is also based on the experience of generations of practitioners who dedicated their lives to it and then taught a great many empirical methods for practicing it. As with all apprenticeships, you must none-the-less explore for yourself the validity of these methods, and verify, then take internal ownership of the conclusions which these wise people arrived at.
To get there, you should begin by quieting your turbulent mind, which seems like a captive monkey, that is so active that it enchains itself and is incapable of undoing its own chains.
- Chapter 3: How to Meditate
You cannot learn how to meditate by reading, but by doing. It is however useful to follow the guidelines outlined by sages of the past, who offer in their works goldmines of information clearly exposing goals and methods for every meditation. Matthieu Ricard recommends in this long chapter – 110 pages of the 150 that comprise the book! – some preliminary advice for practicing meditation, then summarizes and simplifies, while removing as much as possible their underlying religious basis, some of the many methods for meditating. For each one he recommends one or more meditation subjects, of which I will give you some examples, as well as quotes by the great masters of meditation or different Dalai-Lamas.
Conditions Conducive to Motivation:
- Follow the advice of a qualified guide: To be able to mediate you must first learn how to do it. A qualified instructor is therefore essential. In the best case, this will be an authentic spiritual master, otherwise you must be content with a serious instructor, or texts which are based on trustworthy sources.
- A place conducive to meditation: It is possible and desirable to keep up the benefits of meditation when you are plunged into the river of life, but it is absolutely essential to train your mind in a conducive environment, especially when you begin. You need a quiet place, without distractions and where you won’t be disturbed.
- An appropriate physical posture: Physical posture influences your mental state. A posture called vajrasana in seven points is recommended:
Photo by edburton
- Legs are crossed in the lotus position, in which you begin by folding the right leg over the left, then the left over the right. If that’s too difficult you can adopt the “half-lotus” which consists of putting the right leg under the left thigh and the left leg under the right thigh.
- Hands resting in your lap (the space stretching from your waist to your knees when you are sitting down), the right hand on the left hand, with the ends of your thumbs touching.
- Shoulders are slightly raised and leaning forward.
- The spine is very straight, “like a pile of gold coins.”
- The chin is slightly tilted inwards towards the throat.
- The tip of your tongue is touching the roof of your mouth.
- Your eyes are looking straight ahead of you, or slightly downwards, along the length of your nose, eyes wide open or half-closed.
Turning your mind towards meditation
Four subjects for reflection should capture our attention and reinforce our determination to meditate:
- The value of human life
Apart from enjoying a minimum amount of freedom and opportunity, human existence offers extraordinary opportunities for internal development, and it offers us a unique chance to realize the potential we all possess. This potential, obscured by our ignorance and emotional disturbance, spends most of its time living deep inside us like hidden treasure. Note: this is like the story of the field of diamonds in Lead the Field.
- The ephemeral nature of all things
Human life, as short as it is, is priceless. Reflecting on its impermanence allows us to appreciate the value of time, being aware that every second of life is precious, even while it is mundane, lets time run through our fingers like gold.
Meditation: Let’s think about the flow of the seasons, months, days, every moment, and the changes that affect every aspect of human life; let’s think about final death, at some uncertain hour beyond our choosing. Who knows how much time I have left to live? Even if I live to a ripe old age, the end of my life will pass as quickly as the beginning. It is important therefore that I consider deep inside myself, what is really important about my existence, and that I use the time I have left to live in the most fruitful way for myself and others. If I have aspirations for meditation and developing my internal qualities, it is never too early to dedicate myself to it.
- Behaviors to adopt and to avoid
A sailor on the high seas, a mountain guide or a conscientious craftsman know that nothing good is obtained on the spur of the moment. And it is even more true if the goal you are pursuing is freedom from suffering. In order to know the best way to proceed, you must not depend on dogma to distinguish between good and evil or comply with pre-established conventions, but you must respect with clarity the mechanisms of happiness and suffering such as we are able to observe them for ourselves, through being attentive. We cannot foresee all the consequences of our action, but it is possible to examine our motivation and the goal we are pursuing, and assure ourselves that we are seeking true happiness and that of others.
