In life and in meditation, if you look for and focus on the positive factors, or the dhyana factors, then they become apparent. They appear, become available, and then seem to flourish under the light of our gentle gaze. Dhyana is a state of deep and blissful meditative concentration or absorption.
There is a good reason why gratitude is a large part of many spiritual awakenings, as it is a way of focusing on what is right, what is good, what is pleasurable or bright in your experience. It is a way of training the mind to see what is bright, forging new pathways to appreciation and eventually a blissful relishing of experience.
If you have never done a gratitude list, I recommend it as a regular practice. If like most people you have become accustomed to a dull and murky state, a mildly negative, irritable and even depressed state then I promise you that you will not regret taking this up as a practice. It can be formal like a list, or it can simply be a turning of the mind towards what you appreciate about this moment right now.
For example, right here as I write, I am blessed by some early October sunshine, and it is hot for the time of year. I have beautiful music playing, and I am blessed to have studied the work of great teachers which is what allows me to share wisdom such as this. I am blessed by meditation, I love it, and find deep bliss in life as a result of my spiritual work. I have a lovely wife, a roof over my head, an inspiring view, a wonderful dog, a nice hot coffee in which I can choose to see misty African plantations, clouds, and the sun. My body feels good, pleasant tinglings in my feet, a pleasing lack of pain in my back, and I generally feel positive and relaxed.
I am excited as we are in between accommodation, renting for a while, and I’ve been on retreat. I have a temporarily functioning computer which allows me write, an internet to share my writing, and I hope that the writing is having a good effect on people somewhere, I hope it is helpful and points the way for others.
As my attention roves through all the things I love in my life, all the activities I enjoy, all the people and places that are so beautiful, the opportunities and the ways I can serve life, indescribable happiness begins to bubble up. An emotion like joy, like gratitude, like faith, something indefinable and beautifully powerful.
Perhaps it seems indulgent or boastful to take stock of what there is to be grateful for, but forget about that and do it. I believe there is a middle way between service and self-development, as each relies on the other in my experience. If you are happy, and sometimes it sadly seems to take a lot of work to achieve even basic contentment, then you have so much more to give to others, to the world. To start, simply turn your mind and heart, to what is good, what is positive, what you can be grateful for.
As Csikmentalyhi explains, he was able to achieve contentment, even happiness, in a concentration camp by practising this simple skill. By training the mind to see what is good about things, about situations, events, people, and places, one become more skilled, one becomes a master of one’s happiness. Like learning to play an instrument it may take time, but the rewards are ever-increasing levels of satisfaction, contentment, and these states lead to bliss.
I am an unrepentant hedonist, I may be in recovery from seeking hedonistic pleasure, but I am so glad, for the pleasures I now know are beyond comparison. I also figure that if anything would tempt people onto a spiritual path it is pleasure!
In some traditions, it seems that suffering is the mark of spiritual attainment, but in the Buddhism I practice, it is the opposite. Bliss, contentment, simple happiness, are marks of having worked quite hard. Insight loosens our grip on things, we find ourselves less moved by events which others see as upsetting. A deep appreciation of impermanence and the suffering inherent in conditioned existence, brings freedom.
Sometimes it seems that in order to ascend to true happiness, for many of us it is necessary to go through a period of suffering. What else gives us the fire to begin serious spiritual work? Of course if you have read any of my work you will know that my vision of happiness is independent of material things, of situations, of craving and achieving, it is a simpler, less dependent kind of appreciative contentment.
There is a paradox, a seeming contradiction, in that by appreciating what we have we are looking about us at material things, situations, and conditions. However, one can appreciate without clinging, as if it were an attitude towards everything that presents rather than for specific conditions or circumstances.
States of mind, like formless meditation experiences, and peak spiritual moments of rapture, are conditioned by your work and the flow of your attention, but are not dependent on the things we are taught will make us happy. The ideal job, the money, the perfect person, these chimeras of modern consciousness will not grant lasting contentment. What you want, what will bring you happiness, changes as you change, so cultivate an attitude of appreciation which can travel with you through the vicissitudes of life.
In meditation, sometimes we do the same thing, we focus on what is not right, and crave what is right. It is easy to simply notice hindrances, and work with what is wrong. Although it is important to learn how to work with the hindrances, it is a part of this turning about in the consciousness, a turning towards what is right and what you can be grateful for, to begin to notice what you like.
Look for the quiet, look for the peace, the feelings of relaxation, serenity and clarity. Look for the lighter sense of appreciation for meditative experience, see the pleasure and the absence of hindrance, and let that flourish.
Be open to the breath as bliss, as pure and fresh sensations of open space and silence. Be open to metta as warming and ecstatic sunshine, warming you from the inside out. Be open to the crystal clarity of the mind, the gentle pleasures of the tingling energies in your body.
In essence I am talking about looking for the dhyana factors; namely interest in the object, sustained attention, bliss, contentment, peace, equanimity and one-pointedness. Or rather, this is one way of describing what it is I am suggesting you look for, as it may be better to simply enjoy, simply notice peaceful and positive feelings and experiences.
Once you experience dhyana, both the subtle and the overwhelming physical ecstasies, you will know. Once you have the belief that you are a meditator who can abide in peace and joy, then a very profound shift happens with your practice. You become confident, you know you have the weight of experience behind you, you know the path has been hacked clear.
