In this brief message, an attempt will be made to introduce “insight meditation” (also known as the practice of “mindfulness” or “vipassana”) in such a way that will, not only set in place the basic structure that will get you started, but also offer just the right measure of encouragement to boost you over any obstacles that (may very well!) arise.
The essential purpose of this approach to meditation is to develop the ability to simply “be” … to learn how to focus your attention where you determine best (initially, upon your breath … but at times, upon the ways your body tries to speak to you, or upon thoughts and/or emotions as they arise). As you progress in practice you will inevitably grow in your ability to experience yourself and therefore, experience life more fully. In a sense, you will learn to live life, instead of allowing life to live you.
Come. The invitation has echoed throughout time, “man, know thy self.”
Regardless of the catalyst that moved you to consider meditation as a viable means of “getting to know” your Self, you’re here and that’s the first big step! But yet, you will continually be urged to “come” throughout the process. First, you are invited to come take “the one seat” (as Jack Kornfield mentions in A Path with Heart (p.31)). In this same chapter he shares about the Buddha’s encounter with the god Mara, who challenged the very act of taking a place for meditation (p. 34). Eventually, the Buddha overcame Mara’s threats/accusations with “The Lion’s Roar.” But I mention this to accentuate the Buddha’s “attitude” … that he came to a point where he knew deeply, to the core of his being, that he surely had a right to be there. You do as well. Come, I bid you, as one who is taking his rightful place … not with arrogance, but with a quiet, humble confidence that your very Self awaits.
With this same attitude, you are invited to come into your physical body … to become aware of it, without judgment, that healing may come. Come … witness your mind, that it may be calmed … your heart, that it may be awakened. Kornfield speaks of these benefits in Meditations for Beginners (p. 14), and as I read the passage, I wrote in the margin, “to be as I Am.” Simply put, they all flow from being in our “rightful place” … as we were created to be. Learning to take on this attitude has helped me immensely, and even as I write, I recognize that I have not really “taken on” anything … but simply released my hold on some of the mental, emotional, and spiritual chains (or … lies!) that I have allowed to bind me.
Having chosen the one seat, the place you will be meditating, the next question that usually arises is, “so, how do I sit.” Most “teachers” are not terribly dogmatic about this issue … on a cushion, cross-legged, or on a chair … but there are surely some basics to consider:
- keep your spine straight, without being rigid like a board. Do you remember the “attitude” we spoke of earlier? Consider the posture of one who is attentive … as a child who is drawn to know more, delightfully expectant … or as a king/queen (a lion/lioness!). During the course of meditation, I have often realized that I’m beginning to “slump” … and when I do, I usually remember something a teacher shared with me … to imagine that my head is dangling from a wire overhead … and inevitably (!!) my spine straightens and I feel this gentle “whoosh” of energy flowing up through my body.
- be comfortable, as you will want to be able to maintain the posture for the duration of the meditation with little to no fidgeting about. Mind you, this will take some experimentation, so please don’t put pressure on yourself. Your ultimate goal is to find a physical posture that allows you to be as still as possible. I have experimented with sitting on the floor in my own version of the lotus (as I’m limited by knee issues), finding cushions to elevate my rear so that my knees are pointing (for the most part) toward the floor. I have found that it is comfortable for shorter meditations (up to 15 minutes or so), but that my feet start numbing if I try to go much longer. If you encounter such a situation (where “something” isn’t working out quite like you thought), simply adjust yourself. It won’t take long until you recognize what works best for you
- if sitting on a chair, have your feet on the ground.
- once situated, allow your shoulders to “relax” naturally and your hands to, either be held naturally in your lap, or on the thighs.
- hold your gaze forward, your head tilted ever so slightly down (to relieve stress on the neck) … and gently close your eyes.
Once you come to a point of finding your seat … and a position (posture) of equilibrium, you will have a solid (physical) foundation for beginning the journey.
Be. Ah yes grasshopper!
Your eyes are closed ever so gently … but what now?! Simply put, begin by becoming aware of your breathing (through your nose). Indeed, it sounds simple, but you will almost assuredly find that it’s “easier said than done!” But, all is well. Follow the natural flow of breath entering your body, filling your belly, and swirling gently up into your lungs … the breath’s natural pause, followed by the compression of the diaphragm as the breath returns from whence it came. Your goal, as you begin to meditate is to “experience the breath without directing or changing it, to simply become aware of how the breath breathes itself in its own rhythms.” (p. 19) This is the foundation of the practice of “mindfulness.”
The journey within, through “insight meditation,” begins with establishing this strong connection to the breath, but as you become more comfortable in following your breath, you will be asked to begin lingering with other sensations as they arise. You will still maintain a “connection” with your breath, but now you will be asked to take a closer look at the bodily sensations, the sounds, the smells, the thoughts, and yes, the emotions that arise. When you come to this point, you maintain the role of “observer” … simply watching any of these players as they step onto the stage. What you will notice is that each will stay awhile but inevitably make their exit without you having to “kick them out.”
As you spend more time with your practice, you will recognize that you are indeed becoming more “aware,” not only during the times of meditation, but as well throughout the course of your day. “Mindfulness” may well become your mantra (so-to-speak) … accompanied by a gentleness in spirit, accepting more readily the moments of perceived “failings” as merely opportunities to recognize and release one more layer of scale that has encased the one who is meant to Be.
