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Dublin Buddhist Centre

'It's not just about chilling out': an experienced Dublin teacher explains how to meditate

Advice from Jnanadhara, who has been meditating for 20 years and teaching meditation full-time in Dublin for 12 years.

A New Zealander who has meditated every day for the past 20 years, Jnanadhara is the chairman and one of the main teachers at the Dublin Buddhist Centre, leading courses on Buddhism, meditation and mindfulness. He has been teaching meditation for the past 12 years, led over 50 retreats, and personally teaches hundreds of new students how to meditate at the centre each year.

994456_933486840010724_4901450880939137958_n Irish Buddhists Vajrashura, Danaraja, Sadayasihi and Maitridaka meditate in the Dublin Buddhist centre. Dublin Buddhist Centre Dublin Buddhist Centre

THE DAYS AND weeks after Christmas are usually ones of good intentions. Many people resolve to exercise, eat better, or improve their relationships.

All these aims are clearly worthwhile, but what I’ve found is that what happens in our mind is the single biggest factor in the quality of our life. And meditation is all about getting to grips with our mind, and transforming it.

There’s a whole range of reasons people meditate, but one of the simplest reasons is that life becomes more enjoyable.

If you have a creative, insightful outlook on life from meditation, everything in your life will go better.

Often we don’t enjoy life, because we’re not really present in what we’re doing.

We’re often so distracted that we can’t fully enjoy what we’re doing now.

Why meditate?

Meditation helps you derive more pleasure in life, because there is more of you there actually having the experience you’re having. So that’s one reason.

Another reason is that it improves the quality of your relationships. You get on better with people, you make and have friends, and have better communication even with people you find difficult.

Dhanakosha Meditation at Dhanakosa, a retreat centre affiliated to the DBC. Dhanakosa Dhanakosa

It also allows you to more skilfully manage the conflicts that inevitably arise in life.

For those who really practice it wholeheartedly, meditation can help bring about liberating insights into the truth of how things are.

For example, the truth that all things change. So you’re living more in harmony with things, rather than working against the grain of what is really happening.

Meditation is also a way of connecting with inspiration for the development of qualities like fearlessness, wisdom, intelligence, and kindness.

Finally, there’s a receptive aspect to meditation, where we are simply relaxed and open to whatever is happening.

DBC People meditating in the Dublin Buddhist Centre. Dublin Buddhist Centre Dublin Buddhist Centre


As meditation is more of an art than a science, there is no substitute for learning from someone who practices meditation, and who is able to communicate the spirit, rather than merely a technique. It’s easy to pick things up in an unhelpful way by learning only from a website, or a book.

Nevertheless it’s worth giving an idea as to what meditation entails.

I think one of the common misconceptions is that you need to get into an awkward physical position.

It’s important to be comfortable. If you’re not particularly flexible, you can meditate quite successfully in a chair.

There are no bonus meditation points for sitting in full lotus, or even cross-legged. Some of the most experienced meditators I know use a chair.

A lot of people use a soft mat to sit on, and some firm cushions.

IMG_20161213_164109 Vajrashura teaches meditation in the Dublin Buddhist Centre Dublin Buddhist Centre Dublin Buddhist Centre

What is meditation?

Meditation is a practice in which you look at, and engage with your mind, and the mental and emotional states that arise within it.

It helps you cultivate more skilful and beneficial mental states and there are different practices you can engage with in order to do that.

One of the classic ones is the mindfulness of breathing practice, where you tune into the sensations of breathing in your body. Through that practice, you develop concentration, allowing you to engage more wholeheartedly with whatever it is that you’re doing.

You also develop a truer perspective of what’s going on, both inside and outside you.
In this practice you pay attention to your breathing, which includes the movement of it in your body, its rhythm, and the sensations that arise. If the mind wanders off, you simply notice that, and return your attention to the breath.

The way we teach it in the Dublin Buddhist Centre is to do some silent, quiet counting, to help gather your attention.

IMG_20161212_231410 Vajrashura meditates at the DBC's men's community in Dublin 7. Dublin Buddhist Centre Dublin Buddhist Centre

Mindfulness of breathing

In the first stage, you breathe in and breathe out (in your natural rhythm, not forcing it) attending to the sensations of your breathing, and count ‘one’ silently at the end of the out-breath. You breathe in and breathe out again, and count ‘two’.

You count 10 cycles of breath in that way, and then start again at 1.

In the second stage, you do the same, but place the count before the in-breath (rather than after the out-breath). This subtle change of emphasis builds up a more fine-tuned awareness.

In these first two stages, anytime that your mind wanders and you lose count, you simply return your attention to the breathing and resume the counting at one.

In the third stage you let go of the counting, and simply stay with the sensations of your whole body breathing. The fourth stage involves a focusing of your attention to where you first feel the breath entering the body – this could be your nose, in your nasal passages, in your mouth or lips.

Finally, it’s important to simple sit for a time, relaxing the mind, without making any particular effort to attend to the breath.

IMG_20161212_231518 A statue of the Buddha at the men's community in Dublin 7. Dublin Buddhist Centre Dublin Buddhist Centre

Metta Bhavana

The second main practice that we teach and practice is the development of loving kindness (or metta bhavana). This involves looking at our emotional life, particularly our attitudes to other people, and working to transform destructive emotions like aversion and hatred.

