Updated: Oct 8, 2018
In general there are two types of meditation: analytical meditation and placement meditation.
Analytical meditation can be practiced informally outside of the mediation session as well formally during the meditation session. Analytical meditation is a process of combining logical reasoning and personal experiences to achieve a particular state of mind. We engage in a purposeful process of investigation, or thought, about an object; analyzing its various aspects and examining it from various points of view. It is especially helpful if you can draw on real life examples that you have personally been through that relate to the state of mind you are trying to achieve. This process can be repeated several times until the mind clearly perceives the desired object of meditation.
Say for example you wanted to meditate on the breath, a relatively simple meditation object. You would begin by settling into a comfortable meditation posture in which you could remain relaxed and alert. Then you would start paying close attention to the sensation of air flowing in through your nostrils, filling your lungs causing your chest to rise, and then leaving allowing your chest to fall and flowing out through your nostrils. Taking in all the different feelings of each moment of inhalation and exhalation. You would examine the differences between the cool sharper sensation of air flowing in compared to the warm softer sensation of air flowing out paying close attention to the sensations you experience in each moment, analyzing how each sensation feels to you and the differences between them. It is important to be completely present in each moment of inhalation and exhalation, observing each sensation in as much detail as you can.
“When the sea is rough, sediment is churned up and the water becomes murky, but when the wind dies down the mud gradually settles and the water becomes clear. In a similar way, when the otherwise incessant flow of our distracting thoughts is calmed through concentrating on the breath, our mind becomes unusually lucid and clear.”
- Geshe Kelsang Gyatso
In analytical meditation the objective is to find you particular object of meditation. For this to happen you have to want to go there in the first place. If you sit down to meditate out of a sense of obligation, and no real desire to find your object, it is unlikely you will succeed. You have to be on board with the purpose of the meditation. This can be best helped by reading or listening to an explanation of the benefits of the particular meditation you are setting out to do. For example, when meditating on the breath it is helpful to read about how this is going to make your mind more peaceful and calm, recognising that this is a state of mind you desire, and kind of get yourself to want that more, before you begin the actual mediation. Genla Dekyong, a senior Kadampa Buddhist teacher, uses the analogy of a hot air balloon taking off to help explain this, saying that hot air is going to cause the balloon to rise but you have to “go with it” a little bit. You have to be willing your meditation to succeed before you begin.
The more time you invest in reading and understanding the benefits of the meditation you want to do, the easier it will be to take off during analytical meditation. Often there are detailed commentaries available explaining the benefits of certain meditations. It is also very helpful to consider the different lines of reasoning that will be used in analytical meditation and how they might apply to you personally before you begin the meditation. For example if you are going to meditate on a mind of love for someone, you want to first consider the many kind things that they have done for you to use in analytical meditation. Compose a mental list of all their kindnesses before you begin the formal meditation, try to be as detailed as possible, it needs to evoke an emotional response. Then when you sit down to meditate, bring this list to mind and go through each item slowly, like chewing delicious food. You will then find your desired state of mind in analytical meditation more easily and can spend more of the session time making it clearer, before you begin placement meditation.
Placement meditation takes place after thorough analytical meditation. Having achieved the desired state of mind, or found your object, and it is appearing clearly, you now try to hold this object or feeling single pointedly, without distraction. This is the tricky part. It is important to note that this is not simply allowing your mind to go blank or to not think anything. You are holding a particular state of mind or feeling, clearly and firmly, without perceiving anything else or allowing any other thoughts to arise.
If, for example. your meditation object is the sincere determination to see everyone you meet with, that day, as a friend or someone you like very much rather than as a stranger or an enemy. Having considered the benefits of thinking in this way and the innumerable kindnesses everyone in your life has shown you in direct and indirect ways, until the determination to regard every person you meet with as a friend arises clearly in your mind, now try to hold this determination single pointedly, allowing your mind to mix with it. Holding this sincere determination, this feeling, firmly with strong mindfulness and concentration, while not allowing any other thoughts to arise.
At first other thoughts will continue to arise, but if you do not give them any energy, and just ignore them, they will subside back into your mind. If you keep ignoring the distracting thoughts they will be begin to arise less and less frequently and more quietly until they stop completely and you can abide peacefully in placement meditation. Ross McDonald, a professor at the University of Auckland likened this to a child and parent watching a movie together. At first the child asks many questions about the movie, without paying any attention to the plot, themself. The parent gradually begins to ignore the child’s questions. When this happens the child, in turn, gradually stops asking questions, and is able to see the bigger picture themselves.
