Yesterday about 20 students and I gathered in the chapel for a Paideia class: Mindfulness Meditation for Beginners. It was so wonderful to see so many and to spend time together! I had expected maybe five people to show up, and I wouldn’t have been surprised if the room had been empty, so seeing 20 faces and listening to their questions and comments was a real treat.
Meditation, it must be said, is not a complicated skill, and it doesn’t require expert knowledge, so there wasn’t much for me to teach. But, like everything else one does, we start doing it, and then our minds get involved, and before we know it, we question whether we are doing it right or not. So, for anyone who missed our class, or who would like a quick review, here are some of the key points that were touched on:
- Mindfulness meditation is simple. Fundamentally, it just means paying attention to our experience. Sitting quietly, labeling thoughts, counting breaths – these are just tools that help make our experience more accessible and help us continue to pay attention. You can try these tools as you wish.
- Experience takes many forms. A sensation from inside or outside our body, a thought, an emotion or feeling, these are all experiences. As a rule, we are not trying to latch on to one kind of experience, nor our we trying to wall ourselves off from another. There is nothing “wrong” with any of our experiences.
- In mindfulness meditation, we try to notice (be “aware” of) our experience without being swallowed up by it. It is especially easy to get lost in thoughts because that is how we spend so much of our time normally. Thoughts quickly slip in and out of our minds so many times throughout the day that we normally don’t even notice when we are lost in thought. If I have the thought, “I promised to call home tonight,” I might get up and grab my phone without even noticing that this is just a thought, i.e., it is an experience that I can choose to act on or just observe.
- Some tools that can help us notice experiences without being swallowed up by them:
- Sit still. Adopt a posture that you can maintain without major adjustments for the entire sitting period. “Sit in a dignified way,” is an easy phrase to remember. Once you find this posture, don’t move.
- Be quiet. Meditation doesn’t require total silence (sounds are just another experience), but being subjected to constant loud sounds, and/or making sounds yourself, will make it harder to notice your experiences.
- Open yourself to whatever is happening. It’s often helpful to guide yourself into paying attention by starting off with something that you can easily pay attention to, e.g., an easily detected body sensation. Your bottom on the chair. Your feet on the floor. Whatever your hands are resting on (I usually rest my palms on my legs). Your breath. After that, let your awareness of an experience follow the experience. You don’t have to reach out with your mind to hunt down experiences.
- Your first prominent body sensation can also act as an anchor for your meditation period. That is, whenever you notice that you have been lost in thought (or other experience), notice that and renew your acquaintance with the body sensation that is your anchor.
- Thoughts, when they occur, can be noticed as thoughts, but (especially in the beginning) simply noticing a thought often leaves us lost in thought. One way to interrupt the stream of thought is to label the most recent thought, e.g., “thinking about calling home.” After you label it, exhale and return your attention to your anchor body sensation.
- This sequence of “notice a body sensation – become lost in thought – notice/label the last thought – exhale” will repeat itself again and again. This is really the point: to learn how to pay attention to experience so that you can learn what the stream of experience is like.
- There’s no need to keep score. It doesn’t matter if you catch each thought before it is fully formed, or if you drift along for 20 minutes before you notice the stream of thought. It also doesn’t matter if you return to thinking almost immediately, or if you stay with the sensations of your anchor for six minutes before you have the next thought. There are no rewards or penalties for a certain amount of thinking or a certain amount of noticing. The fact that you are sitting with the intent to notice your experience will be beneficial all by itself.
- Notice and appreciate transitions. When you first sit down, your experience will be dominated by the energy and thoughts of whatever you were doing just before you sat down. When you finally stand up again, your experience will be dominated by the energy and thoughts of whatever you were doing just before you stood up. Notice how your experiences, and your awareness of these experiences, shift over time. You are not equipped with a “pay attention” switch that you can snap on and off.
- Finally, there is no destination in meditation. It is just something we do. Like eating, or sleeping, or brushing our teeth, we meditate because we feel and trust in its benefits. Like those other activities, we meditate every so often because we realize that only by meditating periodically can it soak into our lives. That said, meditation is not an endurance race. There are some who get enchanted with meditation and look for a five day silent retreat. There are others who are lucky to have three minutes of quiet waiting for a bus in the morning. Both experiences have value. Go easy on yourself. Curiosity may eventually inspire you to try longer or more frequent periods of meditation. Curiosity may likewise encourage you to try sitting at different times of day, or in different locations, or with others. Out of these experiences, you’ll find what works for you.
In the words of Maezumi Roshi, “Appreciate your life!“