Monday, April 29, 2013
Written by Kim Allen, Board President of the Insight Meditation Center in Redwood City and Meditation and Dharma Instructor at YogaSource Los Gatos.
The five spiritual faculties are faith, effort, mindfulness, concentration, and wisdom. Today we will focus on concentration. This is a steadiness of mind – the mind is concerned with just one object and does not waver from that. And it is characterized by having no discursive thought – no storyline, no conversations, no figuring things out. Note that there are various other kinds of thoughts. We are not trying to eliminate thought, which is common misperception about meditation.
Concentration, like other qualities of mind, can be developed. The most traditional concentration object is the breath. Another common one is metta (lovingkindness). The instructions for concentration are to direct the mind repeatedly to one object, and when it moves away from the object, simply let go and bring it back (without investigation of the distraction).
There is a fine art to concentration: Making effort and not making effort (ie, letting go). Notice the connection to the previous faculty of Effort! You have to make some effort or the mind will just run rampant. But making too much effort simply won't work. If your mind is running wild, you just have to accept that until it gets tired and gives up on its own. Make steady effort without straining. And then, as the mind settles into concentration, you can make less effort, and less, and less. In very deep states of concentration, no effort is needed at all – in fact, effort just disturbs the calm.
There are many effects of concentration on the body and mind. The body may feel light, open, relaxed, boundary-less. There may be tingles, flushes of heat, feelings of floating or alteration of body size/shape. There may be a sensation of light. In our tradition, the particular physical sensations are not considered very significant. Just let them arise, don’t get entangled, and know that they will pass away.
In the mind, you will encounter delight, joy, happiness, contentment, equanimity. These are very pleasant mindstates – far better than sense pleasure. In fact, concentration practice tends to weaken our interest in sensory experience; it is a good way to let go of desire and greed for worldly things.
Concentration is not in and of itself liberating. Instead, it leads to the ability to see things as they are. The insights that arise from concentration give birth to wisdom, which is the final faculty.
Tuesday, October 23, 2012
Written by Kim Allen, Board President of the Insight Meditation Center in Redwood City and Meditation and Dharma Class Instructor at YogaSource Los Gatos
The five spiritual faculties are faith, effort, mindfulness, concentration, and wisdom. Today we will explore the central factor of mindfulness. It is not an accident that it is in the middle of the list – mindfulness is both central to the practice and plays an overarching, balancing role among the faculties.
The practice we do in the YogaSource Dharma group is called mindfulness meditation. What is mindfulness? It means knowing what is happening as it is happening. The classic analogy to depict mindfulness meditation is of a house with 5 windows and a door. You take your seat and don’t follow anything that passes by the window or comes in the door. It is an easy, relaxed awareness – just see things and let them go by.
Another useful way to think of mindfulness is as attention with a wisdom component. That is, attention that is not accompanied by greed, hatred, or delusion. We could also say, Attention with no agenda.
The reason there are so many ways to talk about mindfulness is that this wisdom component can be included in many ways. Often a word is added, such as "kind attention," "receptive attention," or "bare attention."When we see something with mindfulness, we are connected, but not entangled. When we see fear, that part that is aware of fear is not afraid (and the same for anger, greed, etc.) We shift from being the emotion, to seeing it. Or we shift from avoiding or denying it, to seeing it. We maintain a gentle, clear connection, without getting sucked in.
The immediate benefit is that this in itself brings great relief. When people have that first moment of seeing anger instead of just acting it out or reacting, they may touch a moment of peace that they didn’t know was possible. Andrea Fella, a meditation teacher, recalls how she got into practice:
One day I was in my kitchen cutting an apple, and I saw a thought go through my mind about being with my ex-boyfriend at a fruit stand. I saw the connection between the apple I was cutting and the fruit stand memory. And I saw in my mind this strong pull to think more thoughts in order to get angry at him, so I really saw the intention toward anger in my mind. It occurred to me, “I don’t have to get on that train. I don’t have to follow that thought.”
I stood there with the knife in my hand waiting to get angry, and I didn’t get angry. And that was the moment that I was hooked on the dharma because I saw its power. I think I actually sank to the floor with the knife in my hand. “Wow,” I thought, “This stuff is really amazing if it can allow me to see the thoughts in my mind that move me in the direction that makes me so distressed, and avoid that.”
Mindfulness is developed simply by paying attention. Each moment of mindfulness supports having more mindfulness in the future. A beautiful insight we can have about mindfulness is that we can hold anything with mindfulness. Any and all experiences can be noticed!
May you develop this wonderful and wise quality more and more.
