This is an excerpt from a book I am writing at the behest of my Teacher Chen Qiming (18 Lohan Palm). Meditation has been a part of my life since I started my training in 1986 and is a big part of the 18 Lohan training as well. Although there is a lot of info out there on meditation already it is a subject I have written very little on and so I thought as I would share this first part of the meditation section of the book. I hope it of some use to people out there... Neil 2017
Meditation & Qigong
Meditative practices are often overlooked by martial artists as esoteric, unnecessary nonsense. Even from the most combative point of view the ability to keep the mind clear, focused and free from fear is useful as well as the power of a focused minds intention on an act makes it become a weapon itself. However, from the point of view of a more well-rounded method of training balance becomes the key objective, never too much or too little, too external or too esoteric, thus the balance between physical and mental training becomes clear.
Qigong practice can be looked upon as defining and empowering relationships through continued effort. Whether those relationships be the ability to understand our own flaws in posture and working to change them or releasing the amount of physical tension in the body to maintain a shape with the body or any number of other practices all can fall under the heading of Qigong training. However, the regulation, definition and empowerment of relationships internally does not only include the integration of the mind into the flesh as is seen in most qigong methods. It also extends into the inner self more powerfully through what most would categorize as meditation methods.
Meditation is a form of studying relationships within ones own inner landscape and working to engage and clear the mind from cluttering thoughts. When I am teaching I use the term Neigong (內功) literally ‘inside work’ to categorize work that takes place regulating ones emotional, intellectual, spiritual, acquired and true self. It is this inside work that is most often overlooked in martial arts training today other than a very superficial level generally aimed at young students and not at all at times in adult classes.
Meditation writings abound in this world and although there is a plethora of information a lot of it is skewed. Seeking mystical states of mind and magical powers is one end of the extreme side of training, a side which many people follow as it makes them feel hope and an ability to change into something more, something better than themselves. Of course, that is an understandable state of mind yet following the white light hoping for physical immortality or the magical powers of legend is exactly the type of motivation one must work to avoid when doing meditative work. My own Master Luong Phor Viriyang Sirintharo is a renowned monk who has been called a living Buddha and demonstrated different abilities and his words were quite clear. “Do not look to make miracles (attain abilities), this is ego. Miracles come as a part of real training and should be avoided as they are only distractions.”
The other extreme side of the coin is either that meditation has little to no value or that it is only deep breathing exercises meant to lower blood pressure and affect the nervous system. Of course, these details are true and are very important reasons to meditate along with stress relief and so on. However, the idea that meditation begins and ends with only ‘sitting quietly’ is robbing practitioners of the chance to do some real inner work on themselves and their character. Meditation practice does indeed begin with sitting quietly and breathing deeply. Looking at the posture and tension of the body in the seated or standing positions and working to find the balance of correctness and comfort. A comfortable body helps to comfort the mind, and both are necessary to begin meditative training. But this is not where the practice ends at all, but where it begins.
If there is a single lesson I have gleaned from over three decades of martial arts, qigong, research, travel, and meditative practices it is that balance is always the key to finding the truth. Finding balance in meditative training is the key to working towards attaining balance in our own lives, our perspectives and our own inner landscape. Is meditation the road to mystical, esoteric experiences and realizations? Yes. Is meditation a way to affect our bodies function in a positive way? Yes. Is meditation a path to studying who we really are? Yes. The key is to not attach to any one function or goal and instead begin to really understand the idea that it is not the destination but the journey. When I was training at the Zen Priory in my home city the monk once told me “Meditation is the act of returning to meditation.” This has always defined the importance of understanding the trials and difficulties associated with meditation and the need to always continue along with the training.
Buddhist style meditative practices are focused on releasing the outside world to study your own inside world. Sorting out who we are allows us to then turn our attentions outwards and help ourselves and others fit into reality. Taoist style practices tend to study reality first through different meditations and practices to sort out how we fit in to the whole and then begin to focus on who we are, who it is that is trying to learn to find his/her place in that reality. Training in both has shown me how there is obviously a great truth here being approached from two different perspectives. We are all climbing the same mountain, simply on different paths.
Posture is the first part of the practice one needs to learn to have a comfortable base to begin from. Sitting cross legged in not a requirement to meditate, it is a traditional way to sit due to the time that the practices evolved from. The main requirement of the postural training is to let the body settle and relax into its own structure releasing any unnecessary tension throughout the body. We are working to become comfortable and able to remove not only the outside world and its many distractions but our own physicality as a distraction to studying the mind.
The ears above the shoulders, the neck long and open, the chin slightly down, the shoulders above the hips. Settle the chest and relax the shoulders, these are the main points of a relaxed and upright posture to train from. When doing standing or walking meditation practice these still apply as well. The hands while seated are generally placed in the lap and can be put in any number of the various mudras, but if this is a distraction then it is taking away from the entire purpose of the posture. Mudras and their meanings and shapes are of little consequence if you cannot sit still and relaxed in the first place.
Different traditions have different methods and it bears mentioning the opening or closing of the eyes for beginning meditation training. Personally, I prefer closed eyes as I am working to remove myself from the outside world and instead study my inner world, however in the Soto Zen tradition for example they advocate leaving the eyes slightly open to translate the calmness of the mind during meditation into everyday life, when your eyes are open. Try both, same mountain.
Once posture is attained then the work begins with meditation itself. To begin I recommend the following method which is from my Teacher Luong Phor of the Theravadan Buddhist Tradition, while it is a non-religious meditative practice it has been founded in his over 70 years as a Buddhist monk.