Meditation: Let’s reach deep inside of ourselves and recognize that our desires are tied to suffering and finding authentic happiness. Let’s sincerely be conscious of the fact that all living human beings wish for the same thing. Let’s consider the ties that bind and the consequences caused by certain types of thoughts, words and actions – for example, those that inspire hate, greed, jealousy and arrogance – generate suffering and those that come from benevolence and wisdom lead to deep satisfaction. Let’s draw the conclusions we need to take from them about what we must do or not do and be determined to implement them.
- The inherent dissatisfaction of the ordinary world
Our actual situation is often far from being satisfying and a transformation is not only desirable, but possible. We can use the many distractions offered by our modern world to forget the unsatisfying aspects of existence, or even mask them behind attractive disguises – ceaseless activities, a flow of sensory experiences, pursuit of wealth, power and fame, etc – but we will always be brought back to reality and its burden of suffering. It is therefore preferable to look this reality in the face, to get to the root causes of unhappiness and cultivate true happiness.
Other subjects for meditation
Following, I give you some of the other subjects from among many that Matthieu Ricard deals with:
- Meditation on complete consciousness
The automatic nature of our thoughts, which barely allow us to notice what is happening in the moment, is the opposite of complete consciousness. The latter means being perfectly aware of everything that happens in yourself and all around you, of everything we see, hear or feel. The past is no more, the future has not yet happened, and the present is at once elusive and immutable. As Schrödinger put it, “The present is the only thing that has no end.” Cultivating complete consciousness of the present means that we must live lucidly in our present experience.
- Inner peace
To understand the true nature of the mind, you must pull back the veils created by automatic thought. To do this you must begin to allow the mind to become clear, calm and attentive. There are two techniques taught by Buddhist schools for doing this:
1. Calm-abiding or shamata. This is the state of mind that is peaceful, clear and perfectly focused on its objective. It prepares the way by making the mind a maleable, efficient and precise tool.
2. Insight ou vipashyana. This is insight into the nature of the mind and phenomena. You arrive at it by minutely analyzing the conscience, and by practicing contemplation of the inner experience. It frees the mind from the yoke of mental affliction and the veil of ignorance.
Our mind is unstable most of the time and constantly busy with internal chattering which keeps up a background noise which we are barely conscious of. This dysfunction is the result of the mind itself; it is therefore logical that is equally capable of fixing it.
Shamata aims to appease the tumult of thoughts by concentrating on a single one which rarely captures our attention; breathing in and out. Since we breathe constantly, using this as a means of focusing allows us to leverage a precious tool that is always available.
This practice involves three important steps:
- Turning your attention towards the chosen object, in this case, breathing.
- Keeping your attention on this object.
- Being completely conscious of its nature.
- Progressing towards inner calm
Gradually, your mind will find calm. However in the beginning it seems the opposite occurs; you get the impression of having even more thoughts than before. It is not really the amount that has increased, it is simply that you have become conscious of their abundance. Pacifying the tumult of thoughts can be done by following this five steps:
- The waterfall that flows over a cliff: thoughts follow one after another without stopping.
- A torrent descending a gorge: the mind alternates between periods of rest and activity.
- A wide river which flows unimpeded: the mind reacts when it is disturbed by events, otherwise it remains calm.
- A lake rippled with waves: the mind is gently agitated on the surface, but stays calm and alert deep down.
- A peaceful ocean: unshakeable and effortless no longer needs to fight against stray thoughts.
A progression such as this is not accomplished in a day, but sooner or later you will notice progress.
- Insight or vipashyana
We constantly superimpose on the world our truncated vision of reality, and the deformations that result are more causes of frustration and suffering. How many times have we considered someone or something to be totally desirable or totally detestable? With what force do we hold onto “me and “mine,” convinced that these concepts are sound?
