Nearly all meditation practices involve a point of focus: the breath, sounds, body sensations, mantras. For me this often means finding that focal point and watching and watching until … I notice that I’m no longer watching. One, perhaps unfortunate, by-product of this approach is it reinforces my sense of “I”. I’m watching. I’m watching. Whoops. I’m not watching any more. I should be watching!
As a rule, mindfulness meditation practice involves 3 steps:
- choosing something to be aware of (breath, sounds, touch, feelings)
- paying attention to this phenomenon
- returning one’s attention to it once we detect that our attention has wandered
The first step, choosing, often strikes people as a bit odd because nearly every set of instructions says, “pay attention to the sensations of breathing.” But why? My breath isn’t that interesting: I do it all the time without thinking about it. Worse, it seems to change whenever I pay close attention to it, and it just doesn’t seem that interesting compared to all of the other things I might focus on. So why pay attention to breathing?
My mind during a part of last week’s meditation session:
- in breath
- a thought: “one”
- out breath
- in breath
- a thought: “two”
- a thought: “Hey, I’m doing ok, two breaths! I’m really focused today. Nice.”
- a thought: “thinking”
- a thought: “gone”
- (in breath)
- a thought: “one”
- (out breath) …
My mind was wandering, just like always, and, each time awareness of this wandering eventually dawned on me, I observed the wandering mind (“thinking”), released it (“…”), and noticed its absence (“gone”). That was the story of my meditation session, but the rest of my day was another story entirely …
There are many types of meditation techniques, but nearly all of them have one instruction in common: when you discover your mind has been wandering, gently pause, observe that you have wandered, and then return to the instructions.
This act of changing direction functions as an attentional reset. It takes only a few moments, but it allows you to reset your focus, your attention, and (at least temporarily) free your mind from one task so that it can take up another.
A 15-minute meditation session might provide over a hundred opportunities for attentional resets, but you don’t need to take a 15-minute break to reset your attention. A few well-timed breaths, a short walk around your building, listening to some music, or almost any focused activity that you can give your undivided attention to, may provide a much needed reset.
I’m discovering that there is fairly large research literature on attentional resets (I’ll just call them “resets”) and I’ll try to share some of that with you. For starters, here is an article, “Hit the Reset Button in Your Brain” (D.J. Levitin, Sunday Review, NY Times, 9 Aug 2014) and two posts from this blog:
Last night I sat at the dining room table making a list of things that I needed to do today. As I wrote a few items down, new things, some that had been nagging me for days, even weeks, started to crowd around, demanding to be added to my list. So many things to do.
The ultimate To-Do’s, of course, are my New Year’s resolutions. Like everyone else, I tend to treat my life as a Personal Improvement Project. Just a little thinking about the ways I might improve myself in 2017 has unleashed a flood of ideas: eat better, get more exercise, get more sleep, go to bed earlier, pick up the flute I used to play, pay and file bills more regularly, get my finances in order, clean the house regularly, … and I was just getting started.
So, before your New Year resolve flies out the window, here’s a much shorter list of resolutions inspired by a David Nichtern‘s 2011 New Year’s Resolution published in the Huffington Post:
I’m looking out the window at the busy street that runs in front of my house. It has been covered by snow for the past 48 hours, but now it’s melting and traffic has picked up. A smart driver knows, however, that a small ice patch could be lurking anywhere so it’s important not to follow the driver in front too closely. Your car may lose its “stopping power” if it skids on that patch of ice.
Following an upsetting conversation, or an email thread, or a news feed, too closely presents some of the same problems. Instead of leaving some space around these provocative stimuli, I attend to them closely, vigilant, ready to take offense, already constructing the words that will win a debate or cut an opponent down to size. And then I have my say and craashh! What happened to my “stopping power”?
Meditation is a practice of learning to make space and give ourselves more stopping power. In fact, the word STOP also serves as a handy acronym for a basic meditation practice. Read what Dr. Elisha Goldstein has to say about it here (Mindful.org), and listen to this online lesson. Increasing our stopping power can save us all kinds of heartache.
‘Silent illumination’ is a meditation practice from the Zen school of meditation.* The practice is described in ways that often sound impossible and contradictory to the Western ear: just sit, the method of no-method, and so on. So how does one attempt to do something that is ‘not doing’?
Lion’s Roar has published an eminently practical description of silent illumination from Master Sheng-yen [1930-2009], the founder of Dharma Drum Retreat Center (“There is No ‘I’ Who is Sitting,” 1 Sept. 2003). Some bits and pieces from his teaching:
The Shambhala Mountain Center is convening top researchers and meditation teachers this week (Oct. 19-23) for a free, online summit on The Science of Meditation. Follow the link to learn more and register. Remember, it’s online and free!
Update: I just registered (takes 2 sec) and learned that some (maybe all?) of the materials will be available after the ‘live’ sessions so you don’t have to worry about being in the right time zone, or work-summit conflicts.
I think it was a spring day in San Francisco. My wife was attending a chemistry workshop downtown and I was out for a stroll. I dropped down into the basement of City Lights Books (why had I waited so long?), and a small book, one that wouldn’t weigh me down, called out, “Take me home. I have something to tell you.” The book was The Miracle of Mindfulness by author, Zen master, peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh. The book was small, but the heart that wrote it was as big as the universe. This is where my practice began.
Thich Nhat Hanh turns 90 this month and Lion’s Roar has republished three of his essays. Enjoy them. May they help you in your life.
The conversations we have around meditation and related topics are always rewarding. Robin sent a short (very short) article my way: How to Be Mindful With a Cup of Coffee (Well | Mind, NY Times, 14 Sept 2016). In our go-grab-and-go culture can we slow down long enough to sip once with awareness? Maybe two sips? (No one is keeping score.) Part of the pleasure of a favorite drink surely is noticing what we’re drinking.