THE PRACTICE: WHEN YOU BREATHE, JUST BREATHE, AND WHEN YOU WALK, JUST WALK.
Simplifying consciousness comes about with practice. We can practice paying attention to what we are doing to the exclusion of unwanted thoughts and feelings. Paying attention is being awake now. We are right in the middle of what we are doing and we pay attention only to what we are doing. The more significant one's present is, the less significant one's past becomes. It's not that we don't know everything that we know - that is a given. It's just that we take existence as it comes, here and now, in the present. We give it our full attention.
Words are a necessary crutch. When we say, "Mindful breathing overrides suffering," we focus on the breathing and the overriding by using words. The next step, then, is to experience the overriding without the words - we just focus on the breathing and trust the suffering to be overridden.
It is also choosing stillness - the restful place away from the fray, away from the fireflies or ripples or will-o'-the-wisps that appear unbidden in one's mind. Stillness is beneath rational thought, beneath agonizing, beneath remembering, and beneath random thoughts and feelings. Its being beneath is why some people call it their deepest experience - it is down under everything that flits through consciousness.
It is not the objective of the practice to feel some kind of epiphany. Expecting an epiphany gives rise to disappointment and frustration. Commonplace, ordinary, everyday life is great in itself and should not be undervalued. As Albert Einstein said, "There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle." Living your life as though everything is a miracle is respecting commonplace, ordinary, everyday life. Instead of an epiphany, one finds the place of good sense, reason, steadiness, and quiet attention. It is the place from which you speak when you say, "That thought/feeling/mood has emerged into consciousness." It is quite fragile in that it is easily attacked. Through the practice the person learns objectivity.
Most ordinary of all is space-time. What could be more ordinary than the context in which we live our lives? It is so ordinary that we generally ignore it. Paying attention to space-time is paying attention to the very structure of life. You can say to yourself, repeatedly, "Afloat in the current of space-time" and thereby recognize not only ongoing time and the existence in space but also the experience of the present.
Two useful kinds of practice are breathing meditation and walking
meditation, which will be briefly described here. Much more information
about both of these kinds of meditation is available on the Internet - search
for "breathing meditation" and "walking meditation." Gunaratana has excellent explanations:
Good audio talks by Gil Fronsdal and others can be found at this Internet location:
Other worthwhile audio talks can be found at this Internet location:
Breathing is simple and continuous. Continuously, we are linked with the environment, breathing in oxygen and breathing out carbon dioxide. When we consciously experience breathing, we experience something that is continuously important in our own lives.
When you engage in breathing meditation, you simplify your consciousness so that it only is occupied with breathing. You are engaging in primal life, absorbing oxygen, as do all animals. You keep your mind inside your body. It doesn't wander outside, as if you had feelers that sense all kinds of random thoughts. It stays focused on the body, either breathing or walking. To engage in breathing meditation, you sit quietly and comfortably in a room apart. (1) You begin by noticing that time is proceeding. Just as time proceeds continuously, you, too, personally, proceed continuously. Notice that you are individual, separate, and distinct - no one is impinging on you. (2) Look around at the objects in the room and notice how still they are - the walls, the pictures, the lamps, the chairs, etc. You, too, are an object in this setting, albeit an object that is alive and breathing. If you notice a tumbling or churning or flashing in your mind, you can notice them by saying to yourself, "Tumbling, churning, flashing" and in this way bring to the surface the difference between your jumbled mind and the stillness that you notice. You can also purposely notice what your consciousness is doing.
You are then ready to notice your breaths. Breathing, unlike heartbeats, can be subject to conscious direction. In breathing meditation, we choose not to direct it. We let the mind make accommodation to what we are doing physically. We just pay attention to it. We notice the air filling our lungs. We notice the passage of air through the nostrils. We notice the rising and falling of the diaphragm. We breathe shallowly at first so that we get the feeling of letting the body do the breathing, not the mind. The body lets us know when it wants more air. If we are distracted by unwanted thoughts and feelings, we notice them by saying, "You are feeling anger, you are feeling anger, you are feeling anger, . . ." or any other feeling or thought. There is a difference between being aware of a thought and thinking a thought. When we recognize the difference, the thought tends to dissipate. Instead of occupying the thought, we occupy the place of the observer. If it doesn't dissipate, we address the thought by saying, "That thought/feeling/mood has emerged into consciousness" or "I move on" or "I entertain the possibility that I can reform my pools of originations." If your mind has switched into problem-solving mode, you can say in your mind, "Please, go back. I will deal with that later in a calm-assertive (no-nonsense) way." (See Gunaratana for more on dealing with distractions: Gunaratana Chapter 11 . Also, there is an audio talk on the topic by Gil Fronsdal: Fronsdal - Introduction to Meditation Week 2 Part 2.)
If you have trouble paying attention to the breathing, you can say, "My body knows [in-breath] . . . what to do next [out-breath]. My body knows . . ." (etc.)
If thoughts continue to intrude, we turn our attention to them and see what it is that existence has provided. The distractions are like a mini-attack. Once the distraction has dissipated, we turn our attention back to the breathing, as if saying comfortingly to ourselves, "Never mind.".
Paying attention to a distraction is paying attention not to an intrusive image or episode but, rather, to the feeling about it, which exists in present time. Naming the feeling, such as shame or guiltiness or anger or hostility, gets to the heart of the distraction much better than recalling an episode. Name the feeling repeatedly - you are feeling anger, you are feeling anger, you are feeling anger, . . . It will drift away, so that you can return to your meditation.
