Meditation on Perception - Introduction
“Clear and concise, this book is invaluable.” —Toni Bernhard, author of How to Wake Up
In this little book, I focus on how perception can be used as an object of meditation. In Buddhist teachings, perception is one of the basic constituents of the body and mind. It includes the information we get from our five senses and from thought, imagination, and other internal sources, as well as the way the mind processes and understands this information. Like the other constituents of the body and mind described by the Buddha—form, feeling, thought, and consciousness—perception can be trained and ultimately purified through the practice of meditation. When we understand what perception is and how it impacts our lives, we can use it, just as we do any other object of meditation, to overcome harmful ways of thinking and acting and to develop spiritually.
One of the important sources of the Buddha’s teachings on perception is the Girimananda Sutta (Anguttara Nikaya, 10:60). As the sutta tells us, once when the Buddha was living at Savatthi, a city of ancient India, the Venerable Girimananda, one of his monks or bhikkhus, was afflicted with a painful disease. The Buddha’s close disciple, the Venerable Ananda, approached the Buddha and requested that he visit Girimananda out of compassion for his suffering. Instead, the Buddha asked Ananda to go to Girimananda and speak to him about the ten perceptions. “It is possible,” the Buddha explained, “that having heard the ten perceptions, the bhikkhu Girimananda would immediately be cured of his illness.”
These ten perceptions, which I discuss later in detail, are fundamentally a method of meditation. The tenth perception, mindfulness of in-breathing and out-breathing, is itself a complete meditation practice. As we work through meditation on the ten perceptions, we train the mind to move beyond ordinary, superficial perception into the enlightened perspective that leads to permanent liberation from confusion and unhappiness.
Actually, the instructions in the Girimananda Sutta ask us to engage in two types of meditation. Perhaps we are more familiar with the first of these types, which the Buddha called samatha or concentration meditation. Sometimes translated as tranquility meditation or calm abiding, samatha meditation involves gently focusing the mind on one object or experience, such as a candle flame, a prayer or chant, a picture of the Buddha, or simply, as in the Girimananda Sutta, on our regular cycle of breathing in and breathing out. As the mind settles peacefully on this single point of focus, our normal emotional turmoil subsides, and the mind stops its uncontrolled wandering and becomes calm and serene.
The second type of meditation is called vipassana or insight meditation. In this technique, mindfulness is used as a tool to increase our awareness of what is happening right now. Over years of vipassana practice, the focused mind gradually penetrates the wall of illusion that separates ordinary awareness from deep understanding of the way we exist. As our insight deepens, we realize that no part of us—not our body, feelings, perceptions, thoughts, or consciousness—is as concrete and permanent as we habitually believe. Like everything else, these parts are always changing and are for that reason sources of discomfort or disease—what the Buddha called “suffering.”
The basic process of meditation on perception is quite straightforward. We use tranquility meditation to become calm and centered and insight meditation to understand more clearly how we ordinarily perceive our own body and mind as well as the world around us. To our dismay, we discover that although the way we sense and think about our experiences seems to be solid and reliable, it is, in fact, distorted or mistaken in several important ways. It leads not to clarity and joy but to bewilderment and unhappiness. This understanding motivates us to engage in further meditation with the aim of cultivating purified perception as explained by the Buddha. As a result of these efforts, we progress on the path that leads to freeing ourselves once and for all from illness, confusion, and other forms of physical and mental suffering.
These two types of meditation have been the subject of my teaching and writing for many years. In Mindfulness in Plain English, I present a simple, step-by-step guide to mindfulness meditation. Mindfulness, so widely taught and practiced these days as an aid to stress-relief, relaxation, and healing, is actually vipassana or insight meditation, a set of mental activities aimed at experiencing uninterrupted awareness of what is happening moment to moment. Eight Mindful Steps to Happiness encourages readers to use mindfulness meditation to progress along the Buddha’s eight-step path from suffering to permanent happiness. In Beyond Mindfulness in Plain English, I explain how concentration meditation can help us transcend ordinary consciousness and reach highly purified and luminous mental states on the path. My most recent book, The Four Foundations of Mindfulness, discusses the Satipatthana Sutta, the Buddha’s clearest and most succinct presentation of mindfulness meditation.
Though each of these books presents basic meditation instructions, the subject is so important that I conclude this introduction with a simple way to practice samatha or concentration meditation drawn from the Girimananda Sutta, so that readers can try meditation themselves. Those who need more detailed guidance or help dealing with physical pain, distractions, and other problems might find Mindfulness in Plain English to be a good resource. As I mentioned, the Girimananda Sutta also presents a method of vipassana or insight meditation. In essence, the sutta reveals how a combination of concentration meditation and insight meditation can help us achieve vibrant mental health as well as physical and emotional healing. To that end, this book includes several sets of step-by-step instructions for engaging in mindfulness meditation on the perception of impermanence.
