Because it was free and available online, Buddha Smile by Roberto Vicente, was one of the earliest dharma books I read when I first began investigating Buddhism. I feel very fortunate that I read his book during my initial discovery period, because the author conveys such a wonderful, joyous sense of the Buddha’s teaching and practice. The spirit of the book is really reflected in it title, Buddha Smile.
This excerpt, explaining how to begin sitting meditation, is still one of favorite introductions to meditation, and it is with great joy that I share this skillful teaching. I think that even if you are a long-time meditator, you will find this loving, gentle teaching inspires and illuminates the precious time we spend “on the cushion.” (At the end of this excerpt, I’ve put a link you can click on to download the entire book as a Microsoft Word document. The subheads in the text below are mine, added to help with readability and to highlight the key points.)
May this skillful teaching open your heart and mind to the limitless possibilities of liberation that unfold through meditation—with a smile!
Excerpt from “Buddha Smile” by Roberto Vicente
Good Physical Posture for Sitting Meditation
After finding a quiet room in the house, you’re ready to try meditation. You deserve this moment of quiet to regenerate yourself. You can sit on a cushion with your legs crossed, sit in a chair, or even lay on the floor on your back, a pillow under your knees to relieve lower back stress. Whatever position you choose, using the right body language and posture as well as bringing good intentions or attitude is important to meditation. Should you be cross-legged or sitting, try not to sit up with your back too erect, forced or ridge. Be careful not to be lazy or leaning off to one side.
Think of yourself as a cat, stretching and fluffing up, and ease yourself into a relaxed and comfortable posture. With your eyes closed, try dropping your chin down a bit, lessening the tension and pressure on your neck. Hold your hands, crossing the left hand cupped over the right hand, and have them rest near your belly or abdomen. Or you can have your hands resting supported, on your knees. Just be comfortable. You may feel some initial awkwardness as you relax into the position and formal sitting.
Start Meditation with the Breath
Now, that you are finally sitting, what is next? Our whole lives are about breathing. How far would you get without taking a breath? This is one of the most overlooked activities of the body. You take it for granted that you’re always going to breathe. You may even find it boring but imagine if you suddenly couldn’t breathe. That’s a sobering thought, isn’t it? Everything we do starts with the breath. We breathe all night long while sleeping. Our breath is our anchor and a good focal point.
Take three deep centering breaths to help get you grounded and “feel” the sitting. Take a moment to just feel yourself and sense your attitude as you breathe. Touch base with your breath, thoughts and body. Breathe, feel how you’ve arrived. Have you been busy or worried?
Note the high volume of mental activity you normally carry with you during the day; the business of thought patterns, whether you’ve been frustrated about something, angry, impatient or happy and having a good day. Breathe and get a feel for your surroundings in the here and now. Where are you? What can you hear around you? Can you smell anything? Do you feel your body sitting, the pressure of certain areas more than others–buttocks, knees, back or legs?
Here, at the start of each meditation, you are easing into the moment. Try to gradually leave the business of the day and your activities behind. Meditation is not about flipping a switch and falling into a trance. It is an awareness of our breaths, thoughts and body; a deep understanding and joining in the present moment. Sense your state of mind and your body language. Take the time to connect with yourself in the here and now. Meditation is about being present and mindful, awake to the moment as it is.
Breathe, sensing and feeling your mind. Don’t deny your thoughts. Feel how you have arrived. What is your attitude? Breathe and feel as you sit. Notice the business of your thought activity, that high volume of inner dialogue we carry around with us chattering throughout the day. Go ahead and allow yourself to relax. Get away from all those habits and impulses. Take a break from having “to be” and “do.”
Scanning the Body
A moment of body scanning will help you ease into the sitting. This moment will reveal any troubled (or “hot spots”) in your body. Start with your forehead and feel if it’s wrinkled or knotted. Try and relax and let loose in this area. Now, are your eyebrows arched or standing up like questions marks, or furrowed and meeting in the middle? Just let go and relax. Feel your eyelids. The surface skin is very, very sensitive and delicate. Have you been squinting or are your eyes wrinkled with tension? Just release a bit, not holding on so tightly.
And what about your teeth and jaw muscles? Do you have the habit of grinding your teeth? Is your jaw locked or tightly clenched? Just let your lower jaw drop a bit and feel the pressure and tension drop and fade away. Are your lips tightly pinched? Are you frowning? Just smile gently, softly to yourself, and feel the easing of body and thoughts.
