Friday, December 19, 2014

It doesn't matter how long you practice: it matters that you do.

Once, I had dinner with some colleagues from another agency, including a senior person who was visiting from Singapore. The conversation turned around our hobbies. I happened to mention that I like to meditate. 

Senior Person: "Oh. How long do you meditate each day?"

Me: "Er. It depends. Usually around 15 mins?"

Senior Person: -pause- "That's not very long...." 

Haha. She's right. Undoubtedly, it seems like 15 mins isn't a very long time, especially every day. Later I found out that she does an hour of yoga daily. Maybe that's why she was underwhelmed. :)

I didn't want to sound like a smart aleck, so I kept quiet, but I couldn't help but be amused by her response. 

Here's what Ajahn Chah has to say about the need to sit for long periods of time:

"Sitting for hours on end is not necessary. Some people think that the longer you can sit, the wiser you must be. I have seen chickens sit on their nests for days on end!

(The rest of this interesting interview with Ajahn Chah can be found here.)

What matters isn't how long you practice, but that you do that as often as you can. 15 mins a day is fine. 5 mins a day is also fine. Ideally, you should build up to the state where your mindfulness is there from the moment you wake until you sleep. But before you get there, just keep plugging at it whenever you can. 


Sunday, October 12, 2014

Overcoming Boredom, One Breath at a Time

A few days back, I had some trouble as I was meditating: my mind started to wander.

First I started thinking about work. What I did, what I have to do which I hadn't done... which naturally led to the thoughts about my career, my dreams, my aspirations... wait a minute, where am I again?

Back to the breath.

A couple of breaths later, again my mind wandered off... I can't remember what else I was thinking of.

This repeated itself a couple of times, and I started to wonder what was going on: I wasn't tired (which is my usual reason for being unable to stay with the breath), but neither was I super restless... my body was also quite calm. So what is the cause for this inability to stay with the breath?

I realized I was bored. Bored with the breath. My mind didn't want to focus on the breath, because it was bored as hell. Yes, it was fault finding. But fault-finding about a fault-finding doesn't help: it just stirs shit up in your head, which makes it worse.


There are various ways to overcome boredom, but I think there are two fundamental ways:

- Do something different:
You can try a different meditation method or subject. For instance, if you usually do breath meditation, you can try metta meditation instead. Or if you usually focus on the breath, you can try visualising a kasina (a coloured disc). Or try walking meditation. You could also take a break, before going back to meditate.

- Stick to the same thing, but change how you perceive it:
More important than what you focus on or what you do, it's often important to ask yourself how you're doing it. More likely than not, if you're bored, it's because you're not valuing the thing you're focusing on.

Ajahn Brahm said to me once: it's hard to focus on the breath but somehow no guy seems to have difficulty focusing on the TV! Why does our mind wander when we focus on the breath, but not when the World Cup is on telly? It's because we don't value the breath as much as TV programmes.  When you place more value on the meditation subject, it becomes much easier for your mind to stay on the meditation subject.

One simple way to do so is to just focus on one breath at a time. This is something that I heard from some friends (Rong Hui and Yin Hwa), who quoted Chade Meng from Google sharing this at a Singapore event. I decided to try this method, and it worked.

Imagine that each breath is your last, or tell yourself "just this breath": it becomes a lot easier to stay with the breath, if you focus on one breath at a time. (Note: you don't have to force yourself to breathe intentionally or forcefully, but just observe it.)

Instead of telling yourself "I'm going to meditate for fifteen/twenty/sixty minutes", it's a lot easier to just focus on each breath at one time.

Just like the old joke ("how do you eat an elephant?" Answer: one bite at a time), except you're less likely to get indigestion by meditating one breath at a time. 

Monday, October 6, 2014

The Five Hindrances: Restlessness, and the lack of discipline

Whenever I tell people that I meditate regularly, a common comment is "wow, I wish I have your discipline!" 

