Saturday, November 29, 2008

Reining In Your Wandering Mind

Like a wayward puppy, your mind means well — it just has a will of its own and some pretty obnoxious habits to unlearn. Just as you wouldn’t hit a puppy for peeing on the carpet, but you would keep carrying it patiently back to its little pile of papers, you need to keep leading your wandering mind patiently back to its focus of concentration, without anger or violence or judgment of any kind. After all, you want your “puppy mind” to like you and treat you as a friend, instead of cowering in your presence. In fact, your mind deserves even more patience than a puppy because it’s developed the tendency to fantasize, worry, and obsess through a lifetime of poor training. As you practice being kind and patient with your mind, you naturally soften and relax into the present moment — which is, after all, the point of meditation. On the other hand, if you force your mind to concentrate like a drill sergeant pushing his troops, you’re just going to wind up tense and uncomfortable — and you probably won’t be motivated to meditate again. As I note in other chapters, discovering how to meditate is a lot like practicing a musical instrument. First you need to assemble some basic techniques; then you get to practice the same scales over and over. Like following your breath, playing scales can seem incredibly boring — but week by week, you become imperceptibly better, until one day you graduate to playing simple tunes. And the more you practice, the more subtleties you notice, and the more interesting even playing simple scales — or following your breath —becomes.
The historical Buddha compared meditating to tuning a lute. If you make the strings too tight, they break, and you can’t play the instrument at all. If you make them too loose, you can’t get the right sounds. Likewise, you need to listen to your instrument — your body and mind — when you meditate to determine what kind of tuning you need. If you’re tense, you may want to begin with some deep relaxation; if you’re sleepy or foggy, you may need to sit up straight, pay attention, and emphasize your concentration. As you gently bring your puppy back again and again, you also get to notice the themes and stories that repeatedly draw your attention away. Perhaps your mind keeps returning to worries about job security, or arguments with your partner or spouse, or sexual fantasies, or popular songs. Whatever the favorite bones your puppy likes to chew, you gradually become familiar with them as you watch them distract you.
After weeks and months of regular practice, you develop a deeper understanding of how your mind works — and how it causes suffering and stress.
And like hit tunes you love at first but eventually get tired of hearing, the same old stories start to lose their power to disturb you, and you develop greater equanimity and peace of mind.

Keep it simple

The point of meditation is not to discover some cool techniques to occupy your leisure hours; it’s to make the simple but momentous shift from doing to being. Don’t make the mistake of turning your meditation practice into another urgent item on your list of things to do. Use it, instead, as a welcome oasis from doing, an opportunity to be, without strategy or agenda. In other words, keep it simple. Play with a few of the techniques at first to decide which one feels right for you; then stick with the one you’ve chosen. It really doesn’t matter which method you use — they all end up depositing you in the here and now.

Welcoming whatever arises

When you become accustomed to including sensations, you can open your awareness gates wide and welcome any and every experience — even thoughts and emotions — without judgment or discrimination. Just like sensations, thoughts and feelings come and go in your awareness like clouds in the sky without pulling you off center.
After all, the sky is never disturbed or constricted, no matter how many clouds pile up; it continues to be as vast and spacious as ever. In the same way, you can sit with a spacious, skylike mind. At first, you may find your attention drawn here and there like a flashlight, exploring one object and then another. But just keep coming back to a spacious, skylike mind. (A note of caution, however: This practice, though supremely simple, is actually quite advanced and requires well-developed powers of concentration to sustain.)

Expanding to sensations

As soon as you’ve developed a certain ease in following your breath, you can expand your awareness as you meditate to include the full range of sensations both inside and outside your body — feeling, smelling, hearing, seeing. Imagine that your awareness is like the zoom lens on a camera. Until now, you’ve been focused exclusively on your breath; now you can back away slightly to include the field of sensations that surrounds your breath. If you find it difficult to expand your awareness all at once, you can begin by exploring a sensation when it calls attention to itself. For example, you’re following your breath when a pain in your back cries out for your attention. Instead of staying focused on your breath as you would have done before, you can turn your attention to the pain and explore it fully until it no longer predominates in your field of experience. Then come back to your breath until you’re once again called away.
You can also experiment with expanding your awareness to include one particular kind of sensation, such as bodily feelings or sounds. For example, you can spend an entire meditation just listening to the sounds around you, without focusing on any sounds in particular. In this way, you’re able to balance the highly concentrated awareness required to follow your breath with the more receptive, all-inclusive awareness necessary to welcome a broad range of sensations. This blend of focus and receptivity lies at the heart of the practice of mindfulness.
As you get the knack of including sensations in your meditations, you can experiment with expanding your awareness to include the full sensate field (that is, hearing, seeing, smelling, touching, and tasting). Begin by following your breathing and then just open your lens wide, allowing sensations to arise and pass away in your awareness.

Minding your body instead of your breath

Some people seem to find it virtually impossible to count or follow their breaths. Instead, they find it helpful to focus on their body as a whole when they meditate. You can begin by drawing your awareness slowly down through your body from your head to your feet; then switch to holding your whole body in your awareness at once. When your mind wanders off, just come back to your body. Or you can use the Zen approach of focusing on a particular part of the body, like the lower back or lower abdomen. When you find a focus that works for you, however, stick with it. The point is to develop your mindfulness, not to meander through your body in search of a place to meditate.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Following your breaths

