Vessantara in meditation

What is Meditation?

Meditation is the key tool for personal and spiritual development, as well as having a huge range of psychological and health benefits.

There seem to be quite a lot of funny ideas about meditation. It is more straightforward than many people imagine, and despite the fact that it is often characterised by sitting still and closing your eyes, it is also an activity that requires fairly consistent effort. This misunderstanding can get in the way of practising meditation effectively, as people confuse the activity of meditating with the effects it can produce.

Fairly frequently someone will tell me that they can’t meditate. When I explore this with them, what they usually mean is that they don’t experience states of great stillness, clarity or positivity when they’re meditating, which leads to them losing confidence in their abilities and sometimes in meditation itself. Actually, how you feel during a meditation session isn’t a good measure of the effectiveness of the practice: you can only really judge the effectiveness of your meditation by the effect it has on the rest of your life. Sometimes the most enjoyable meditation experiences do not translate into positive change, and those that feel most like a struggle have the most profound effects.

A System of Personal Development

One way of looking at meditation is as a four-stage process that is carried out over a long period of time - although the same process can be seen as taking place over short periods of time on a smaller scale, even within an individual meditation session.


The first stage of meditation is that of gathering all your scattered energies together to allow you to be more focused, alert and alive. Practices that focus on mindfulness and concentration are particularly useful at this stage, and these are the types of meditation that have been subject to most academic study in recent years. Their benefits include greater clarity and reduced stress.

Positive Emotion

This phase focuses on building up your emotional resourcefulness. This helps you to be able to make more creative choices about how you respond to the challenges of life, and serves as a foundation for the next stage of growth and development. Practices for this stage include the Brahma viharas (loving kindness (mettā), compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity), which help you to connect more wholeheartedly with other people.

Radical Transformation Part 1: Spiritual Death

In this phase you apply the calm, concentrated, creative mind that you have developed in the previous two phases to examining your ideas of yourself and the world around you. Through structured practices such as the Six Element Practice (in which you explore the 'elements' of earth, water, fire, air, space and consciousness in the body and try to pin down your abstract sense of selfhood) you break through the presuppositions and limiting beliefs that undermine your attempts at growth, leading to…

Radical Transformation: Part 2: Spiritual Re-Birth

This phase is the counterpart to the previous one, so that you open up to a more expansive, creative, less self-centred and more dynamic sense of self, as you let go of a more limited sense of self. Visualising a Buddhist figure, who is an embodiment of Enlightened qualities, is the most obvious example of this type of meditation. This is a little like the 'positive visualisation' that athletes do, when they imagine themselves winning a race as a way of creating the mindset that they need to achieve their goal.


For each of the stages above you need a little time to settle yourself before the practice (especially given the busy lifestyles that most of us lead), and to absorb the effects after you have completed a practice. Formless practices such as ‘just sitting’ are ideal for this kind of punctuation to the ‘consistent effort’ I mention above, without which meditation can become rather forced or too wilful.


Like all models, this is both a simplification and an artificial segmentation of experience. Most people don’t experience their meditation as being divided up so neatly into separate phases, nor does it progress in such a clear-cut sequence. Nevertheless, there is a value in having a way of making sense of the whole meditative path and how it deepens and develops.

The picture is of my friend and teacher Vessantara, who has just completed the first year of a three year meditation retreat in an old circus caravan in rural France.