Once you start to meditate regularly, a question will inevitably arise. After noticing how challenging it is to keep your mind single-pointed, you’ll ask: “How the heck can I get better at meditation faster?” This is an important question because meditation isn’t much fun until you can stay focused for a few minutes.
Some think getting good at meditation only comes from making effort every single day—that daily practice on your meditation cushion using the right techniques makes the difference. These people think they can claw their way to good meditation through sheer effort. Experience will generally prove otherwise. There are many people that try for years to reach the deeper levels of meditation without making much progress.
When the Buddha was asked about how to reach meditative stillness, he offered a more efficient lifehack. The Buddha said morality is the cause of meditative stillness. Meaning, what you do off the cushion and how well you treat other people will have the greatest impact on your ability to focus in meditation—even greater than daily meditation practice on your cushion.
You see this exchange in The True Intent of My Sutras. The Buddha is asked, “O Conqueror, what causes stillness?”
The Buddha responds:
O Loving One, stillness arises from the cause of pure morality…
The Buddha is really big on cause and effect. It’s one of his bigger teachings. The Buddha's saying that if you harm others or disturb other people’s minds during the day, you will not experience a calm, insightful mind in meditation, no matter what technique you follow.
Why? Because the quality of your present mind comes from past deeds (there’s that cause and effect thing again). In Eastern philosophy, this is known as karma. Past thoughts, words, and actions affect our current situation. But it’s not just the East that believes in karma. For example, this concept permeates our education system. We read to children so they can learn to read, so they can do well in school, so they can get a good job. We understand the cascade of cause and effect touches everything: past causes create present results.
To get better at meditation, we need to harness karmic causes. Through cause and effect, we can have stiller minds both on the meditation cushion and off.
So what are the most important causes of good meditation? If you want to meditate well, don’t hurt anyone emotionally or physically. If you want to meditate even deeper, be extra careful not to disturb someone else’s mind. And if you want to go even further and avoid all obstacles in meditation, practice love and compassion for everyone.
One of the great things about meditating daily is you will be able to test this advice for yourself. Within your own mind, you have a lab to run your daily thought experiments. Get into a conflict with a romantic partner or a person at work and watch your meditation level nosedive the next day.
As you advance along the meditation levels toward meditative stillness, you’ll find yourself avoiding conflict with others—sometimes for the simple reason that you don’t want to disturb their minds or destroy your meditation. To reach true meditative stillness (known as shamatha in Tibetan or samadhi in Sanskrit), you’ll find that you can’t have any anger or resentments in your heart. You’ll have to forgive others, forgive yourself, let go of resentments, and wish happiness for everyone equally.
In the Yoga Sutra, the great 3rd Century yogi, Master Patanjali, also instructs us in how to use karmic causes to stop obstacles in meditation:
If you wish to stop these obstacles [in meditation], there is one, and only one, crucial practice for doing so. You must use kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity.
This same advice is also echoed in the 9th Century. Master Kamalashila, in his opening to The Stages of Meditation, Bhavana Krama (the first book ever written about meditation for the Tibetan people), says that the karmic key to great meditation is great compassion. Once again, we have a meditation master pointing out that all good qualities, including good meditation, come from not harming others and wanting them to free them from suffering.
Master Kamalashila cites the Perfect Summary of the Dharma Sutra in which the realized bodhisattva Loving Eyes (Avalokiteshvara) spoke these words to the Buddha:
O Conqueror, bodhisattvas should not train themselves in many qualities. O Conqueror, if bodhisattvas perfectly realize and hold well a single quality, all the qualities of a Buddha will rest in the palm of their hand. And what is that single quality? It is great compassion.
It’s a wonderful thing to picture some of these enlightened conversations about meditation in your mind. Now, the next time someone asks you how to improve in meditation concentration, you will know the deeper karmic answer. If you want to get better at meditation, pay close attention to your thoughts, words, and deeds off the cushion. The Buddha and other lineage masters revealed the most powerful lifehack to prepare yourself for successful meditation: be good to others.
James Connor is a life coach at GoBeyond.org, where he uses Buddhist methods to help people solve life problems.