Practices that support the main meditations

Balancing Focus with Breadth

To sustain concentration -
proceed from a
general awareness of all aspects of yourself
before investing energy in the particular awareness of the meditation object.

Regular meditation lies at the heart of Buddhist training. It provides a unique working ground for integrating current experiences, cultivates the seeds of calm and compassion, shines the clear light of insight and refocuses energy on the path. It offers an extraordinary opportunity, and it shouldn’t be taken for granted. When you start making progress, you can easily get complacent and lazy and lose what you have gained. You need to sustain your Buddhist practice by clarifying your views, concentrating your attention, relaxing deeply held attitudes and connecting with profound spiritual qualities. In meditation, activity and receptivity need to join together in a stream of mindful action – receptively aware of experiences as they arise and actively responding by cultivating higher consciousness. In this way you create the depth and space to see into the nature of things.
You need balance in your engagement and the perspective that allows you to see what needs balancing. You may sometimes go into your meditation in a driving, ambitious manner when the basis for your concentration is weak. If you do that, the heat will immediately disperse, like that of a red-hot stone dropped in water. To develop a stronger basis for sustaining concentration, you must proceed from a general awareness of all aspects of yourself before investing energy in the particular intense awareness of the meditation object. You can call the ground – the broader, generalized awareness – the breadth of the meditation practice and the narrowing of attention on to the object its focus.
Your ability to focus is supported by the breadth of the practice, just as the summit of a mountain stands upon a huge mass of rock. Perhaps this is where the idea of ‘sitting like a mountain’ in meditation comes from. It all starts at the base, with body awareness. You may focus, say, on the breathing process or on the development of metta; but if it’s to lead to full concentration, a broad base of experience has to support it. When you don’t have such a balance, concentration (and any insight reflection you’re engaging with) tumbles over. While it’s ungrounded, it feels as though you are gritting your teeth to hold it all together. That is weak concentration; strong concentration feels relaxed, flexible and stable.
Your ‘breadth’ is how you are as a whole. So you sit mindful of the body and its vitality, feelings and emotions, its mental states and moment-to-moment perception. If these elements are given a place in the practice, your focus will be relaxed and, most important, there will be energy available for concentration. When contacting breadth, the idea is not to get involved with the content of the experience but simply to acknowledge the existence of its elements. If you are overinvolved with breadth, you’ll become distracted. So the breadth needs to be balanced with focus.
People tend to work inappropriately when concerned with results. That’s because this concern can arise from greed or a kind of escapism that is running away from the difficult messages coming from the breadth of your experience. When the dominating idea is to get results, there seems little time to stop and consider what you are actually experiencing. It is right to want success but unhelpful to have too precise an expectation of what that will be. Actually, expectations are always abstractions based on memory – fantasies that don’t exist and never will in the form you imagine. It’s the same story when you try to recapture a previous meditation experience. You should remember that whatever happens in future will be different; and when it happens, it will be happening now.
It is best to cultivate a resolve always to start afresh and to maintain that attitude in the session, allowing new experiences to arise. It is easy to become rigid and create habits, so that you end up just going through the motions. Some meditators sit religiously every morning, doing it in exactly the same way year in, year out. They put themselves through a set sequence of mental actions with no regard for their actual mental state. This is not effective meditation, or mindfulness. It is what the Buddha called the fetter of clinging to rites and rituals. The typical result of inappropriate or wilful effort is pain and mental confusion. Forcing concentration may bring headaches, digestion problems and stiff shoulder muscles, along with mental agitation, anxiety, dullness or a spacey, disconnected condition. Since you are a sensitive creature, phenomena such as these obviously affect your feelings about meditation. They may put you off forever or get you gritting your teeth in an even more rigid attempt to ‘get on with the practice’.
Whenever you realize that you are doing some of these things, just stop for a moment. The mindfulness bell has been struck. Stop and take the time to tune in to what is actually happening and the thoughts and feelings that are involved. Recover a genuine experience of yourself. Stopping the momentum of habit and establishing real mindfulness takes time and patience; but whether such a readjustment in your practice takes hours, days or weeks, it will be worth it. It could teach you a new kind of relaxation in your approach both to practice and to daily life.
You need to look at what these issues are pointing to more broadly. In this case, they seem to be saying that you could do with more richness and colour in your life. All of us need inspiration, a more imaginative ingredient, in our practice and our life. You can find it in thoughtful and well-written literature, making or enjoying art, playing or listening to music, meeting people, spending time alone, walking in nature or whatever keeps the wellsprings flowing.

