Meditation 1: What practice?

This is the first of what I hope will be weekly blogs on meditation. These don’t aim to teach you meditation, but they do aim to support reflective practice amongst those who are already meditating. Outside of meditation classes, it’s surprising how seldom our experience of meditation is actually discussed amongst those who meditate. I hope that these can start discussion in which other people can also offer the benefit of their experience. I’m also open to the idea of others writing some of these blogs if they wish to do so.

One of the first questions you might get asked if you meet somebody new with whom you share an interest in meditation is “What practice do you do?”. The answers might range considerably, from Transcendental Meditation using a mantra, reflections on Jesus, visualising multi-limbed Tibetan deities garlanded with skulls, meditating on a candle flame, loving-kindness meditation, mindfulness of breathing, or ‘just sitting’ (zazen). There are not only a bewildering variety of meditational traditions, but even within, say, the Buddhist tradition, there are a huge variety of possible practices.

My own experience is primarily of the Buddhist practices taught in the Triratna movement: mindfulness of breathing, just sitting, loving-kindness meditation, and walking meditation. At various times during my long involvement in Triratna I also tried visualisation style practices, including the incredibly complex Going for Refuge Visualisation and Prostration practice and the sadhana (visualisation) of the blue Buddha Akshobhya.  But I think I largely tried new practices in response to social pressure, and actually had very little interest in doing anything other than simple and basic forms of practice. The more complex and ‘religious’ the practice, the more conflicts I tended to find it created in me, leading me to focus on my reactions to the religious tradition rather than on the core business of integration. I think far too much emphasis is put in that movement on new forms of meditation as a mark of promotion in rank. Meditation_class Thanyapura

So, my suggestion about choosing a practice is always to keep it simple. It might be possible to relate to highly ‘religious’ practices involving gods, Buddhas or mantras in an archetypal way without metaphysical commitments, but you need to have your attitudes to belief and meaning very well sorted (better than I did) to make that work. Simpler practices are also far more universal, and far more effective in the basic immediate business of integrating our wayward desires. Close your eyes and try to meditate and the chances are you will be off onto some distraction within a few minutes: I see it as the core business of meditation to start doing something about that.

On the other hand, it is possible to make it too simple. The zazen tradition involves just creating a basis of bodily awareness and then observing whatever comes up without judgement. This is a great practice if you can do it, but also very difficult. Even the Zen tradition also uses a mindfulness of breathing practice to supplement zazen, creating a bit more structure. My own habitual practice is about 60% mindfulness of breathing and 40% just sitting. I need to be in quite an integrated state to start with for just sitting to be productive. Mindfulness of breathing has the major advantage of giving some kind of structure, but nevertheless one that unavoidably takes one to one’s most basic physical experience. These are also the practices I intend to teach in the Middle Way Society practice classes.

There is a Buddhist tradition of matching meditation practices to character types. In Buddhaghosha’s ‘Path of Purification’ (a massive early Buddhist practice manual), people are classified into greed, hatred, and delusion types according to their dominant hindrances, and then advised to do meditation practices that correct these different tendencies. For example, hate types are (of course) advised to do the loving-kindness meditation. Greed types, on the other hand, are advised to meditate on decomposing corpses. The character typology here is crude compared to a modern character typology such as Myers-Briggs, but there is a certain sense to this basic approach of addressing your weaker points. However, there is also a pitfall – the very practices that might focus most on correcting your weaknesses will also be the ones you find hardest to engage with. Given how hard meditation is to keep going over the long-term, this is an important factor. As I’m more of a hate type than a greed type, Buddhaghosha would advise me to do lots of loving-kindness meditation, but that’s the very thing I would find hardest to keep going effectively (though I’ve certainly tried). Any meditation practice will to some extent help to integrate your neglected areas, and it seems more important to me to maintain one – and to enjoy it.

The other major issue with meditation practices, though, is that people tend to conceptualise them too much as distinct from each other, and reduce a practice too much to a set of rules. You do need a set of rules to hang onto when you first start meditating, to provide a structure by which to learn how to enter into that sphere of experience; but when you have a little more experience, it seems to me that meditation practices merge into one another. Instead of doing a specific practice, one is meditating – responding to whatever comes up with a toolbox of techniques. Thus I very often ad lib between focusing on the breath, focusing on the body, or open awareness, and occasionally might bring in some imagery. What ‘practice’ one does, and which tradition it comes from, is largely only a matter of concern when you are starting out. In the end what one is practising is just integration.

