Book Reviews, Trading

Book Review of The Art of Meditation by Matthieu Ricard

This probably sounds like an odd book to review for this site.  You might ask, what does meditation has to do with trading? Well, I came across this book when I was reading more about mindfulness techniques to manage emotions in trading. On the front cover was a quote by George Soros complimenting Matthieu Ricard. Since the book is a small book of less than 200 pages, and George Soros is giving his approval, I figured I will pick it up for a quick read.

Matthieu Ricard is pretty famous in the meditation and happiness circles. You can read more about him here. There are also a number of TED talks and videos publicly available of him speaking on the subject.

The main thing I learnt from this book is on the nature of the mind (see below). I did not realize, or think of the possibility of a ‘base state’ underneath thoughts. That ‘base state’ is what meditation tries to achieve. That concept helped to put meditation and the techniques into perspective, as to why we focus on the breath, or why we focus on the present.

The book also pointed out the interesting nature of thoughts. How thoughts come out of nowhere, yet generate emotions in us, which in turn generates physical / psychological manifestations, and further leads to action, yet after a while thoughts just disappear. So they are essentially ephemeral-like things which come and go, yet have such strong power over us. So the teaching is that because they are of no substance, we should not let them harm us.

Overall, this is a good book on meditation. However if you are not already sold on the need for meditation, I don’t think this is a good book for you to begin. I think most people only seek out meditation or mindfulness training when they are actively seeking out solutions to solve their own behavioral issues due to impulsive emotions. For someone trying to learn more about it to satisfy their curiosity, you might be put off talks of compassion and altruistic love, etc.

Negative Traits Persist If You Don’t Do Anything

  • Our negative character traits tend to persist if we don’t do anything to change the status quo.
  • No change occurs if we just let our habitual tendencies and automatic patterns of thought perpetuate and even reinforce themselves thought after thought, day after day, year after year.
  • But those tendencies and patterns can be challenged… Our emotions, moods and bad character traits are just temporary and circumstantial elements of our nature.

Altruistic Love and Compassion Are the Foundations of Genuine Happiness

  • Seeking happiness for oneself alone is doomed to certain failure, since self-centredness is the very source of our discontent.
  • Being happy in the midst of an infinite number of other beings who are suffering is absurd (if it were even possible). Even if we show all the outward signs of happiness, we cannot be truly happy if we fail to take an interest in the happiness of others.
  • Altruistic love and compassion are the foundations of genuine happiness.

Why Meditate?

  • To transform ourselves so that we can become better human beings in order to serve others in a wiser and more efficient way.
  • The region of the brain associated with mental states like compassion shows considerably greater activity.
  • Reduction of stress, anxiety, the tendency towards anger, lowers the risk of relapse for people who had depression, strengthens immune system, reinforces positive emotions and the faculty of attention, reduces arterial pressure for people with high blood pressure.
  • Regular meditation will actually modify the neuronal system of the brain (neuroplasticity)

The Nature of the Mind and Happiness

  • When the mind examines itself, the first thing it notices is the endless series of thoughts that pass through it. These feed our sensations, our imagination, our memories and our projections about the future.
  • We also find a ‘luminous’ quality in the mind that illuminates our experience, no matter its content. This luminous quality is the fundamental cognitive faculty that underlies all thought. It is that which, when we are angry, sees the anger without letting itself be drawn into it.
  • This simple, pure awareness can be called pure consciousness, because it can be perceived even in the absence of concepts and mental constructs.
  • The practice of meditation reveals that when we let our thoughts calm down, we are able to remain for a few moments in the non-conceptual experience of pure awareness. It is this fundamental aspect of consciousness, free from the veils of confusion, that Buddhism calls ‘the nature of mind’.
  • Thoughts arise out of pure awareness and dissolve back into it just as waves arise in the ocean and fall back into it without ever becoming anything other than the ocean itself.
  • During the brief gap after past thoughts have ceased and future thoughts have not yet appeared, perceive a consciousness that is pure and luminous.
  • Any attempt to capture the direct experience of the nature of mind in words is impossible. The best that can be said is that the experience is immeasurably peaceful, and, once stabilized through repeated experience, virtually unshakable. It’s an experience of absolute well-being that radiates through all physical, emotional, and mental states — even those that might be ordinarily labelled as unpleasant. This sense of well-being, regardless of the fluctuation of outer and inner experiences, is one of the clearest ways to understand what Buddhists mean by ‘happiness’.