Potholes in the Path
Following, I will take a moment to explore some of those “diversions” that seem to pop up during (every!) one’s meditation practice. Yes, surely it would be nice if the path were free and clear of these “potholes,” but I suppose it best to recognize ahead-of-time … it just ain’t gonna happen that way.
One of the greatest challenges I have endured is the “thought assault.” Do you notice that your mind tends to wander when you meditate? You begin following your breath, you’re doing fine, and then you notice you’re thinking about something else. There are times it goes well beyond “challenging” to totally frustrating! When this occurs, “we” are instructed to simply acknowledge “what” drew us away and return to following the breath. But you know what? Sometimes I have some pretty cool thoughts come up while meditating! Why wouldn’t I want to linger with these … as some seem quite inspirational! What’s intriguing is that the proponents of the practice of “mindfulness” believe it is far more important to empty the mind of thought … and because I have a sense there may be some others that think like me(!), I’m going to take a moment for a side-bar, to address what could be a pothole in and of itself.
You see, there is a school of thought that runs contrary to the “mindfulness” bent … where they contend that “emptying” the mind is not useful at all. That if you meditate on nothing, you get nothing. Well, I’ve walked both sides of the street now, and although I do (in fact also) utilize a particular “meditation” practice that is different, I do see tremendous benefit in this “emptying” of the mind. To begin with, there are likely few engaged in “The Great Work” that don’t recognize that one’s ability to “focus” their attention is one of the vital keys to unlocking the potential that lies within them. It is the “fire” we utilize every time we “get locked on” to something we desire to accomplish. And as we consider the guidance shared thus far concerning “insight meditation,” wouldn’t you say that it requires the same type of focus? For me, this practice is about practicing “focus” … but as well, I am blessed with the added benefit of being “connected” more intimately to my Self … and therefore, all of life.
So, shall we return to our breath? Indeed! And you will undoubtedly be “redirecting” your attention many times. One of the most important things to remember here is … be gentle with your self. There’s absolutely no benefit in self-scolding … but simply notice what you’re doing … and move back to your breath. In one moment, you may be thinking about what you forgot to do this afternoon. As it comes, simply acknowledge it … and name it if you wish … “thinking, thinking, thinking.” During my practice, I tend to forgo the naming, but simply notice it (and if it’s one of those thoughts that keeps coming back around, I may even be a bit amused with how persistent the “little beggar” is).
As well, I found a particular “pattern” in my breathing that I absolutely love, which also seems to make it easy to find a “place” to return. My focus is centered markedly on my belly filling and (sort of) dropping (like a Buddha belly) … but then the breath swirls like a spiral ever so gently into my lungs, scarcely moving them, if at all … and then the belly contracting to gently press the air out. So, when I find myself focusing elsewhere, I go back to my belly filling and dropping … and what’s interesting, is that it has become a sort of “landing place.”
Now, as I move you past the next potholes, it will be assumed that you know that when you experience “them”, it is fine to be present with them, to see them without judgment … and then, to … (say it in unison now!) … “return to following the breath!” Thank you!
You’re quiet. One by one you address the thoughts that come, but then you feel a pain beginning to grow in your back or your stomach gurgling. These are but a sample of the bodily sensations that will come to your awareness during your practice. I remember hearing of Jack Kornfield’s encounter with a fly that had landed on his face and how he had withstood the impulse to move it away. A similar situation arose with me not long after hearing this … an itch that simply begged to be scratched. I maintained connection with my breath, but was keenly aware of this itch. Ah, I knew that “teachers” speak of the “impermanence” of such sensations … that they drift away as mysteriously as they came. But not this! Breathing, I would simply observe the itch, feeling it, exploring it … all the while very conscious of the flow of breath … until finally, since I figured THIS one wasn’t going away … “scratch!” And guess what? It was simply a page in the practice. It was nothing I felt “down” about. In no shape or form did a sense of failure arise. In fact, it was a bit humorous. But after the fact, I reflected on that notion of impermanence and considered how quickly (in a relative sense) I succumbed. As I have moved on in practice, this experience serves as a reminder … and breath by breath, I grow in mindfulness.
Now there is one final pothole to address, and this one can easily seem a bottomless pit in some instances. It is under the general heading of “emotions.” When I approach my time of meditation, I am usually in a rather “peaceful” place. I am typically looking forward to the time, because I have recognized it (for myself) to be a vital aspect of uncovering “who” I Am. So, typically, the “emotion” I recognize during the course of practice is in the “joyful” vein. However, this too should be addressed in the same manner as with thoughts and sensations … acknowledge it, look into it (as an observer), ever aware of the breath. Years ago I heard a saying that was (I believe) attributed to a “Hindi sage” … “the river of life runs between the banks of joy and sorrow. The key is not to linger long at either side.” This has always stuck with me. We “find” joy and we want to keep it, take it home with us, and make it our own. I suppose one could say that’s human nature. But … the human experience is set in duality … where “sorrow” exists as well … and I venture a guess no one wants to linger with sorrow long. And this perhaps is the wisdom from the ancient sage, that we learn in our visits with sorrow and move on … as we should with our joys.
In closing, you have been offered some structure to begin building your practice in mindfulness. I welcome you to:
Come … as a warrior, confident and sure in purpose.
Sit … as a child, eager to explore the bounds of the unknown.
Be … as I Am.