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What Meditation Really is

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by Sangharakshita

... from unenlightened man up to Enlightened man, and this is purely a psychological and spiritual process, a process which may, eventually, become entirely dissociated from the physical body.

Now traditional Buddhism speaks in terms of four grades, or four levels, of consciousness, each one higher than the one preceding. First of all there is consciousness associated with the plane, or `world', of sensuous experience. Secondly there is consciousness associated with the plane, or `world', of mental and spiritual form - the plane or world of archetypes. Then there is consciousness associated with the formless plane or `world', and finally, consciousness associated with the Transcendental Path, which is to say, with the path leading directly to Nirvana, Enlightenment, or Buddhahood, as well as with Nirvana, Enlightenment, or Buddhahood itself. There is another classification which we sometimes use, which may be more helpful. Here too there are four stages, or four levels, of consciousness, although they do not correspond very exactly to the four already enumerated. Here, first of all, comes what we call sense-consciousness, which is to say, consciousness associated with objects experienced through the physical senses. This is sometimes called simple consciousness, also animal consciousness. It is the consciousness we share with members of the animal kingdom. Secondly, there is self-consciousness: not self-consciousness in the more colloquial sense of the term, but self-consciousness in the sense of awareness of being aware, knowing that we know. This is sometimes called reflexive consciousness because, here, consciousness so to speak bends back upon itself, knows itself, experiences itself, is aware of itself. We may say, perhaps, that this self-consciousness, or reflexive consciousness, is human consciousness in the full sense of the term.

Thirdly, there is what we call Transcendental Consciousness. This means consciousness of, or even direct personal contact with, Reality - Ultimate Reality - experienced as an object `out there'. Finally, there is Absolute Consciousness, in which the subject/object relation is entirely dissolved, and in which there is a full realization of Ultimate Reality, as transcending altogether the subject/object duality.

In both these classifications, the first consciousness enumerated is that, predominantly, of the ordinary unenlightened man, the man who is not even trying to develop spiritually. And the fourth consciousness, in both cases, is that of the Enlightened man.

We can now begin to see in what the spiritual life - in what the Higher Evolution - essentially consists.

We may say that it consists in a continual progression from lower to higher, and ever higher, states of being and consciousness: from the world of sensuous experience to the world of mental and spiritual form, from the world of mental and spiritual form to the formless world, and from the formless world to Nirvana, or Enlightenment; or, from sense-consciousness to self-consciousness, self-consciousness to Transcendental Consciousness, Transcendental Consciousness to Absolute Consciousness.

We can now begin to see what meditation really is. Indeed, we shall see it all the more clearly for having gone a little way into these fundamentals first. There is, however, just one more point to be made. Spiritual life, as we have said, consists in the development of consciousness. And Buddhism, the Dharma, the teaching of the Buddha, is whatever helps in that development. But there are two different ways in which consciousness can be developed, or at least two different methods of approach.

We call these methods the subjective and the objective, or the direct and the indirect. Having recognized this distinction, we are at last in a position to see what meditation really is. Meditation is the subjective or direct way of raising the level of consciousness. In meditation we raise the level of consciousness by working directly on the mind itself.

First of all, however, I must say something about `objective' or indirect methods of raising the level of consciousness. Some people appear to think that meditation is the only way there is to raise the level of consciousness, as if to say that consciousness must be raised directly by working on the mind itself or not at all. Such people therefore identify meditation with the spiritual life, and the spiritual life exclusively with meditation. They therefore claim that if you are not meditating you cannot possibly be leading a spiritual life. Sometimes they even identify the spiritual life with a particular kind of meditation, or a particular concentration technique. But this is far too narrow a view. It makes us forget what the spiritual life really is - which is to say that it consists in the raising of the level of consciousness - and it makes us forget, sometimes, what meditation itself really is. It is true, of course, that the raising of the level of consciousness by direct methods is at least as important as raising it by indirect methods; we might even say that it is perhaps more important. But we should not forget that other methods do exist; if we did forget this our approach would be too one-sided; and if we acted upon this, we would tend to make the spiritual life itself one-sided and even to exclude certain kinds of people - people of certain temperaments, for example - who were not, perhaps, particularly interested in meditation. So let us very briefly look at some of these indirect, non-meditative methods of raising the level of consciousness.

First of all there is change of environment. This is quite consciously employed as an indirect means of changing, and hopefully raising, our level of consciousness when we go away on retreat - perhaps into the country, to a retreat centre. There we spend a few days, or even a few weeks, simply in more pleasant, more congenial surroundings, perhaps not even doing anything in particular. This is often more helpful than people realize, and it suggests that the environment in which we normally have to live and work is not particularly good for us - does not help in the raising of the level of awareness. It really does seem as if, for most people, a positive change of environment leads quite naturally to a raising of their level of consciousness - even without any further effort.

Another quite practical and simple indirect method of raising the level of consciousness is what we call, in Buddhism, Right Livelihood. Practically everybody has to work for a living. Quite a lot of us do the same kind of work every day, five days a week, fifty weeks of the year. We may do it for five, ten, fifteen, twenty, twenty-five, or thirty years, until we come to the age of retirement. All this has a continuous effect on our state of mind. If our work is unhealthy in the mental, moral, and spiritual sense, the effect on our minds will also be unhealthy. So therefore, in Buddhism, in the Buddha's teaching, we are advised very strongly to look at our means of livelihood and to practise Right Livelihood, which means earning our living in a way which does not lower our state of consciousness, which does not prevent us raising it, even, and which does no harm to other living beings. In Buddhist tradition there is a list of occupations which are seen not to be very helpful: the work of a butcher, of a trader in arms, of a dealer in liquor, and so on. By changing our means of livelihood (assuming that at present it is not quite right), then just that change of work, change of place, change of environment - that change in the sort of people we work with, the sort of thing that we have to do every day - will have a positive and helpful effect on our level of consciousness - or at least it will not prevent it from rising.

Then again, to become more specific and concrete, there is the leading of a regular and disciplined life: something which apparently is becoming less and less popular. This may consist in the observance and practice of certain moral precepts and principles, in having regular hours for meals, for work, for recreation, and for study, or in observing moderation in such things as eating, sleeping, and talking - perhaps even in fasting occasionally, or observing silence for a few days or weeks. In its fully developed form this more regular, disciplined life is what we call the monastic life. Among those who are leading such a regular, disciplined life, even without any meditation, over a period of years, one can see quite clearly a change taking place in their state, their level, of consciousness.

There are other indirect methods, such as Hatha Yoga or yoga in the more physical sense. Especially there are what are called yogic asanas, which affect not only the body, but the mind as well. They affect the mind through the body, and even people who meditate regularly sometimes find these asanas very helpful. Sometimes even the experienced meditator may be a bit too tired at the end of a day's work, or a bit too worried, to meditate properly. At such times he may practise a few asanas until his mind becomes calmer and more concentrated. Thus he loses his tiredness and becomes more refreshed, almost as though he had meditated.

Then again there are the various Japanese Do or `Ways' - like ikebana, flower arrangement. It might seem a very simple and ordinary thing, just to arrange a few flowers in a vase in a traditional way, but people who have engaged in this over a period of years are definitely changed in their minds, changed in their consciousness. One can also think of things like T'ai Chi Ch'uan and so on. These all have an effect upon the mind. They are all indirect ways of raising the level of consciousness. Likewise, the enjoyment of great works of art - of great poetry, music, and painting - often helps to raise the level of consciousness. Such enjoyment raises ...

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