Anapana-sati Meditation

buddha anapanasatiThe following simple meditation is drawn from the well of Theravada Buddhism, which is the oldest surviving form of Buddhism. The meditation is called Anapanasati: Anapana means inhalation/exhalation, while sati means mindfulness, and so the meditation is no more than mindfulness of the breath. Seeing as we all share the breath in common it is a meditation that can be performed by anyone, at anytime, and anywhere. You don’t need to go to the shop to buy anything and you don’t need to find a teacher, you are the only instrument you need. The Buddha promised his devotees that mindfulness of the breath, “developed and repeatedly practiced, is of great fruit, great benefit.” Anapanasati is the meditation that Buddha practiced as he sat underneath the Bodhi tree and realised his own enlightenment, and so it is the method that he stressed the most to his followers, and is the core meditation practice in Theravada Buddhism.

The Buddha’s teachings of this meditation can be found in the Mahasatipatthana Sutta (The Greater Discourse on Foundations of Mindfulness). In it he says: “A monk, having gone to the forest, to the foot of a tree, or to an empty hut, sits down. Having folded his legs cross-wise, straightened his body, and set up mindfulness in front of him, at the tip of his nose, just mindful he breathes in, mindful he breathes out. Breathing in long, he knows: ‘I breathe in long’; or breathing out long, he knows: ‘I breathe out long.’ Breathing in short, he knows: ‘I breathe in short’; or breathing out short, he knows: ‘I breathe out short.’; thus he trains himself.”

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Hamsa Meditation

MeditationIf you have never given meditation a chance, then today is your lucky day! Here is a great technique that you can start practicing first thing before bed tonight – it is a short but potent mantra called ‘hamsa‘ and originates from the ancient practice of Kriya Yoga. Ham and Sa (pronounced hum sah) are the natural sounds that your mind produces when you breathe in, and breathe out. Breathing in sounds Ham, while breathing out sounds Sa.

Ancient teachings say this mantra is a vibration of infinite consciousness, uniting us each with divine source – it is therefore associated with higher consciousness, or Brahma. It is said that this mantra helps us to erase duality and the sense that we are different or separate from each other, it allows us to dissolve into pure being. Hamsa is often linked with the image of a swan, an elegant creature who sits on the water without getting it’s feathers wet (this is the same as the lotus flower, another highly regarded symbol in Hinduism), in Advaita Vedanta (Hindu philosophy of non-duality) the swan and lotus flower are regarded as the perfect models of how humans on the spiritual path should live their lives – floating on the world of maya (illusion), in other words living within the material world, without being affected by the illusion, keeping dry of the wetness of egotism and materialism. Many believe that the Buddha used this mantra to attain his own enlightenment. To perform this meditation:

  1. Sit on a folded blanket on the floor in a comfortable position, ideally in half lotus or full lotus position (padmasana), and close your eyes. Sit with your spine erect (not too stiff, not too slack – this is very important), and with closed eyes focus on the point above your just above and in between both your eyes. Now allow your breathing to follow its own natural rhythm; don’t try to force anything. Simply acknowledge and accept short breaths as short breaths and long breaths as long breaths, nothing more. Even though we breathe all the time automatically, even when we sleep, we rarely allow our minds to be aware of this. At first, closing your eyes to concentrate on breathing might feel like a forced effort, but it will soon feel very natural and will develop it’s own rhythm, much like your heartbeat.
  2. After a few deep breaths, deeply inhale and sound Ham (hum) in your mind, hold the breath and then exhale while sounding Sa. As you inhale, expand your stomach to allow the air to fill your belly, when you exhale, tighten your stomach very gently to push the air out. Doing this while mentally repeating the mantra will sharpen your concentration and ward off any distracting thoughts. It is also helpful to think, at least initially, the meaning of hamsa which is ‘I am that’. Meditate on the interconnectedness of everything, and how the universe is contained within you.
  3. If you like, you can use your hands to create and hold a mudra. Mudra’s are essentially yoga for the hands and they are used to further enhance the effects of meditation – that is they allow prana (energy) to flow throughout the body. There are two main mudras for meditation that you can adopt.
    1. The Buddhist dhyana mudra: We place our hands in our lap, one hand on top of the other (whichever order feels most comfortable, usually right goes under left) and the two thumbs touch each other to form a slight pyramid shape pointing up towards your chin. Therefore your hands are imitating your body’s pyramid shape when we sit in meditation. We use this to gauge our level of concentration; when we are in a high state of concentration the pyramid maintained by the thumbs remains erect and strong, when we lose concentration the thumbs begin to drop – the Buddha is often depicted as meditating with this mudra.
    2. The Yogic (Hindu) chin mudra: We rest each hand on their respective thigh, with all of the fingers extended outwards except for the thumb and index fingers, which touch to form an O. Again, the fingers should be relaxed, but not too slack; the straightness of the fingers is an indication of our levels of concentration. Arms should be straight and you should push your chest forward, this will straighten your spine and create a pyramid shape for your entire body (pyramids are a symbol of strength, and the shape gives your body a strong foundation). The arms shouldn’t be too straight, allow a slight bend in the elbow. Yogic tradition states that the thumb represents the supreme, while the index finger represents the individual; therefore, the two fingers joining to form an O represents the fusion of individual consciousness and cosmic/collective consciousness – the Hindu God Shiva is often depicted as meditating with this mudra, while Christ is depicted holding this mudra close to his heart.
  4. Do this for thirty minutes once a day possible, work your way up to an hour if you feel you can do it. If you can’t find time to meditate for that long then at least try to squeeze in 20 minutes. The best times to meditate are either first thing in the morning, or the last thing at night. It is important that you try to incorporate it into a daily practice, as you will not taste of any fruits unless you constantly tend to your inner garden. In keeping with this analogy, think of meditation as sunlight, and mantra such as hamsa, a method for focusing that sunlight. The more focused and one-pointed your concentration is (the less distracting thoughts you have) the more powerful a beam of sunlight you can direct on your inner garden. In time, and with daily practice, peacefulness will grow where the soil used to be bare. Just as the sun rises and sets every day, so should you aim to meditate once every day during either of these times. Become the sun, and your life will light up.

