Transforming the Mind Through the Three Practices
Category: Buddhist Path
Benefits of integrating discipline, meditation and wisdom
Many people are initially drawn to meditation because of its proven physical and mental health benefits. Once practice has become a regular part of your life, you may begin to suspect that the anticipated benefits are just the beginning—and you’d be right. Wondering where meditation could lead you? It may be useful to take a closer look at its original purpose as an essential part of the path from confusion and chronic dissatisfaction to fundamental well-being.
First, a smidgen of background. Though some form of meditation or contemplation is present in many, if not all, spiritual paths, the Buddha, who lived in Nepal and India some 2600 years ago, put his own personal touch on the practice and made it the cornerstone of his teaching. For him, meditation is one of three distinct yet interwoven training grounds: ethics, concentration and wisdom. We may also use the terms discipline or morality, meditation and insight. It’s as if the Buddha took three distinct colors of thread and created one splendid tapestry. These three, the three practices or three higher trainings, comprise all the elements of Buddha’s path to radical transformation.
Morality is about going about your business in a way that promotes the well-being of others as well as your own. When you make acting appropriately, with a solid ethical foundation, a priority at all times and in all circumstances, morality becomes a deeply ingrained habit. Naturally, different people and societies will have different takes on what it means to “act appropriately.” But one way to look at it is universal: morality or discipline is about trying your darndest to do what’s necessary to be of benefit and to abstain from causing harm, which incidentally is the initial intent of the Buddhist teaching on karma. The heart of morality, or discipline, is compassion and kindness.
What’s the connection between meditation and ethical conduct? Meditation influences our actions—and vice versa—in three main ways. First, training in meditation requires discipline—indeed, discipline supports meditation practice, especially in today’s age of distraction. The decision to simply sit instead of to pursue any of the countless other tasks and diversions is pretty radical when you think about it, and it takes effort. Second, remaining focused and aware makes it easier for us to recognize emotions as they arise, and this gives us space to decide which emotions should be acted upon and which ones we’d better let pass. Finally, studies have shown that people who meditate become more empathetic and aware of others’ needs. This includes those who engage in mindfulness as well as those who practice a dedicated meditation on compassion!
So what do meditation and discipline have to do with wisdom, the third thread of the tapestry? The word wisdom (which we will use interchangeably with insight) has different meanings in different contexts. Here wisdom refers to the continuum from the initial clarity that arises from an uncluttered mind all the way up to a profound, direct insight into the nature of inner experiences and outer phenomena. As such, it is truly the essence of the three higher trainings. As this kind of insight or wisdom develops through our meditation and understanding, we see things more and more clearly. Just as meditation develops wisdom, wisdom informs our intentions and actions: our morality.
To some, wisdom may seem a very far-flung goal, but like everything worthwhile, it is achievable in gradual stages as our understanding evolves. At a fundamental level, insight involves knowing what to accept and what to reject–in other words, what is beneficial at any moment for oneself and others, and what is not. The ability to discriminate between these two means that we make good decisions, and this naturally informs our conduct across the board.
This brief presentation of the three practices or three trainings offers a glimpse into how the path of meditation can potentially lead beyond concentration, focus, and health benefits alone. Wisdom outshines confusion and dissatisfaction; meditative concentration opens the door to the richness of the present moment; and morality lets us express our inherent goodness. These are fundamental human values, beyond doctrines and isms. For those of us who are interested in delving deeper, meditation can be an integral part of the path to enduring personal well-being and a greater ability to benefit others.