Concentration Meditation

By Dr. Tan Kheng Khoo


Meditation is neither a trance nor hypnosis. In a trance, the person is relinquishing varying portions of his mind to external agencies and is sometimes controlled by spirits or so-called ‘deities’. Consequently, he has varying consciousness of what is going on. In full trance he is totally unconscious. In partial trance he is partially conscious of what is going on. In hypnotism, the hypnotist is in control of the mind of the hypnotised, but the latter would never do anything that is inherently alien to his character. In self-hypnotism, the person intends to follow a trend of thought that he has previously preconceived. In both these situations of hypnotism and trance, the person is not fully aware, not fully conscious, and quite often not fully in control. This is not so in meditation. In correct meditation, the meditator should be fully aware, fully conscious and fully in control of the situation. The aim here is to transcend our physical, emotional and mental bodies till we arrive at our spiritual true self (soul), in the quest for self-realisation. The path here is to work through the mystical state to finally reach the transpersonal state, which is like coming home. From thence onwards, one is in this world, but not of this world. We are completely aware throughout this journey.

Meditation is an arduous practice of controlling the mind towards a transformation of character. It is only a means and not an end. The repeated penultimate state of this practice is stillness and silence. It is only in this state that transformation can take place. Insight and wisdom can only arise in the pure awareness of silence and stillness. All the multifarious types of meditation in the world can be categorised into two: (1) one-pointed concentration (Samatha) and (2) insight (Vipassana) meditation.

In Samatha, there should be only one object in the mind during meditation. As one progresses, there will be happiness, joy, bliss, calm and tranquillity in Samatha meditation. At the final stage of this practice, one will become still and silent with only one object in mind. One is not in a trance or hypnotised state; in fact, one should be more aware in this final state of one-pointedness than before the start of meditation. Insight or wisdom is slow to arise in Samatha, because one is fixed in one’s object of meditation, and there is also the pleasure of bliss and tranquillity, which one tends to be addicted to. Therefore it is very difficult to achieve enlightenment in Samatha meditation. Whereas in Vipassana the ultimate state is stillness, silent and emptiness (of thoughts). In this Vipassana practice, one is finally left with pure awareness---- the presence of our true self. From this backdrop of awareness, the ‘little voice’ may be heard, i.e. the arising of insight is facilitated by emptiness. So in summary, in Samatha, one is left with one thought (the object of meditation), and in Vipassana there is only pristine awareness with no thought. In the final stages of these meditations, one has totally transcended the physical, emotional and mental in Vipassana, the meditator is already in the spiritual realm. He is now in touch with his true self (soul). In the absorption stages of Samatha, the mind has left behind the physical body, the emotions and most of the mental activity, except the object of meditation. In Vipassana, the transcendence is permanent, whilst in Samatha the transcendence is temporary.

Let us discuss about some conditions of meditation.

Place: Choose a room that is quiet and cool. It must be decorated with as little furniture as possible. If possible, lock your room and lift up the telephone. If there is an air-conditioned room available use it to shut out the noise and maintain an even cool temperature. Remove all statues from the room, and there should not be any altar in the room. This is because a very occasional statue may be spirited. One’s main aim is to go inwards. If one’s attention is directed outwards to an altar or a statue, then one is defeating one’s purpose. Bodhidharma meditated for 9 years facing a blank wall! If possible, always try to meditate alone. This is because the other person’s vibrations may interfere with one’s practice.

Time and Dress: The two best periods are in the morning and late at night. After waking up, complete one’s ablutions including brushing teeth and washing the face. Then drink some beverage, so that hunger pangs do not distract one’s meditation, but one must not indulge in a full breakfast. If one is a beginner, wake up half an hour earlier than usual. In order to be completely awake, you may do some simple free hand exercises. While still in pyjamas, sit down to meditate. This is the best attire. No restricting clothes should be worn: no bras or belts. The other good time is before one goes to sleep. This is because it should be at least two hours away from dinner. A full stomach normally induces sleep, so the meditation is ineffectual.

The other consideration is that after a hard day’s work, one may be tired and sleepy, and the meditation becomes a preliminary session for sleep. That is why we sit in a semi-lotus position and have an empty stomach. If sleep is too overpowering at this period, try and catch a half-hour catnap before dinner. This will keep you awake for the night session. Another good time is at twilight, but one could really meditate at any time of the day.

Meditation period: One should start with 10 minutes per session. Do this for a week or more until one is quite comfortable with it. Then one may increase to 15 minutes. Again, this lengthened period should be tried out for another fortnight, after which the time maybe further prolonged. One continues in this fashion until one reaches a period of half an hour. T
his prolongation is entirely left to the discretion of the meditator. One should then stay at half an hour for about six months; after that one may proceed to 45 minutes. However one should try to meditate longer during holidays. Once you have reached ˝ or ľ hour, do not go back to 15 minutes. Also, if for some reason one is hard-pressed for time, then even 10 minutes is better than not meditating. However, the most optimum time is one hour or more per session.