The initial stages of meditation are all about concentrating on the breath; only through concentration of the breath can we get rid of the cobweb of thoughts that are in our head space at all times. We have become so accustomed to living in a constant hyper state of thinking that we don’t even realise it until we actually sit down to meditate. You try to stop thinking, and more thoughts invade. Soon enough you start feeling itchy and have to scratch those itches, as though the body is resorting to drastic measures to get you back on the thought train. This is all good stuff, it is progress in the right direction and is something we have to work through to achieve deep and effortless states in meditation. After a few sessions, your thoughts will calm down faster, and you will realise how much power you unnecessarily allow them.

When the Buddha was seated under the Bodhi tree where he attained enlightenment, the demon Mara attempted to seduce him with material desires, such as beautiful women, but the Buddha remained unphased. So the demon summoned an army who threw all sorts of arrows and spears at him, the Buddha simply touched the earth with his right hand and all of the spears and arrows fell and Mara vanished. From a psychological perspective, these arrows represent thoughts or desires that attempt to take us out of meditation, eg by making us feel hungry, or itchy, whatever it is. By dismissing their power, they can no longer penetrate us and cause suffering – they simply fall to the floor. Thoughts are like a spoilt child who has grown up getting everything he wants, and you are either the parent who believes he should get anything he wants, or the parent who thinks it’s too late to do anything about it. Through meditation you can regain your deserved power over your thoughts, and it all starts with the breath.

In the following passage from Bhagavan Das’ book ‘It’s Here Now (Are You?), Bhagavan Das describes his learning of the Ham Sa mantra in his first few weeks living in India.

“A little pamphlet on the floor described a kriya yoga breathing technique called hamsa. I inhaled “Ham” and exhaled “Sa”, visualizing the Sanskrit letters ha and sa. I had a beautiful vision of a white swan landing on a lake in the snow. These ocean-of-light experiences were very peaceful. For two weeks, all I had was mind, breath, and tears. I sat in the lotus posture for as long as I could and kept turning within, looking at my interior world. I’d always come back to my breath, breathing in “Ham” and breathing out “Sa”. “Hamsa” is the natural sound the breath makes as it flows in and out. Breath becomes a curtain of energy, waving back and forth. In the middle of the curtain is a gap where eternity is experienced. I was getting these little glimpses of eternity as they came through the gap in my breath.” (p. 15)

I’ll end this post with a quote from Swami Shankarananda:

“Ham means “I am” and refers to the inner world. When you breathe in with the sound ham, you bring the life force from outside into your inner world. You affirm your ‘I am-ness’. Sa means ‘That’ and refers to the outer world. When we breathe out we hear the breath as sa and we affirm our connection to the objective universe. The breath confirms our intimate relationship with the outer world and forms an ongoing and immediate connection. I consider this to be the king of methods of breath control”

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Mandala Meditation

mandalaMandalas (meaning “circle” in Sanskrit) are an important element in Buddhist and Hindu spirituality; they are symbolic diagrams, which are used extensively in sacred rites and as an instrument of meditation. A typical mandala is of a circle enclosed within a square, which has four gates – one on each side. The gates are often depicted as being guarded by demons or deities, while a bodhisattva is usually found in the center circle. The famous Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung, through his exploration of Eastern mysticism, came to the conclusion that mandalas are a snapshot of the unconscious mind – he believed that drawing mandalas had psychological importance due to their ability to identify fractures in personality and work towards psychic wholeness.