One of the most important insights that comes from the Buddha is that we ourselves create our mental experience through that way that we respond to what happens.

Through awareness we can begin to transform those responses. So when something happens and you react with aversion or hatred towards yourself or others, you can develop the opposite quality – metta.

There’s no adequate translation for this word, which is from Pali, an ancient Indian language. The closest translation is that of ‘loving-kindness’.

DBC People meditating in the Dublin Buddhist Centre. Dublin Buddhist Centre Dublin Buddhist Centre

Powerfully strong

But metta is not just love or friendliness, it’s a powerfully strong and positive emotion. It goes beyond ordinary love or even kindness, though it includes these things.
The practice involves in five different stages.

In the first stage, you connect with your own desire for physical, emotional and even spiritual wellbeing. You can give expression to that using these traditional phrases:

May I be well.
May I be happy.
May I be free from suffering.
May I grow and develop.

In the second stage, with this intention towards yourself in mind, you bring to mind a good friend, and reflect on the fact that they too want these things for themselves.

You “include them in your metta” again using the phrases if you wish (i.e. may you be well, etc)

In the third stage, you move beyond your usual range of interest, and bring to mind a neutral person, someone you don’t feel strongly attracted to or repelled by. It could be the a man in the shop, or a woman driving the bus.

You bring them to mind as vividly as you can, recollecting that they’re a real human being, and their experiences are as real and as valid as yours are.

IMG_20161212_230937 (1) Kevin Mullaney meditates at the men's Buddhist community in Dublin. Dublin Buddhist Centre Dublin Buddhist Centre

Difficult people

The big challenge comes in the fourth stage, when you bring to mind someone you find difficult, someone you don’t like or causes you pain.

It can be someone close to you like a family member or a work colleague. It could be someone you get along really well with usually, but just not at the moment.

In this stage of the metta bhavana, you try and recognise that there is a painful experience connected with that person, but you try not to automatically turn that into resentment or hatred.

You actively cultivate an attitude of loving-kindness towards them, while acknowledging that you find them difficult. It’s about developing a more open-hearted attitude towards others, rather than seeing them as ‘bad’ or an obstacle in your life.

There’s also the fifth and final stage, in which you bring all four people to mind, and ‘equalise’ your attitude of metta towards them. You then include more and more people in your metta, starting with your circle of friends, your family, people you know, and eventually radiating metta to all people – and all living beings.

Retreat People attend a retreat in Vajrassana, a retreat centre in England affiliated with the DBC. London Buddhist Centre London Buddhist Centre

The effects

We offer courses involving one night a week for five weeks. And over the course – or even in one evening – you see people become more relaxed. They tell you they feel happier, they sleep better, they get along better with people.

It can be difficult to meditate. You get distracted and you bring yourself back. That’s meditation, though. You’re working with habits of thinking about things in a particular way. It’s both intrinsically inspiring and challenging.

The main obstacle that I notice many people have is not so much the meditation itself, its making time for it. Establishing a regular practice means making a clear and definite decision to make meditation a priority. It means choosing a time and sticking with it.

Some people have a good experience meditating, but then they unfortunately fall out of the habit. It’s therefore really important to keep in contact with other people, preferably friends, who meditate.

Contact with them keeps reminding you of the value of it. Those relationships are really crucial to developing and maintaining an ongoing practice of meditation. It’s hard to keep it up on your own.

Many people find that those relationship build into a stronger engagement with the Buddhist community and in many cases a fuller engagement with all the different aspects of the Buddhist path of which meditation is only one.

13434738_1459056817453721_4913986886638379925_n Irish meditation teacher Sadayasihi with Padmasuri, who ordained her earlier this year. Dublin Buddhist Centre Dublin Buddhist Centre

Daily dose

The thing I find most challenging for people is to find a regular time and to stick to it. That’s one of the advantages of doing a course, it gives you a weekly focus, around which you can build a daily practice.

If you meditate daily, it has a much bigger effect on your life than if you just meditate once in a while

We recommend around 20 minutes daily to begin with, most people can manage that. This creates a base that you can build on if you wish. It can be better to do it in the morning, because it’s often easier to get into a routine then than in evenings, when there are more disruptions.

Sitting in the morning also sets you up for the day. But it’s not sacrosanct – if you can only meditate in the evening because you’re working shifts, for example, then go for it.

Not just chilling out

It’s important to stress that meditation isn’t just about chilling out and relaxing, though it includes that.

Some people think “why would I meditate, when I can just have a cup of tea or read a book?”

But there’s a very active dimension to meditation. It’s not that you’re just chilling out, there’s an aspect to it where you’re actively trying to concentrate, and actively trying to develop particular qualities, like loving-kindness, concentration or insight, while at the same time being open to what arises.

It’s very much an action – an action of the mind – and the mind is the single most important factor in personal happiness.

Meditation works directly with that. It’s not about chilling out, or shutting yourself off.
It gets right to the heart of what it means to be human, and how to life a satisfying, creative, engaged life.

Jnanadhara will be teaching meditation and mindfulness courses and classes throughout 2017 in the Dublin Buddhist Centre, a registered charity.

Read: Buddhism is Ireland’s third biggest religion. How do Irish Buddhists live?

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