Note should be made here of the value of the problem-solving mode of mental life. If the problem is unsolvable, we surely want to get off that treadmill. However, if the problem is solvable and important, we might well want to give it all the slack that it needs. It has been pointed out that "Isaac Newton would sit passively for several solid hours at a stretch, day after day, just letting understanding of a situation develop incrementally in his imagination. He said that this practice of holding a subject ‘ever before me' was the secret of his great genius and that truth was ‘the offspring of silence and unbroken meditation.' Sometimes, when getting up, he would sit on the edge of the bed, following a train of thought, and remain totally absorbed, until his reverie was interrupted by somebody calling him for lunch several hours later." (Reported on the Internet: http://www.creationfoundation.co.uk/Principles/p10.html)
Walking meditation is similar to breathing meditation, but, instead of paying attention to breathing, we pay attention to walking. Walking is also primal life, which we share with all creatures that have locomotion. We stand upright with arms swinging at the sides. As we walk, we pay attention to our movements - one foot pushes off and then the other, each foot lifts up at the back of the step and moves forward, the knees flex, the hips rotate, and the arms swing. Again, if thoughts intrude, we name them and then return our attention to the walking. If this fails, we deal with the distractions until they dissipate.
Walking is a continuous action, step after step. When you pay attention to it, you pay attention to changes (the changing movements of the walking) occurring in the present. Just as time is continuous, change also is continuous, occurring in the present. Experience is continuous. Walking meditation focuses your mind on what is happening in the present.
The pace of walking in walking meditation is slow, more of a stroll than a walk. You are not walking to make progress, that is, you are not walking to cover ground. On the other hand, you want to walk at a pace most comfortable for the body, not the mind. At the end of each lap, stop, then turn around for the next lap, stop again, and then proceed. Slow walking allows you to focus on the walking itself. To assist you in experiencing just the walking, try touching the fingertips of one hand to the fingertips of the other hand, and extend the hands in front of you, as if holding a melon. As you move your hands up and down in front of your body, you will notice a reaction in your body. Lower your hands and extend them as far as possible. You will notice a concentration on the walking. (To experiment with this peculiar phenomenon, try raising your hands in front of your face, making a cross there, and raising them high over your head. Also, try raising your arms in a welcoming gesture, palms up. You get a different bodily reaction each time.)Watch my video on the use of hands in meditation: Click here.
Practicing means keeping with it, just as a piano student keeps with his or her piano practicing. In time you will make improvement. Be a warrior - take your life as a challenge. Jack Kornfield tells of an advertisement for a swami that showed the swami on a surfboard. The caption read, "You can't stop the wave, but you can learn to surf."
While meditating, you are passive to whatever lies beneath speech, beneath reason, beneath thought. "Whatever lies beneath" is not always welcome. You can't be selective - that is, you can't filter out what is unwelcome. You have to deal with whatever arises, be it welcome or not.
Your job is not to worry about what you are getting or not getting out of the meditation. It is not to think about things. It is just to pay attention to the breathing or the walking. "What are you doing?" "Breathing/walking." "What are you consciously experiencing?" "My breathing/walking." "Good."
It doesn't help to be angry at unwanted thoughts and feelings. Being angry at oneself destroys any serenity that you might have developed. Therefore, instead of forcefully saying to unwanted thoughts and feelings, "Get out. Go away," or some other strong statement, notice in a non-judgmental way what is going on in your mind. As an aid to observing, notice (1) what is happening in your mind, (2) how strong it is, and (3) how long it lasts. If the unwanted thought or feeling doesn't dissipate, say a gentle "That thought/feeling/mood has emerged into consciousness. You are being distracted" or "I move on," which gets you back on the track. A main purpose of meditation is to experience a mental spaciousness that comes about when we are free of the pinching and squeezing of unwanted thoughts and feelings.
Throughout, you are in charge - you are exercising your self-direction, known also as will power or decision making. You are not the victim of unwanted thoughts and feelings. The unfriendliness of your subconscious gives way to your superior power. Knowing that you need a friendly, kind, supportive subconscious, you take your own steps in that direction. You take charge of imposing your own philosophy on yourself.
You can see a demonstration of a person handling misbehaving minds if you look at the Dog Whisperer on the National Geographic TV Channel. Cesar Millan is a genius of real importance. He shows his human clients, who all have misbehaving dogs, how to get the dogs to behave. Cesar calls his style calm-assertive. In a calm-assertive way, he corrects a dog's misbehavior immediately, as soon as it occurs. He snaps his fingers, says "shhhht" through his teeth, touches the dog's shoulder, and holds out his hand commandingly. When a client complains that he is too strict, he points out that dogs want to respect you, that they want to be shown their place in the family (or, as he calls it, the pack). You can hardly believe his success until you see it.
Our misbehaving minds need the same kind of treatment. We need to correct our unruly minds immediately. We need a calm-assertive personality style. Even saying "shhhht" is not out of order. The unruly thoughts must recede so that we can get on with our lives in the present.
Worthwhile thoughts will arise during walking meditation. As Nietzsche said, "All great thoughts are conceived while walking." Darwin, too, was a walker. He would often work intensely for a period of some hours before taking a break for fresh air and gathering his thoughts as he strolled along the sand walk behind his house. It was a key aspect of the intellectual process that led to his important theories. Because of the worthwhile thoughts that often arise, breathing meditation and walking meditation are often called insight meditation.NEXT