To begin you need only to determine two things: a focal point and a silent recitation.
The focal point is a place where you will place your mind during meditation. This is like being reminded you are breathing and having your awareness brought to a single place. The focal point should be located on the mid line of your body and is generally either the forehead “third eye” (upper Dantian 上丹田/ yintang 印堂), the tip of the nose (Su liao 素髎), the heart (Tan Zhong / middle Dantian 中丹田), or the lower abdomen / Navel (Lower Dantian 下丹田). The reasoning behind mid line locations I once asked of my teacher who responded “Any other part may be lost in an accident. The centre of the body will always be there for you to meditate.”
This is a silent mantra or repeated word in the mind. Ideally this word will be chosen carefully by the meditator and will have a meaning to the practitioner that is positive. Two syllables for a single word or a multi syllabic phrase can be used like the famous “Om Mani Padme Hum” (Homage to the Jewel in the Lotus - 唵嘛呢叭咪吽-Chinese -ཨོཾ་མ་ཎི་པདྨེ་ཧཱུྃ - Tibetan). The meaning or meaninglessness of the phrase is as important as the rhythm with which it is silently recited. Having a rhythmic repetition within the mind is the ideal for a silent recitation.
As the phrase will be recited over and over within the mind it can act as a self-hypnotic suggestion and as such either the meaning should be positive to you the practitioner or it should be a meaningless set of syllables to infer no other associations with it other than the state of meditation itself.
10 000 Things
The mind is always constantly thinking and working on this or that. People find that as they begin to meditate the mind tends to wander aimlessly and follow any thought to its fullest extent. This being led around randomly by thoughts is referred to as the ‘monkey mind’ as a monkey cannot sit still. The idea behind this type of foundational meditation practice is to narrow the mind from 10 000 things to just two. The focal point and the silent recitation.
Placing the mind on the focal point and begin repeating the silent recitation as though you were saying it directly to the focal point itself. Each time the mind begins to wander down any other thought path simply notice the distraction and get back to the business at hand, the focal point and silent recitation. The act of returning the mind to the task IS meditation.
Meditation and Mind Power
The controlling of the mind through meditation is a very difficult battle and normally seems impossible at first. The mind must be tamed to gain the benefits of calmness and focused attention we seek from the practice. However, it is not a battle we wage in our minds, but a letting go process. Letting go of the need to follow every thought or emotion that crosses the sky of our minds. As we practice observing rather than experiencing the thoughts that flow through our mind we slowly gain more and more Mind Power.
Mind Power is a term coined by my teacher Luong Phor, and is referring to a ‘currency of the mind’. Mind Power is the ability to concentrate and problem solve which we all do in daily lives. Sometimes when we need to remain focused for periods of time we become fatigued and are unable to concentrate any longer having expended the currency of Mind Power we possess, we require rest and a recharge.
Natural and Conscious Meditation
Each day we meditate we deposit more Mind Power in our reserve or bank account of the currency. In fact, we naturally do this each day, meditating and depositing in that account. The state of consciousness just before we sleep at night, when the thoughts quiet and the mind stills before we drop into sleep proper is a form of meditation. This natural meditation we do each night deposits just slightly less Mind Power than we need to make it through our next day, when we withdraw that mindpower to function and concentrate. This deficit is very small and adds up slowly over years and decades, it is one possible reason for forgetfulness in our old age.
Conscious meditation is when we take the time to sit, stand or walk and meditate on purpose. The silent recitation and focal point style of foundational meditation is a conscious meditative practice that gains Mind Power for us to deposit and save. The process of maintaining a conscious meditative practice cannot be overlooked. Monks of decades of practice maintain a conscious meditative practice always as the Mind Power they build up over time can be spent on various other meditative practices like trance states, introspection, letting go of attachments and so on.
Time and Trance States
Meditative building of Mind Power is done in increments and it is sessions of conscious meditation that add up. Even a simple practice like three 5-minute meditations a day will add up to 7.5 hours of meditation each month. This simple practice is more than enough to begin to see the results of having a meditative practice with little effort.
However, as humans we tend to have an attitude that if some is good, more is better. In the case of meditation this is not always so. During the practice of seated meditation, it generally takes fifteen minutes for a practitioner who is well versed to enter a trance state. Trance states are something we have all experienced in our daily lives in different ways. Athletes talk about being in ‘the zone’ when they are relaxed, and everything comes easily. Driving long distances and suddenly ‘waking up’ not knowing how you arrived is another form of conscious trance state. A naturally induced trance state occurs when we stare into the fire at night either camping or in our homes. The hypnotic dancing of the flames can ‘zone us out’ very easily. In these states of naturally occurring trance we feel relaxed, focused and one can even use the world ‘blissful’. Trance states begin with these relaxing, powerfully comfortable feelings and there is nothing wrong with experiencing them. However, these trance states all cost or expend the Mind Power you have built from your meditative practices.
It is for this reason that it is recommended to make conscious meditation your daily practice and to not sit for more than a half hour at a time. The average person takes 15 minutes to enter a trance state and as such then you are still gaining more Mind Power than you spend on the naturally occurring trance state. I myself sit in sessions of 20 minutes for this reason. When I trained with Luong Phor we would walk for 30 minutes (which is a conscious meditation without trance state) and then sit for 30 minutes (another 15 minutes of conscious meditation followed by 15 minutes or so of trance state work). In that way we were never running a deficit due to an addiction to the feeling of a trance state.