“Mandalas… usually appear in situations of psychic confusion and disorientation. The archetype thereby constellated represents a pattern of order which, like a psychological ‘view-finder’ marked with a cross or circle divided into four, is superimposed on the psychic chaos so that each content falls into place and the weltering confusion is held together by the protective circle… At the same time they are yantras, instruments with whose help the order is brought into being.” – Carl Jung (Civilisation in Transition, Collected Works, Vol. 10, par. 803.)

Tibetan Sand Mandala

Tibetan monks creating a mandala out of sand, as a meditation on impermanence.

Mandalas are used widely as tools for entering meditative states of higher consciousness, simply drawing one is a meditation in itself, but actually meditating on the completed image is where all the power is. Ram Dass speaks about mandalas in a lecture he gave to a group of psychotherapists at the Menninger Foundation in 1970, he says:

“In Tibet, for example, they use what are called tonkas. If you go to a doctor in TIbet, instead of giving you a prescription like, “Pick these herbs by a damp rock” or “Go to your local pharmacy and get…” Instead of doing that, he often may give you a tonka, a mandala, to take home and put up on your wall and meditate upon. Now this is really far out, you see, because here’s your doctor, you go to him because you’ve got headaches, or because you’re depressed, or because you’ve got fear… and he gives you a piece of paper to stick up on your wall and meditate on. Now you’d say, ‘Well, that’s pretty primitive.” But wait a moment, just assume, for example, that they’re not all nuts, see, and they’re not all naive. And you go and sort of sit down in front of this paper and figure out what it’s about.

After a while you learn that the way these are designed is such that you put your focal attention on the entire mandala, which is a circle within a square and the square has gates, four gates. And then pretty soon your attention – you just let yourself be with that thing, let all other thoughts go and just stay with it – pretty soon, your attention is drawn in through the gates and in and in to the inner circle and into the innermost circle where there is a specific design or being or something and when you come in and in and in, you then experience the inner circle as something like a long tube. It takes on a depth, and as you stay with that inner circle you get drawn, literally drawn, your awareness gets drawn through that tube and you get drawn from that tube into, literally another frequency of vibration.

It is as though that model in the center of that little circle changes your consciousness because you have brought your consciousness down to just that circle. It’s like, if you go into the Fillmore Auditorium and there are huge rock and roll bands and twenty-five slide projectors and an overloading of the stimulus field, that will take your consciousness into another place.Now, you can struggle against it, and say, “Oh, I’m getting a headache and I’ve got to get out of here. I mean, they’re not feeding me linear information.” [laughs] Or you can say, “Well, here goes,” and just sort of surrender into this and then there is a new level of consciousness where you are experiencing all these things… in a Gestalt form, rather than in linear separate components. You’ve given up one type of analytic thought because it’s not adaptive at that moment. Well, a mandala, very much like what’s called faith healing, is based on the idea that “mind manifests in matter” and that if you change the nature of the vibrations or the nature of the level of consciousness, you’ll find certain levels of consciousness where certain illnesses don’t exist. What a faith healer does is use his own vibrational rate to bring you to another vibrational rate. That’s the way that process works.

deathBuddhist monks often meditate on the mandala, and the teachings that are contained within it until they can conjure up the mandala in their mind’s eye without needing to physically see it. As all mandalas have a center point, looking at it can also be used as a method of centering the self, and one’s place in the universe. Tibetan Buddhists use mandalas as a method of meditating on the impermanent nature of reality, one of the Buddhas main teachings. They do this by creating large and intricate mandalas out of coloured sand, a process which can take days, and then destroying it upon completion, usually by brushing it up and depositing it’s remains into the sea.

vishnu

Hindu mandala which contains an image of Vishnu in it’s center circle.

Drawing mandalas is very simple, and is a very relaxing form of meditation. Simply draw a dot on a page: this will become the center of the mandala, or the bindu point as they call it in India. From there you may draw a circle around that dot. From that point on it is completely up to you what you do with it, as long as the pattern is fairly symmetric. You can draw more circles, a square or two, maybe even a triangle, and then you can fill it with patterns and colour it to your hearts content. Generally no two mandalas are the same, and each time you draw one it will reflect your current mental state; it will take a snapshot of your unconscious in a similar way as writing down a dream you just had upon awakening. By meditating on your mandalas, you can center your unconscious mind without ever needing to become conscious of it. Therefore it is more powerful than dream analysis, and takes less effort. It is a good idea to date your mandalas, so that you may look back on them, and see the progression of your psyche. If you want to know more about the history of mandalas, or are curious to know the symbolism of various shapes, patterns and colours found in mandalas, then I highly recommend this book – it is the book I personally use. If you would like to see some of the mandalas I have drawn, you can check them out at the following link – my mandala collection.

bindu to ojas be here now

This mandala (illustration from Be Here Now) is an overhead view of the Borobodur temple in East Java, Indonesia. The ancient Buddhist temple was purposefully constructed to resemble a mandala; I have been, and it is amazing, even more amazing than Angkor Wat. I strongly recommend you plan to take a visit one day.