Monday, September 10, 2012
Written by Kim Allen
The five spiritual faculties are faith, effort, mindfulness, concentration, and wisdom. The Pali word for the faculty of Effort is viriya, which is sometimes translated as energy, sometimes as effort. (The root is actually the same as the root for "virile," so you get a sense that this effort can be very strong. It is also notably human effort, not superhuman). Energy and effort are slightly different. Energy is more about the capacity to act or to make effort. People worry about having enough energy – getting enough food and sleep and being able to "muster" themselves. But energy itself is somewhat neutral; what you do with your energy is far more important. So we'll focus now on effort, which is less neutral – there is wise and unwise, skillfull and unskillful, kinds of effort.
Spiritual effort is directed toward eliminating and preventing unwholesome mindstates, and developing and maintaining wholesome mindstates. (Because actions and speech are preceded by the mind, this includes wholesome and unwholesome actions, but is not limited to the realm of external action).
There are four key types of effort. We are instructed to:
- Abandon unwholesome mindstates that have arisen
- Guard against (prevent) the arising of unwholesome mindstates that have not yet arisen
- Cultivate wholesome mindstates that have not yet arisen
- Maintain wholesome mindstates that have arisen
Each of these then flowers into a whole set of practices. All of this can seem very busy. There's always something to DO! What about settling down and getting peaceful? There is an art to knowing when and how to apply effort. Part of the growth of wisdom is to learn to see when and how our mind gets "off" and what to do to get it back on track. More and more, the practice will "do itself" and we need less effort. What would it look like to make "effortless effort"?
Join Kim for Meditation and an inspiring Dharma talk on Sundays at 10:15am!
Friday, August 03, 2012
The Five Faculties were recently covered in the Meditation and Dharma class on Sundays. Here is a little taste of what we learned! The five spiritual faculties are key abilities of our minds that will help us live more balanced, peaceful lives, and can eventually result in liberation from suffering. It's important to realize that they are everyday functions of the mind that we can cultivate – they are not special powers or things that we have to create.
These are the Five Spiritual Faculties, including the name of each one in Pali (the language used by the Buddha):
• Faith/confidence (saddha)
• Effort (viriya)
• Mindfulness (sati)
• Concentration (samadhi)
• Wisdom (pañña)
The first faculty is faith (saddha), also sometimes called confidence, trust, or conviction. It's worth noting that in Buddhism, faith is not about belief. Saddha literally means "to place the heart upon" – to offer your heart or give your heart over to something in some way. Note that it is a verb.
Saddha is essential at the beginning of an endeavor – some sense that something is possible, some inclination of the heart to move in a certain direction. We may be stepping right into darkness, but only by taking this step will the light arise that tells us the next step to take.
Sharon Salzberg (from her book Faith, pp 13-15): "The first step on the journey of faith is to recognize that everything is moving onward to something else, inside us and outside. Seeing this truth is the foundation of faith. […] With faith we can draw near to the truth of the present moment, which is dissolving into the unknown even as we meet it. […] No matter what is happening, whenever we see the inevitability of change, the ordinary, or even oppressive, facts of our lives can become alive with prospect. We see that a self-image we've been holding doesn't need to define us forever, that the next step is not the last step, what life is not what it is now, and certainly not what it might be."
Faith is the impetus, but then faith grows, changes, and matures throughout the whole journey. It's not static. To become so strong, faith is built using the other four faculties – they all mutually enhance and support each other's growth. You'll see this continuing interplay as we discuss the other faculties.
Monday, June 11, 2012
We have the fullestlives of any generation to date: we have more freedom and more choices than ever before but the stress and expectations of it all are driving us crazy and depressed. I could play the feminist card here and talk about the pressures of the modern woman but I think guys face just as many dilemmas. (And, they have to live with us.)
How do we reinvent work, partnership, and parenthood in a way that fulfills us all? I'll admit this question is too big to answer for the world at large, so instead let's just focus on you. Create your own rules and make a life that inspires and supports you and relationships with your family that are meaningful and enjoyable.
Please join me at De Anza College on Wednesday, June 13th as I share stories from the trenches of motherhood and entrepreneurship, along with the most important lessons for every step of the way, including finding your passion and turning it into a career, as well as tips for riding the challenges of parenthood with grace and joy.
Wednesday June 13th, 11:30 - 12:20
De Anza College
College Map: http://www.deanza.edu/map/l_quad.html.
Wednesday, February 15, 2012
During this year's Valentine's Day special class, I read an excerpt from Tina Fey's genius new book Bossypants. It struck me as relevant, given the horrendous list of expectations we (and especially we: women) place on ourselves in relation to our looks and the role (we think) they play in luring, charming and retaining a mate.
Please note that I've modified a couple of words for the sake of flow. You can make this awesome book your own here.
The standard of beauty was set. Cheryl Tiegs, Farrah Fawcett, Christie Brinkley. Small eyes, toothy smile, boobies, no buttocks, yellow hair [...] Can you remember a time when pop culture was so white that Jaclyn Smith was the chocolate?! By the eighties, we started to see some real chocolate: Halle Berry and Naomi Campbell. “Downtown” Julie Brown and Tyra Banks.