Picture: Meditation class by Thanyapura (Wikimedia Commons)


About Robert M Ellis

Robert M Ellis is the founder and chair of the Middle Way Society, and author of a number of books on Middle Way Philosophy, including the introductory 'Migglism' and the more in-depth 'Middle Way Philosophy' series. He has a Christian background, and about 20 years' past experience of practising Buddhism, but it was his Ph.D. studies in Philosophy that set him on the track of developing a systematic account of the Middle Way beyond any specific tradition. He has earned his living mainly by teaching, and more recently by online tutoring.

7 thoughts on “Meditation 1: What practice?

  1. Meditation is a fascinating topic, I am looking forward to this series of posts!

    Sitting in silent worship with the Quakers is meditative for me, I let my mind and body relax and meld together in a particular way that I haven’t been able to with other forms of meditation. I let go of control of the situation (anxiety) and I think the aspect that works for me is that it is “waiting”. Not trying to still my mind or clear my thoughts or relax, but active waiting. That takes the “performance thinking” out of it. It is lovely, and healing for me.

    Previously I have experience with neopagan meditative practice, such as “grounding and centering” which I still do sometimes. There is also a practice in the Feri tradition called “aligning”, which feels integrative. Feri Witchcraft is very focused on alignment of our different parts, and though it comes with a rather heavy baggage of occult ideas and colourful beliefs that makes it quite easy to dismiss as fanciful nonsense, I have long been fascinated by some of its rituals and methods, if not the ideas or superstitions. I quite like the “childish” aspects of it.

    I have only tried Buddhist meditation twice, when I lived in Cambridge some years ago. There were some free night classes. I liked it but found it incredibly difficult. Only later have I realised that there isn’t one Buddhist meditation but a myriad of schools and traditions. I don’t even know which type I attended! I am reading a wonderful book on Buddhist Psychology (by Lorne Ladner) where he speaks of ways of cultivating compassion, there were some excises and I am looking forward to trying them. It seems to me that cultivating compassion can be an integrative practice – and one that might lead to greater psychological health overall.

    But I believe my best meditative practice is walking in the “wilderness”. Being in the forest is the one practice that relaxes, grounds, fulfils, revitalises and integrates me all at the same time.

    I like the idea of the different meditation personality “types”. It makes a lot of sense to me that people need different paths in to integration. I have a strong tendency to be “stuck in my head” and anxious, and I find that being in nature; in my body, moving, as well as the sensuous and imaginative Feri practices, are efficient at getting me out of the mind and into the world.

  2. Hi,

    I am very much in the ‘keep it simple’ school of thought. The Zazen of the Soto Zen tradition appeals greatly to me and I did this exclusively for about a year (having originally just focused on the breath). On some occasions it seemed easy and on others it was very difficult – keeping my eyes open took some time to get used to. After nearly four years of meditating I am at a point where I do ‘mix and match’ the techniques that I have learnt.

    The Mahasi Vipassana method, which I do often, seems to me to be a compromise between the very focused technique of focusing on the breath and the, sometimes bewilderingly, open Zazen. In Mahasi Vipassana one ‘notes’ things as they arise, so as I breath I might say to myself ‘rising’ on the in breath and ‘falling’ on the out breath. If my face starts to itch, and my focus is drawn there then I might start saying (internally) ‘itch’….’itch’, before returning to the breath and allowing other things to arise. I find this method very useful and often find that after a period of time I am able to drop the noting, resulting in the meditation becoming more akin to Zazen.

    I also do some ‘guided’ metta (I don’t like the term ‘loving kindness’) from time to time. I do not believe that I am actually sending goodwill to people, but I think that the act of wishing them well must have some psychological benefit, and might even affect how I interact with people in the real word – especially with those that I might have difficulties.

    I also echo Emile’s ‘walking in the wilderness’ meditation, which the Buddhist meditation really enhances. Of course in Buddhism, the act of sitting in meditation should only be to practice skills that one then utilizes in everyday life.


  3. I’m pleased this project to share reflective practice has started, I’m wondering how we can get the most out of it? Maybe we shall identify major themes or issues in our shared experience, and do some work on those together, how to do that I don’t know. There are lots of drawbacks to online discussion, things do seem easier to me when we’re face to face and can more fully experience each other as sentient and sensitive beings..

    A couple of points. Robert lays emphasis on integration (“of wayward desires”) and I’m impressed by this, because the fault lines between my experience, the way I make meaning and what I recognise as my system of beliefs are becoming clearer to me through the miggling framework, so that meditation itself has become more meaningful, and purposeful for me; and my motivation to practice has grown.

    I wouldn’t go overboard about this growing sense of the worth of meditation, but it’s there and I respect it. For one thing, it has floated me free of any allegiance I might have had (or pretended to have) to Buddhism. And that’s a relief, I no longer feel I have to dissemble about being a Buddhist, although it’s not easy to ‘come clean’ to other Buddhists about what’s likely to be interpreted as ‘losing faith’, especially in the Buddhist healthcare chaplaincy movement where I have a fairly salient position.

