Q&A: Analytical Meditations – What and How
What are analytical meditations?
Culadasa: I think less common are the analytical meditations, but it's probably something that's unfortunate because I think they're very useful.
Student: Would you speak a little bit more about what those are, analytical meditations?
Culadasa: Yes... maybe, first to tell you that there is... if you start out doing a meditation on the breath, you'll reach a stage where your mind... where your attention becomes very stable, and that is a good place to begin analytical meditation, because otherwise you'll do an analytical meditation, which is sitting there thinking, and the common experience is you decide to sit down and think about something, and your mind doesn't quite know where to stop, and you end up going all over the place and often you totally lose track of what it was, the problem that you were trying to figure out. There is, in terms of mental training, a particular level of attentional stability that's very conducive to doing contemplation or analytical meditation, so that you can stay focused on the particular thing that you're meditating on. And then there is a simple little method that has four parts to it. And it's very interesting, we find it both in Eastern traditions and it's also found in Christianity, where it's called the Lectio Divina. And I don't know whether at some point way back in history, that there was some contact, because the similarity between them is remarkable.
Both both have the same four stages. The first is, prior to doing the meditation, you've selected the subject to the meditation; the topic. And usually you might have memorized a paragraph, or you might have read something... a piece of scripture, or read something that's on this particular topic and it's fresh in your mind. So then you sit down to meditate, and the first thing you do is you just, if it's something you've memorized, you might repeat it in your mind, or if it's something you've read you might just sort of review it. And the idea is that you're looking for the beginning place, and there's two metaphor that are used to describe this. One, is like you've got a ball of golden thread that's all tangled up. And so you turn it around, you're looking for the end of the thread so you can begin to unravel it. And the other is that it's like, there is a castle and it contains this wonderful treasure, and you're circling around there looking for an entrance, for a way to get in.
But as you sort of roll around the topic of your meditation in your mind, at some point something sort of grabs your attention, and it is your thread, that's the beginning of the thread. So that's the first stage. And then, the second stage, of course, is that you begin to discursively analyze and think through the problem or examine the topic, looking for either some sort of resolution or some deeper understanding and when that occurs, that brings you to the third stage. In the third stage, what you do is you review exactly how you got to that understanding. So you sort of go back to the logical steps that brought you to that place of clarity or that place of resolution. And then in the fourth step, you just hold that understanding as an object of... as a meditation object, and you just meditate on it for a period of time.
Now, not always in the process of doing an analytical meditation will you arrive at the third stage, where you have something that we can say that this is the result of. That's all right; when the bell rings, you get up and you go back to doing whatever you do. And very often, though, the understanding will come later on.
Student: What kind of a topic would you take?
Culadasa: Well... very useful topics are things like what we've been talking about recently. The idea that you can describe everything that makes up a person by the five aggregates or the five khandas, which we've talked about recently. So that would be a very appropriate topic... what you might do is find something that somebody has written, or listened to a dharma talk on it, and then sit down and just try to really understand. And you don't worry about whether you go through all five of them. If you only figure out one of them really clearly and understand exactly what's meant by that, you know, what the ramifications are of it being included in this particular group, and so forth. Or it could be something more focused, like the idea of the first Noble Truth, that life is pervaded by suffering, or dissatisfaction, and you could just sit down and that could be the subject of your meditation, or your intellectual exploration.
At some point. What all of these things, at least in terms of Buddhism are directed towards, sooner or later you're focusing in on this question of the nature of the self. And does the self the way all my life I'm used to feeling "I am this self", does that really exist? And what am I? What, is really there? And so that's a very important and appropriate topic for this kind of meditation. But it's really broader than that. Anything could be. It could be more general. You could have a situation in your life and you could say bout this situation that you've got, "what would the Buddha do?" And that would be a good topic for analytical meditation. What do I want to do, what are the conflicts that I feel if I did this, or if I didn't do that, and so forth. And then try to put it in the context of "okay, so that's my feelings about it; what would the Buddha do?" You know, what opinion might he have about it? Almost anything.
Student: You could take the Six Perfections, one by one.
Culadasa: You could take the Six Perfections, one by one. As a matter of fact, that's a very good practice that's often done as a part of a preliminary to meditation, is to take the Six Perfections, one by one, and reflect on what they are, how they're to be practiced, and how well you have been practicing them.
Student: They have so many subtleties... ill will, like we talked about ill will today, and you could spend a long time thinking of all the different kinds of ill will.
Culadasa: Yeah, that's true.
Student: And very subtle ill wills.
Culadasa: And that's the other thing about these things is... the kinds of topics we're talking about... the first time you hear about them or read about them, it might be, "oh yeah, I understand what that is", but what you'll discover over time is, yeah, there is so much more depth to it, there is so much more subtlety to it. And so sometimes you can take something that you think you're very familiar with and that you understand quite well, and discover all sorts of new things. But one of the richest places to examine, is taking any of these things as ideas, as abstractions, and applying them to the reality of life as we actually live it.
A lot of times in the kind of discussions we have, dharma talks about these things, it can be rather one-dimensional. It's sort of abstract. It's intellectual. It's conceptual. But if you add to it all of the other dimensions of your personal experience, your emotional life, your interactions with different people. You know, what does ill will mean in terms of the problem you have with your brother, your relationship with your neighbor, all these other kinds of things. Or with yourself. That's one where there's a lot to be discovered there too, because it's easy to take these things and only project them outward and forget that we also have relationship with the person that we are, too. We also judge, criticize, have all sorts of ill will and negative emotions regarding ourselves. That's a legitimate topic of contemplation.
Student: Would there be like a form of meditation where the object is to just sit and not be contemplated, and just not necessarily even focus on clearing the mind, but just letting things come and letting them go. And then truth is being revealed from within.
Culadasa: Yes! Yes, absolutely. As a matter of fact, Jim, now that's a rather advanced meditation technique, just for the simple reason that most people, until they've trained their mind to a certain degree, don't really have much luck at just being able to do that. They get swept away, carried away. But in terms of that category of meditations that the primary intent of which is to gain insight and understanding, and we find it in different cultures, the "just sitting" practice, or Shikantaza practice of Zen, is one form of doing that. No particular object, but just staying right here in the present and just being with whatever comes up. And then there's also a form of it that's called Mahamudra, which presupposes that a person has already a great deal of mental stability, and they've cultivated a very high level of conscious awareness. And what they do is that they make their mind open and expansive and just let whatever... you know, sensation or thought, emotion, anything that happens to come up, just let it arise and pass away without pursuing it, without grasping onto it. But these are very powerful meditation techniques, but they can be quite difficult unless you've first spent a little time doing another kind of training that's settled your mind down a bit
Student: I'm smiling because I didn't know there was a name for that. And we had a teacher in Portland that said that the object was to just sit, just sit, and focus too, and to give that time. My problem was not giving it that time. That lack of discipline.
Culadasa Yeah. It has names... it has different names in different places, but yeah.. that's, I believe, if I understand correctly, that the literal translation out of the Japanese Shikantaza , is "just sitting". I think that's really what it really means.