But I think the first real change in women’s body image came when JLo turned it butt-style.
That was the first time that having a large-scale situation in the back was part of mainstream American beauty. Girls wanted butts now. Men were free to admit that they had always enjoyed them. And then, what felt like moments later, boom—Beyoncé brought the leg meat. A back porch and thick muscular legs were now widely admired.
And from that day forward, women embraced their diversity and realized that all shapes and sizes are beautiful.
Ah ha ha. No. I’m totally messing with you. All Beyoncé and JLo have done is add to the laundry list of attributes women must have to qualify as beautiful.
Now every girl is expected to have:
Caucasian blue eyes
full Spanish lips
a classic button nose
hairless Asian skin with a California tan
a Jamaican dance hall ass
long Swedish legs
small Japanese feet
the abs of a lesbian gym owner
the hips of a nine-year-old boy
the arms of Michelle Obama
and doll tits
The person closest to actually achieving this look is Kim Kardashian, who, as we know, was made by Russian scientists to sabotage our athletes. Everyone else is struggling. Even the skinny blondes who were once on top can now be found squatting to a Rihanna song in a class called Gary’s Glutes Camp in an attempt to reverse-engineer a butt.
These are dark times. Back in my days, you were either blessed with a beautiful body or not. And if you were not, you could just chill out and learn a trade. Now if you’re not “hot,” you are expected to work on it until you are. It’s like when you renovate a house and you’re legally required to leave just one of the original walls standing. If you don’t have a good body, you’d better starve the body you have down to a neutral shape, then bolt on some breast implants, replace your teeth, dye your skin orange, inject your lips, sew on some hair, and call yourself the Playmate of the Year.
How do we survive this?
How do we teach our daughters and our gay sons that they are good enough the way they are?
The moral of the story is that you can come to yoga just to get a really nice butt and you probably will get one. However this alone will fail to bring you any closer to happiness.
The good news is that any yoga class is also an open invitation to become curious about yourself and the present moment.
The choice to invest yourself in the quality of the movement or pose rather than just ticking another pose off a checklist.
A challenge to search for the right balance: to be gentle but not lazy, and to be fearless without causing harm.
To practice this discernment despite the energy of the group, the instructions of the teacher, the cast of characters in your head, your emotional feeling tone or your own history. Notice and respect these factors but do not let them dictate!
One of my favorite quotes by Desikachar is that "to see if your yoga is working, look at the quality of your relationships." This doesn't necessarily imply your romantic relationships. All your relationships, and especially your closest ones, will become more meaningful if you take this invitation. This will not happen overnight, so by the time you can actually register a genuine shift, you may also have yourself a pair of glorious butt cheeks as bonus.
Tuesday, February 07, 2012
Adapted from Gil Fronsdal
The boundary between mindfulness on the cushion and mindfulness in daily life is an arbitrary one. This practice is meant to seep into our life in a complete way, leading to greater ease, freedom, and happiness.
Review of Mindfulness Meditation for Sitting Practice
A classic Buddhist metaphor for a human being is a one-room house with five windows and a door. The windows and door represent the six senses posited by Buddhism: the five primary senses we have in the West plus a sixth sense which perceives what goes on in our minds, our thoughts. Imagine that you are in the middle of the house sitting in an easy chair, relaxed and at ease with nothing to do. The windows are open and the door is open. A cat peeks its head in the door and then goes away. Soon a bird lands on the windowsill and then flies away, and then a squirrel runs by. Various animals come and go. Rather than getting up to follow the animal outside or closing the doors and windows, simply stay in your easy chair and watch what comes and goes. The instruction for mindfulness meditation is to just stay in the easy chair of awareness and let sensations, emotions, thoughts or attitudes simply appear at the door or window of our sense perceptions. We notice them come and go. The emphasis is on being at ease.
Mindfulness in Daily Life
As in meditation, it is possible to develop greater presence and awareness in our daily lives. Some people find it useful to have cues throughout the day that remind them to notice what is happening in the present, i.e. what they are doing, feeling, or thinking.
- A common cue is the phone ringing. Rather than rushing to immediately answer the phone, the ringing is a prompt to be mindful. This is also a great way to prepare for the phone conversation.
- Some people use walking through doorways as a mindfulness cue. Whenever they walk through a doorway into a different room they notice and pay attention to what is happening with themselves and in the new room.
- Waiting for traffic lights to turn green can be another cue for a bit of mindfulness.
- It can also be useful to bring a heightened mindfulness to particular daily tasks. Some people do this by choosing to eat one meal a day in silence without doing anything else besides eating. Others will do mindfulness while walking – some people will park in a distant parking place so to have a short period of walking meditation. Cleaning can also be a great time to cultivate mindfulness.
- A fascinating area for mindfulness is during a conversation. Much can be discovered by listening more actively and tracking one’s internal responses and impulses during the conversation. The qualities needed to listen well are the same qualities needed to meditate well.
