If I could encourage you to look into one thing to think and focus better, Lodro Rinzler's Sit Like a Buddha: A Pocket Guide to Meditation would be it.
Rinzler walks us through 10 steps. Step 1 is about knowing your why, your intention. Step 2 is learning a meditation technique. Step 3 is cultivating mindfulness and awareness. Step 4 is about consistency. Step 5 is developing a deep understanding of gentleness. Step 6 is discovering how to work with obstacles. Step 7 is learning how to move away from getting caught up in your emotions. Step 8 is about connecting with your “inherent peaceful state.” Step 9 is becoming a practitioner. Step 10, the final step, is “learning to rest in the present moment even when you're not on the meditation seat.”
I'm not going to cover all ten in this article, but I'm going to give you enough to get started today.
What is my motivation for wanting to meditate?
Don't skip this part. This is the foundational aspect for everything that follows.
The most common reasons for exploring meditation are to be less stressed, live more in the present moment, or better deal with emotions. But before you get started it's important that you ask why.
Whenever someone tells me that they are interested in meditating I always ask them why. They sometimes are surprised, thinking I would simply be overjoyed to learn that they are even remotely interested. Often I am and am just displaying an awesome poker face. However, I've found that if someone is not clear about why they want to meditate, they will soon find out that meditation is not necessarily easy and end up discouraged early on, not pursuing it in depth.
We have an intention even if it's unconscious. More often than not we go through life without a clear understanding of why we're doing things.
We never pause and develop a conscious intention and, as a result, things tend to get messy down the road. … I'm a firm believer that when you live your life in line with conscious intentions, as opposed to unconscious ones, you live a fuller, happier life overall.
When you get stuck or disheartened you can look back at the why and say “Oh right. That's why I'm doing this. I want to be kinder/more self-aware/less stressed out all the time.” This is something I've been missing. In yoga class, for over a year now, we've been setting an intention for our practice. But no one ever told me what that intention was supposed to be fore; this is where you come to when things get difficult.
Learning the Meditation Technique
The meditation practice that Rinzler walks us through is called shamatha, or “calm-abiding meditation.” That doesn't mean it's going to help you fall asleep — just the opposite. This is intended to wake you up to what is going on in this very moment, through training in paying attention to something that embodies this very moment: the breath.
As Marcus Aurelius says:
Were you to live three thousand years, or even thirty thousand, remember that the sole life which a man can lose is that which he is living at the moment; and furthermore, that he can have no other life except the one he loses. This means that the longest life and the shortest amount to the same thing. For the passing minute is every man’s equal possession, but what has once gone by is not ours. Our loss, therefore, is limited to that one fleeting instant, since no one can lose what is already past, nor yet what is still to come–for how can he be deprived of what he does not possess? So two things should be borne in mind. First, that all the cycles of creation since the beginning of time exhibit the same recurring pattern, so that it can make no difference whether you watch the identical spectacle for a hundred years, or for two hundred, or for ever. Secondly, that when the longest-and the shortest-lived of us come to die, their loss is precisely equal. For the sole thing of which any man can be deprived is the present; since this is all he owns, and nobody can lose what is not his.
The point is all we own is the present. The here and now and yet we never really focus on it. We're always focused on the past or the future but never the here and now. When you're with your friends, you're thinking about all the things you have to do. When you're out running errands, you're thinking about what's for dinner or next weekend. When you're at work, you're just wanting the day to be over. These are all examples of how we're never really present in the moment.
Meditation instructors tend to lose me when they talk about enlightenment. The point to meditation, a lot of people would have you believe, is to move toward enlightenment. I've never really bought into that … until now. Rinzler did the best job of connecting with me on this subject. Let me see if I can explain how it clicked for me.
When you think about enlightenment, what is really meant is that you become “in tune with the way reality is.” This is also one of the key components of rationality — your mental models line up with the way the world really is and not your idea of how the world should work or some notion of how it could be. It's a pragmatic view of life. That's enlightenment.
Ok, on to the good stuff. How can we meditate?
Begin by taking a comfortable seat on a cushion on the ground. If it will hurt to sit on the ground you can sit instead in a chair. In either situation, sit with your butt firmly in the center of your seat. You want to feel a sense of being grounded, physically, which will help ground you mentally. Feel the weight of your body on the earth. If you are on a cushion, loosely cross your legs with your knees falling a little bit below your hip bones. If you are in a chair, place your feet firmly on the ground about hip-width apart.