Tong Len / Bodhicitta

Imaginatively exchanging ourselves with others, or putting ourselves in another’s place, is an important Mahayana Buddhist practice especially associated with the teacher Shantideva. Shantideva felt that the Buddha’s motivation had not been to end his own suffering, but to help all beings to do that. From the viewpoint he made famous, Dharma practice is really about cultivating Bodhicitta, the attitude of an awakened being. Insight practice cultivates seeing the real nature of self and world; the real nature of the self being that it is completely unfixed. This means you can change, and the main obstacle is your own selfishness. So can you reverse that tendency in your relations with others and go beyond valuing yourself over them? That would accord with the approach to insight found in the Brahma Vihara practices.

The Pali and Sanskrit word
bodhi means awakening; citta means heart, mood, mind state or attitude. Hence Bodhi-citta is the essence of the Awakened or Enlightened mind. At a more ordinary level it is the love that arises for others when you know, out of deep experience of suffering and joy, that what everyone really needs is spiritual awakening. Though it is a response to the unsatisfactoriness of life, Bodhicitta is not pity, nor does it involve a sense of superiority. It sees, through insight, that others are important than you are; it is the very essence of friendship and love.

In practice, Bodhicitta begins with a mature and responsible attitude towards others and deepens from there as you come truly to understand what moves others, and are able to give more. It is not just a meditation method. Bodhicitta can be generated effectively only in the context of actual relationships. However, meditation is a helpful part of its development because its method generates an intense awareness of the quality of all our relationships, drawing to our attention the fact that you are in constant relationship with the whole of nature with all its diverse life forms. So what you do, say and think eventually affects them all, just as their lives also, indirectly, affect you as well. Through this meditation you therefore immerse yourself in your connection with the reality of others’ existence and generate true compassion for them.

The method is first to make contact, with a loving mind, with the billions of other unenlightened beings surrounding you, cultivating empathy with them. This is cultivated by recollecting that, to the extent they do not know how to overcome their own negative emotions, people’s lives are relatively, if not extremely, unsatisfying. Realise this by looking with mindfulness and love into your own behaviour, and acknowledging the influence on you of all these beings, taking responsibility for your influence on them, now and in the future. Take this step not in some theoretical way, but through generating a deeply felt love for them. Indeed, every part of the practice – making contact, reflecting on their situation, cultivating empathy, acknowledging their influence and taking responsibility for you own – is done through generating loving kindness or metta
. Take courage, too, from the inspiring individuals who make up the age-old Dharma practice tradition; recollect that countless practitioners have cultivated Bodhicitta to completion and gained full Enlightenment.
This particular Bodhicitta practice comes from Indo-Tibetan Buddhism and is often referred to as
Tong Len.

Reflect first that the aim of Bodhicitta is to transform all activity into the Path of Enlightenment.
You develop a completely new vision of existence by reflecting with strong compassion on the lives of other beings, with their vast range of fortunate and unfortunate existences. However fortunate or privileged they are, all are vulnerable, just as you, or your own all-too-human parents, are. All of us do all kinds of regrettable things and thereby get mired in all kinds of stresses and difficulties. As you reflect in this way, with metta and compassion, there will arise some kind of hopeless desire to do something for ‘them’ (which includes you ).
With this sense of longing, repeat the following prayer (internally, to yourself ) many times (traditionally, one practises regularly over weeks and months until one hundred thousand repetitions have been made).
'Beings who are one's own mothers and fathers wander in the Samsara and with unbearable longing we all produce the unbearable longing to become a Buddha.'
The words themselves do not particularly matter; this is a translation of a traditional verse. You need to get to the point with the repetition where you get fully immersed in the meaning and the vastness of its implications. See that it’s true that entanglement in samsara makes for our ruin, that the only effective solution is for all beings to practise the path to awakening – and that this, therefore, has always been our most heartfelt desire. When you connect to this fully, the feeling becomes so unbearably strong that it may burst out in new, unexpected ways.
Once you have connected with the desire, which is the Bodhicitta, you are ready to go on to the
next phase: linking it with the breathing. It will probably help to keep the connection with the feeling of Bodhicitta if you continue the verse repetition, for now at least.
You need to connect with what in traditional Buddhism are called ‘roots of goodness’.
People are basically good. Trust in their basic goodness, beyond any mixed feelings you might have about that; and imagine that your own goodness, such as it is (there is no need for pretence, it is naturally and spontaneously true) mixes with the outgoing breath and, with a soft pearly light like moonlight, penetrates the whole world, conferring happiness on all beings.
This imaginatively represents the prayer; it is a kind of dramatisation of what you’d really like to happen. Just
let go into the outward breath, ignoring any doubting voices that say this is peculiar and irrational. It is because this meditation method is non-rational – is beyond mere good reasons – that it can have such powerfully positive effects. Simply go along with the feeling and give the practice your all, all the while refining the overwhelming desire for the wellbeing of others.