Concentration helps provide steadiness and strength to mindfulness. If mindfulness is a telescope, then concentration is the tripod that gives stability to the telescope so we can see more clearly.
One way to develop concentration is with regularity of practice. One of the most important things is just practicing every day, day after day. Just as young children benefit from routine and repetition in learning, the mind benefits from regularity of practice. At the very, very least, make a commitment to put your body on the cushion in the meditation posture every day, even if it's brief.
Another way to develop concentration is going on meditation retreats. This allows us to step out of our lives so we can get a better perspective and perhaps better let go of the regular concerns that often entangle us. Retreats are a time to meditate frequently throughout the day, becoming more settled than we can from meditating once a day at home. To be really present and not have the mind be murky, foggy or distracted is one of the great delights of life. This happens slowly over time if we practice every day at home, but it happens more quickly and deeply when we go on retreat.
If we’re new to meditation we don’t necessarily want to go on retreat right away, but to start doing a regular practice. If we meditate regularly at some point we will probably feel that we would like to do more, and then we might consider a retreat. It could be a one-day retreat at a local meditation center, or a more extended residential retreat.
Mindfulness coupled with concentration helps with the unfolding of what Buddhism calls wisdom. Wisdom happens when we are present for our lives and see through our concepts, ideas, or judgments and instead understand the bigger picture and context of what’s happening. Some of the concepts or judgments we use are innocent and appropriate enough. However, some concepts bring with them much suffering. Part of the function of mindfulness is to help us cut through all the concepts, interpretations, and “shoulds” so we can see more clearly. And the more clearly we see, the more choices we will discover for living a wise and satisfying life.
Another function of mindfulness is to reveal the difference between the stress of clinging and the peace of releasing that clinging. An important part of wisdom is then learning how to act with this knowledge so that we become more peaceful and more free.
"How do I know if it's working?"
People often want to know how to measure their "progress" in meditation. While it is useful to evaluate our practice from time to time, it is actually a hindrance to practice if we check too frequently or obsess about what is going on when we sit.
A far more reliable indicator of "progress" is our daily life. Are we a little more patient? Do we feel more generous? Is our mind more frequently calm, aware, and willing to see the bigger picture? Are we kinder to ourselves and others?
Just sit, and let the rest take care of itself!
Some people find it useful to cultivate a quality called lovingkindness, or lovingfriendliness. This is not so much a specific kind of behavior – it is an attitude of goodwill, kindness, friendliness, and openness toward ourselves and others. We may use specific phrases ("May I/you be happy/safe/healthy") or simply focus on cultivating an open, gentle, and warm feeling in our heart. The direct benefit is to ourselves in feeling more easeful and kind, and from our own heart it cannot help but spread out into the world. May all beings be happy!
Mindfulness Practices for the Fourth Week and Beyond
- Lengthen your sitting practice time to 30 minutes. Endeavor to sit every day.
- Once during the next week, spend a two-hour period giving particular attention to your intentions. Before we speak or act there is always an impulse of motivation or intention. Notice the various kinds of desires and aversions that fuel your intentions. For this exercise, you might choose a period where you can go about some ordinary activity in a quiet and mostly undisturbed way. You might even slow your activities down some so that you are more likely to notice and evaluate your motivations.
- If it feels right for you, incorporate some periods of lovingkindness (metta) practice. Here is a 5-minute guided meditation called "Lovingkindness on the Go": http://www.audiodharma.org/talks/audio_player/1830.html.
Monday, January 30, 2012
Introduction to Mindfulness Meditation: Week 3 of 4 (Emotions and Thoughts)
by Kim Allen
Adapted from Gil Fronsdal
In mindfulness practice we keep our attention on the breath, unless some other experience is so strong as to pull us away from the breath; then we turn our attention to that other experience. One kind of experience that can pull us away is physical sensations, which we talked about last week; two others are emotions and thoughts.
Emotions: No emotion is inappropriate within the field of mindfulness practice. We are not trying to avoid emotions, or to have some kinds of emotions and not others. We are trying to allow them to exist as they arise, without the additional complications of judgment, evaluation, preferences, aversion, desires, clinging, resistance or other reactions. An important part of mindfulness practice is investigating our relationships to our emotions. Do we cling to them? Do we hate them? Are we ashamed of them? Do we tense around them? Are we afraid of how we are feeling? Do we measure our self-worth by the presence or absence of an emotion? Can we simply leave an emotion alone? Emotional maturity comes not from the absence of emotions, but from seeing them clearly.
Thoughts: Sometimes people think that the point of meditation is to stop thinking — to have a silent mind. This does happen occasionally, but it is not necessarily the point of meditation. Thoughts are an important part of life, and mindfulness practice is not supposed to be a struggle against them. It’s more useful to be friends with our thoughts than thinking them unfortunate distractions. In mindfulness, we are not stopping thoughts as much as overcoming any preoccupation we have with them. Thoughts can come and go as they wish, and the meditator does not need to become involved with them. We are not interested in engaging in the content of our thoughts; mindfulness of thinking is simply recognizing we are thinking.
