Mindfulness Practice is actually quite simple.
Mostly what it needs is just practice. The practice of mediation. A meditation practice. Sounds like a Gertrude Stein poem.
Its really useful to make up your mind to have a Mindfulness Practice at the same time of day every day for a set time. Even better is to have a practice room, or corner, or chair, and to practice, or sit, daily in the same location. That way every time you notice the chair it will beckon you, and more important you will develop a kind of meditation “energy” there, just like the feeling you get when you enter a sacred space like an old growth forest or a cathedral. Practice for 15 minutes, twice a day. Once, before breakfast, second, before dinner. If you wait till just before bed to sit, you will be at greater risk of falling asleep and it will be harder to pull off.
Attention: Mindfulness of the In and Out Breath
Deciding to pay attention to your breath sensations is the starting point in all Buddhist Meditation. Its the basis of Mindfulness Practice. Deciding to be consciously aware of anything is mindfulness, but its best to start with Mindfulness of the in and out breath. Why do we call it the “in and out breath” and not “breathing?” Because we like to break experiences down to their most basic components in Mindfulness Practice. Breathing is a thing we do that has an in part and an out part.
In fact, what’s great about Mindfulness Practice is the pay off–besides being calm and all that, it also helps to cultivate mindfulness, in the plain English sense of the term, during your daily life. You will start to notice when you are being impatient, irritable, unkind, when you are getting unnecessarily sped up or intense. It will make a better person. Its why its so vital for so many health issues, like headaches, anxiety, IBS, etc.
Whole Body Awareness
Before you even pay attention to the breath sensation, first take a moment and be aware of your whole body in this moment in time and space. Feel the sensations on your skin: where you are in contact with your clothing, with the chair you are in, even the air on the exposed parts, like your face and hands. Take a moment in feel the pit of your stomach. Is it tight or relaxed? What does your chest feel like? Right in the center where we feel emotion, is it full or empty? heavy or light? Like a stone or like a cloud? Finally, take note of your jaw. Tense or loose? This should all be about 5 minutes.
How to Pay Attention to the Breath Sensations During Mindfulness Practice
Next locate your breath sensations. Pay attention to where you feel your breath coming in and going out. Probably you feel it in your nose, throat, chest and stomach. The stomach expands and collapses on the in and out. The chest rises and falls. The air passes in through the nostrils and out through the nostrils and across the mustache area.
Next, be alert to the quality of the breath sensations. See if you can notice how the air is warm in your nose and across your mustache on the out breath, but cool on the out breath. Notice if your breath is relaxed or tense, hurried or slow, smooth or rough. Probably it will gradually become more relaxed, slow, and smooth, and over time you may very, very gently guide it in that direction.
Absorption in the Breath Sensations
Notice, that over time, and with practice, you become more and more absorbed in the breath, and that you feel nourished by it. This is very valuable, as we often nourish ourselves by things that are not productive, like the negative words of other people, for example.
As we become immersed in the breath with a total body awareness, it will become gradually easier to be immersed in the breath. Having the body awareness and settling down into the breath go hand in hand in Mindfulness Practice
Tension During Mindfulness Practice
As we concentrate we may have the habit of tensing up. We tend to associate a kind of tensing up with concentration. This is not necessary or helpful. Be alert for this, and if you notice it happening, spread the breath energy out from its natural locations to unnatural ones. What I mean is, have a sense of your whole body in space while paying attention to the breath, rather than focusing just on the lungs and nostrils.
You can even be creative and pay attention to the sensations in you navel or solar plexus or chest or back of the neck while maintaining awareness of the breath.
Our brain tends to associate relaxation with sleep. So if you notice your mental field lacking focus, or that you are getting drowsy, “sharpen” your awareness– pay closer attention to the qualities of the breath and locating them exactly. Pay attention to the first second of the in breath and follow it closely to the end, then reestablish contact with the first moment of the out breath and follow it to the end and keep on going. Or work with spreading the breath sensations through the body.
In fact, it is very useful to be creative in your mindfulness practice. As you progress you don’t have to do the same thing ever time. Some days you may be strict in following the breath sensation exactly where they naturally occur. Other days it will feel as if your whole body is breathing in and out. That is actually quite great. You want to become really immersed in the breath. You can work with the sensation of breathing in not just via the lungs but via the whole body. This helps you with total body awareness.