Let’s imagine that we perceive the world as a dynamic flux of interdependent events the characteristics of which change endlessly as result of innumerable causes and do not intrinsically belong to the objects they define. The concepts of “me” and “mine” appear much more fluid and will no longer be the object of such powerful fixations.
In order to develop this insight, we must have a clear, focused and stable mind, which it is important to have prepared with shamata, calm-abiding. However, shamata allows us to quiet disturbed emotions for a moment, but not get rid of them. For this reason it is important to use insight to understand the fundamental nature of conscience, the way in which emotions arise and flow one into another, and how our mental fabric reinforces our ego.
Vipashyana can be practiced on different levels, in different ways and from different aspects, notably:
- How to reach a fairer understanding of reality.
- How to overcome the torment created by emotional disturbance.
- How to uncover the importance of ego and understand the influence exerted by the concept of our suffering and our well being.
- How to comprehend the fundamental nature of the mind.
- Let’s stop identifying ourselves with our emotions
One way of facing our emotional disturbance is to dissociate mentally from the emotion affecting us. Often, we completely identify with our emotions. When we are caught up in a fit of anger, we become one with it. Now, the mind is capable of analyzing what is happening to it. It is enough for it to notice these emotions as we would notice an external event taking place before our eyes. The part of our mind that is conscious of anger is simply conscious; it is not angry. The conscience as a whole is not affected by the emotions that is observes.
Understanding this allows us to take a step back, becoming aware that this emotion has no substance, and giving it enough space so that is can dissipate by itself, allow us to avoid two very harmful extremes: suppressing the emotion, which confines it to a corner of our mind like a time bomb, or letting it explode, to the detriment of those around us and our inner peace.
This is a marvelous book. Clear, concise, short and relevant at the same time, written in a simple language and readily adapted to the Western mentality, far from the esotericism of other works such as Vijnana-Bhairava, and rendered as neutral as possible from a religious point of view despite a Buddhist flavor, which is quite natural given the author’s beliefs. I have only just started to practice meditation, so I can’t really talk about the benefits yet – no doubt I will write an article on the subject soon – but this book is an excellent introduction and a pleasant, practical guide to accompany our first steps.
I am discovering with amazement that many of the concepts tied to Buddhism and meditation are common to many books about personal development, such as the need to be proactive and an actor in your own life and destiny, the ability of the mind to choose the reply it will give to external constraints, as psychologist Viktor Frankl, theorizes, the need for endless self improvement to become a better version of ourselves, how much more effective it is to change and create structure rather than fix problems as put forth in The Path of Least Resistance, etc.
Never-the-less, this book opens up a vast universe that is completely new, that I am embarking on with a lot of excitement and pleasure, just as I do each time I step out onto a new virgin continent 🙂 Meditation seems to be an extremely interesting path for exploration to better myself, which seems able to enter into perfect synergy with my objectives and my life, and there are many benefits that have been proven by multiple scientific studies.
The only criticism that I have of it is that it is difficult to summarize, not like other books because it heavy and long, but because Matthieu Ricard writes in such a concise and precise manner that I often have trouble doing anything other than paraphrasing or reproducing certain passages as is, to summarize their ideas 🙂 I have only given you a small number of the meditation points and methods that the author deals with.
So I recommend this book to everyone wishing to explore that nature of the mind in depth. For many of us, this book might be the door to exploring a new universe.
- Clear and concise
- Gets straight to the point
- As neutral as possible from a religious point of view – it is therefore suitable for everyone, no matter his or religion or non-religion.
- Concepts, methods and ideas dealt with in a simple manner suited to the Western mentality
- Opens the door to a new way of looking at the world and ourselves which could be extremely beneficial
- Immediately applicable to everyday life without the need for any equipment or investments
- All profits from the sale of this book are given back to the Karuna association, which manages a number of humanitarian projects
- I can’t find any – and honestly, that’s rare 😉
My rating :
Have you read the book? How do you rate it?
Translated by www.DeansResource.com