Meditation Pro-Tips Vol. 1
1. Letting Go of Control
Nothing of any permanent value can occur via meditation until you let go of control. Letting go of control is a process that can be learned, and it leads to stillness, silence, bliss and equanimity rushing in to fill its place. Once control over an item has been let go of, it never returns. Peace will forever fill that space. Letting go of control, in itself, is a complete path to enlightenment. It is also the principal method behind zazen / “Do Nothing” / shikantaza.
The following pro-tip is for a nondirective meditation with a dash of directive insight.
The first session should be a nondirective meditation such as zazen, “Do Nothing”, or shikantaza. However, an intention should be made before the session to simply notice any attempt by the mind to control the contents of awareness. There is no intervention at this stage. The first session is a fact-finding mission, but it should prove very illuminating.
The second session proceeds like the first. However, upon the first detection of the mind attempting to control the contents of awareness, ask yourself the following question: “What is the thing that is trying to control?” Turn awareness towards that thing.
The above is an insight meditation designed to be solved via practice and direct experience. Please attempt the practice before looking up the answer. To see the answer, hover over the following text: MPTV1.1
2. Stopping Effort by Noticing Effort
One of the main principles of “Do Nothing” meditation (e.g. shikantaza) is that no effort is to be applied to the meditation. This is in direct contradiction to techniques normally employed in meditation, e.g. “watching the breath”, which require significant effort! However, the no-effort meditation is demonstrably superior, because it leads to the permanent relinquishing of effort in daily life. You might not realize it now, but almost all of your life energy is spent trying to avoid, expel, or work around unpleasant thoughts. There is an option however to simply let the thought be, without expending any effort at all on it, at which point it vanishes and is replaced by stillness, silence, bliss and equanimity.
The following pro-tip is for a nondirective meditation with a dash of directive insight.
Begin a session of “just sitting”. The goal, as you should know, is just to sit and not apply any effort — and to drop effort as it arises. How do you do this? Well, you simply notice each time you apply any effort. This can be done verbally, by saying “Effort” whilst noticing the effort you are applying. It can also be noticed non-verbally if you are capable of that action. That’s all it is. Simply notice each time you are applying effort towards your meditation.
The above is an insight meditation designed to be solved via practice and direct experience. Please attempt the practice before looking up the answer. To see the answer, hover over the following text: MPTV1.2
3. Focus on Silence
Putting awareness on mental silence, and then sitting in that mental silence, is the quickest way to attain jhana. However, being able to notice mental silence in itself requires some concentration skill. The funny thing about mental silence is that outside sounds can be very loud but mental silence can still be found within that noisy landscape.
The following pro-tip is for a directive concentration meditation where the object is silence.
Firstly, there is the act of finding silence. To do this, ask yourself what it would be like to hear nothing, right now. Then mentally scan for a bit of the audio field with nothing in it, i.e. silence. The first part of this cue acts as an auto-suggestion, i.e. you ask your mind to find a patch of silence in the audio field, and it dutifully does so, even going so far as to temporarily create one for you.
Finding this silence is instantly relieving. However, it is generally short-lived, because both outside sounds and internal thoughts are still taking place, and monkey-mind wants to switch onto those rapidly. To find more of the silence, the mind’s default behaviour is to begin grabbing for it. This creates a tension, which is palpable. Via this process of tension, the mind is trying to suppress outside and inside sounds because it preferred the patch of silence. While being able to do this is itself an attainment from the perspective of the beginner, it will not lead to jhana.
In order to create more of the mental silence in an authentic way, you have two options:
The first is simply to retrigger the initial question. Ask, “What would it be like to hear nothing, right now?” With practice you can eliminate the verbal cue entirely, and simply scan the audio field for a patch of authentic silence, or nothingness. This patch will usually be found somewhere inside the ear, close to the ear drum (in actuality, it is located at the vagus nerve). This silence will quickly disappear, yet again. Let it go, and trigger the scan again. Do not settle for anything other than authentic mental silence. With practice, the act of “hearing nothing” can even be done in extremely loud external conditions. It is extremely subtle and fleeting at first. With practice however, authentic mental silence can become a stable object which can be enjoyed and sat in until jhana is achieved. This is a type of concentration practice where all input except the object (silence) is excluded from awareness, progressively over time, via applied and sustained attention.
The second option is to employ an insight method. Use the first trigger, “What would it be like to hear nothing, right now?”, and find a patch of authentic mental silence or “hearing nothing”. Now ask yourself, “What is disturbing that silence?” The answer is, absolutely any external and internal sound – i.e. ambient noises and internal verbal thoughts. Asking “What is disturbing that silence?” brings great mindfulness to those forces, those sounds both internal and external, that would disturb your internal silence. Such mindfulness causes those disturbances to dissipate, and stillness, silence, bliss and equanimity to rush in in their place. You should assume that authentic internal silence is your birthright, and your default state, and that the noises which disturb that silence are something to be seen through. This is the exact opposite of the default human mindset, which is that noises are normal and silence is weird. Reversing that mindset is simply a matter of practice, and of noticing that the mind actually prefers the silence.
