Frequently Asked Questions on meditation answered by Sayalay Susila & her Dhamma teachers.

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  • Sayalay, I just can't meditate. My mind is running so restlessly, jumping here and there like a monkey. That's why i have decided not to meditate because maybe the time is not quite right just yet.

    It is mind's nature to be restless. Learn to accept it. And it is precisely for this very reason that one needs a method to calm the mind down and make it more manageable. And that direct method as prescribed by the all knowing and compassionate Samma Sambuddha, is meditation. You can start with loving kindness meditation. This meditation makes the mind happy. Happiness produces concentration. Keeping one's precepts well also helps to promote happiness, thereby calming and stilling of one's mind in meditation.

  • Mindfulness of Breathing - Which part of the breath should I be aware of?

    One should keep one's attention under the nostril or in front of the face, and be aware of in breath and out breath. Do not follow the breath up to the head and down to the abdomen. Just be aware of the breath under the nostril or in front of the face.

  • How do I deal with sleepiness?

    There are many ways to deal with sloth and torpor. Sometimes, you must find out the external cause of the sleepiness. For example, don’t meditate immediately after eating. If you do, you will be overwhelmed by sloth and torpor. The same will occur if you meditate when you are too tired. When sloth and torpor come, here are a few ways to help:
    • Opening your eyes and looking at the light will brighten the mind.
    • Reciting some words of the Buddha and temporarily putting aside the object of meditation will make the mind more alert.
    • Scanning the body up and down will also make the mind more attentive.
    • Pulling on the ears is also extremely effective to energize your brain. There are many points on the ears that connect to the brain.
    • You can also do standing meditation. Being worried about falling down onto the person in front of you will probably keep you awake!
    I would also like to share with you my own way of staying awake. It is more difficult, but very effective. The very moment I notice sloth and torpor, I just look at them, and they are gone. However, this method requires alert mindfulness. Most people are unable to be aware of subtle laziness right when it arises. By the time they see it, the laziness has already gained momentum – the body sways and the head nods. At this time, it is too late to apply my method. If your mindfulness is precise and you are clear on what is happening in the mind, the moment you know sloth and torpor, they will disappear.
  • When there is distraction, should we label the distraction?

    For beginners, yes. For example, label thinking as thinking. For advanced meditators, there is no need. Labeling is too slow. With alert mindfulness, as soon as he or she knows thinking, thinking is already gone, so it is not necessary to label.
  • How does one overcome worry and doubt?

    (In a dialogue between Sayalay Susila and a meditation student) 

    Meditation Student (MS): I'm up to day 29 of meditating two hours, first thing in the morning. I don't know how I'm doing it, but it is definitely calming me down. You told me not to write unless I'm beset with defilements. The most significant defilement I am beset with is the defilement of doubt. Even though I've meditated for 28 days, and don't find it "impossibly" difficult (it's definitely the most difficult thing I do), I constantly fear I won't be able to do it.

    Sayalay Susila (SS): You are worrying about what has not yet happened. I regard worry as an illusion because it is something that has not yet happened and may not happen. Why drain your energy worrying? When worry arises, recognize it and immediately divert your attention to the breath so that your mind does not indulge in worrying. Indulging in worrying makes the worry persistent. When you are worrying about what has not yet happened, you are not living in the present moment—this will make you unhappy.

    MS: Self-doubt with regard to my ability to do difficult things has plagued every area of my life. My whole life, I would have given anything to just let go and trust myself. I don't have that much more of this lifetime left. I would love to live it with some peace and joy and actually be in the present moment. I'm totally willing to put in the effort.

    SS: If you want to live in the present moment, you must learn to be aware of arising thoughts, especially worry and doubt. See doubt as a mental phenomenon, not as a self. Doubt is unreal; it becomes real only when you grasp it as “myself” and “mine”. Due to grasping it as “myself”, the mind becomes reactive and the defilement proliferates. If you react with the same pattern all the time, it will become second-nature.

    MS: But like everything else, I don't trust the progress I make. I only trust bad things. I'm so afraid of losing the good. I know I will because it’s impermanent, but I seem to think that suffering is permanent.

    SS: I can see the tendencies or pattern in your thinking. When you only think negatively, you become what you think. You must learn to change the way you think—only then can you change your life. I believe you can do it. Do not let your happiness pass by thinking negatively. You think suffering is permanent because you are grasping suffering as “myself”. Just regard suffering as suffering, not as a self.

    MS: I think about your courage and fearlessness and that helps.

    SS: My courage comes from not worrying about what has not yet happened, so to speak.

    MS: If you have any other suggestions, such as varying the concentration practice with a type of meditation that would help with doubt, please let me know.