Begin by sitting and breathing exactly as you did for counting your breaths. When you feel settled, allow your attention to focus either on the sensation of your breath coming and going through your nostrils or on the rising and falling of your belly as you breathe. (Although you’re welcome to alternate your focus from one session to the next, it’s best to stick with a single focus for the entire meditation — and eventually you’re better off using the same focus each time you meditate.) Give your full attention to the coming and going of your breath the way a mother tracks the movements of her young child — lovingly yet persistently, softly yet precisely, with relaxed yet focused awareness. When you realize that your mind has wandered off and you’re engrossed in planning or thinking or daydreaming, gently but firmly bring it back to your breath.
At the end of your exhalation (and before you inhale again), there’s often a gap or a pause when your breath is no longer perceptible. At this point, you can allow your attention to rest on a predetermined touchpoint, such as your navel or your hands, before returning to your breath when it resumes. Thoughts and images will definitely continue to skitter and swirl through your mind as you meditate, but don’t worry. Just patiently and persistently keep coming back to your breath. Gradually, you may even develop a fascination with all the little sensations — of your belly and ribcage shifting and opening and changing shape as you breathe or of your breath caressing the tip of your nose, tickling your nostrils, and cooling your nasal passages as it enters and leaves. You may also notice that your mind tends to quiet down or your thinking tends to change on either the exhalation or the inhalation. By attuning to a subtler level of experience while you meditate, you can open yourself to a subtler appreciation of each moment of life as it unfolds.

Getting to know your breathing

When you first begin paying deliberate attention to your breath, you may be surprised and somewhat frustrated to discover that your body tenses up and your breathing becomes stiff, labored, and unnatural. Suddenly, you can’t remember how to breathe anymore, even though you’ve been doing it just fine ever since your first breath at birth.
Don’t worry — you’re not doing it wrong. You just need to develop a lighter, gentler touch with your awareness so that you’re following but not controlling your breath. It’s kind of like learning to ride a bicycle — you keep falling off until one day, miraculously, you just keep going. From then on, it’s second nature.
You may find it helpful to begin by exploring your breathing, without necessarily trying to track it from breath to breath. Notice what happens when you breathe — how your rib cage rises and falls, how your belly moves, how the air passes in and out of your nostrils. You may find that some breaths are longer and deeper, while others are shorter and shallower. Some may go all the way down into your belly, while others barely reach the upper part of your lungs before exiting again. Some may be rough or strong, others smooth or weak.
Spend five or ten minutes exploring your breathing with the fresh curiosity of a child encountering a flower or a butterfly for the first time. What did you discover that you didn’t know before? How does each new breath differ from the last? When you feel comfortable with your breath, you can begin the practice of counting or following your breaths.

Counting your breaths

Begin by finding a comfortable sitting position that you can hold for 10 or 15 minutes. Then take a few deep breaths and exhale slowly. Without trying to control your breath in any way, allow it to find its own natural depth and rhythm. Always breathe through your nose unless you can’t for some reason.
Now begin counting each inhalation and exhalation until you reach ten; then return to one. In other words, when you inhale, count “one,” when you exhale, count “two,” when you inhale again, count “three,” and so on up to ten. If you lose track, return to one and start again. To help you concentrate, you may find it useful to extend the number in your mind for the full duration of the inhalation or exhalation, instead of thinking the number quickly once and then dropping it. For example, allow “o-o-o-n-n-n-e” to last as long as the inhalation, “t-w-o-o-o-o” to last as long as the exhalation, and so on. You may also find it helpful to subvocalize the numbers, especially at first, saying “one” ever so softly to yourself as you inhale, “two” as you exhale, and so on.
As Mickey Mouse as this exercise may seem at first-read, you may be surprised to discover that you never manage to reach ten without losing count. You don’t have to stop your mind chatter in any way. But if you get distracted by your thoughts and lose track of your breath, come back to one and start again. When you get the knack of counting each in-breath and out-breath — say, after a month or two of regular practice — you can shift to counting only the exhalations. If your mind starts wandering on the inhalations, though, just go back to the first method until you feel ready to move on again. Eventually, you may want to simplify the practice even further by simply noting “in” on the inhalation and “out” on the exhalation.

Focusing on your breath

Compared to surfing the Net or catching a movie on HBO, watching your breath may seem like a boring way to spend your spare time. The fact is, the media have conditioned us to be stimulation junkies by flooding our senses with computerized images and synthesized sounds that change at laserlike speed. Recently, I heard the head of an ad agency brag about how his latest TV spot bombarded the viewer with six images per second — far faster than the conscious mind could possibly register them. By contrast, paying attention to the coming and going of your breath slows your mind to match the speed and rhythms of your body. Instead of 6 images per second, you breathe an average of 12 to 16 times per minute. And the sensations are far subtler than anything you’ll see or hear on TV — more like the sights and sounds of nature, which is, after all, where you and your body came from.
Besides, the great thing about your breath as a focus of meditation is that it’s always available, always changing yet always more or less the same. If your breath were totally different each time, it wouldn’t provide the stability necessary for you to cultivate concentration; if it never changed in any way, you’d quickly fall asleep and never have an opportunity to develop the curiosity and alertness that are so essential to the practice of mindfulness. As a preliminary to the practice of following your breath, you may want to spend a few weeks or months just counting your breaths. It’s a great way to build concentration — and it provides a preestablished structure that constantly reminds you when you’re wandering off. If you were a neophyte Zen student, you might spend years counting your breaths before you graduated to a more challenging practice. But if you’re feeling adventurous or already have some confidence in your concentration, by all means start with following your breath. Trust your intuition to tell you which method is right for you.

The meaning of the breath

Traditional cultures identified the breath with the life force that animates all things. For example, the Latin word spiritus(the root of both spirited and spiritual), the Greek word anima(from which we derive the word animated), the Hebrew word ruach, and the Sanskrit word brahman may sound quite different, but they have one thing in common: They all mean both breathand spiritor soul.When you follow your breath with awareness, you’re not only harmonizing your body and mind, which gives you a sense of inner harmony and wholeness, you’re also exploring the living frontier where body, mind, and spirit meet — and attuning yourself to a spiritual dimension of being.