In the article by Bhikkhu Bodhi quoted in the previous post (http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/bodhi/bps-essay_04.html), introspection, personal change, and self-control are suggested as necessary to making spiritual progress. This may be an unwelcome message – we can’t think, buy or exercise our way to freedom from suffering. We can’t change the world in any significant way, but we can change “our world” dramatically.
The work of purification must be undertaken in the same place where the defilements arise, in the mind itself, and the main method the Dhamma offers for purifying the mind is meditation. Meditation, in the Buddhist training, is neither a quest for self-effusive ecstasies nor a technique of home-applied psychotherapy, but a carefully devised method of mental development — theoretically precise and practically efficient — for attaining inner purity and spiritual freedom. The principal tools of Buddhist meditation are the core wholesome mental factors of energy, mindfulness, concentration, and understanding. -Bhikkhu Bodhi
Meditation practice is the most powerful tool we have for uprooting the defilements in our minds, the causes of all of our suffering. But meditation practice requires a purified mind, i.e., a mind untroubled by the worries and guilt that our own bad behavior or unhelpful reactions can precipitate. So, the ethical trainings of body and mind (the five precepts) are a necessary foundation for a meditation practice. That’s what the oldest Buddhist scriptures say, and the message can be born out in our own experience. It doesn’t matter how long we sit on a cushion if we are daily telling lies or being cruel to others. Both ethical and mental trainings are needed for progress.
What is meditation, in this context? It starts with patience – being willing to sit and do nothing until the mind naturally settles into an non-agitated state. The energy, mindfulness and concentration (with whatever wisdom we have in support) are all mental states. We sit down with our bodies, but our minds need to learn how to sit down, too.
There are many different ways to meditate, and which approach will work for whom is hard (or impossible) to predict. One could start with a mantra meditation (Transcendental Meditation) without a lot of instruction, but most of the techniques drawn from the Buddha’s teachings are best begun with a live teacher. For those who are interested in establishing or renewing a sitting practice but don’t have access to a compatible teacher, I recommend Gil Fronsdal’s published introduction to meditation:
One reason I focus on the ethical trainings so much is that we can do them on our own, wherever we are, anytime. We can reflect, increase awareness of our own actions and words, and make adjustments in a wholesome direction. This is never wasted effort and can lead us onward towards a lasting form of inner peace.