Mindfulness is a teaching from the Buddha. Even though Buddhist meditation is a derivative of yogic meditation, they are different. The yogic meditation system always emphasizes the need for an experienced teacher (guru), and the guru has absolute authority. Conversely, the Buddha regards every individual as their own master and encourages practitioners to examine the teaching and accept it only when they have no doubt. I have practiced meditation since my first yoga class in 1996. In 20 years of yogic meditation, some experiences were fascinating and interesting, whereas some were dark, and I would never want to undergo them again. Nevertheless, I still meditate; however, instead of yogic meditation, I practice mindfulness, which relieves suffering and brings peace.
Both yogic meditation and mindfulness require concentration, but the focus is disparate. As Swami Vishnu Devananda states, “Yoga is restraining the activities of the mind”. Thus, yogic meditation is the “path of mind control”. Like water being dammed in a reservoir, the activities of the mind are being curbed. In contrast, mindfulness is “caring for and liberating the mind” through observation: observation of the body, observation of feelings, observation of the mind, and observation of the objects of the mind. While concentrating on breathing, instead of trying to stop the activities of the mind, a practitioner is just aware of them coming and going, like watching the flow of a river, and the attitude of letting go is an important part of meditation. In addition, the yogic path regarding meditation has a lower level or higher level. According to Swami Vishnu Devananda, once a practitioner has reached the destination, the “long wearisome journey terminates”. On the other hand, mindfulness is moment by moment; in the present moment, the practitioner is either in a meditative state or not.
To further understand yogic and mindfulness meditation, we can look at the breathing exercises. In yoga, breathing exercises known as pranayama, which means breath control, are a preceding step to meditation. The practitioner will be given specific instructions on how to expand the capacity of control. For example, for Alternate Nostril Breathing, Swami Vishnu Devananda gives three stages: the first is a preparation with single nostril breathing exercises without alternated nostrils. A practitioner inhales 5 seconds and exhales 10 seconds with one side of nostril, then repeat the exercise on the other side of nostrils; after a certain period, while keeping the inhalation and exhalation ratio at 1:2, the practitioner increases the inhalation to 6 seconds and exhalation to 12 seconds. The next exercise is the actual alternate nostril breathing with a similar approach, and last, a practitioner can do the advanced full alternate nostril breathing with breath retention, where one works to hold the breath for four times the length of the inhalation. In contrast, instead of focusing on capabilities, mindfulness pays attention to the act of breathing itself, without the intentional change of the breath. A sample of mindful breathing exercise is “Breathing in a long breath, I know I am breathing in a long breath. Breathing out a long breath, I know I am breathing out a long breath. Breathing in a short breath, I know I am breathing in a short breath. Breathing out a short breath, I know I am breathing out a short breath”. If the breath is long, one should be aware of it. If it’s short, one should be aware of it.
Given that the purpose and techniques are different, yogic meditation and mindfulness lead to different results. Just as a magnifying glass concentrates sunlight creating heat and starting a fire, the power of yogic meditation can be tremendous. In the yoga doctrine, the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, there is a whole chapter describing the powers that can be attained through meditation. And Swami Vishnu Devananda states, “Concentration plumbs the depths of profound knowledge and intuition, and leads to communion with God”. In contrast to all these gains from yogic meditation, mindfulness can let us lose. In a story, Buddha was asked what he gained in meditation. Buddha told his questioner he gained nothing, but he lost “greed, hatred, and delusion”. Rather than burning hot, the outcome of practicing mindfulness is like the winter sunshine, nice and warm.
Each meditation has its pros and cons. While a practitioner can be motivated, uplifted, and enchanted by yogic meditation, mindfulness aids the practitioner in looking deeply and achieving true understanding. I am glad that after years of being enthusiastic about yogic meditation, I finally started mindfulness practice, the practice that brought about my acceptance of myself and, most importantly, my connection with life.
- Walpola Rahula. What the Buddha Taught (Grove Press, 1962), 1-3.
- Swami Vishnu-devananda. Meditation and Mantras (Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, 2001), 140, 139, 259, 33.
- Thich Nhat Hanh. Awakening of the Heart: Essential Buddhist Sutras and Commentaries (Parallax Press, 2012), 31, 103, 143, 35.
- Swami Vishnu-devananda. The Complete Illustrated Book of Yoga (Three Rivers Press, 1988), 241 – 245.
- Bodhipaksa. fakeBuddhaquotes, January 21, 2013, https://fakebuddhaquotes.com/buddha-was-asked-what-have-you-gained-from-meditation-the-buddha-replied-nothing-at-all/.
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