It might come as a surprise that for me, it's really not a matter of discipline. I don't whip my own mind into shape, and force myself to sit down and breathe and watch the breath... well, I admit I used to do so. However, I've found that this tends to be counterproductive, due to something akin to psychological resistance: the more you will yourself to, the harder it is to do

Unfortunately, for most of our lives, we have been conditioned to do exactly that. How many times  have you been told while growing up that "you have to study regularly", "you have to eat right", "you have to do well in school", "you have to XYZABCDEF"? Somehow, I think this conditioning gets into most of our heads, because we end up telling ourselves the same things: 

"I have to get straight As"

"I have to exercise every day"

"I have to get a 30in waist" (Note: this was one of my previous new year resolutions... :p)

"I have to meditate everyday, for 30 minutes"

Congratulations: instead of being dictated to, you've become a dictator to yourself. 

While this might work sometimes, from my own experience, inevitably it generates resentment. This resentment tends to manifest itself as restlessness. As you meditate and your mind becomes increasingly restless, your own mind is basically asking the natural follow-up question: "Why the !@#$% do I HAVE to?"And it then starts to wander from where you are. Restlessness is a manifestation of resentment at being here, now. 

The true answer is, you don't.

You don't have to be perfect.

You don't have to get straight As.

You don't even have to meditate, if you don't want to. Really. 

The last part is really the key to meditation consistency: to let your mind know that, hey, if you want to just sit here and dream on, that's fine. Hey, no worries if you can't focus on the breath. That's fine. If you want to fantasise about J-Lo, that's fine too. 

When you let go of the inner dictator and become a real friend to your own mind, yes, your mind might in the near term go a bit crazy. And you might become frustrated, impatient. When that happens, just remember that the frustration and impatience comes from being an inner dictator that is demanding results, and is fault-finding. 

Just relax. And be patient, and learn to be contented and be happy with whatever happens in your meditation, good or bad. 

Over time, your mind will naturally quieten down, naturally become contented, and it will then become tranquil and peaceful. 

And meditation then becomes something that you want to do. In the Buddha's words, your mind then "leaps towards meditation". Meditation is then something beyond a matter of force or discipline, but a pleasure that pulls you in. 

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Mindfulness is not enough: "Kindfulness" is.

Mindfulness is the hot buzz word nowadays: Huffington Post got into the action with an article about mindfulness, and even Tim Ferriss (of Four Hour Work Week fame) recently had a Random Show episode that mentioned about his twenty-minutes of meditation a day

It's great thing that mindfulness has become the next buzz thing. But it's not enough. 

You need a combination of mindfulness AND kindness. The renowned teacher Ajahn Brahm (who is my teacher, and who is very, very funny) coined this as "kindfulness", which is basically combining the alertness of mindfulness with the gentleness and kindness of compassion.

With the trend of mindfulness, there's a tendency to "just be aware". This is generally benign, with a generation of a certain degree of alertness. But then afterwards, it kinda plateaus, or, worse, creates all sorts of psychic havoc as featured in this article. There is also a potential danger with mindfulness of letting your ego interfere. 

In order to get deeper, it is necessary to cultivate a kind mind. Why?
- Kindness is a form of letting go: by being kind, it is much easier to let things be, which in turn cultivates contentment, which deepens the peace. 
- Kindness with oneself is a form of patience, which is necessary for deeper meditation. 
- Kindness is the diametric opposite of the fault-finding mindset. The latter is constantly finding fault with everything: "why aren't you watching the breath?", "why are you thinking about porn?", "watch the breath!", "I said WATCH THE BREATH!!". Instead, with kindness, it's ok to just be... and after a while, your mind naturally turns its attention towards what you want to. 

If you watch your breath with a certain robotic army-like discipline, you will achieve mindfulness. But often the mindfulness will oscillate between tiredness and restlessness, as this mindfulness is achieved by willpower. 

Instead, with kindfulness, the quality of the mindfulness is much more still and tranquil, and more importantly it comes from a sense of calmness and also joy! This is the sort of joy that should be cultivated, and not just "observe, and let go": it leads to more mindfulness, and eventually even more contentment. 