Is your throat tight like a harp chord or like a clothes’ line? Swallow three times and consciously feel the muscles loosen and tension dissolve and fade away. A hot spot of pressure and tension are the shoulders. Feel them. Most times, our shoulders are pushed and squeezed up toward our necks and heads like the Hunch Back of Notre Dame. We, quite literally, carry our problems and upset on our backs. Just drop your shoulders down a bit, relaxing at your sides. Feel the weight of the world lift. How much lighter and younger do you feel?
Feel your chest fill and diaphragm expand with each rhythmic breath. Smile as you breathe. Meditation is not a labor or a torture. There is an accordion-like hollowness and filling with each breath. Sense the natural flow of air entering through your nose, flowing down coolly, tickling past your throat. Feel the freshness of air circulating into your lungs. As you breathe, sense your heart beating, its delicate drumming pulse. Have you been clenching and squeezing in your heart and chest area? Feel what a difference it makes to relax and breathe gently. If you are quiet and still enough you can even feel your blood circulating throughout your veins in your body.
Our stomachs and abdominal areas are often churning vats of acid, volcano-like with lava (anger, tension, doubts and worry are the culprits). The stomach flip-flops with nervousness, while our abdominal walls are tight and hard, causing our breathing to be labored. All this happens without our being aware of it. Just breathe naturally, smiling, aware. Relax and release. Feel how you’ve been emotionally charged and clinging, or maybe angry, and how this has translated to nervous energy and heavy breathing. Our system recoils and becomes rigid with upset.
After the Body Scan, Return to the Breath
Now feel, too, the difference after this body scan, how relaxed and how much more at ease your body and thoughts have become. Allow yourself to truly relax, perhaps for the first time in years if not the first time in your life. Know that not everything in your life is problem filled or an upset. Nor do we have to be on the go every moment, filled with activity and bustle. Genuinely feel what it’s like to unwind. Let go and have this moment of pause. Be at peace in your life. Now your body and your thoughts feel lighter and at ease. Even if only just a little bit, you’ve touched base with tranquility.
In this quiet environment of sitting, continue breathing mindfully. Think and repeat softly, “here…now”. Breathe in “here”–breathe out “now”. Here…now. Here…now. Here…now. Feel what it’s like to be truly in the present, in the moment and with your surroundings in the here and now. So often we are caught up in reliving the past: I shouldn’t have done this or why did that have to happen? If only things were different. Or we race off into the future: I’ll need to get or do such and such or give so and so a call. We’re rehashing or reliving the past, or searching the future like gypsies with crystal balls.
Sense as you breathe in the here and now. What is it like to let those busy thoughts just drift away, slip away? It’s all habit energy flurrying about. Smile at it, aware. Be steady in the present moment. There’s nothing to do, to be or become. Sense how much lighter you feel without the worrying, the plotting and the looking back. Because of all our fearful or hateful carrying on, we use an exhaustive amount of energy. Feel how all your mental activity translates to your body and agitated nervous system and notice now what it’s like to be calm for once in your life.
Now Relax and Settle into the Quiet
Having connected with the present, the here and now, focus on the simple activity of breathing. Breathe in and breathe out. In…out. In…out. In…out. Sense and feel how no two breaths are the same. Some are deep and heavy, others are short and gentle. Feel the rhythms of the breath and how they flow through your body.
Entering a deeper meditation, we can truly begin to understand that not all is suffering, problems or pain. With each breath feel spaciousness and an opening. Sense how you get consumed and target a thought or emotion and want to clench and squeeze on to it or push away.
Here in meditation, and in a gradual and sustained practice, sense and know that you don’t have to be dominated, run over or ruled by your habits and impulses. Calming your breathing in and out, focusing, you touch base and are actually welcoming and accepting. You’re open and not knotted up; flowing, not restricted; receiving, not reserved. Feel what it’s like for your mind to expand and rest in spaciousness. Feel that all too high volume of mental activity drop. Feel calm, feel free, feel at ease.