From this strong base you expand upward toward the sky. Elongate your spine in order to sit up straight. Don't throw your shoulders back or you will end up sore and in pain. Actually connect with your skeletal curvature and use that as the basis for your support. If visualizing is helpful I always recommend imagining a string at the top of your head, pulling you straight up. … I promise you that it gets easier over time. For now please exert yourself to stick with this upright posture. Do not lean back if you are in a chair.
Now drop your hands at your sides for a moment. Pick them up at the elbows and drop them, palms down, on your thighs. This specific positioning should allow for a bit of extra support for your back. …
Your skull rests at the top of your spine. The only thing you need to do positioning-wise there is to slightly tuck in your chin. Relax the muscles in your face, particularly in your forehead, around your eyes, and your jaw. That might mean that your jaw hangs open, which is preferred. You can place your tongue up against the roof of your mouth, which slows down the swallowing process and allows for clear breathing.
Finally, rest your gaze about two to four feet ahead of you on the ground. It may surprise you that I recommend keeping your eyes open. It's a matter of view. If you intend to become more awake to what is going on around you it seems counterproductive to close your eyes.
Meditation is not “an intellectual exercise,” but rather a way to “connect with what's going on in your body.”
Now for the hard part. This is simple but not easy.
Wait, how hard can it be? We breathe all day right? The problem is this isn't something we normally pay attention to. Try it. Stop right now and pay attention to your breath for one minute. Do nothing else.
Not so easy is it?
Our mind is habituated to running amok, not staying focused on something as basic as the breath. This is why meditation practice is difficult. We have spent years habituating ourselves to do anything other than be present with what is going on in this very moment. The breath serves as our anchor to the present. So feel your breathing, as it is right now.
You don't need to alter your breath from its normal pattern and you don't need to place an emphasis on either the outgoing or incoming breath. Just breathe like you normally do. Relax. “Let your body naturally do its thing. In some sense, the true object of your meditation practice is appreciation of your very being.”
You will get distracted from the breath. It may be a few seconds or it may be minutes but you will get distracted. That's also very natural. Since we are not used to being in the present moment the mind habitually gravitates toward the past and future. For instance, you may attempt to be present but you start reliving a conversation you had with someone who annoyed you earlier. From there your mind jumps to the future and how you will tell that person off the next time you see them.
In any such case where your attention gets stolen by the past or future just remember that your intention is to be present with the breath. If your mind is lost in big thoughts that take you out of the room you can silently and gently say “thinking” to yourself as a reminder that what you are doing is very normal but not what you want to do.
Labelling this as thinking allows you to bring your attention back to the breath.
That's it. That's the basic shamatha practice. The power is in the simplicity.
We don't need extra practices or new techniques to challenge ourselves. For the course of our work together please use this shamatha practice. Its power is in its simplicity. Over time you will get to see yourself more clearly. You will become a connoisseur of your own thought process. That is what a meditator is; someone who appreciates the many flavors of their own mind and is able to be present with all of them.
Mindfulness and Awareness: The Ultimate Tag-Team Combo
Practice can be challenging. While the intent is to have a “calm-abiding” meditation it can feel like your mind is going crazy.
In fact, it's not uncommon for beginning meditators to feel as if they have opened the floodgates and there is a barrage of thoughts pummeling them, as if they were standing at the bottom of a waterfall and thoughts just hit them with that level of speed and velocity. It can feel that overwhelming.
The good news is (and trust me I speak from experience here) it gets easier. As you begin to meditate consistently, you start to gradually see an increase in the ability to stay with the breath and be more present, both on the meditation cushion and with various elements of the rest of your life.
Two tools that help us with meditation are mindfulness and awareness. First, let's define them.
The Tibetan word for mindfulness is trenpa, which, if we want to get long-winded about it, can also be translated as “the ability to hold your attention to something.” That is pretty straightforward, right? If you want to be mindful of the breath that means you are holding your attention to your breathing. If you want to be mindful of a conversation it means fully engaging that discussion. If you want to be mindful while you eat it means paying attention to and enjoying your meal. Mindfulness is the simple act of being fully with whatever you are doing. “Ness” in this sense implies the essence of, so when we say “mindful ness” we are saying we are cultivating the essence of being mindful, or being present.