Loving Kindness meditation
How should one cultivate kindfulness? A good practice is to practice loving kindness meditation. Besides body calmness meditation, loving kindness meditation is also effective as an initial meditation subject, before you focus on breath meditation. 

There are a few ways to do so, but the most effective one I find is Ajahn Brahm's method:
"The way this is achieved can be compared to the way you light a campfire. You start with paper or anything else that is easy to light. Then you add kindling, small twigs, or strips of wood. When the kindling is on fire you add thicker pieces of wood, and after a time the thick logs. Once the fire is roaring and very hot, you can even put on wet and sappy logs and they are soon alight."

Similarly, one starts off with basic present-moment awareness (i.e. just being aware for a couple of minutes about everything in the present moment, and not going off to the past or present). 

Then visualize something that generates a sense of compassion or kindness in you. For me, this tends to be an imaginary cat, which is an amalgam of both my cats and other cats I've met before. If you like dogs, you can imagine a cute dog. If you don't like animals, perhaps other things or objects e.g. plants that require your care. Focus on that object, and you can think of thoughts like "I will open the door of my heart to you", "I will protect and nurture you". 

If you choose the right mental object, you should feel like your heart is warm and fuzzy, and it should grow with time. 

Once it has grown sufficiently, you can then extend the feeling of loving kindness to all beings (visible or invisible) in your immediate surrounding. "To all beings around me in this room, visible and invisible, I open the door of my heart to you...may you be well and happy."

After some time, extend this larger (e.g. all beings in your block... your neighbourhood... your country... and finally the whole world). Once you've extended this feeling to the whole world, come back to yourself, and don't forget to be kind to yourself: "I open the door of my heart to me..."

(For those who are interested, the reason why you don't start off with yourself is that loving-kindness to yourself first could reinforce your ego and will, which isn't the purpose of this exercise.)

Kindfulness in breath meditation
It's also important to be kindful when doing breath meditation: in particular, don't be too harsh on your own mind. It's ok to be distracted. It's ok to have a wandering mind. When these things happen, don't beat yourself up: just acknowledge, forgive yourself, and learn from it (what caused that? Let it go). It's important not to be too tensed or harsh when watching your own breath. 

With kindfulness, it becomes a lot easier to truly let go. That's where the magic lies. 

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Body calming meditation, before breath meditation

I admit, I've not been very consistent recently due to frequent travel, changing time zones, and other work-imposed changes. While I tried to meditate as and when I could, the degree of focus isn't the same as I'm mentally and physically so bloody tired... More than once, I closed my eyes en-route to a meeting, only to wake up with my head slouched on my chest and drool on my belly.

This afternoon, though, I was able to meditate for about 45 minutes, with ever increasing mindfulness, without any will or mental "force" required to focus. Instead, the focus happened quite naturally.

How did that happen?  Rather than directly focusing on the breath and forcing the mind to zoom in on a subtle object, I started with body calming meditation, before proceeding to breath meditation. This has a few advantages:
a. You allow your mind to go naturally from the large & course sensations (e.g. body aches) to the refined & subtle (e.g. sensation of the breath).
b. You are constantly in the present moment, which helps remove the larger impediments to mindfulness (e.g. thinking about past and future).
c. There is no force required, as you don't have to force your mind to focus.

The keys here are to ensure that you are comfortable, and to be kindful: kind and mindful. It's ok if your mind drifts and starts thinking about something else; just remind (and not beat) yourself, and go back to your meditation object. The best part about starting with body calming meditation is: if you are constantly distracted at the breath meditation stage, you can always go back to focusing on your body.