In meditation, when thoughts are subtle and in the background, or when random thoughts pull you away from awareness of the present, it is enough to resume mindfulness of breathing. However, when your preoccupation with thoughts is stronger than your ability to easily let go of them, then direct your mindfulness to being clearly aware that thinking is occurring.
Strong bouts of thinking are fuelled largely by identification and preoccupation with thoughts. By clearly observing our thinking, we step outside the field of identification. Thinking will usually then soften to a calm and unobtrusive stream.
Sometimes thinking can be strong and compulsive even while we are aware of it. When this happens, it can be useful to notice how such thinking is affecting your body, physically and energetically. It may cause pressure in the head, tension in the forehead, tightness of the shoulders, or a buzzing as if the head were filled with thousands of bumblebees. Let your mindfulness feel the sensations of tightness, pressure, or whatever you discover. It is easy to be caught up in the story of these preoccupying thoughts, but if you feel the physical sensation of thinking, then you are bringing attention to the present moment rather than the story line of the thoughts.
Link between Emotions and Thoughts: When a particular theme keeps reappearing in our thinking, it is likely that it is being triggered by a strong emotion. If the associated emotion isn’t recognized, the concern is liable to keep reappearing. For example, people who plan a lot often find that planning thoughts arise out of apprehension. If they do not acknowledge the fear, the fear will be a factory of new planning thoughts. If there is a repetitive thought pattern, see if you can discover an emotion associated with it, and then practice mindfulness of the emotion. Ground yourself in the present moment in the emotion itself. When you acknowledge the emotion, often it will cease generating those particular thoughts.
Generally, during meditation, keep yourself centered on the breath. If there are emotions in the background, leave them there; keep the breath in the foreground of awareness as if it were the fulcrum for your experience. When an emotion becomes compelling enough to make it difficult to stay with the breath, then bring it into the focus of meditative awareness.
There are four aspects to the mindfulness of emotions. You don’t have to practice all four each time you focus on an emotion. At different times, each is appropriate. Experiment to see how each can help in developing a non-reactive attention to emotions. The four are:
Recognition: A basic principle of mindfulness is that you cannot experience freedom and spaciousness unless you recognize what is happening. The more you learn to recognize the range of your emotions, including the most subtle, the more you will become familiar and comfortable with them, and the less you will be in their thrall.
Naming: A steady and relaxed labeling of the emotion of the moment, e.g., “joy,” “anger,” “frustration,” “happiness”, “boredom,” “contentment”, “desire,” and the like, encourages us to stay present with what is central in our experience. Naming can also help us become calm and less entangled with the emotion, less identified with it or reactive to its presence.
Acceptance: This does not mean condoning or justifying certain feelings. It means simply allowing emotions to be present, whatever they may be. Many people frequently judge and censure their feelings. Formal meditation practice offers us the extraordinary opportunity to practice unconditional acceptance of our emotions. This does not mean expressing emotion, but letting emotions move through you without any inhibitions, resistance, or encouragement.
Investigation: This entails dropping any fixed ideas we have about an emotion and looking at it afresh. Emotions are composite events, made up of bodily sensations, thoughts, feelings, motivations, and attitudes. Investigation is not analysis, but more a sensory awareness exercise of feeling our way into the present moment experience of the emotions. It is particularly useful to investigate the bodily sensations of an emotion, letting the body be the container for the emotion. In a sense, the body is a bigger container than the thinking mind which is easily exhausted, and which tends to spin off into stories, analysis, and attempts to fix the situation – away from acceptance of the present moment experience.
- Lengthen your daily meditation session to 25 minutes. When you first sit down, notice the main concerns, feelings, physical sensations that may be pre-occupying you. Acknowledge them and remain attentive to any tendency to become lost in your thoughts concerning these experiences. Meditation proceeds easiest when we are willing to suspend – for the duration of the meditation – the need to think about anything.
- At least once during the week “ride out an emotion.” Sometime during the week when you are feeling a strong desire, aversion, fear, or other emotion, don’t act on the feeling. Rather, bring your mindfulness to the feeling and observe the changes it undergoes while you are watching it. You might choose to sit, stand or walk around quietly while you do this study. Things to notice are the various body sensations and tensions, the changes in the feeling’s intensity, the various attitudes and beliefs that you have concerning the presence of the emotion, and perhaps any more primary emotion triggering the feeling. If after a time the emotion goes away, spend some time noticing what its absence feels like.