    It’s interesting to read Emilie’s account of the Feri tradition that I’ll follow up via google. The word ‘alignment’ means something important to me, it makes me think of the phrase “getting my ducks in a row”, there’s a very satisfying but hard to define sense or ‘rightness’ when this happens: I do amateur carpentry and getting two or three pieces of wood into good alignment, making a good fit, is a joy. As with words, crafting a good sentence (or reading a good sentence) is the same, and also in nursing work: it can take a long time and lots of patience to get a patient comfortable, but the ‘finished product’ is time well spent. Meditation carries the same sort of challenge, and practice makes perfect (even if perfection is an unrealistic aspiration, it’s worth pursuing).

    I’ve always been interested in why group meditation seems easier than solitary. I think Emilie has it right when she suggests that in a group we can be (relatively) free of responsibility for “how long?”, and a sense of solidarity lowers the performance anxiety that’s sometimes around for me.

    My own preferred practice is a kind of yoga (zhan zhuang – or “Standing Like A Tree). It might be described as standing meditation, and body alignment is at the heart of it, as is relaxation, and attending to experience. Attention to breathing (with the whole body, which moves in its subtle entirety as we breathe). Exponents of this practice are George Draffan (, Will Johnson (The Physical Foundations of Mindfulness) and Reggie Ray (Touching Enlightenment). I alternate this practice with irregular sitting meditations (“Short sessions, many of them” – George Draffan) and lots of mindful attention to everyday activities.

    An idiosyncrasy of mine is a preference for meditating with eyes open and unfocussed. I’m a predominantly visual person with good visual acuity and a eye that is quickly drawn to things, maybe I was a bird of prey in a former life! So it’s a useful discipline for me to relax my vision and widen my visual field. It helps to slow down the flow of my thoughts, and deepens my awareness of other sensory inputs. But, as Emilie and Robert have suggested, meditation can be quite hard work.

    1. Hello to you all.
      I will attempt to describe how I meditate and try to maintain a calm awareness throughout the day, I do not always succeed, for example, my laptop suddenly closed down a few evenings ago, which sent me into a minor panic as I have come to rely on it to keep in touch with people, happily I discovered the fault, or a phone call can disturb if there is bad news, I’ve had a few devastaing calls over the years.
      I keep my method of meditation simple and have found a way that works for me. It is very interesting to learn how we each have our own ways. I usually complete a few chores before I sit, after doing them I can relax, with a modicum of satisfaction, at least thoughts of having to do them will not intrude into my mind, other thoughts will from time to time, I let them go. Meditation is a treat, I have come to trust its benefits, I feel refreshed at the end.
      I sit on a chair with my back supported, chin down a little and my eyes closed, not an ideal posture but I cannot sit for long without support. I drop my shoulders and then become aware of the weight of my feet on the floor and the surface of my body against the chair. I concentrate on feeling my diaphragm rising and falling, breathing in and out, like gentle waves against a rock, the wave dies a new one follows, soon the rising and falling becomes automatic then concentration lessens, I then slowly make myself aware of my whole body, from my feet to my head. On some occasions I think with love about each member of my family in turn, not that I think they benefit from my thoughts, or, I may think of myself in the darkness of space, occasionally I have felt as though I am actually moving into that space. It must have something to do with my eyes which I cannot explain, if we shut our eyes after a long car journey a similar effect can happen I think. Other times I will play a music CD and try to be in the minute. I have begun a painting, that involves concentration and time flies. In the summer I sit in the garden to meditate, aware of the bird song.
      I have daily rituals, like keeping the bird feeders filled and feeding my pond fish, at the moment I am enjoying the sight of bulbs beginning to grow. Preparing a meal for the family once in a while is also an activity carried out with love. In contrast when it’s fine I go for a short brisk walk as cardio vascular excercise, recommended following a heart attack I had nearly four years ago, I live at the top of a hill so there is always a short climb one way. I think of learning as a meditative practice. I will look up online some of your suggested authors. Ten days silent retreat at Gaia House many years ago made a lasting impression, I owe the teachers I met there a debt of gratitude.

  4. Thanks for all these interesting accounts of how you meditate. I’m struck by the diversity, and even more inclined to think it would be good to get some others to write blogs about meditation in future, to reflect that diversity. Any offers?

    1. I’ll write a blog about meditation, based on the stuff I’ve accumulated, enthused over, got fed up with, discarded, picked up again, felt guilty about etc.

      I’ll start it over the weekend.

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