What Can Meditation Do? | Ven. Juetao

2021.03.14
Sunrise at Borobudur Indonesia Photo courtesy of Ven Juetao
Sunrise at Borobudur, Indonesia (Photo courtesy of Ven. Juetao)

It is a good sign that more and more people are interested in meditation. We have seen strong demand for a course or retreat in Hong Kong. Behind this trend, people’s motives vary. Over the past decade, many people came to me to learn meditation in order to solve specific problems, like anxiety, depression, insomnia, and so on. They found their symptoms getting better after practicing meditation. I would say yes, meditation helps, but no, it can do more.

Indeed, practicing meditation means we need to regulate our minds and thoughts rightly and correctly. The principle is to focus on an object diligently and continuously. We have to fix our attention on the object as long as we can. At the same time, we should not be attracted to other irrelevant thoughts or feelings. Only object, only concentration and nothing else. As a result, our minds would be less distracted or less diverged and become more tranquil and peaceful. Therefore, the symptoms of anxiety, depression, or insomnia would be relieved.

However, the purpose of meditation is not just to cure specific mental problems. It is meant to remove impurities deep down in our minds. The impurities include all unwholesome thoughts and latent tendencies, like desire, hatred, and ignorance. In Buddhism, these impurities are deemed as fundamental problems that are universal and deep-rooted in humans. Therefore, meditation does not tackle the symptoms individually but tries to purify our minds in essence and solve the problems once for all.

For example, say, we feel uncomfortable and go to a doctor. The doctor may prescribe different medications to treat different symptoms, right? This is for fever and that is for running nose. As a patient, we expect medications to cure symptoms. And that is what we want. However, the doctor may further advise us to have a healthy lifestyle and quit unhealthy habits, like eat healthier, do exercise, do not stay up late... So that we will feel more energetic and would not get sick so easily.

Similarly, people look for specific therapies for specific mental problems. However, that is not how meditation functions. Meditation teaches us to cultivate our minds and to live a happy and peaceful life with more wholesome qualities and fewer impurities. So that all the mental problems can be solved. Just like we need to improve our health in general. Meditation is more like a holistic approach, not just a specific medicine or a trending phenomenon. In this respect, you can imagine, it requires effort and time to practice. Then where shall we begin?

Basically, I suggest you attend a course or a retreat led by a qualified teacher. Meditation is not knowledge that can be understood from books or articles. You have to practice and experience it in person. For this reason, an experienced teacher will be very important, especially for beginners. However, I know not everyone has the time or chance to enroll in such courses or retreats. Here, I will introduce some very simple and basic techniques that can help you to cultivate your mind and so release your tension.

Our first practice is holding breath temporarily. (It is not so related to meditation, though.) First, you have to keep your body still in a comfortable posture and close your eyes. Take a very, very deep breath. Hold your breath for a couple of seconds, 10 seconds are quite enough. Then exhale through the mouth slowly and lightly. Repeat 3 times. Try to feel and observe your body when you hold your breath. Since your body stays still, you may find certain bodily activities more obvious or noticeable. Focus on these bodily activities. And maybe you can feel a trace of tranquility within.

This practice is very helpful in many situations. When you experience strong emotions, like anger, anxiety, depression, etc., you may try this practice right away. It is like you push the pause button and restart. You will not feel the same strong emotions as before. It is also an effective way to relax. For me, I practice holding my breath before I sleep every night. It helps me to sleep deep and sound. So I recommend this practice if you suffer from sleeping problems. Above all, you need to improve yourself fundamentally, both in mental and physical health, so that you can solve your problems and get in touch with your genuine inner happiness.

Next time, I will continue to talk about some meditative practices. I hope these practices can help you to live healthier and happier.

(Ven. Juetao is a Buddhist monk who obtained his Ph.D. from HKU. His research interest is Buddhist psychology, in specific, the cognitive processes of ordinary people in daily life. He is now engaged in the teaching of Buddhism and meditation in Hong Kong.)

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