Now breathe in settled, breathe out quiet. Breathe in settled breathe out quiet. Settled…quiet. Settled…quiet. Settled…quiet. Feel what it’s like to reside in this moment of actual settling and quiet. There might be fear of the unknown, the strangeness and the newness of meditation. Allow yourself to make contact with the settling and quiet of the moment. What you are feeling is peace and settling that you may have never experienced before in your life. Make contact with the ease and calm of the moment. Know the “nothingness” of just being at ease and at peace, and feel how you’ve opened up and let go. Settled…quiet. Settled…quiet. Settled…quiet.
You’ve been caught in a race fueled by your own wants, fears, habits and impulses, likes and dislikes. With this settling and quiet break, we touch base with the Middle Way of not always having to act and react to everything that comes our way. We can dwell in acceptance, without having to wage war, become unnerved, or give in to any situation or person, just the moment as the moment is. Settled…quiet. Settled…quiet. Settled…quiet.
Breathe in Awake, Breathe Out Aware
Breathe in awake and breathe out aware. In awake and out aware. Awake…aware. Awake…aware. Awake…aware. Allow yourself to know well-being. Feel patience within yourself. Smile gently. Feel kindness and well-being. Know the happiness of your body and thoughts, peace of body and mind. Sense the difference from when you first sat down to where you are now. Here you are awake and aware, in the present. Feel the spaciousness and openness that surrounds you.
Note what it’s like to be “without being”, to rest and let all those habit energies run off on their own. Sense peace within yourself and smile. Go ahead and smile softly, a smile of awareness. You deserve this. Truly. Gentleness, understanding–how beneficial. Be awake and aware of what it’s like not to struggle or be in conflict.
You deserve peace. You can be at peace. This is really you and not a miracle. This is not happening to someone else. Be awake…aware. You can be free of turmoil and the continual surge, bordering on rage, to fall into or try to escape from things. Find the Middle Way, within yourself, of acceptance and equanimity; joy and serenity in the midst of torment and difficulties. You have touched base with a larger and perhaps new aspect of yourself. You are also aware of the serenity as well as the turmoil in your life. Awake…aware. Awake….aware. Awake…aware.
Now you are able to offer yourself a moment of kindness and good-will: May I know well-being in my life. I can be happy. Why shouldn’t I be? May I have patience for myself as well as for others. I understand that I can get busy and caught up in work. I will try harder to catch myself and come back to the present moment. I will smile to myself. As long as I can smile, I know where I am and what I am doing. May I be kinder, more generous and open with myself and with others?
Finish Your Meditation—and Smile!
Finishing up your meditation, return slowly to your original breathing and your surroundings in the here and now, the present moment. Smile and feel your body; be in touch with your surroundings. When you smile, you’re aware and in the present. Note the difference between the beginning and the end of your meditation. What anxiety and doubts have you? Where did that anger go? Don’t just snap out of your meditation only to automatically to resume your hectic life. Bring that mindfulness and awareness of thought and body with you to everything you do; to all of your life. Don’t leave all of your awareness, good intentions and mindfulness sitting on the cushion!
In the future, as you meditate, thoughts and feelings will come and go, habit energies will drift in and out. Impatience as well as doubts and frustration may certainly arise. Perhaps even anger or fear may come into play. But this sitting practice, this pause of peace, isn’t about engaging in a war with yourself, or belittling and whipping yourself. Neither is it about passing verdicts. Meditation depends upon opening and letting go to whatever degree you can. Release your struggles and impatience.
Meditation will enlighten your life. Know that you are more than just long-standing habits and impulses to blindly act and react to situations, people or events. You are more than the proverbial dog chasing its tail. A deeper and gradual understanding and awakening does emerge. The Middle Way exists between liking and disliking, joy and anger, wanting and needing, peace and fear. It is a settling option.
Meditation is not just about time on a cushion by oneself. It is about translating this stillness and peace to every aspect of your life. Begin to gradually bring more and more awareness into your everyday life. Feel the urges and all the liking and disliking that take place. Try to touch base with the calm that is in each and every moment. With practice and honest intention, you will find improvement and balance and understanding in your life. Compassion will come, as well. Soon you will find yourself more conscious of your breathing. This will naturally bring calm to your body and thoughts. This is the Middle Way. This is awakening. Smile the Buddha’s smile.
Excerpt from BIONA Books Buddha Smile by Roberto Vicente
BIONA (Buddhist Information of North America) is the largest collection of free online books and articles of Buddhism from both the Theravada and Mahayana perspectives.
Click to download: Buddha Smile