There are two basic categories for meditation practice, each defined by their overall method: stilling the mind, and observing the mind.
Stilling the mind (anxin) is a concentration (zhi) method. The goal is to bring the mind from scattered, to concentrated, to gathered. Observing the mind (guanxin) is a mindfulness (nian) method, which focuses on seeing the mind’s true nature.
The traditional formula for practice was to start with anxin and then practice guanxin. The Sutra for Perfect Enlightenment also says we can just stick with one or the other, reverse them, or practice them at the same time (zhiguan).
All of these methods are a helpful means that take time to develop. They’re dualistic, and fall into the purifying the mind camp. But, they can be extremely helpful, especially if we’re just starting out.
So, I’ll cover anxin here, guanxin in the next post, and then wrap up the series with an entry on formless meditation.
Anxin’s goal is help us belch out the Five Hindrances and move us through the Four Channas (Joy, well-being, tranquility, and equanimity). One of the best ways to practice anxin is to make it into an adaptive meditation, using certain methods in different situations.
The Five Hindrances
The Five Hindrances are: Sensory desire, ill-will, being too loose (depressed, tired, lazy, etc.), too tight (anxious, agitated, overzealous, etc.), and doubt.
Traditionally, it’s impossible to move through the channas and be free of suffering if we’re experiencing any of these hindrances. The Five Methods to counteract these Hindrances are:
- Sensory desires –> Elemental Meditation
- Ill-will –> Four Immeasurables Meditation
- Too loose –> Mindfulness of the Buddha or Right Intention, or Four Immeasurables Meditation
- Too Tight –> Anchoring Meditation (Like focusing on the breath).
- Doubt –> The Teachings
Step one is to find your anchor, the meditation object that’s the easiest for you to focus on. The breath is the usual choice. You can either count your breaths or not. If you’ve mastered breath counting and want to try focusing on the breath without keeping track, then go for it, but you don’t have to.
You can also concentrate on a statue, a mantra, a candle, or visualize a Buddha, Bodhisattva, or even yourself meditating. One Chan teacher recommended visualizing a vertical or horizontal line. Visualizing a Buddha is my favorite, and I’d stay away from visualizing a circle—things can get weird when you do that.
Once you’ve dabbled a bit, choose the anchor that seems to suit you best and then stick with it.
Our anchor is our home-base during anxin practice, and it directly counteracts the too tense hindrance as well.
Let’s say you go with breath counting. So, you’re sitting there and counting your breaths, and then some thoughts and feelings rise up that are full of hate and anger. Maybe you remember something rude someone said earlier, or maybe you get frustrated with yourself.
When that happens, let go of your anchor and practice Four Immeasurables Meditation. Here, you just focus on the wish for all beings to be joyful, healthy, balanced, at enlightened. Just focus on that intention and let it grow in you until the ill-will passes. Then go back to your anchor. If it happens again, do it again.
Maybe you start to feel relaxed, like really relaxed to the point that your mind starts to wander in a kind of languid haze. Or maybe you’re depressed, or something you think makes you sad. When that happens, let go of your anchor and remind yourself why you’re sitting. You’re sitting to find peace and clarity for yourself and all beings. You’re sitting to Wake Up and be free of suffering.
Or you can visualize a Buddha or someone meditating, or tryout a mantra like Namo Amituofo or Om Mani Padme Hum. When you balanced and awake again, head back to your anchor.
Now we’re getting to the fun stuff. Let’s say you’re counting the breath, and then your mind wanders to someone you have feelings for. Maybe you love them, but they don’t love you. So, you’re not only distracted by sensory desire (Wanting them to be here, to be yours, to touch them, etc.), but also angst, which is part of the too tight Hindrance.
If something like this happens, let go of your anchor start contemplative the basic elements of existence.
In this case, it’s a person we’re in love with. So, we can visualize them. Now, ask yourself, “Who are they?” They’re a body and a mind. “What’s the body?”
The body is skin, hair, teeth, muscles, organs, and bones. “What are they?” Solids. “What else is solid?” To answer that, start in the here and now and then move outward. My body is solid. The seat I’m sitting on, the floor, the room around me, all the other objects in the room. The house, all houses. The ground, the earth, other planets. All solids.