on the incoming breath, imagine all beings’ obstacles to awakening – their negative emotions and views – assuming a dark, shadowy appearance and coming right into your own body, where they are purified by your good qualities. You shouldn’t take any of this literally – no one could literally assume the results of others’ actions – but the imagery offers a powerful way to engage with the reality of others and the many terrible problems that exist. It should feel like facing the real world.

One should reflect [and say]: 'May all beings enjoy happiness and the cause of happiness! Whatever freedom from suffering they enjoy may it never come to an end! May their minds dwell in the immeasurable equanimity which has neither near nor far, attraction nor repulsion!'
This one should say and reflect upon many times.

Once the Bodhicitta method is familiar it can become a vehicle for all kinds of reflections, insights and transformations of attitude. The table below shows a number of ways that our breathing can channel awareness of ourselves and others together with love and compassion, giving and receiving.

Receive (breathe in)

Give (breathe out)


My experience of the incoming breath
My experience of the outgoing breath
Myself as experienced in the present moment, taken in with the in-breath
My response to my present experience,
let out with the out-breath
2The presence of all others and their influence on me, with the in-breath
My influence on others, with the out-breath
The fact of others’ suffering, with the in-breath
My response to others’ suffering, with the out-breath
3The fact of others’ good influence, with the in-breath

Visualisation of the Six-Element Stūpa
chinese stupa
There are several practices connected with the Elements in Buddhist tradition. For instance, there is a section on the four elements in the body awareness portion of the Satipatthana Sutta, the primary teaching on mindfulness. One that I have found to be very effective is the visualization of the six-element stupa. This employs simple images similarly to the kasina meditations. Various forms of the Buddhist stupa are well known from Nepal to Japan. They were originally monuments for holding remains of Buddhas or other saints, and are often honoured by circumambulation as though they themselves are actually Buddhas.

The stupa represents the six elements because they are what you were produced from at birth and what are given up at death. The classic stupa consists of six symbols representing the elements assembled vertically from ground level, with the symbol for earth and the other elements arranged above one another in order of subtlety. Occasionally only four, or even just two, elements are represented.

The Buddha is said to have designed the first stupa in the simplest possible form. Asked what kind of burial mound would be appropriate after his death, he silently folded a yellow robe into a cube shape, placed it on the ground and laid upon it his upturned begging bowl. So the yellow cube symbolizes earth. Square shapes express some of the qualities of earth: solidity, strength, support and so on. As you visualize this, you are not required to get a clear, stable picture; you need only get a sense of the symbol’s earthy quality – some feeling, sensation or other impression that enables you to dwell easily on the earth element. Use direct sense experience as well, noticing, for example, the solid floor supporting you or the hardness of your teeth and nails.

Then, above the cube, imagine the water element, represented by a white dome or a globe like the full moon. The water element certainly expresses the quality of flowing, but then fire and air also flow. The distinctive elemental character of water is its cohesion. So the white sphere is like a bubble or a drop of water that in nature holds together as though by magic. To engage more with the water element, notice the wetness of your eyes and tongue – and also swallow, triggering an experience of the liquid nature throughout the body. Getting more deeply involved with the elements can be unusually satisfying, and there is perhaps some relief in being able to acknowledge a level of experience that is present in everyone before they are even born. You were intimate with the elements well before you were self-aware.

The energy of earth is stable and unmoving; the holding energy of water moves only inwards and downwards. With the fire element, the energy radiates only outwards and upwards. Fire is symbolized by a bright red cone, rather like a flame. As you allow this new form and its colour to influence you, the qualities of temperature and light in your present experience become clearer. Notice, for example, that your eyes are actually receiving light and that your body is warm.