Meditation instructions
  1. Ensure that you are physically comfortable. It took me a few minutes of adjusting the meditation cushion (I meditate on a buckwheat shell pillow, as I've a big ass that gets numb on the round zazen cushions). I also used a comfortable eye-cover, to prevent getting distracted by light. 
  2. After settling down, focus first on your toes, shins, and came to be aware of the sensations there. If there was any tension, I mentally asked "What do you, body part, really want?" then I let it go. If needed, I mindfully shifted my body part to be comfortable. There was a point when a certain body part was actually painful: I focused on it, and was just kind to it mentally saying "may you, body part, be well and happy". It helps to feel towards it as you would towards a pet or something loveable. 
  3. From the lower parts of the body, gradually and systematically move upwards, ending with the top of your head. For each body part, it was a case of letting the part be, being kindful, paying attention to it and being in the present moment, and letting it be comfortable.
  4. The order of the body calmness "sweep" can also be altered: no hard and fast rules here. 
  5. [A note about distractions: they happen. While I was mostly in the present moment, there were times when my mind lapsed into the past and future, and I had random thoughts (including about my career). The important thing isn't to bring your mind back or to scold yourself, but just note that you aren't focusing on what you're supposed to, and to remind yourself on the original focus object.]  
  6. At the end of this "body sweep", when your mind is alert, peaceful and also quite in the present moment and when your body feels quite peaceful and calm, the only moving thing should be your breathing. Quite naturally, let your mind focus on the breath. It also helps to instruct your mind three times "Focus on the the beginning and end of the breath" and let it be. (This is called "setting up the gatekeeper", and is basically auto-suggestion.) 
  7. After some time, with each in-breath, you can mentally note "peace", and exhale (mentally noting) "let go". It has a certain hypnotic effect, as with each breath, you're basically instructing your mind to keep letting go.
  8. Eventually, you can focus on the entire breath, from inhalation to exhalation to the pause between breaths. The breath should get smoother and smoother.
  9. To end the breathing meditation, mentally ask yourself if you enjoyed the experience, and what was the positive part of the experience? Then intentionally note at least three inhalation-exhalations (without force or intention) before opening your eyes. 
When I ended the meditation, it was very pleasant and calm, and my mind was alert and in the present moment. It wasn't quite at the "beautiful breath" stage that Ajahn Brahm speaks of, but it was perhaps at the brink of it. No nimittas or bright lights too. 

It's important not to force yourself or try too hard, but to just let things be and to be kind. If you are too tired, then go sleep for a bit before sitting again. Be kind with yourself. :)

Have a good Sunday and week ahead. 

Monday, April 14, 2014

The Hindrances: Sloth and Torpor

The most common "problems" in meditation are one of the five hindrances:
  1. Sensual desire 
  2. Anger/ill will
  3. Sloth and Torpor
  4. Restlessness
  5. Doubt
I will talk a bit about each of these in due course. Today I will focus on Sloth and Torpor.

For me, sloth and torpor is one of the most frequent friends that I meet on this path, a bit like an old friend with a drinking problem. You know this friend, and you know the problem, but it can be so hard to do something about it! 

How can one overcome this? In some of the suttas, the Buddha mentions pressing one's tongue to your palate, and beating your mind down. If you try it, you'll realise that this simply causes you to oscillate between tiredness and extreme restlessness (I personally didn't believe this until I witnessed it in myself during a retreat). 

Usually, tiredness has a mental and physical cause. Often, we simply don't realise just how tired we are, especially in this day and age where sensory overstimulation is the norm. The Buddha compared sensual pleasures to a debt, which you have to pay back: when we sit down and meditate and our minds become overwhelmed with tiredness, this is mental-payback time for all the times you were nonstopsurfingonyourphonetalkingwhileeatingplayingonegameafteranotherlisteningtomusicwhileworkingoutetc. 

The solution really is to either rest, or allow yourself while meditating to rest: just kindfully (yes, kindly + mindful) let your mind be even if it is dulled with fatigue. If it is really unbearable, then lie down to rest: after all, that was also part of the advice that the Buddha gave to Mahamogallana (one of his two chief disciples) when the latter was fighting fatigue on his path to arahantship. It is also what my teacher Ajahn Brahm cheekily calls "flat out meditation". 

After some rest, usually you'll find it is much easier to sustain attention on the meditation object. When mindfulness builds up, usually sloth and torpor naturally falls away by itself. 