There is no such thing as meditating 3 or 5
times a week. It must be a daily affair, and preferably twice a day. If you are travelling, do it in your hotel room, but first imagine yourself surrounded by white light. If you have to miss half a dozen days per year due to extenuating circumstances, it is quite in order.

Sitting position: The ideal position is the semi lotus. You may sit cross-legged if you want, but the place where the legs cross will be numb after a while. Therefore, crossing one’s legs is not advisable. The semi-lotus is putting one leg on top of the other: it does not matter whether it is right over left or vice versa. The full lotus is as the above except one tucks both set of toes underneath the crooks of both knees so that both soles are facing the ceiling. This position looks beautiful, but one cannot sustain this position for long. However, one may also sit in a chair with both feet resting on the floor. The chair should preferably be without arm rests. Meditation is essentially dealing with the mind, and therefore the body should be as comfortable as possible without falling asleep. That means if there is a carpet, use that, and the best thing is to have a cushion beneath one’s buttocks. If one wants to sit on a bed, it is also feasible, but the bed must not be too soft, and a pillow should be placed between one’s back and the bedstead. On the bed, one can straighten one’s legs. Again, it is vital one should not fall asleep, especially in this position.

The most important point to remember in one’s posture is to keep one’s back completely straight. The neck should also be straight and the eyes looking straight ahead with the head erect. The eyelids should then be gently shut and the mouth close. Then give one big sigh to relax all the muscles of the body all at once. Some meditators do a song and dance about relaxing one group of muscles at a time. This is not necessary, because as one goes deeper into the one-pointed meditation, the muscles automatically relax by themselves.

Object of Meditation: In the Buddhist texts, 40 subjects of meditation are mentioned, but the layman should choose one that is easily accessible and pertaining to the body, e.g. the mindfulness of breathing (anapanasati). The other two popular objects are visualising and chanting of sutras or repeating of mantras. Both these methods are external. Repeating a mantra and chanting a sutra gets us to be calm quite well, but when one arrives at the absorption state, the mantra and sutra must be dropped because the mind in the 2nd absorption cannot hold on to a thought. Both mantra and sutra are thoughts. This is also true of counting one’s breath. Visualisation is also external, and the visualised object is also a thought. In addition, visualisation is a very difficult practice, and most people fail with this method. We want to select an object, which is pertaining to the body, i.e. it is not external and from which we can easily go inwards. The Buddha attained enlightenment with anapanasati. Furthermore, we can carry this object of meditation with us wherever we go.

Using the natural breathing process is the best. You either follow it by the movement of the abdomen or feel the air going in and out of the nostrils. In concentrating on the abdomen the coverage is more diffused than at the nostrils. That means concentrating at the nostrils is more focussed. The great point about the latter method is that the deeper you go into meditation, the shallower your breathing will be and therefore, one has to concentrate even harder. This is good. In this mindfulness of breathing, there is no imagination required. You must actually feel the movement of the abdomen or the air brushing your nostrils or at the upper lip.
Samatha: One-pointed concentration with mindfulness of breathing as an object.

After satisfying all the above conditions, sit comfortably with the full intention of meditating. This aim is important, otherwise the meditation practice could be reduced to a routine chore.

Before one starts on the meditation proper, take a deep sigh to totally relax one’s body. Then ascertain not to allow problems of the office, home or relationships, etc to intrude during the period of meditation.

Now assume the position as described above (either in semi-lotus or on the chair), and rests one’s hands on the lap. One open hand is placed on top of the other with the two thumbs lightly touching. It does not matter which hand is on top. Then close the mouth with the tongue pressed against the hard palate. Lastly, gently shut the eyes, and look at the back of the eyelids for a short while.

Now take three deep breaths. During these three breaths, one notices that as you breathe in the abdomen moves out; and as you breathe out the abdomen moves in. After this the breathing must be normal for the rest of the session. Then one should start feeling the sensations of the body. This is an inward journey, so that the mind does not go out externally. Start with the eyelids and then the nostrils. Feel the sensation at these points. What is the feeling at the nostril with the air brushing past it? Then go to the upper lip, and then the teeth inside. Stop for a moment each time to savour the sensation that is present at that location of the body. One can now move down to the neck, thence the shoulders. Are they hard and stiff? Then go down the arms, first the right then the left. The torso is next: the chest, the abdomen, the hips and down the thighs to the knees. Go further down along the legs and feet. Is there any tingling sensation? Are there any thrills or shivers? Then slowly move up to the head at the scalp and then the face. A few minutes are spent going through this process without hurry. This process is not to relax the muscles, but to centre oneself in the body. One need not go through every part of one’s body, but after some practice one can know when one has settled down inwardly. The mental and physical restlessness has now ceased. At this point, we stop looking at the feelings of the body.