Above that, the symbolic element of wind or air is a pale green dish shape, delicate like porcelain. At least that is how I imagine it. You are free to play around with these forms. They can be lively and even comical. I see wind like a sensitive satellite dish, picking up sensations and vibrating with them, or like a pale green frisbee juddering as it skims through space.

The air element is not about air as a gas; here ‘air’ is a symbol for movement. Thus the alternative term is ‘wind’ (Sanskrit:
vāyu), which expresses that essential moving characteristic as found in the pulsing of the blood, the tidal flow of breathing and the progressive relaxation of the muscles as the body stills in meditation posture. In deep meditation, the movements within the body’s subtle energy channels become apparent. These are known as winds (lung); and if you watch very closely and gently, the play of thoughts and emotions is sometimes observable in particular parts of the body, riding as though upon flowing breezes. Everything that exists, inside and outside, not only has movement but also often moves in different ways at the same time. Even if something could be completely solid and stable, which is impossible, it would still be moving, for the planet itself is moving in several ways. Thus the element air spreads out simultaneously in all directions.

No movement, temperature, coherency or stable matter can exist without space to contain it. The element of space is symbolized by a single point, a ‘drop’ that is gently flaming, showing its vibrant living quality. Elemental space is not a vacuum. The single point symbolizes the fact that space is everywhere all at once: it is infinitely out there and is also infinitely ‘in here’, in the endless microspaces in the body. Notice how distinctly (and also how emotionally) you are sometimes aware of the particular location of various parts of your body. Everything has to take place somewhere. So this ‘flaming jewel drop’, as it is sometimes called, stands for the fact that this space here is one of an infinite number of possible points.

Finally, the element of consciousness or awareness is the ‘space’ within which space itself happens. This is not to imply the solipsism that ‘it’s all in the mind’ but to offer the simple reminder that whatever the ultimate truth may be, earth, water, fire, movement and space are all experienced by the mind. So you can call this the element of ‘experience’. Philosophical questions about whether or not the elements take place outside experience and exactly how they might are interesting to contemplate but they are not relevant here. This creates a rare and precious opportunity to dwell on the experience of experiencing itself. Is this sensation ‘me’ or is it ‘mine’ – or what is its nature otherwise? This most basic of all the elements is symbolized by an open sky, which is clear, blue and boundless.

In fact, the practice begins here. Start with the blue sky and let it contain, in order one by one, the symbols for earth, water, fire, wind and space. The stupa of the elements, surrounded by clear blue sky, symbolizes your entire experience and response to a world filled with many sensations of resistance, cohesiveness, temperature and movement in space. As you connect with each element through its symbol, experience its special qualities directly in the body as much as you can; appreciate its particular life-energy, its role in your existence. Once the connection is there, you reflect that despite your habitual attitudes, this characteristic of your body experience is not something that you can possibly own in any literal way. Its nature is completely free, and you can let go fully into that quality of freedom. For that letting go to be meaningful, you need to acknowledge and to feel the particular ways you grasp experiences and sensations as ‘me’ or ‘mine’. These may not be obvious at first. In the end, the practice requires a commitment to the deepest reflection and a genuine desire to enquire into what really happens in the thoughts and feelings you have about yourself and the world. This will come in time if you want it to – depth and skill comes from applying these reflections in a sustained way.

Ending the practice is done in a special way, to reflect that profound process of letting go. Just as they were conjured up in the blue sky of awareness, now the elemental symbols all dissolve back into it. In turn from the top, each symbolic form melts and dissolves into the element beneath: the space element melts down and is absorbed into the wind element, then wind melts into fire, fire into water and water into earth. The earth element melts into the sky. The sky itself dissolves like mist, and gradually you return once more to the direct experience of the six elements as again and again they emerge, solidify and dissolve in the course of daily life.

If pursued, this meditation will develop real, living connections to the elements and with nature generally, helping you to live more ethically and in harmony with the earth. If you want, it can become a special eco-Dharma practice. All Buddhist meditation methods can have this kind of effect, since all of them include mindfulness of the physical body. The same feeling of harmony arises as you engage with other Buddhist methods such as ethics, wisdom, right livelihood, study and community. It is not surprising that the stupa is held in such high honour in the East, representing as it does both the wonders of the natural world and the amazing nature of the Buddha which can be awakened in all of us.