Another thing that helps in your daily life is to meditate more regularly, and to simplify your life by removing craving for things and stimuli. This helps overall.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Restarting this blog: Changes since 2010

It's been quite sometime since I last updated this blog. Since then, a couple of things have happened.

I intend to rejig and post regularly on this blog again. The intent is to share on my personal path and journey of the Dhamma, and to share some approaches & solutions to some meditation problems. I hope this could turn out to be useful to some readers out there, whoever that is.

But what were the couple of things that happened....?

In 2010, I went for my first meditation retreat with Ajahn Brahmavamso, organised by the Singapore Buddhist Fellowship, and meant for working executives. This retreat changed my life in a few important ways:

a.  I gave up drinking alcohol, and have been keeping the Five Precepts (including not killing mosquitoes) since. (As a consequence, I've not been that close to some friends whom I knew from my wine-drinking days. I guess people grow apart with different interests.)

The story behind the decision: just before we reached the retreat venue, I had this sudden craving for a Chang beer. However, I was bound by the retreat rules not to drink any alcohol at all until after the retreat.

After the retreat, I found that I had completely given up all desire for alcohol. I reflected on it, and decided that while I do like the flavours of certain types of beverages (e.g. Riesling wine), the main reason I drank was conditioning. Also, I like it when people loosen up with alcohol: usually I don't need any alcohol to loosen up, though.

There was also the fact that alcohol consumption dulls the mind. From the retreat, I felt it was much, much, much more fun to meditate than to imbibe.

Some of my colleagues started joking that I had become a monk after the retreat. They weren't aware that I very seriously considered that possibility.

b. I started meditating much more regularly. This was the first retreat which really "hooked" me on meditation. In the middle of the retreat, Ajahn mentioned that the experience of samadhi causes the mind to "leap towards meditation", which was exactly what happened. (One morning, I was so enthused that I went to the meditation hall at 4am, only to find that the a/c wasn't turned on at all.)

Nowadays, I meditate whenever I am travelling in the car (I have a driver, since I'm based in India), and try to meditate for at least 20 mins everyday. On Sundays, I try to keep it free and to meditate & nap as much as I can.

c. The way I (try to) meditate now is quite different, too. Ajahn Brahm's method is VERY different from the other meditation teachers I've encountered. He likes to say that there are two types of meditation: 2nd Noble Truth meditation (craving creates suffering) and 3rd Noble Truth meditation (cessation of that craving). He also likes to say that wisdom-power is more effective than will-power. And to focus on applying kindfulness (mindfulness with kindness).

The 2010 retreat really opened my eyes to the power of mindfulness and letting go.

d. After this retreat, I consider my Dhamma teachers to be the Buddha and Ajahn Brahm, and was fortunate enough to subsequently introduce Ajahn (who is still alive) to my parents and wife (then my girlfriend).

This has had a very beneficial effect on my personal relationships: my parents relationship has arguably become much better, and my relationship with my wife has also really been reinforced by the Dhamma (especially after our latest 2014 retreat).

That said, I do sometimes have to be careful not to hard-sell Ajahn Brahm too often, which my wife repeatedly reminds me.

e. On Ajahn Brahm's advice (during the return flight, when we ended up sharing the same flight and were on the same row), I started reading the suttas directly, especially the Majjhima Nikaya (Middle Length Discourses) translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi.

I also started to download Ajahn Brahm's podcasts, including his sutta talks. His talks are quite enlightening: his mastery of Pali is very thorough, as he was one of the first Westerner monks to translate the Vinaya (Monastic discipline) from the original Pali into English. As such, his grasp of Pali is somewhat street-savvy & pragmatic, and not overly academic. For example, the Eighth factor of the Eightfold Path (samma samadhi) is often mistranslated as right concentration: Ajahn points out that it's more helpful to translate it as right stillness, especially since samatha (calming, tranquility) is etymologically linked to samadhi.


I still strongly respect my first meditation teacher, Richard (Vajiro). I will always be grateful and appreciative to him for having introduced me to the Dhamma, and to basic meditation. For those who are interested, he still runs his Basic Buddhism Course (the other BBC).