Who of us would like to feel more awake and alive in our everyday lives? Who would like to feel more calm and comfortable? Maybe all of us? That’d be cool. These two simple things are fairly standard goals in most meditation practices. Now how does meditation propose to get there? And how well can it work for all the effort? As daunting as the practices can appear, the basic ideas are not complicated at all.
There are probably hundreds of meditation methods but for convenience we can look at just two representative ones from the two main cultures that produced the bulk of them, Buddhist India and Taoist China.
India first. The Buddha Gautama who lived about 2500 years ago invented a method he thought anyone could learn. He did think you’d need to give it ten full days minimum, not very practical for most folks in our society, but the practice itself is simple enough to do in whatever time you have. All you do is breathe and follow the air into your nose, sinuses, trachea and lungs and back out again with an unwavering attention. Whatever else happens in your mind and body, stay calm and keep feeling the air entering and leaving your respiratory system. This is called Vipassana, or Insight Meditation. (Eventually you watch your thoughts, emotions and actions but breathing is plenty for starters.)
The Chinese one is different. Here you mentally scan your body for areas that are tense, agitated, uncomfortable, etc. and do what you can to relax them so they calm down. This is the basic Dissolving practice and essentially what turns it into meditation is that you also observe your thoughts and feelings as you’re relaxing and letting go. (To be fair there is no universally agreed upon definition of meditation but this “independent observer” is a reasonable qualifier.)
What do these two have in common? They both call on
1. your internal independent observer to employ
2. a sustained focus on, a heightened awareness of
3. your physical body with
4. a view to being calm and comfortable.
Note also that in both methods the practice and the goals are the same, viz. you are trying to become more awake and more relaxed by doing exactly that. As the saying goes, “You become what you practice.” This may seem like an obvious point but there are far too many things in this world where the the goal has no relation to the purported means of getting there, (like economics and politics, eh?) so when someone does understand the connection it seems like pure genius.
How are they different? First in their areas of physical focus; it’s either on the breathing or on the whole body. Is this significant? Not really if you’re only looking at honing your awareness skills. Ultimately in what we might call the body meditations it won’t matter if you choose your heartbeat, your brain, or your big toe.
Let’s divert for a moment and ask why employ your body in meditation at all? Why not use an emotion like gratitude, or a visual like a candle, or a sound like a bell? These are all fine places to focus your mind, but if you want to be more calm there’s nothing more immediate than your body. Your level of tension or lack of it is obvious in your breathing, your heart rate, your muscle tension, etc. Our bodies are reliable indicators of our mental and emotional conditions and can actually change them. So it’s a practical matter—if you want to be more comfortable in your life, become more comfortable in your body. You can read more on that here.
The second difference between the Indian and Chinese methods is of some significance. What we could call Taoist Dissolving meditation is an explicit effort to relax your body and let all its tension go. You are always dissolving from the don’t-know-nothing entry level to the most advanced maturity. Vipassana does not mention this explicitly at all and a Taoist would scratch their head and say “why not?”
The Indians come at it more from the mind than the body although to be sure through the breath. They discovered that somehow just by watching your breath your mind begins to calm down and so does your breath. It’s almost an automatic process and it’s very wise of them to make use of it.
But the next step, relaxing your body is not so automatic. Sure it could happen. If you have to sit still for an hour at a time analyzing your breathing without the freedom to follow every whim of your body, how are you going to pull it off? Something’s gotta soften or you’ll freeze up. Relaxing your body could be a natural result. I’d be willing to give Gautama the benefit of the doubt and say he expected this would happen.
And yet we hear stories of hopeful aspirants who end up just trying to tolerate the pain of endless sitting and can’t focus on anything else. So then they go into the pain and make that their meditation, exploring all kinds of useful questions about it’s origin, nature, universality, tolerability, etc. Oyoiyoi. That would seem a bit silly to the Taoists who would rather find a way to soften their bodies so they’d have to deal with as little pain as possible.
So we have on the one hand Vipassana with only one simple instruction: 1. Observe your breath. You will begin to relax. And on the other we have Taoism with two instructions: 1. Observe your whole body. 2. Relax it deliberately. Now everyone who attempts any meditation finds right away that distraction is their biggest problem so the simpler the instructions the better. And yet if you can add another element without getting overwhelmed you’ll get that much more out of it. There’s no contradiction here, just a matter of what is right for you.
Whatever time you put into almost any meditation will benefit you many times over. With time you will begin to taste a larger reward, a greater freedom, which is to release what is bound up in the deepest parts of your being.