What is analytical meditation and how to do it correctly?
Analytical meditation is a very powerful, yet simple-to-understand practice. In this article we discuss what it is, how it works, and why it's such an important part of any mediation practice.
Hi Michael, it's nice to see you again too. Thank you so much for the help. Let me see if I understand it clearly: what I usually end up doing is re-wording the meaning of the text, mainly so I can work with it in my head using my native language. So should I also meditate on the words longer in order to burn the meaning into my core? Would that would be the right thing to do if I don't need to know the exact words?
- Nadia V.
Thank you for your question to clarify your understanding.
We want to move away from recitations and start down the path of analytical meditation to help you get around your short-term memory issues; and rote memorisation does little for our understanding and insight, memory issues or not.
So how do you meditate analytically? While there is a reason entire books and courses are written on this single topic, here is a simple process that you can use to start doing it today.
First of all, what is "analytical meditation" and how is it used?
At its most basic level, analytical meditation is what we call the time we invest on the cushion to think about a singular topic, idea, or concept with mindful focus, concentration, and steadiness. This isn't a wandering mind, or daydreaming. This is a highly-active and focused practice and one that takes time and effort to cultivate. Buddhists use analytical meditation to break down an idea to its constituent parts to determine if the concept is to be ultimately accepted or rejected.
Buddhism isn't a faith-based practice, it's one that is deeply rooted in Science, Philosophy, and Reason. In Buddhism, the Dharma is meant to be used a tool to strengthen our mind, and logic and skilful deduction are important components to a strong mind and core components of the practice. Buddhist doctrine is intended to be picked apart and considered from every angle. Questioning the dharma is an important part of the early process of exploring the Buddhist path to Enlightenment and actual Nirvana. So when your teacher introduces uncommon or perhaps even nonsensical notions such as Karma, Rebirth, and Emptiness, you are not expected to take anything solely on the word of your teachers, but rather to listen to the teachings and use your faculties and resources afterward to determine if what you've read/heard rings true or not.
This does not mean we question and deny everything they say; it means we listen and consider skilfully and come to our own conclusions on whether what is being taught has conclusive validity, that is, once we've subjected it to the analytical processes of logic and reason first. When we can do this in a way that focuses purely on a single topic, not allowing our mind to be distracted or to wander off, we can call it analytical meditation.
It is important to note at this point that being able to hold the object of your meditation is a required part of genuine and deep analytical meditation. Why is that? Because the topic upon which you intend to meditate, becomes the object of your meditation rather than, say, your breath. So, if you have trouble following your breath without distractions, you will have a difficult time staying focused while thinking about a single topic without being side-tracked by ancillary or non-applicable and random thoughts. But, don't let that sway you. It doesn't mean that you can't start developing these skills while you also learn to develop the skill of single-pointed concentration on your breath.
Developing our overall meditation skills enables us to begin the process of turning the focus of our analytical meditations more deeply inward as we start to question the very nature of who we are and what we experience. Holding the topic of our meditation--with stability and clarity--and breaking down how we see and experience reality enables us to really come to understand the true nature of the world around us, which is how we Awaken and enter into the stages of Enlightenment in a Buddhist sense.
Analytical meditation is such a critical component to developing the skills required to attain Awakening and Nirvana that achieving those results are impossible without it. Needless to say, it's important part of my personal practice and it's one of the many forms of meditation techniques that I engage in on-the-cushion every day.
So how do we mediate analytically?
The easiest way to fold this activity into your daily practice, and assuming you read dharma material every day, is to reflect on something you've just read that you want to use for personal development. For example, after you've read a particularly insightful sutta or commentary; or, you are struggling to come to terms with a particular bit of text that conveys a very specific but challenging idea, concept, or understanding; or, you've realised something within the dharma that you really want to understand, preferably something that is of practical value and of real-world use to you.
Instead of meditating on the text or repeating the words, take the time to stop and think about the meaning and the lesson-on-offer. Evaluate, consider, and break down the message from all sides. This is important part of really coming to understand any topic, Buddhist or otherwise, which paves the foundation for true insight and transformation to occur, and insight and transformation are the foundations of Enlightenment (which, if we are approaching our meditation/dharma practice skilfully, is the reason we are all here).
So, how do we make this practical? Let's use an example of analysing something that anyone can understand, regardless of belief or dogma.
In this example let's analyse the concept that the "the sky is blue." It's silly, I know, but go with me: have you ever genuinely stopped to really analyse it? For example, if you were to Google 'why is the sky blue,' and then on the cushion, take what you've just studied and deeply meditated on the following questions:
...that would be analytical meditation.
In the list of questions above, I emboldened the one that you would want to spend the most time with if you were actually performing analytical meditation on this topic. It's the exploration of these kinds of questions that makes this form of meditation so powerful and ever-lasting. It's where unshakeable confidence and insights are born.
If you can stop and break down something that seems as obvious as the colour of the sky, and consequently through mindful analysis come to really accept (or reject) that the sky is blue, through a process of logical evaluation and reasonable deduction—as opposed to accepting it on face value—then you can apply that exact same method and direct it toward the dharma: that's Analytical Meditation. Whether it's something as simple of an idea such as "compassion is the wish for others to be free of their suffering" or something with a deeper, less obvious lesson, such as "compassion for others is compassion for myself."
Popular subjects for Buddhist Analytical Meditation include:
[Many Tibetan Buddhist meditation techniques are forms of analytical meditation (e.g., tonglen, metta, et cetera) and are very productive practices regardless of "what kind of Buddhist" or meditator you are, and you do not need to be a Buddhist to learn and benefit from these practices.]
To really sit on your cushion and break down the lessons the dharma and our teachers are trying to help us understand is how we make it possible for the dharma, and our time on the cushion meditating, to transform our minds, and when our mind is transformed, so too is our experience (and everything else).
TIP! To better explain the concept, I recorded a short 10-minute audio guide that provides clear instructions with a practical Buddhist example of how to do Analytical meditation effectively.
I hope this helps and is a bit more clear :) and that this was in some way helpful to you.
May this message find you happy, healthy, and safe.
Buddhist Ācariya and Anagārika
Articles are updated periodically. This one was updated on 24-Sep-2020
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Michael Turner is a pre-monastic ariya-puggala and a full-time Buddhist anagārika; and he is also a deeply accomplished streamentry mentor and applied-dharma teacher. He emphasises and teaches the practical application of the Buddha's teachings in our everyday lives to overcome our human problems that stand in the way of making measurable progress toward Buddhist enlightenment and he is particularly adept at explaining them in ways that can be easily understood and practiced by Western Buddhists. He has been meditating and cultivating the views and techniques that generate indestructible resilience, inner-strength, and direct experience for almost 30 years and has helped countless numbers of students and peers enhance and course-correct their practice to make veritable progress along the path toward Nibbāna.
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