Do Not Be a Slave to Your Thoughts

  • A thought arises as though from nowhere. It might be a pleasant thought or a troubling one. It stays for a few moments and then dies away, to be replaced by others. When it disappears, where does it go? No one can say.
  • Certain thoughts recur frequently in your mind where they create states ranging from joy to sadness, desire to indifference, resentment to sympathy. In this way, thoughts have tremendous power to condition our state of being.
  • But where do they get this power? There is no logical reason why thoughts, which have no substance, should have so much power over you, nor is there any reason why you should become their slave. They are only mental constructs, so they should not be able to harm you.

What It Means to Be Free

  • To be free is to be the master of ourselves, through mastering our mind.
  • It is not a matter of doing whatever comes into our heads, but rather of freeing ourselves from the constraints and afflictions that dominate and obscure our minds.
  • It is a matter of taking our life into our own hands rather than abandoning it to the tendencies created by habit and mental confusion.
  • We begin by observing and understand how thoughts multiply by association with each other and create a whole world of emotions, of joy and suffering. Then we penetrate behind the screen of thoughts and glimpse the fundamental component of consciousness, the primal cognitive faculty out of which all thoughts arise.
  • Out of the vortex of our thoughts, firstly emotions arise and then moods and behaviors, then, finally, habits and traits of character. What arises spontaneously does not necessarily produce good results.
  • To accomplish this task, we must first begin by calming our turbulent mind.

Calm Your Mind to Unravel It

  • The goal is to take advantage of the respite that comes with a relatively calm, clear and workable mind to free it from the bonds created by wild thoughts, conflicting emotions and confusion.
  • The obstacles to attaining this goal are automatic thought patterns perpetuated by our habitual tendencies and the distractions and fabrications of the conceptual mind that distort reality. So how do we overcome these unfavourable conditions?
  • Let’s say we are trying to get back a key that has fallen in a pond. If we take a stick and poke about on the bottom, we’ll completely muddy the water and won’t have the slightest chance of spotting the key. The first thing we have to do is let the water settle until the becomes clear. After that, it will be easy to see the key and retrieve it.
  • We must work with our mind in the same way. We have to begin by getting it clear, calm and attentive.

Conditions Conducive for Meditation

  • Place: It is best in the beginning to mediate in a quiet place where there is space for the mind to develop clarity and stability.
  • Posture: Adopt the 7 point posture of Vairochana. Legs in lotus position, hands rest palms down on the knees, shoulders slightly raised and turned slightly forward, spinal column straight, chin tucked in slightly towards the throat, gaze directed straight ahead or slightly down.

Short Regular Sessions are Better Than Occasional Long Ones

  • Short regular sessions have a better chance of being high in quality than occasional long ones, and they will keep up a sense of continuity in your practice.
  • If your meditation is too sporadic, there will be long periods during which you will fall back into your old habits and be overcome by negative emotions without being able to call on the support that meditation offers.
  • It is when you don’t feel like meditating that it might have the most beneficial effects, because at those times meditation is working directly against some obstacle that stands in the way of your spiritual progress.

Meditate in the Mornings

  • It is important to devote time to meditation itself, even if it is only thirty minutes a day.
  • Especially if you practise in the morning, meditation can give you day an entirely new ‘fragrance’. In a subtle but profound way, its effects can permeate your outlook and approach to the things you do as well as to your relations with the people around you.
  • As you continue through the day, you can be strengthened by the experience you have had in your formal meditation session. You will be able to refer to it inwardly because it will remain alive in your mind.
  • During pauses in your daily activity, it will be easy for you to re-immerse yourself in the meditation experience, which is now familiar, and you will be able to maintain its beneficial effects.

Dedicate the Fruits of Your Meditation After Each Session

  • At the end of a meditation session,  before resuming your activities, it is important to make a connection between your practise and your daily life so that the good effects of the practice will last and continue to nourish inner change.
  • If you just break off your meditation abruptly and resume your activities as though the session had never happened, it will have very little effect on your life. One way of ensuring the benefits of your meditation do continue is to dedicate them through a profound aspiration whose positive energy will last until its object is realized.
  • Arouse this aspiration: May the positive energy created not only by this meditation but all my good words, deeds and thoughts — past, present and future — help relieve the suffering of beings now and in the future. Wish for all beings to find happiness, both temporary and ultimate. Such a dedication is an essential seal on all spiritual practice and allows the constructive energy created by your meditation and all your positive acts to be perpetuated.