Mindfulness is an inherent capacity that we all have. … This tool, this drill, is already on our tool belt. We just need to learn how to use it. I use the example of the drill because mindfulness is a precise instrument; it specifically keeps us attuned to the present moment. While it may feel uncomfortable or difficult to be mindful with the breath, it is in fact just applying this tool to retrain our mind to do something it's very accustomed to doing in other ways.
In a way we are always meditating on something. Whether it's an upcoming work project or our home renovations, our focus is always placed on something other than what is going on right now. This is the difference between seeing and observing.
Our mind is accustomed to meditating on the future and the past, but we need to retrain it to come back to the present. That is the power of mindfulness: we learn to be precise with the breath as an anchor to the present so that later on we are more mindful with the rest of our lives.
The next tool is awareness.
The Tibetan word for awareness is sheshin. She can be translated into English as “knowing,” while shin is “present.” In other words, we can think of this phrase as “presently knowing,” or knowing what is going on in this very moment. It is a sense of awareness of our environment, both our physical environment and our mental environment. This tool of awareness is, not unlike mindfulness, something we already possess.
Mindfulness and awareness work together to keep us engaged in the present moment.
They are the tag team of meditative tools. In the case of our physical environment, we may be going about our day and we hear our phone ring. In this example, it is awareness that says, “Oh. Hey. My phone is ringing.” Recognizing that a noise occurred and that it is your telephone is an awareness of your physical environment. Then you pick up your phone and begin talking to whomever called you, and become fully engaged in that conversation. That is mindfulness bringing you to the point where you are truly in the moment with a dialogue. Maybe the person on the other end of the phone starts to bore you at some point and you lose your sense of mindfulness. When they call you on that and say, “Are you even listening to me?” your awareness will snap you back to what is going on in the moment and you will once more be present with that person.
In the case of our mental environment, awareness is that aspect of our mind that notices when we are no longer present with the breath. You know how you can be sitting there meditating, then all of a sudden a few minutes have passed and you have been plotting out that vacation you may or may not ever take, and then you catch yourself and say, “Whoa! Get back to meditating on the breath”? …
Another way to think of awareness is that it is the sheriff of the small town of your mind, constantly and kindly keeping watch and enforcing your ability to come back to your breathing.
“Every moment has its energy; either it will ride us, or we can ride it.” — Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche
If we do not live our lives with mindfulness and awareness we are missing a lot of opportunities to enjoy all the little moments throughout our day. We are instead letting our habitual patterns play out randomly as the energy of the moment rides us. It is a bit like listening to some horribly indulgent elevator music on a never-ending ride where every stop along the way opens the doors to self-involvement and suffering. If you are able to be in the moment and recognize the energy of what is going on, you can live your life with intention. If you cannot ride the energy of this very moment then it will ride you; in other words you will live a life based in unconscious intentions, held hostage to whatever discursive whims your mind cooks up. No matter what floor of the elevator you get off at it will lead to pain and inner turmoil.
Applying these tools to meditation and life will help you flourish.
Another word for meditation in Tibetan is gom. It can also be translated as “become familiar with.” In the process of meditation we are essentially becoming more familiar with our own mind and our habitual patterns. Now that you are beginning to look at your mind you can treat it like a new acquaintance. You may at first view that waterfall of thoughts that occurs when you sit down to meditate and say, “Um … I don't know if I want to get to know you, Mr. Mind,” but you persevere and as you continue to apply mindfulness and awareness you become more accustomed to the eccentricities of your own mental being.
Your mind may sometimes be chaotic; it may sometimes be peaceful. In either case, if you can investigate it through simply being present then you are becoming more thoroughly who you are. You are more able to be with your experience, whether it is good or bad. As a bonus, when you continue to apply mindfulness and awareness while meditating you will find that they will naturally manifest more as you go about your day-to-day life. You will end up being more present with friends when you go out to dinner, or lovers when you are in bed, or family members even if you are in an argument. In all of these situations you can tune in to the present moment. You can be mindful of what is going on right now. You can maintain awareness of your environment and who you are relating to. With the tag-team combination of the precise drill of mindfulness and the rapid-fire snap of the measuring tape of awareness you can live a fuller, more content life overall, in tune with the way things are.
Sit Like a Buddha: A Pocket Guide to Meditation is totally worth exploring in its entirety over a glass of wine.