If you pick up a book on meditation, chances are that you will be told that meditation is easy, and the benefit is huge. Modern man (and of course modern woman too, probably there are more female meditators than male meditators) is busy and commonly scared of anything that sounds unscientific. They love anything that is simple, easy to do and above all scientific. Is meditation really easy and the benefits huge? I shall discuss the theory behind sound practice of meditation.
In popular meditation books, probably you will be told to sit in a quiet place, simply seated or with seated with legs folded, easy pose or half-lotus pose for beginners (with a cushion to elevate your buttocks for comfort), to try your best to empty your mind (if you can’t, just let your thoughts flow), make a certain hand form (called mudra) and recite a mantra, count your breathes or listen to soft music to relax your mind. In your actual practice your might have the benefit of a meditation or mindfulness teacher to guide you (or you might like to choose to learn meditation on your own).
During your first one or two lessons, you will likely to find meditation relaxing and enjoy the process. Your teacher might praise you on your progress and you might begin to be convinced that meditation can have all sorts of benefits including improving your immune system and increase your life expectancy. And most important of all, you like it!
But then after more sessions, you had days, oftentimes in a row, that you could not focus your mind properly. The more nervous you get the more you could not focus your mind. And you might have days that you just feel you are sitting down relaxing (and have intermittent short day dreams during the session), which is the same experience that when you listen to some nice music. You would properly lose your initial enthusiasm and ponder on the new thinking that mediation perhaps not your cup of tea.
The benefits of meditation are indeed huge. It is a pity that many people dropped off this good practice after giving it a try (or continue the practice at home, but can only reap the benefit of simple relaxation that can be probably be obtained through listening to some soft music in a cozy environment). To reap the full benefit of meditation, a practitioner has to understand the theory behind meditation, and put in time and efforts to try his best to obtain the result, which is oftentimes signaled by internal chi-sensations.
The thing to look for in meditative practice is quite simple. In meditation (or mindfulness training) you do everything to put yourself into the zone of Emptiness (Kong 空) and simply stay there. “What is Emptiness?” and “How to achieve Emptiness” are the issues.
A layman’s understanding of Emptiness is that there is nothing. For example, you have 10 units of “noise” that bother you, and you want to reduce it to zero (or very close to zero). Zero is Emptiness. Thus answered the “What” question. As for “How”, reduce it through “simple techniques” as mentioned above. This is the theory that many popular books on meditation wants to tell you.
In search of a better theory, let me tackle the “What” issue first. Emptiness (空) is indeed zero. But it is not Nothingness (there is nothing – 甚麽也沒有).
10 – 10 is zero
+(10) + (-10) is also zero (or in general form +(x)+(-x) = 0 where x is a number
The zero that I am taking about is Emptiness in the sense of the second statement. And (+) means Yang and (-) means Yin. They are opposing forms of energy.
Next, the “Issue” issue. Through techniques (like those in yoga and Zen-Tao meditation) a practitioner firstly tries to increase the value of x and second tries to balance the positive and negative values to achieve Emptiness or “in the zone”.
In the practice of yoga, the first step is through the body postures called Asanas (which aims primarily at aligning our structure for better chi energy generation, i.e. increase the value of x and secondarily at balancing the positive and negative values) , and the second step is breathing exercises called Pranayama (which aims at increasing and balancing x and –x in seated form only with nano-movements powered by our breathing muscles), and the third step meditation proper (which aims at balancing the positive and negative values and managing our thoughts). The classic way is follow the steps. This is a sound system for the most serious practitioners.
In my practice of Zen-Tao meditation, all steps are intertwined together and grow together step by step. For example, on day one we do zhan zhuang which do body alignment to generate chi, with internal movements generated by our breathing muscles and half closed eyes to approach the zone. Once a student has an experiential understanding of the whole concept, he will be introduced to different exercises that will focus on other stationery or simple movement forms to open our major joints to generate chi (i.e. increase x). When such a foundation is built, then a student will go into seated meditation. This is a sound way, I believe, for most serious practitioners.
In short, in sound meditative practice, a student does not jump into seated mediation counting breathes on Day One. One last tip: staying in the zone with a good value of x is not a static process. It is a dynamic process in which the value is not stable at zero but fluctuate between a small plus and a small minus. Our mindfulness has to put into an effort to fluctuate it around zero.