Don’t Waste Time on Distractions That Are Not Important

  • Reflecting on transitory nature of all things makes us realize the value of time. Each moment of life is so precious.
  • Why do we constantly put off until later what we intuitively know is of the highest importance?
  • There’s no point in jumping up and down with impatience to get results as fast as possible, but we do need to develop an unshakable determination not to waste our time on distractions that make no sense.
  • A person who takes advantage of every moment of his or her life to become a better person, one who is better able to contribute to the happiness of others, can die in peace.

Leave the Ego by Being in the Present

  • The ego always has something to lose and something to gain.
  • The ego feeds on dwelling on the past and anticipating the future, but it cannot survive in the simplicity of the present moment.
  • Natural simplicity of the mind has nothing to lose and nothing to gain. It is not necessary to add anything to it or take anything away.
  • Rest in that simplicity, in the mindfulness of the present moment, which is freedom, the ultimate resolution of all conflicts, all fabrications, all mental projections, all distortions, all identifications and all divisions.

Three Essential Stages of Mindfulness Meditation

  • Directing the attention to a chosen object (e.g. the breath).
  • Maintaining the attention on this object.
  • Being mindful of the characteristics of the object.

Four Foundations of Mindfulness

  • Mindfulness of the Body
    • Direct awareness to various parts of your body, your movements, your breath, etc.
  • Mindfulness of Feelings
    • Embrace unpleasant, neutral, pleasant feelings with your awareness.
  • Mindfulness of Mind
    • Be aware to your thoughts and watch them like a spectator, do not follow after them or try to chase them.
    • Be mindful of the states your mind enter (e.g. resentful, confused, agitated), understand the nature of those thoughts.
  • Mindfulness of Phenomena
    • Be fully aware of whatever comes into the field of your experience: forms, sounds, odours, tastes, textures, thoughts, emotions, etc.

Meditations on Altruistic Love

  • Meditation on Altruistic Love
    • Imagine and feel the unconditional love for your young child, then cultivate this feeling of loving kindness and extend it progressively to those you are close to, those you know less well, and to all beings.
  • Meditation on Compassion
    • Compassion is love applied to suffering. Imagine someone dear is in terrible pain, feel that person’s suffering, then imagine waves of love stream forth from you and pour over her, wishing for her to be healed and cease to suffer. Extend that to all beings.
  • Meditation on Rejoicing in the Happiness of Others
    • Think about people who have benefited humanity greatly, people who have achieved great success through effort and steadfast perseverance, rejoice in their accomplishments. Wish for their good qualities to flourish.
  • Meditation on Impartiality
    • Realize that all beings, want to avoid suffering. Extend your altruistic love, compassion and joy you cultivated to all beings without distinction.

Meditations on Physical Pain

  • Mindfulness
    • Observe with pure mindfulness the sensation of pain without interpreting, rejecting or fearing it. Experience it as a flowing pattern of energy and nothing more.
  • Mental imagery
    • Visualize a soothing, warm, and luminous nectar penetrating the place where the pain is at its worst, dissolving it little by little and finally transforming into a sensation of well-being.
  • Compassion
    • Imagine that you volunteered to experience that pain to spare someone from enduring it. Then your pain will no longer be experienced as something overwhelming, you stop asking yourself bitterly, “why me?” but rejoice that someone else has been spared that suffering.
  • Contemplating the nature of the mind
    • Contemplate the nature of pain, what colour is it, what shape is it, what other characteristics it might have. When you focus on it, you will recognize that behind the pain there is a pure awareness. Relax your mind and let the pain rest within this pure awareness.

Meditation for Afflictive Emotions

  • When you are overcome by very strong anger, your mind is repeatedly drawn to the object that triggered your rage as iron is drawn to a magnet. Every time you think of the object / person / words, you set loose a new flood of resentment, which reinforces the vicious cycle of thoughts and reactions to those thoughts.
  • The tactic is to turn away from thinking about the object of your anger, but to contemplate the anger itself. If you turn your attention to simply looking at the anger, it is like watching a fire but no longer feeding it with wood. No matter how intense an emotion is, it will wear itself out and disappear naturally.
  • Understand that in the end the most powerful anger attack is no more than a thought. Where does it come from? Where is it now? All you can say is that it comes from your mind, endures there for a while, then fades away back into it. It is ungraspable.




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