Supplementary Meditations

As I noted in Part One, there are times when you need to get the mind in the right mood before it will be willing to settle down with the breath. Here are a few contemplations that can help create that mood.

The explanations here are simply suggestions for how to get started with these contemplations, for these exercises are most effective when you use your ingenuity to tailor them to deal with the particulars of your own moods. You can make any variations you want, as long as they help move your thinking in the right direction: toward a desire to settle down with the breath. When that desire arises, you can drop the contemplation and focus right on your breathing.

In the beginning, you may find that you need to engage for a fairly long time in these contemplations before they have an effect. Eventually, though, you should gain a sense of what works for you. Use that knowledge to make your contemplation more efficient. In other words, go right for the jugular of the mind state that’s getting in the way of your settling down. That way you’ll have more time to work and play with the breath.

When you’re feeling discouraged, try reflecting on your own generosity. Think of times in the past when you gave someone a gift, not because you had to or because it was expected of you, but because you simply wanted to. You had something that you would have liked to use yourself, but then you decided you’d rather share it. Gifts of this sort are good to remember because they remind you that you do have at least some goodness to yourself. They also remind you that you’re not always a slave to your appetites. You have some freedom in how you act, and some experience in how good it feels to exercise that freedom in a skillful way.

The word “gift” here doesn’t mean only a material gift. It can also mean a gift of your time, your energy, your knowledge, or your forgiveness.

To get the most out of this contemplation, make a habit of looking for opportunities in your daily life to be generous in any of these ways. That way you always have fresh material for your contemplation. Without fresh material, the contemplation can quickly grow stale.

In a similar way, you can reflect on your own virtue. Think of times when you could have gotten away with harming someone else, but you didn’t do it. On principle. You saw that it was beneath you or would have led to regret down the line. If you’ve taken the precepts, reflect on the times when you were tempted to break any of them, but you managed not to. Think of how glad you are, in retrospect, that you didn’t. This sort of reflection not only helps the mind settle down in concentration, but also helps you resist any temptations to break a precept the next time they come around.

When you’re feeling lustful, contemplate what’s inside your body, and remember that the same things are in the person for whose body you’re feeling lust. Remember that lust can grow only when you block out huge areas of reality—such as all the contents of the body—so broaden the range of your inner gaze.

To get some beginning practice with this contemplation, try visualizing the bones in your body. Start with the bones of the fingers. As you visualize them, ask where you feel your fingers are right now. If there’s any tension in the fingers, remember that there’s no tension in the bones, so relax the tension. Then move up to the bones in the palm of your hand, and repeat the same exercise: Notice the tension around the bones and relax it. Keep moving up the arms, repeating the same exercise, until you reach the shoulders. When you’ve contemplated the shoulder joints, move your inner gaze down to your feet. As you visualize the bones in your feet, relax any tension you feel in the feet. Then move up the legs, through the pelvis, up the spine, through the neck, and finally to the skull.

As a variation on this exercise, once you’ve finished relaxing a part of the body around a particular bone, visualize it being lopped off as you move to the next part. Keep this up until every part of the body feels lopped away, and you’re sitting with a sense of spacious, light awareness.

You can apply the same exercise to any other organ of the body that you find especially incongruous with your lust. If, for instance, you find yourself attracted to skin, imagine your skin removed from your body and placed in a pile on the floor.

To aid in your visualization, you can memorize the traditional list of body parts used in this sort of contemplation:

head hairs, body hairs, nails, teeth, skin;

muscle, tendons, bones, bone marrow;

kidneys, heart, liver, membranes, spleen, lungs;

large intestines, small intestines, contents of the stomach, feces;

bile, phlegm, lymph, blood, sweat, fat, tears;

oil, saliva, mucus, fluid in the joints, urine.

If you want, you can add other parts—such as the eyes or the brain—that for some reason didn’t make it into the traditional list. Once you’ve memorized the list, visualize the parts one by one, asking yourself—with each part—where that part is in your felt sense of the body. To help with your visualization, you can look at an anatomical chart, but remember that none of the parts in your body are cleanly separate and defined as they would be in such a chart. They’re mixed with all the fluids in the body. If visualizing a particular part has a particularly strong effect in counteracting lust, you can focus your primary attention on that part and, for the time being, put the rest of the list aside.

(For further ideas on dealing with lust, look at the discussion of Disruptive Emotions in Part Two.)

Ideally, this contemplation should give rise to an inner sense of lightness as you lose interest in the lust. If, however, you find it giving rise to fear or unsettling emotions, drop it and return to the breath.

When you’re feeling angry, look at the instructions for dealing with anger in Part Two. You can also try the instructions for developing the brahmaviharas, in Part One.

When you’re feeling lazy, contemplate the fact that death could come at any time. Ask yourself: Are you ready to go in the next minute or two? What would you need to do to put your mind in a state where it wouldn’t be afraid to die? How would you feel if you died tonight after wasting the opportunity to meditate and develop good strong qualities in the mind? Keep asking yourself questions along these lines until you feel a desire to meditate. Then go straight to the breath.

This contemplation, like the contemplation of the body, is meant to strengthen the mind in skillful resolves. If, however, you find that it gives rise to fear or unsettling emotions, drop it and go straight to the breath.

Another antidote to laziness is to think of times in the past when you wished you could find a moment of peace and quiet. Think of how desperate you felt at those times. Now you’ve got the opportunity to find that peace and quiet. Do you want to throw it away?

Additional readings:

For some helpful texts on these contemplations, see the study guide, The Ten Recollections, also available under the title, A Meditator’s Tools.