You can simply layer a wordless, formless layer or sheen over your experience, shift awareness so that it is seen through a framework of appreciation. The shift is subtle, but magical, as usually unnoticed sensations, tiny exquisite ecstasies, are felt in detail and in depth. You’ve accessed this exquisite perception before, so the neural pathway is forged, the path cleared. You become able to slip into an appreciative awareness which is so naturally and effortlessly an aid to concentration. It was unlocked in deep concentration, and it unlocks ever deeper concentration.
It is important not to make dhyana ( I will write more on this soon) the goal in meditation. Its a goalless goal, it is simply what happens when the mind is at peace, concentrated, and positive. This is what happens naturally as the mind settles on the object in meditation, as it is happens when you are absorbed in activities in life. So the object, the breath is the goal, or the loving kindness, set your sights on the meditation, and notice, appreciate the positive states that arise and flow ever deeper.
It is like a new kind of meditation, whereas usually meditators are taught to focus on what is distracting, or in the way, and work with these hindrances, we are now talking about approaching it from the other side so to speak. We are practising positive meditation, as opposed to positive thinking, positive noticing perhaps. I would suggest that it can transform you consciousness as dramatically as positive thinking can, or learning to praise others instead of criticise. It is the same shift from the negative to the positive pole.
In dhyana you have two choices, you either simply enjoy it and deepen it, or use the elevated state for insight and contemplation. I find that what works for me is enjoying it, and then after the meditation reflecting on that which liberates. Dhyana passes, and the ego returns, and there is insight available even in this process. This ego even wants to appropriate the experience, attaching it, and the insight, to identity, to consolidate its own worth and existence.
This incessant mine-making is the root of all affliction and suffering. It is the cause of greed and hatred, as we push or pull, seek to avoid or crave, the cause of clinging, and nibbana is the absolute freedom from clinging.
The mind eventually must withdraw from dhyana, the eyes open, perceptions reappear, thinking arises, and it is wonderful to watch this with awareness.
Reflecting on the wisdom teachings, insight, that alone can undermine the ego and the whole ego-based superstructure of psychic experience. In my experience these moments, these insights, eurekas, tend to come unbidden, unforced, but you can certainly assist in their arising if you wish.
Feel free to simply love meditation, and deepen it. After meditation, when colours are more vivid, when the world is brighter, as if lit by an inner sun, perhaps insights, perhaps appreciation, perhaps gratitude, will arise.
Dhyana does lead to insight, it creates the right conditions in consciousness, so I can see the value of using it for insight practice. I practise certain insight meditations, and do enjoy reflecting on impermanence for example, writing about it, and trying to sink understanding into the depths of consciousness, like dropping depth charges. I often take a few good books on retreat, verses, or wisdom literature, to read before and after meditation. You will find that after deep meditation, a different level of understanding, a new vista is revealed. Verse, enlightened verses are ideal for this (I will provide some links for good books below.)
Similarly in life, let flourish what is beautiful and good, be grateful for simple things, and see the fleeting nature of that which you crave, that which you think will make you happy. Look for beauty, look for peace, and refuse to be ruled by greed and craving for that which cannot give you any real and lasting satisfaction. Unhook from money, success, and worldly desires, seek the beautiful.
If you must crave, crave the pure bliss that comes from spiritual progress, crave the inner freedom that subtly arises with insight, crave supportive conditions for your meditation and your spiritual progress.
I don’t believe that this necessarily means running to the monastery, although there may be times when this will help. I believe this means working with what is, creating space for meditation and study, simply giving yourself the gift of having your spiritual health rank higher than money or success in your priorities. I assure you from bitter experience that no worldly success feels as wonderful and blissful as spiritual freedom.
You become a master of life, rather than being at its mercy. You choose your world, your reality and your states. I say there is no skill so important and so wonderful. A true blessing.
So take a moment to write a gratitude list, it’s surprisingly easy once you start to see what is good in life, or what is useful even. The basics we take for granted, but to appreciate your position only makes it stronger. Rewire your brain to see beauty and goodness around you, whatever situation you find yourself in. If you feel your situation is somehow unique, and that you are different, remember Csikmentalyhi. Remember that actually, all beings suffer as you do, and turn that tight self view, a shadow of pride, into soul nourishing compassion for all who suffer as you do.
If, after you complete the list you don’t feel lighter and brighter I will be surprised, and recommend you do it every day until you do. Simply writing this has lightened my experience, I have forgotten all about some negative situations or events in my life, they don’t seem so important, they certainly aren’t upsetting me any more.
Next time you meditate, try to approach the mental states you encounter with a similar attitude of appreciation. You notice, and take stock of what is going well, what feels good, and surf that wave.
So I would recommend writing that list, or taking positive inventory, and then taking it into meditation. Use the metta bhavana, to take any feelings of joy or sorrow, and universalise them. Dwell on your own situation, and if you do find joy, relish it, nurture it, and use it to wish this joy for others, and ultimately all, beings.
If it’s sorrow you find, simply acknowledge the need for more gratitude and more work, and then turn it into compassion for yourself – may you be happy. Nurture that compassionate wish for things to be better, and then take it out so you are wishing well for others, and ultimately all that lives.