- Once during the next week, spend a two-hour period tracking the kinds of things you think about. Find some way to remind yourself every few minutes to notice what you are thinking. Are the thoughts primarily self-referential or primarily about others? Do they tend to be critical or judgmental? What is the frequency of thoughts of “should” or “ought”? Are the thoughts mostly directed to the future, to the past, or toward fantasy? Do you tend more toward optimistic thoughts or pessimistic ones? Do your thoughts tend to be apprehensive or peaceful? Contented or dissatisfied? This is not an exercise in judging what you notice, but in simply noticing. Most people live in their thoughts. This is a two-hour exercise in regularly and frequently stepping outside of the thought-stream to take up residence, albeit briefly, in a mindful awareness that is bigger than the thinking mind.
- Spend part of a day making a concentrated effort to notice feelings of happiness, contentment, well-being, joy, pleasure, and ease. Even if your day is primarily characterized by the opposite of these, see if you can identify even subtle and seemingly insignificant moments of these positive states. It can be as simple as appreciating the texture of a doorknob or a flash of ease in your eyes as you notice the blue sky after the fog has burned off. This is not an exercise for manufacturing positive states but rather discovering that these may be much more a part of your life than your preoccupations allow you to notice.
Friday, January 27, 2012
Here is the handout from Kim's Session on Sunday, Jan 22, 2012
Join us for our weekly Meditation and Dharma Talk on Sundays at 10:15am.
Introduction to Mindfulness Meditation: Week 2 of 4 (Body)
Adapted from Gil Fronsdal
Mindfulness of breathing is a wonderful beginning to cultivating awareness. It strengthens our ability to concentrate and steadies the attention on our present moment experience. It also weakens our tendency to get lost in reactive emotions and mental preoccupations. With time, attention to the breath helps us to develop a clear, non-reactive awareness that can then be turned to the full range of our human experience. As mindfulness develops, we begin to bring this awareness to other areas of our lives.
Mindfulness is an embodied practice. By practicing mindfulness, we learn to live in and through our bodies. Learning to be mindful of bodily experiences is one of the most useful aspects of mindfulness. It is much easier have a balanced, healthy awareness of the rest of our lives when we are in touch with our immediate physical experience.
During this week we expand the practice to include the body. Many people ignore their bodies. The busier a person’s life, the easier it is to discount the importance of staying in touch with how the body feels. Many people may be attentive to their body, but it is from the outside in; that is, they are concerned about body image and appearance. Mindfulness of the body is attention from the inside out. We notice what the body is feeling, in and of itself. We give a generous amount to time to be with the felt sense of the body. Not only does this help the body relax, remaining mindful of the body is a safeguard from getting wound up with mental preoccupations.
Benefits of Mindfulness of the Body
Mindfulness of the body has several benefits. First, cultivating mindfulness of the body increases our familiarity with our bodies and with how the body responds to our inner and outer lives, to our thoughts and emotions, and to events around us. The Buddha saw the human mind and body as unified. When we suppress or ignore aspects of our emotional, cognitive, and volitional lives, we tend also to disconnect from the body, from the physical manifestations of our experience. Conversely, when we distance ourselves from our physical experience, we lose touch with our inner life of emotions and thoughts. The awakening of the body from within that comes with mindfulness can help us to discover, not only our repressed emotions, but also, more importantly, a greater capacity to respond to the world with healthy emotions and motivations.
Second, in cultivating mindfulness we are developing non-reactivity, including the ability to be present for our experience without turning away, habitually seeking or resisting change, or clinging to pleasant and avoiding unpleasant experience. All too often, our automatic desires, aversions, preferences, and judgments interfere with our ability to know what is actually happening. Learning to not respond automatically and unconsciously makes possible a deeper understanding of the present moment and our reaction to it, and gives us more freedom to choose our response. Being non-reactively present for our physical experience goes a long way in learning to do so with the rest of our lives.
Last, but not least, mindfulness of physical sensations helps us both to relax tension and to understand its causes.
Mindfulness Exercises for the Second Week
- Continue your daily twenty-minute meditation session.
- In the midst of your regular activities, devote two one-hour periods during the week to being mindful of your body. During this time, perhaps using a timer or some other cue to remind yourself, periodically check in with your body, maybe every five minutes or so. Notice, in particular, your shoulders, stomach, face, and hands. If you find tension in any of these places, relax.
- Devote one meal to eating slowly and mindfully, paying attention to the tastes, textures, temperature, and other qualities of your food, and to the experience of your body eating. (When does your body tell you that have had enough?) If possible, take the meal in silence, with no other activities to distract you. You might want to put down your spoon or fork between bites. Whenever your mind wanders, or whenever you get caught up in reactions to what is happening, relax and come back to the simplicity of eating mindfully.
- Start noticing when, how and by what, your attention becomes distracted or fragmented. Are there any common themes or patterns in the kinds of thoughts, feelings, activities, or pre-occupations where your mindfulness disappears? If you discover any, discuss what you find with somebody: a friend, relative, or colleague.
