Instructor: Nicholas Evans
Duration: 3 hours
Maximum class size: 7
This single-session course is designed to introduce those curious about meditation to the general concepts of the practice and provide an overview of what our long course offers. This course is available for groups, organizations, students on Pro-D days and anyone interested in gathering a sense of what possibilities meditation holds for promoting balance in their lives.
During this course you’ll find that meditation isn’t a passive, extra-curricular activity, but an intense, dynamic and extremely practical tool for experiencing the world. This course offers you a chance to familiarize yourself with meditation first-hand in a practical manner. The small group, discussion-based setting provides a unique format for learning meditation: you’ll understand not only how your mind operates, but how the minds of others function as well. You’ll learn to identify underlying commonalities and stark contrasts in the processing of experiences from individual to individual.
The course is broadly structured, allowing for impromptu experiments, field trips, and spontaneous discussions. Assignments are integral to your progress and some will play out in the background of your daily life. Meditation takes a lot of skill, energy and curiosity, and it rewards creativity and thinking for yourself. Clear goals are set, strategies are devised, experiments are conducted, results are shared and progress is tracked. You become a scientist studying your human’s experience.
The concept of happiness is a key concept in meditation. The Greek word, eudaimonia, sometimes translated as “human flourishing” is a similar concept. While the ultimate and lofty goal of meditation is complete freedom from suffering, you don’t have to become a monk to improve your life. This course will teach you that patient and creative work is rewarded in incremental improvements, which means a better life for you and those around you.
No matter what the mind experiences, it usually reacts with craving, and craving always involves dissatisfaction. This constant dissatisfaction is what is known as suffering. When the mind experiences something unpleasant, it craves to be rid of it. When the mind experiences something pleasant, it craves that it will remain and intensify. Suffering arises from craving; the only way to remove suffering is to remove craving; the way to remove craving is to rescue the mind. And this is your mission.
The process of saving your mind from the clutches of suffering will require a thorough exploration and careful navigation to the depths of the mind in order to locate the root of the problem. With that said, it’s heartening to know that the closer you get to the root, the more your mind is freed of suffering — it’s not an all or nothing mission. Progress is made progressively, and the benefits can be felt along the way.
You start at the beginning, with only a theoretical understanding of the situation and the good intention to rescue your mind. As you progress on your mission, you’ll continually come back to these two things (understanding and intention) to keep you on the right track. You’ll pick up new bits of theory along your way to supplement your understanding, along with substantial first-hand experience that will enrich and augment your view. And your intention will gain more strength and sincerity, which will supply you energy to continue with your objective.
Next, it’s essential to develop your human’s morality because it provides mental composure, which is required to explore the mind effectively. Work is done on monitoring and revising your human’s speech and actions to keep them kind and honest. Specific goals are set and different components of virtue are explored, tested and nurtured into habits, all while carefully avoiding getting stuck on the edges of moral extremism. Cultivating virtue alone helps make enormous progress in your mission.
By building on the strong foundation of virtue, the practice of direct mental development can take place more easily. Three components make up this portion of the practice: mindfulness, concentration and effort. These three parts are developed separately, yet in tandem. Ideally they work together in a team like this: mindfulness is the faculty that explores the mind; when it locates something of interest, concentration unifies the mind’s available forces to gently hold the attention steady; if the object of inquiry is unwholesome (e.g. greed, anger), effort comes into play by replacing it with a wholesome state; if the object of inquiry is already wholesome (e.g. compassion, joy), effort maintains it and develops it further.
By continually monitoring and developing wholesome states of mind, mindfulness becomes stronger, so that whenever an unwholesome state arises, it’s noticed sooner. Effort becomes stronger, so that wholesome states are continuously nurtured and unwholesome states repeatedly abandoned. And concentration becomes stronger, allowing mindfulness and effort to penetrate to deeper levels of the mind to get closer to the root of suffering.
The most helpful classification of these unwholesome states is known as the five hindrances. They provide a framework and criteria for exploring and navigating the mind. They are sensory desire, ill will, sloth and torpor, restlessness and worry, and doubt. They directly oppose the factors that make up a fully concentrated mind. By exploring the mind, recognizing and studying the hindrances, then devising strategies to overcome them and prevent them from arising again, one can begin to develop deep concentration, which is essential to your mission.
By weakening the hindrances, more energy is freed up to be directed towards concentration. This allows you to go a layer deeper, explore with mindfulness, work with effort, and free up more energy for concentration. This continues until a point is reached where concentration has enough force to begin to dive into a single object, which is a level called, access concentration. This is where the hindrances are restrained, and the factors that aid concentration are present, but they don’t yet possess sufficient strength to propel the mind into a fully concentrated state. The concentration factors are strong enough only to exclude the hindrances and hold them at bay.
Reaching the level of access concentration is a great achievement. All the work you’ve done so far has led to this point. What you have now is a state of tranquil clarity that you can access anytime you’d like. On command, you can hold the hindrances at bay and the mind, for a short time, can have a taste of a little freedom. The problem is, this state can’t be maintained. When you come out of access concentration, the hindrances slowly reawaken and grip the mind. However, their grip is a little less: they’ve been weakened.
So where to go from here? The same place we went after we built up virtue: onwards. It’s tempting to rest on your laurels here, but you’ll soon be compelled to progress on your mission. You’ll realize the mind is still not free of suffering, and it’s up to you, and only you, to rescue it. So from here, we revisit our understanding and intention, check in with our morality, and begin to strengthen our mindfulness, concentration and effort even more to go beyond the level of access concentration.
What lies beyond are four levels of deep concentration. Unless you’ve done the foundation laying work, these levels are all but off limits. The point of developing your concentration to these deeper levels is to provide a strong foundation of calm conducive to developing deeper insight into your mind. I can take you to the doorstep of the first level, and provide you with a map and information about the remaining. What’s needed after that is just more of what you’ve already brought to the table: curiosity, gumption and practice.
The mission to rescue your mind from the deep rooted cause of suffering isn’t easy, but it’s well worth it. What’s at stake here is your happiness and the freedom of your mind. The results are encouraging, progressive and can only occur by your effort. There’s a reason why the system of meditation has been so diligently cultivated, codified and practised for thousands of years, and why the scientific community has become increasingly interested in it: because it works beautifully.