Further Meditation Subjects
The ten recollections form a miscellaneous collection. The first three are devotional meditations on the qualities of the Triple Gem — the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Sangha; they use as their basis standard formulas that have come down in the Suttas. The next three recollections also rely on ancient formulas: the meditations on morality, generosity, and the potential for divine-like qualities in oneself. Then comes mindfulness of death, the contemplation of the unattractive nature of the body, mindfulness of breathing, and lastly, the recollection of peace, a discursive meditation on Nibbana.
The four sublime states or “divine abodes” are the outwardly directed social attitudes — loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity — developed into universal radiations which are gradually extended in range until they encompass all living beings.
The four immaterial states are the objective bases for certain deep levels of absorption: the base of infinite space, the base of infinite consciousness, the base of nothingness, and the base of neither-perception-nor-non-perception. These become accessible as objects only to those who are already adept in concentration.
The “one perception” is the perception of the repulsiveness of food, a discursive topic intended to reduce attachment to the pleasures of the palate.
The “one analysis” is the contemplation of the body in terms of the four primary elements.
When such a variety of meditation subjects is presented, the aspiring meditator without a teacher might be perplexed as to which to choose. The manuals divide the forty subjects according to their suitability for different personality types. Thus the unattractive objects and the contemplation of the parts of the body are judged to be most suitable for a lustful type; the meditation on loving-kindness to be best for a hating type; the meditation on the qualities of the Triple Gem to be most effective for a devotional type, etc.
But for practical purposes the beginner in meditation can generally be advised to start with a simple subject that helps reduce discursive thinking. Mental distraction caused by restlessness and scattered thoughts is a common problem faced by persons of all different character types; thus a meditator of any temperament can benefit from a subject which promotes a slowing down and stilling of the thought process. The subject generally recommended for its effectiveness in clearing the mind of stray thoughts is mindfulness of breathing, which can therefore be suggested as the subject most suitable for beginners as well as veterans seeking a direct approach to deep concentration. Once the mind settles down and one’s thought patterns become easier to notice, one might then make use of other subjects to deal with special problems that arise: the meditation on loving-kindness may be used to counteract anger and ill will, mindfulness of the bodily parts to weaken sensual lust, the recollection of the Buddha to inspire faith and devotion, the meditation on death to arouse a sense of urgency. The ability to select the subject appropriate to the situation requires skill, but this skill evolves through practice, often through simple trial-and-error experimentation.