Distractions are natural and bound to occur. Anything from sounds to pain to thoughts to desires or emotions can be distractions. Some will be attractive, some will create aversion, a few may be neutral. The moment you become aware that you are lost in a distraction, simply return to the breath. Neither hold on to nor push away the distraction, just move softly and gently, without judgment, with lovingkindness, back to the breath. Over and over and over again. Each time. Just get back on the bike. Return to mindfulness of of the in and out breath.
What are distractions in Mindfulness practice?
What are distractions? Once you decide to sit and pay attention to a single thing your mind will wander. It will be distracted by thoughts, memories, ideas, feelings, sensation, sounds, smells, tastes, urges. You are on the breath and suddenly you realize you are listening to the leaf blower. Maybe you hate leaf blowers, so you start to feel tense in your shoulders and think, “gosh, i hate those things.” Maybe you feel angry at the noise and air pollution from them. Maybe you had an argument with your deceased parent once about them and you feel sad, and your back aches. Maybe your knees hurt. These are all distractions. In the beginning, as soon as you notice you have lost the desired object of your awareness, the breath, just return to it, softly and gently.
Noting in Mindfulness Practice
If you feel the distraction exerting a power over you, you can very gently note or name the distraction. This has a kind of magical property–by acknowledging the distraction it weakens a bit and allows us to return. It weakens its hold because we have brought it out into the open space of the conscious mind.
For example: you heard the leaf blower and was tense and angry and had a thought about it, you could note: “hearing, thinking, tight, angry, ” Or you have burning ache your knees, you would note: “burning” “aching”. You had a visual day dream/memory that left you with a sad feeling, “seeing, sadness.” Maybe with that one you notice a sinking sensation in the chest, you could note that. “Sinking” And then return to the breath. Don’t get lost in the noting process, just use it as a tool if you need to, to loosen the hold of distractions and bring things out into the open.
With physical sensations, try to softly note their quality, just as we notice the qualities of the breath. If its pain, what kind? Burning, aching, sharp, dull. Notice the aversion you may feel to the physical discomfort, and notice how aversion has both a nervous system aspect and an emotive one.
Working with the Distractions
Over time you will learn how to work with the distractions themselves. You hear birds, its pleasant, you know that it is pleasant, you can absorb yourself in that pleasantry, while noticing the sensations of attraction to pleasant absorption with awareness. Use the awareness of your breath sensations as the ground for this alert experience.
You hear a leaf blower, it is unpleasant, pay attention to the aversion you feel, the tension it provokes, the mental chatter or stories it produces. You are softly, gently, kindly, alert to your tension and anger, to your stories and thoughts, and over time they soften and weaken and become less important, kind of like the doppler effect. Thinking, thinking, thinking, thinking, nothing, …….
Any Feeling is a Feelling, Nothing More
There are no taboos in Mindfulness Practice. Meaning, if, while meditating you are lost in an awful daydream, or filled suddenly with very strong harsh feelings like rage there is no need to hate your self for it, to beat yourself up. In meditation there is no judgement in this sense. You are training yourself to observe the movements of Mind. Its just thinking, a process, not a fixed thing. Obviously you need to have a moral code and not be unaware of that. If you have a problem, do go to a therapist, or exam yourself. But every sinner has a future, and every saint has a past.
So, note the process, “thinking”, and note any sensations and feelings associated with the thinking process, whether joy or hatred, anger or love, nausea or elation, disgust or admiration. By so doing the thing, the daydream, what’s underneath the daydream, your angers and fears, your human issues, get weakened, the attachments don’t hold so well. You were wronged. You did wrong. The gunk underneath begins to soften, especially as you are nourished over and over again by the absorption in the breath energy.
Must I Note?
No. Many Buddhist meditation practices such as Zen, or the Thai Forest Monastery tradition do not practice noting. In those practices whatever comes up when you sit you face directly by allowing yourself to feel your sensations and emotions in a non verbal way grounded in the mindfulness of the breath sensations. Feeling of attraction and aversion can be processed by simply being present with them in a courageous, open, choiceless way. Even sensations of rage or horror can be sat into by keeping an awareness of the whole body and the breath sensations.
The starting point is turning on the lamp of awareness, making the decision to begin seeing things as they are. That is one of the processes in Vippassana, from Theravada Buddhism, of which Mindfulness is one practice.
May all beings find True Happiness.
Much of what is useful in this essay comes from my studies with a monk name Thanissarro Bhikku who is the Abbot of Metta Monastery, in Escondido, California.
He is in the tradition of the Thai Forest Monastics. His Dharma Talks are very fine, and he is my favorite Buddhist Meditation teacher.
I have also learned a lot from my study with Joseph Goldstein of the Insight Meditation Centers. His book Insight Meditation is very good.