4. Focus on Nasal Congestion
The following pro-tip is for a directive concentration meditation where the object is the breath.
A common complaint during directive breath meditation is that a point is reached where one can no longer feel the sensations of the breath at the nose. This typically has a number of official solutions, including (but not limited to):
- Watching the “pause”.
- Feeling the subtle breath instead (the faint, weird sensations of cool air blowing over one’s nostrils or face, despite the lungs not moving).
- Switching object to a pleasant sensation somewhere in the body.
- Moving awareness to the movement of breathing at the belly instead.
Each of these methods can be made to work.
My pro-tip however is that, in the nose, there is always some feeling of congestion – i.e. a slight feeling of a blocked nose – even if the airway otherwise feels pretty clear. There is likely a congested feeling somewhere in the nose or sinus area, if you look for it. Move awareness onto this feeling of congestion. This tends to put awareness back in the vagus nerves, where it needs to be for directive breath meditation. Although this awareness will not usually clear the congestion immediately (and this is not the goal), it will however start the breath back up again and allow breath sensations to be perceived “within” the congestion. This can breathe new life into a “stopped” breath meditation, and allow one to continue focusing on the breath until jhana arises in its own time.
5. Use a Light Touch with Concentration
The following pro-tip is for directive concentration meditation with any object.
In many ways, “concentration” is a bad translation when it comes to samatha practice, a.k.a. “concentration meditation”. In English, the word “concentration” conjures the image of someone staring intently at the blackboard at school, or furrowing his brow while doing his taxes. This kind of “applied attention” is only half the story when it comes to concentration meditation, however. The other half of the story is an ability to “let go” of the object while still perceiving it. In this sense, concentration is like a sine wave where the rising part of the wave is the mind going towards the object, while the sinking part of the wave is the mind falling away from the object. It is in this way that attention can stay with the object without becoming fatigued. (If your mind only ever went towards the object, it would burn itself out rapidly. If it only ever went away from the object, it would lose the object rapidly.) In other words, the phase where attention falls away from the object is essential, since it gives the mind time to rally and to go towards the object again. This process, occurring many times in sequence and for long periods, is called stable attention.
This “two-phase” aspect of concentration meditation is the main reason not many people can do it. They can understand the going towards the object, but not so much the letting go of the object in order that you can return to it. To put it in a simple way however, you can just say to yourself, “I will watch the object lightly“ – and do not sweat it at the times you lose awareness on the object; these times are essential for the mind to regroup and go towards it again.
Personally, my favourite object for concentration meditation is the point where the two thumbs touch in dhyana mudra. For me, this is felt as a persistent electrical or “energy” current which becomes piti easily. However, for the beginner, it may just be perceived as a point of skin contact. You should be able to both feel this point of contact while simultaneously seeing its location as a point in space, with eyes closed. To use a “light touch” with concentration, simply watch this point until it either becomes too intense, or until your mind grows tired of watching it (“fatigues”) – then let your mind fall away from it. When ready, return awareness to watching this point again, thereby starting a new cycle of attention. This constant repetition is how to build strong, stable attention. While it may take me just a few minutes to reach the first jhana, it may take you between 20 minutes and an hour of such applied and sustained attention.
How to Use these Pro-Tips
These Pro-Tips are not designed to be mixed together. You are not supposed to go away and try all these at once. That will lead to instant confusion and failure.
Instead, just one Pro-Tip is to be practised per session. The session should focus exclusively on implementing the chosen Pro-Tip.
I have added labels in blue indicating situations where each Pro-Tip is appropriate. For example, Pro-Tip 4, Focus on Nasal Congestion, can only ever be practised as part of directive breath concentration meditation. It would not be used during nondirective shikantaza because it does not fit that style of meditation.
The best results come from choosing one Pro-Tip and practising it over the course of 2–3 sessions. It is completely possible for your mind to learn and assimilate a Pro-Tip in 2–3 sessions, after which that Pro-Tip becomes automatic – meaning, in future sessions, your mind will continue to employ the Pro-Tip on autopilot and without you having to think about it. For example, let’s say you choose Pro-Tip 1, Letting Go of Control, and practise it diligently for 2–3 sessions at 30 minutes per session. By session 4, you might find that your mind is automatically letting go of the urge to control as soon it comes up. This is very, very liberating. It means your practice is now continuing to work for you behind the scenes, and that the benefits will start showing up in obvious ways in your waking life, e.g. by certain things no longer bothering you.
Once you have integrated a Pro-Tip, and can see that it is continuing to work for you automatically, you can move on to the next Pro-Tip. How long integration of a Pro-Tip takes will vary between individuals. 2–3 sessions is just an optimistic guideline (though it is not unreasonable for those with intermediate-level meditation practice).
Because Pro-Tips can become integrated relatively quickly, with their skill persisting in future sessions (leading to rapid progress), I consider them to be meditation “power-ups”. They may bring new life to dead or stale practices which have stopped yielding results.