Meditation Instruction: Mindfulness of the Body
During meditation, center your awareness primarily on the physical sensations of breathing. With dedication, but without strain, keep the breath in the foreground of attention. The idea is to be relaxed and receptive while alert and attentive. As long as other experiences such as bodily sensations, sounds, thoughts, or feelings are in the background of your awareness, allow them to remain there while you rest your attention with the sensations of breathing.
When a strong physical sensation makes it difficult for you to stay with the breath, simply switch your awareness to this new predominant experience. The art of mindfulness is recognizing what is predominant and then sustaining an intimate mindfulness on whatever that is. When the mind wanders and you lose the mindful connection with the sensation, gently and without judgment return your attention to the physical sensation.
As if your entire body were a sensing organ, sense or feel the physical experience. Simply allow it to be there. Drop whatever commentary or evaluations you may have about the experience in favor of seeing and sensing the experience directly in and of itself. Carefully explore the particular sensations that make it up – hardness or softness, warmth or coolness, tingling, tenseness, pressure, burning, throbbing, lightness, and so on. Let your awareness become as intimate with the experience as you can. Notice what happens to the sensations as you are mindful of them. Do they become stronger or weaker, larger or smaller, or do they stay the same?
As an aid to both acknowledging the physical experience and sustaining your focus, you can ever so softly label the experience. The labeling is a gentle, ongoing whisper in the mind that keeps the attention steady on the object of mindfulness. You should primarily sense directly the experience and what happens to it as you are present for it.
Be alert for when the focus of your attention moves from the physical sensations to your reactions to the sensations and your thoughts about them. If this happens move your attention back to the felt-sense of the sensations. Try to keep yourself independent of whatever thoughts and reactions you have. Relax.
Once a physical sensation has disappeared or is no longer compelling, you can return to mindfulness of breathing until some other sensation calls your attention.
Tuesday, January 17, 2012
Introduction to Mindfulness Meditation: Week 1 of 4
Adapted from Gil Fronsdal
Insight meditation, or Vipassana, is one of the central teachings of the Buddha. It has continued as a living practice for 2600 years. At the heart of insight meditation is the practice of mindfulness, the cultivation of clear, stable and non-judgmental awareness. While mindfulness practice can be highly effective in helping bring calm and clarity to the pressures of daily life, it is also a spiritual path that gradually dissolves the barriers to the full development of our wisdom and compassion.
During the introductory course, the basic instructions in insight meditation are given sequentially, each week building on the previous one. The first week focuses on the basics of meditation and on mindfulness of breathing. The second week discusses mindfulness of the body and expands the area of attention to include all our physical experiences. The third week introduces mindfulness of emotions and thoughts, and the fourth week mindfulness of heart/mind and the role of mindfulness in daily life.
Insight meditation is nothing more mysterious than developing our ability to pay attention to our immediate experience. We are often pre-occupied with thoughts about the past or the future or with fantasies. While sometimes such pre-occupations may be innocent and harmless, more often they contribute to stress, fear and suffering. Mindfulness practice is learning how to overcome pre-occupation so that we can see clearly what is happening in our lived experience of the present. In doing so, we find greater clarity, trust, and integrity.
Mindfulness relies on an important characteristic of awareness: awareness by itself does not judge, resist, or cling to anything. By focusing on simply being aware, we learn to disentangle ourselves from our habitual reactions and begin to have a friendlier and more compassionate relationship with our experience, with ourselves and with others.
Mindfulness is the practice of being attentively present. It is called a practice in the same way that we say that people practice the piano. Being attentive is a skill that grows with practice. It develops best if we set aside any self-conscious judgements or expectations of how our meditation is developing. The practice is simply to relax and bring forth an awareness of what is happening in the present.
In order both to develop the skill and experience the joys of non-reactive presence, a daily meditation practice is helpful.
Insight Meditation usually begins with awareness of breathing. This is an awareness practice, not an exercise in breathing; there is no need to adjust the breathing in any way. We simply attend to the breath, getting to know it as it is: shallow or deep, long or short, slow or fast, smooth or rough, coarse or refined, constricted or loose. When we get distracted by thoughts or emotions, we simply return to the physical sensations of the breath.
Because of the mind’s tendency to be scattered and easily distracted, we use the breath as a kind of anchor to the present. When we rest in the breath, we are countering the strong forces of distraction. We train the mind, heart, and body to become settled and unified on one thing, at one place, at one time. If you are sitting in meditation and your mind is on what you did at work today, then your mind and body are not in the same place at the same time. Fragmented this way, we all too easily lose touch with a holistic sense of ourselves.
Mindfulness of breathing is a powerful ally in our lives. With steady awareness of our inhalations and exhalations, the breath can become an equanimous constant through the ups and downs of our daily life. Resting with, even enjoying, the cycles of breathing, we are less likely to be caught up in the emotional and mental events that pass through us. Repeatedly returning to the breath can be a highly effective training in letting go of the identification and holding which freeze the mind and heart. It also develops concentration.