Readers can expect a range of positive results from engaging in meditation on perception. On the everyday level, cultivating mindfulness can help us overcome disturbing mental attitudes, such as anger, greed, and jealousy, and increase positive and healthy feelings, such as patience, loving kindness, and peace of mind. We become more impartial and objective observers of what is taking place within our minds and in the world around us and, for this reason, can more easily sidestep situations that might lead to anxiety and unhappiness.
On the spiritual level, meditation on perception can help us make steady progress on the path toward liberation from suffering. It can also result in genuine healing. We could say that the Girimananda Sutta is not a faith-healing system, but a truth-healing system. Perhaps it works something like this: When we listen to the truth, we become glad. When we appreciate the truth we hear, our insight is deepened, and the mind prompts the brain and body to generate healing chemicals. Though meditation should never be regarded as a substitute for medical treatment, many people have found it to be a valuable therapeutic complement to traditional care.
Looking ahead, we begin by exploring how perception works and where this faculty fits into the Buddha’s description of reality. Then we turn to the Girimananda Sutta and examine in detail the ten perceptions the Buddha asked Ananda to relate to Girimananda. For each of the ten, I begin with a quotation from the sutta so that readers can experience the Buddha’s words firsthand. Finally, we consider how we can use the method of insight meditation on perception the Buddha prescribed for Girimananda for personal and spiritual healing. But first we turn to the sutta itself for practical advice about meditation.
Getting Started with Meditation
The initial meditation instructions in the Girimananda Sutta are deceptively simple. As the Buddha explained to Ananda, in mindfulness of breathing, the meditator:
Here, a bhikkhu, having gone to the forest, to the foot of a tree, or to an empty hut, sits down. Having folded his legs crosswise, straightened his body, and established mindfulness in front of him, 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.’ (tr. Bhikkhu Bodhi)
So how should we get started with meditation based on these instructions?
• Go to a quiet place. Though the Buddha suggested a forest, the foot of a tree, or an empty abode, for us, the place simply needs to be somewhere we can be alone, away from everyday concerns. It will not help us to develop concentration if we take our mobile phone or laptop along! In order to focus our attention, we need to avoid distractions, both inner and outer.
• Adopt a stable and comfortable posture. The Buddha recommended sitting down, folding the legs, and straightening the back. Many people today practice meditation while sitting cross-legged on the floor, supported by a low cushion. But it is also possible to meditate while sitting upright in a chair, or even, when circumstances make it preferable, while standing up, walking, or lying down. The goal is for the body to be settled and relaxed, and for the posture to be one we can easily sustain for an extended period of time without shifting or readjusting.
• Bring attention to the present moment. As the Buddha expressed this guideline, we should set up mindfulness “in front.” We follow this instruction by remembering that the past is gone and the future has not yet arrived. The only time we can be truly present is right in front of us, the moment that is happening now.
• Focus the mind on the breath, coming in and going out. A single point of focus helps the mind to settle down. The best place to experience the movement of the breath is the spot where the flow of air touches or rubs the rim of the nostrils during inhalation and exhalation.
• Become aware that sometimes the breath is long, and other times it is short. This instruction does not mean that we should try to control our breathing, forcing ourselves to take long inhalations and exhalations or short ones. Rather, we should pay attention to natural variations in the rhythm of our breathing. Buddhist meditation is not a breathing exercise. Rather, we are using the breath, something that is always with us, as a point of focus for the mind to help us develop concentration and mindfulness.
• Be gentle and consistent. Meditation is often called “practice.” This word reminds us that we cannot expect to be expert meditators the first time we try it, or even the second, third, or tenth time. Choose a time when it is possible to be quiet and free of distractions. Many people find that early morning, before they get engaged in the concerns of the day, or evening, if that is a time when they feel awake and alert, are good choices. Establishing a regular time and place to meditate each day is a gentle way to encourage and support our practice.
• Be flexible and positive. Make sure that the meditation period is long enough to give the mind time to settle down. Many people find that meditating for twenty or thirty minutes each day works well, but even five or ten minutes is OK on days when we are especially busy. The longer we sit and focus on the breath, the more relaxed and comfortable we should feel. It will not help us to regard meditation as a chore or obligation. Rather it should be an activity we look forward to and enjoy because of the relaxation and pleasure it brings to the body and mind and how much it helps us personally and spiritually.
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© Bhante Henepola Gunaratana, Meditation on Perception (Wisdom Publications, 2014)
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