One can now come back to the breathing. At the nostril one feels the air going in and out. One can feel it at the opening of the nostril or at the upper lip. The breathing must be absolutely normal, and no control of the breathing is allowed. Do not count the breathing, as this procedure will dilute the concentration. One is actually feeling the air, and no imagination is involved. In order to prevent restlessness, one should only concentrate at one respiratory cycle at a time. Firstly, follow the inward inspiration ending with a pause. Then let the expiration come out naturally, also ending with a pause. That is all. Your goal is one respiratory cycle at a time and you have achieved it! Then one starts all over again with the next respiratory cycle, and so on until the end of the session.

However, before long, thoughts will start to appear. If one has problems they will surface with the first thoughts. If there are no worries or problems, memories of the past 24 hours or days will turn up. Then planning what to do in the near or distant future will come about. Finally, random associative thoughts may take place as a continuous revelry. All these thoughts must be forcibly stopped by repeatedly coming back to the breath. This is repeated hundreds of time during one meditation session. One must not get upset with one’s own mind, whose function is to think. It is like a mother walking with a toddler on the pavement along a very busy road. On the road many cars, lorries and buses are travelling at varying speeds, and if your toddler child were to be crushed by one of the numerous vehicles it could mean instant death. So it is the mother’s love and duty to repeatedly pull the child back from the road to the pavement. The child is like our concentration, which has to be pulled to the breath time and again. The mother who is shoving the child back to the pavement cannot be upset with the child, because she loves him and the child does not know better.

After practising for many weeks or months, there will come a time when the thoughts will become less and one can stay with the breath for longer periods. Thoughts are either pictures situated at the middle of the forehead or mental chatter at the ear. Either the pictures or the chatter will predominate. To one person mental chatter or commentary is the bugbear; to another, mental pictures are the source of distraction. No matter which type it is, repeatedly coming back to the breath will reduce the thoughts in due course. Just concentrate on one respiratory cycle at a time.

Gradually stillness and silence will start to appear. In stillness, not only is one’s body to be still, but so are one’s thoughts must be still. That means one’s thoughts must not travel anywhere at all, not even to the neighbour sitting next to you. The attention must only be with the breath. This is the true meaning of stillness. Silence means no mental chatter or commentary. The silence is internal. Externally, there may be noises, which should not bother the meditator at this stage of progress. So with this internal silence and stillness, one’s awareness is greater and sharper. One is more aware of the slightest movement or noise in one’s environment. However, one’s one-pointed concentration is still at the breath. Before one started the session, the breathing is predominantly from the chest. Then as one goes deeper into alpha and theta states, one’s breathing becomes more and more abdominal. The breathing is also slower: from the normal 20 respiratory cycles per minute, it may slow down to 16 or 14 cycles per minute. Some of the yogis in India who practice pranayana (controlling one’s breath) may even reach 1 or 2 cycles per minute, but we are not practising pranayana. Our method is anapanasati.

As one becomes more one-pointed, happiness, joy, bliss, calmness and tranquillity will start to creep in imperceptibly. It will come to a point when the meditator becomes addicted to his meditation. This is a good sign, but even this harmless addiction has to be broken off at a later date, because very little wisdom can accrue from this calm and bliss. Insight (Vipassana) meditation will then have to be practised.

One final technique in this method is to separate a ‘watcher’ in our consciousness to watch all the activities that are being enacted. The ‘watcher’ is merely the same pure awareness that is behind all our thoughts. It is our true self (soul). It is that silence and stillness without thoughts. Therefore, let this watcher keep reminding oneself of the fact that one is sitting here, in this room on the cushion or carpet. Only 10% of the awareness is given to this task. The remaining 90% is used to concentrate on the breathing, and the distraction by thoughts. This watcher is separate from the body, the emotions and the thoughts. With this separation, one’s negativities will affect one less. ‘It is this body that is suffering these emotions and thoughts, not I. I am not my thoughts, I am not my emotions, I am not my body.’ This watcher is not involved; the watcher does not judge, nor reject or accept any thoughts or emotions. It just knows and does not take sides: it is non-dual. With this watcher it is much easier to arrive at stillness, at which stage we are silent, but we are still left with one single thought, namely the breathing. This is one-pointedness. There is now no sadness, no pain or any other form of suffering; there is just the breathing. The meditator and the breathing have become one!

To summarise, one sits in a semi-lotus position or in the chair. Then one heaves a sigh of total relaxation of the whole body in one fell sweep. Take three deep breaths, after which the breathing should be normal throughout the meditation session. Then see that the torso and neck are straight with the head looking straight ahead. Shut the mouth with the tongue pressed against the palate. Then gently close the eyes. Briefly look at the back of the eyelids. Then spend a few minutes feeling the sensations all over the body one area at a time. Feel the tingling and the vibrations. Feel the movement of ‘chi’ at different parts of the body. While one is concentrating on the body, one is at the present moment. Having established some form of calmness, separate a watcher in the consciousness to observe the body and the mind. The technique of this mindfulness of breathing is to merely concentrate on one inspiration and expiration at a time. Thoughts are forcefully pushed away as they arrive. Keep on coming back to the breath repeatedly, until one day, silence and stillness are achieved. Then stick to the one-pointedness as long as one can. This is briefly the practice of Samatha.