You will get the most benefit from this course if you engage yourself with the practice during the week between our class meetings. During the first week please try the following three practices:
- Sit one twenty-minute session of meditation each day. For this first week, focus on staying aware of your breath as described in the next section of the handout. Begin and end each sitting with, a minute of conscious reflection: At the start, clearly remind yourself that you are about to devote yourself to being mindful and present. Consciously let go of any concerns, remembering that you will have plenty of time to take them up again later. At the end, reflect on what happened during your meditation session. There is no need to judge what happened; you just want to strengthen your mindfulness through a brief exercise in recollection.
- Choose one routine physical activity that you perform most days and experiment with doing it mindfully. This means doing just this one activity while you are doing the exercise – not listening to the radio at the same time, for example. It is also best to let go of any concern about the results or in finishing quickly. Remain in the present as best you can. When the mind wanders, simply come back to the activity. Activities you might choose include brushing your teeth, washing the dishes, or some routine act of driving or walking.
- For one half-hour period during the week, maintain some regular attention of your posture as you go about with some normal activity. Without straining, assume a posture that is alert and upright. Notice what happens to your mood, thoughts, feelings, presence, and degree of mindfulness as you do this exercise.
Sit in a comfortable but alert posture. Gently close your eyes. Take a couple of deep breaths, and, as you exhale, settle into your body, relaxing any obvious tension or holding. Then, breathing normally, bring your awareness to your body, sensing for a short while how the body presents itself to you. There is no particular way to be; just notice how you are at this moment.
Then, from within the body, as part of the body, become aware of your breathing, however it happens to appear. There is no right or wrong way to breathe while doing mindfulness practice; the key is to simply notice how it actually is right now. Let the breath breathe itself, allowing it to be received in awareness. Notice where in your body you feel the breath most clearly. This may be the abdomen rising and falling, the chest expanding and contracting, or the tactile sensations of the air passing through the nostrils or over the upper lip. Wherever the breath tends to appear most clearly, allow that area to be the home, the center of your attention.
Keep your attention connected with the inhalations and exhalations, sensing the physical sensations that characterize them. Let go of the surface concerns of the mind. Whenever the mind wanders away, gently come back to the breath. There is no need to judge the wandering mind; when you notice that the mind has wandered, simply return to the breath without evaluation.
To help maintain contact between awareness and the breath, you may use a label or mental note. Softly, like a whisper in the mind, label the in-breath and out-breath, encouraging the awareness to stay present with the breath. You can label the inhalations and exhalations as “in” and “out,” or perhaps use “rising” and “falling” for the movement of the abdomen or the chest. Don’t worry about finding the right word, just use something that will help you stay connected.
There is no need to force the attention on the breath; to strengthen your ability to become mindful and present, use the gentle power of repeatedly, nonjudgmentally returning and resting with the breath.
Postures for meditation. This helpful guide includes photos:
From the Tao te Ching:
I have just three things to teach:
simplicity, patience, compassion.
These three are your greatest treasures.
Simple in actions and in thoughts,
you return to the source of being.
Patient with both friends and enemies,
you accord with the way things are.
Compassionate toward yourself,
you reconcile all beings in the world.
- MINDFULNESS Five Spiritual Faculties- #4 Concentration 29-Apr-2013
- 5 Spiritual Faculties - #3 Mindfulness 23-Oct-2012
- MINDFULNESS Five Spiritual Faculties- #2 Effort 10-Sep-2012
- MINDFULNESS Five Spiritual Faculties- #1 Faith 03-Aug-2012
- MINDFULNESS Balancing Work and Parenthood: a talk at De Anza College 11-Jun-2012
- BODY The Bonus of Yoga (or the new standard of beauty) 15-Feb-2012
Linda is the founder and owner of YogaSource Los Gatos, Silicon Valley's premier yoga studio. She leads workshops, conferences and retreats in the US and internationally. As the Director of the YogaSource Teacher Training Institute since its inception in 2006, she has nurtured hundreds of successful yoga instructors from across the country.
Linda has trained in both the US and India in Vinyasa, Ashtanga, Power, Pilates, yoga therapeutics, Yin and Vipassana meditation. She is a student of modern Buddhism, Jungian psychology and Interpersonal Neurobiology. Her yoga classes are a playful and masterful blend of precision, elegance and breath.
Linda has been interviewed and profiled by YogaJournal, NBC News, ABC's Best of the Bay, Common Ground, Yogi Times, San Jose Magazine, Los Gatos Weekly News and other publications. At other times of the day, she is a mom, a wife, a writer, a designer, and a foodie. Linda is a Senior Ambassador for Lululemon Athletica and a board member of Insight World Aid, a local grassroots non-for profit inspired by the Buddhist principles of wisdom and compassion.
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