    SS: Apart from concentration, please practice mindfulness and wisdom, too. Be aware of doubt when it arises, then either ignore it (don't indulge in it—if you indulge in it, you make it real) OR contemplate it as impermanent and as not myself. (For detailed practice, please go to my website and read “Moment to Moment Practice”.)

    MS: I feel the retreat has changed my inner life, and my husband agrees…

    SS: So, you can do it, right? This should be enough to generate confidence in yourself and in the Dhamma.

    MS: …and of course, I doubt it can last (I mean, the meditating two hours a day). So that's why I'm writing. I need help with this delusion....with the hindrance of doubt.

    SS: Good knowledge of the Buddha's teaching helps to dispel doubt. If you have faith in my teaching, go to my website and listen to my talks or read suttas. Doing this will definitely give you happiness and confidence. May you be happy and free from the illusion of worry and doubt.

  • The Light or Nimitta - Is it natural to 'see' the light during meditation?  

    When the concentration is developed, it is natural the light or nimitta will appear.

  • What is the sign of concentration (nimitta)?

    Jhana consciousness takes the counterpart sign as object. But where does the nimitta or “sign” come from? Most mind states that arise dependent on the heart-base produce breathing. A nimitta, which comes from the breath, is the outcome of of a deep, intensified, and profoundly concentrated mind. The ordinary mind cannot produce a nimitta. What is this sign of concentration, the brilliant light, experienced in meditation? It is not magic. I remember talking about this light once in California, and the American audience thought I was talking about stage magic. The Buddha recalled how he perceived light while he was still a Bodhisatta (MN 111).
    But how?
    Every consciousness that arises dependent on the heart-base can generate a great deal of consciousness-born particles. In each kalapa there are eight inseparable elements (earth, water, fire, wind, color, smell, taste, and nutritive essence). Serenity-meditation-consciousness, which transcends sensual pleasures, can produce many powerful consciousness-born kalapas internally. The color element in those kalapas becomes very bright. The more powerful the serenity-meditation-consciousness and insight-meditation-consciousness are, the brighter the color. Because these kalapas arise simultaneously and in succession, the color of one kalapa and the color of another arise so closely together that, like electrons in an electric bulb, light occurs.
    Furthermore, in each kalapa produced by serenity-meditation-consciousness, there is fire-element, which can also produce many generations of new kalapas. This is called temperature-born kalapas. Likewise, the color in those kalapas is bright due to the power of concentration. When the brightness of one color and the brightness of another color arise closely together, it manifests as light. This occurs not only internally but also externally, that is, outside of the body. Therefore, the meditator sees brilliant light under the nostrils or in all directions. A darkened room may appear bright to someone in possession of the sign. However, that same light can spread in all ten directions and encompass the entire world system or go even farther, depending on the power of the serenity-meditation-consciousness. The Buddha’s great disciple Anuruddha’s divine-eye-consciousness produced light up to 1,000 world systems. (AN III.128)

  • Do lay people take the Eight Precepts?  

    When they come to intensive retreats, lay people take the Eight Precepts. However, some lay people also take the Eight Precepts even while working and leading their normal daily lives.

  • Should I listen and follow my head or my heart?  

    You should listen and follow what the Buddha taught.

  • I have become very discouraged because of the structure of my nose. I am better able to feel the breath in my belly. I cannot pay attention to the front of my face. Sometimes I pay attention to my heartbeat. What should I do?  

    If you pay attention to the heartbeat, you will feel tired soon, and you cannot develop deep concentration. It is fine that you cannot feel the breath as long as you know that you are breathing. However, for those who cannot feel the flow of the breath, this meditation subject – mindfulness of breathing – can be difficult, and it may be difficult for them to make good progress. If you have a hard time with this meditation subject, try another method.
    There are many other ways mentioned in the Path of Purification. For example, loving-kindness meditation makes the mind happy, and happiness produces concentration, which can produce light. I just led a five-day retreat, of which two days were loving-kindness and three days were mindfulness of breathing. On the third day, one of my students developed good concentration by following the instructions on loving-kindness and the strong light then appeared to him. After the retreat, although he did only one sitting in the morning on loving-kindness, he could still maintain the light.
    So you can also develop deep concentration using metta. If you have a hard time with mindfulness of breathing, don’t lose hope – instead, try another type of concentration meditation.

  • I have heard many negative things about meditation. As as result, when I meditate worry and fear arise. How do I deal with this?

    If you meditate under the guidance of an experienced teacher, no harm will come to you. But if you meditate alone and yet do not understand the way of the practice correctly, fear may arise when you experience something extra ordinary. Sign up for a retreat if you need guidance.

For questions not frequently asked, please visit Q&A Gallery.

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