A solid is a solid, there are just different appearances of solidity. Really, there’s only One Solidity. To close the contemplation, we can ask, “Where does it come from?” Conditions allows solids to come together to form their body. As conditions change, those solids change. When the conditions are no longer there, the solids drift apart.
Then we start over and answer, “What’s the body?” with saliva, blood, pus, mucous, bile, urine, semen or vaginal fluid. “What are they?” Liquids. “What else is a liquid?” Then we can contemplate our body and any liquids around us. Then the rain, oceans, dew, clouds, and so on until we once again get to One Liquidity.
Then we contemplate how conditions bring liquids together in the body, and that way they change, liquids in the body change. When conditions dissolve, those liquids separate.
Then we do it with air, then energy (like heat, potential/kinetic energy through digestion, the warmth of the sun, etc.), then space. There’s space in and around the body. There’s space everywhere, it’s part of everything.
And we finish it off with consciousness. Consciousness observes things and sorts them into categories. That’s how it is, and what it does, for all beings. It arises from sense organs making contact with sense objects, and it changes as those interactions change.
With that, we see the person we’re infatuated with is, as person-unto-themself, isn’t really one person, but a collection of all these things. And, really, they’re not unto-themself, because all these elements are one, common, and unified. Once our desire and angst has passed, we can return to our anchor.
Once the other Hindrances are just kind of chilling, we can approach doubt by contemplating our anchor. We can see that it’s dynamic and interdependent, not a thing-unto-itself. Or we can look at how grasping at things causes suffering, and how non-grasping during mediation is a relief. Or we can catch a wisp of wakefulness, and remember that all beings are really Awake. Then, we’ll start to move through the channas.
The Four Channas
Once we’ve mostly neutralized the Hindrances, we’ll start to feel joy bubble up in us. It’s grow and grow until it seems to spill out into the cosmos, until it seems boundless. With his Channa, we might have to increase our focus on our anchor a bit so that the mind doesn’t get too tight.
Then, a sense of well-being will join the mix and start to grow. Everything will seem alright, like it’s always been alright. Then, joy and well-being will start to transform into tranquility. With well-being and tranquility, you might have to use an energizing method like recalling Right Intention to keep your mind from going soft.
Finally, there’ll be equanimity, a tranquil sense of having no preferences, urges, or preferences. And you’ll be firmly planted in the present moment. Then, as equanimity deepens, there’ll be no separation between you and your anchor, and then it’ll naturally fall away.
From there, you can go deeper and deeper into equanimity until everything seems to disappear, or you can start practicing guanxin—which is recommended
Instead of being mindful of the Five Hindrances, we can also be aware of whether our state of mind is tense or lax. If it’s tense, we can use the nianfo (Reciting the name of a Buddha or Bodhisattva aloud or silently, and/or visualize a Buddha or Bodhisattva). If the mind’s lax, we can use a huatou like “Who am I?” or, “What is this?” With the huatou, we have to ask the question with the earnest desire to know the answer (while also knowing that the answer can’t be found through reason, but experience).
Then, once the mind’s even, we can just return to our anchor.
A lot of Channists also use nianfo or huatou as their main practice, or they’ll combine them as one by chanting the Buddha’s name while inquiring, “Who’s chanting?” Nianfo is a little better at stilling the mind and moving through the channas than huatou is (huatou is mostly a guan method).
We can also practice any of the Five Methods for Stilling the Mind by themselves. Then, when a Hindrance arises, we just stick with that method until it passes. But, I tend to endorse adaptive meditation since it’s a more involved, hands-on practice. Also, since I frequently experience depression and anxiety, just sitting through it can be dangerous.
Like anything else, these methods take time. But, as we familiarize ourselves with them, you can quickly pick up, use, and set down any method in a flash. Even elemental meditation, the most involved method on the list, can be done in less than a minute if you’re used to using it.
I don’t usually use these methods myself. I tend to go with a formless, no-method method these days, but sometimes I’ll backtrack if I need to. I was extremely depressed, self-loathing, and full of longing when I sat on Saturday, so I rapidly used three of the five methods and then my depression started to abate and I was able to just sit again.
Some people recommend skipping stilling the mind methods and going right to observing the mind. I don’t recommend that at all, especially if you have a mental illness or disorder. It’s usually best to practice anxin first and then guanxin, or to practice them both at the same time.