Once you are holding your object single-pointedly in your mind you have to work to keep it appearing clearly, while at the same time not losing the stability or single-pointedness of your object. This requires fine, subtle adjustments. It’s a bit like balancing, in your mind. You want to gradually increase the length of time you can hold your object for, without dropping it or being distracted by another thought so that your mind and its object can mix together for longer. At first you can only hold your object of meditation for a few moments before your mind drops it, and you have to return to analytical meditation again, this is normal at the start of your meditation practice. A little like tight rope walking, at this stage, in that you fall down and have to climb back up to your object each time, returning to analytical meditation each time to get your object appearing clearly again.
In the beginning if during placement meditation, while holding your object, another thought arises, try not to give it any mental energy, and it will subside. If you catch yourself wandering, having lost your object and following a train of thought completely unrelated to your meditation (this will happen plenty at first!), just gently return your mind back to your meditation and keep trying to hold it. If you need to engage in brief analytical meditation to get your object appearing clearly again, you can. This needs to be done skillfully. When you realise your mind has wandered, just gently return it back to your object of meditation – don’t feel bad, don’t scold yourself, this is natural and it is best to accept where you are in your progress whole heartedly. Holding on to the idea of being a great meditator before you begin practicing is counterproductive. It is better to let the habit build up, and gain familiarity gradually, you don’t need to be a great meditator right away - you just need to begin practising, just a small amount each day, regularly and consistently.
Gen Rabten, one of my favourite senior Buddhist teachers, compared this to a child learning to hold a ball. At first the child can’t pick the ball up, but after trying again and again, he can. Still, at this stage, the child soon drops the ball and can’t hold it for longer than a few moments. The child keeps trying to hold the ball for longer until eventually those muscles required to perform this action develop well enough that the child can hold the ball firmly for a longer period of time - but it still requires effort, concentration, and the child still drops the ball after a while. Eventually through continued practice the child can hold the ball for as long as he likes without having to apply much relative effort to keep it in his grip.
At first your mind may only be able to hold its object for a few moments, but through consistent and regular practice your ability to hold your object single pointedly will improve until eventually you can hold your object single pointedly in one meditation session for as long as you like, without needing to apply much relative effort.
The longer you can stay on your object single pointedly the greater the sense of peace you will experience, and the more your mind will change for the good. This is the important part, and the main purpose of meditation – to achieve positive permanent change in your mind. As you draw closer to your object of meditation, each time you meditate, your mind begins to change towards being more like the state of mind achieved during the meditation session. This affects your way of thinking and overall experience of everyday life in and out of the meditation session, it beneficially changes how you see the world and improves your subjective experience of life.
“The sign that we have gained a perfect realization of any object is that none of our subsequent actions are incompatible with it and all of them become more meaningful” - Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, Joyful Path of Good Fortune
An easy example to illustrate how it all might work in practice from start to finish, could be developing a mind of affectionate love. Say you want to build a stronger mind of love for you partner, bestie or child. Or anyone, really! But it helps if you start with someone whom you already feel very close too, it’s easier, and then you can practice with more difficult people as you advance. (You could also use a group of people you feel close to instead of an individual, if you like)
You would begin by considering the benefits of doing so, thinking how the improved relationship would benefit you and them, and how loving them more (even more than you already do) would lead to more happiness for both of you. Doing this first, sets your motivation for the meditation, and significantly improves your concentration in the session. Then having set a good motivation you would begin to consider the kind things they have done for you in your life, reflecting on how they have benefited or helped you (in anyway), recognizing the happiness you have received from them. Remembering times when they were really happy, picturing them smiling in the space in front of you. Delighting in their happiness. Keep doing this until you are filled with a warm feeling of tender regard for that person. This feeling of affectionate love would be the object of your meditation.
Having achieved this state of mind through analytical meditation you would then switch to placement meditation, holding this feeling of tender regard single pointedly, allowing your mind to mix with this feeling, without allowing any other thoughts to arise, for as long as possible. When your mind wanders you can gently bring it back to this feeling again, using analytical meditation, as needed until your mind is holding single pointedly once again. As you get better and your concentration improves, more and more of the session time is spent in single pointed concentration on the mind of love, with less and less time needed in analytical meditation.
Each time you practice this meditation, your mind changes a little bit. The more of each session time you spend in qualified placement meditation, the more each session changes your mind. Eventually you will genuinely have much stronger love for this person, and when you think of them or see them you will be notably filled with warmth. You can now use this as a base to extend your love to others too, including more and more people in your group as you improve, until eventually you just love everyone.
The more love you have for the people you interact with daily, the happier you are in general. Imagine if you loved everyone in your life as if they were your brother, sister, mother, father, bestie or partner. Or pet if you feel especially close to your little furry friend. You would always be surrounded by people you love and care for, wherever you are. Increasing your love in anyway is always beneficial, for everybody.
“The path to enlightenment is really very simple - all we need to do is stop cherishing ourself and learn to cherish others. All other spiritual realizations will naturally follow from this.” ― Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, Eight Steps to Happiness: The Buddhist Way of Loving Kindness