Starting a Mindfulness Meditation Practice

Through the practice of mindfulness meditation, you can develop the ability to be fully aware moment-to-moment in daily life.

The Buddha taught that suffering comes from ignorance. “Ignorance is the one thing with whose abandonment clear knowing arises,” he said. By “ignorance” he meant the misperceptions and delusions that your mind has about its own nature. Thus, the way to free the mind from suffering is through gaining insight into what truly is. Insight is a profound level of understanding that transcends mere intellectual cognition and can only be known by experiencing it. One of the tools the Buddha taught for gaining insight is mindfulness, the ability to be fully aware in the moment.

Mindfulness enables you to go beneath the surface level of moment-to-moment life experience, which is clouded with emotions, to clearly see the truth of what is happening. The untrained mind is just the opposite of mindfulness. It is often described as “monkey mind” because it is continually distracted by one thought, emotion, or body sensation after another. The monkey mind repeatedly identifies with the surface experience and gets lost in it. The insights that arise through mindfulness release the mind from getting caught in such reactivity and can even stop the cycle from beginning.

An important aspect of practicing mindfulness is “sampajanna,” which translated means “clear comprehension”—the ability to see clearly what needs to be done, what you are capable of doing, and how it relates to the larger truth of life. Obviously it is not easy to be mindful in such a manner, let alone experience the deep insights that lead to full liberation, but you can develop mindfulness through the practice of meditation.

I use “mindfulness” to refer to both mindfulness in daily life and mindfulness meditation practice. First let’s look at how the insight from mindfulness might manifest in daily life. Suppose someone at work says something that upsets you and you become angry or defensive and react by saying something you later regret. The incident ruins your day because you can’t stop thinking about it. Of course you are aware of your feelings; they have registered in your brain. But this kind of “ordinary awareness”—simply being conscious of your emotional reaction to an experience—is not what the Buddha meant by mindfulness.

Mindfulness enables you to fully know your experience in each moment. So when your colleague upsets you, if you are being mindful, you witness that her words generate thoughts and body sensations in you that lead to a strong emotion with still more body sensations. You have the insight that these feelings are being created by a chain reaction of thoughts in your mind. While this chain reaction is going on, you acknowledge how miserable it makes you feel. But instead of reacting with harsh words when you feel the impulse to speak unskillfully, you choose not to. Your mindfulness allows you not to identify with the impulses of your strong emotions or act from them. Moreover, because you witnessed the impersonal nature of the experience, you don’t get stuck in a bad mood for the rest of the day. It is an unpleasant experience, but you are not imprisoned by it. When you are being mindful, you are aware of each experience in the body and mind and you stay with that experience, whether it is pleasant or unpleasant, such that you see what causes stress and harm to you or another and what does not.

It truly is possible to experience this wise awareness in your daily life, but you need to train yourself to do so, and mindfulness meditation is the most effective means to accomplish this. Through the practice of mindfulness meditation you develop your innate capacity to:

Collect and unify the mind (at least temporarily)

Direct your attention

Sustain your attention

Fully receive experience no matter how difficult

Investigate the nature of experience in numerous ways

Then let go of the experience, no matter how pleasant or unpleasant it may be

Formal meditation practice involves sitting in a chair or on a cushion in a quiet space with your eyes closed for a period of time and slowly training the mind. You can do so by simply sitting, doing nothing special, and just watching what happens, but the more common approach is to direct the mind by cultivating your power of attention. By being mindful, you train or condition your mind to be more mindful. It is not unlike training the body and mind to play the piano, dance the tango, speak a foreign language, or play a sport. You learn forms in order to train the mind, in the same way that a pianist learns scales. You learn what to pay attention to in the same way a dancer learns to feel the music and to be aware of her body and her partner’s.

Mindfulness meditation training begins with practicing techniques for concentrating your attention on an object, which enables you to notice how your mind is reacting to what it is experiencing. Concentration is the ability to direct your attention and to sustain it so that it becomes collected and unified. It is a skill everyone already has, but for most people it is limited to only certain specific tasks and is not within their control. When concentration and mindfulness are combined, the power of attention is transformed into a spotlight that illuminates a particular experience in the same way that a theater spotlight holds steady on a single actor until it’s time to focus the audience’s attention elsewhere. You learn how to direct and sustain your attention on a single experience, rather than letting the mind jump from one thought or feeling to another as it usually does. In Pali the ability to direct attention is called “vitakka” and the ability to sustain it is called “vicara.” The Buddha referred to these skills as “Factors of Absorption.”

Traditionally, in vipassana meditation you use your breath initially as the object of concentration to collect and unify the mind. You typically stay with the experience of the breath as it touches the body in a single spot, such as the tip of the nose as it moves in and out, or the rise and fall of the chest, or the in-and-out movement of the belly, or the feeling of the breath in the whole body. There are many ways to follow the breath, including counting, noticing its speed, and making mental notes of what is happening, using labels such as “in” and “out” or “rising” and “falling.” You can also learn to stay with the breath by coupling a word with each breath. Some teachers insist on a particular method of developing concentration, while others are more flexible. (A list of meditation instruction books is included in Appendix 3 of this book. Silent residential meditation retreats, which are the best way to learn mindfulness meditation, even for those who already have other meditation practices, are also listed.)

At first you won’t be able to stay with the breath, but soon you will at least be able to be with one or two breaths throughout the complete cycle of inhalation and exhalation. You will also develop the ability to notice when your mind has wandered and to firmly and gently bring it back to the breath.

When your mind starts wandering, the breath becomes your anchor to which you return in order to stabilize and focus your attention. This anchor object is important because meditation is so hard to do. You may get distracted by what’s worrying you or by some longing, or you may get bored, sleepy, or restless, or you may start doubting the whole process. Staying with the breath calms the mind, collects your scattered attention, and unifies the mind so that you are able to continue. It is never a mistake or a bad meditation if all you do is work on staying with the breath. Even when you constantly struggle and don’t actually spend much time with the breath, it’s good practice. By repeatedly returning to the breath, you are learning to just start over. Starting over is a key step in meditation. It expresses your intention to be present, and the power of your intention is what determines your ability to be mindful in daily life.

The manner in which you stay with the breath in meditation is called “bare attention”—you simply feel the movement of the breath and the body’s response and notice whether the breath is warm or cool, long or short. You observe the arising of a breath, its duration, and its passing. You might stay with only one of these experiences or a combination of them. In practicing bare attention you don’t judge the breath or think about how you might improve it. You simply register the experience of the breath without reacting to the experience with mental commentary or physical action.

Once you’re somewhat able to stay present with the breath, you start to open your field of attention to ever-more-subtle objects of experience that arise in the mind. This process continues until you are able to respond to all of your experiences as opportunities for mindfulness. In order to meditate in this manner, the Buddha taught what are often called the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, in which you systematically learn how to pay attention to and investigate what arises in your mind, whether the experience comes from one of your five body senses or from the mind generating thought. The four modes of investigation he prescribed are:

Knowing how any experience feels in the body (First Foundation),

Noting the pleasant-, unpleasant-, or neutral-feeling tone that accompanies every moment’s experience (Second Foundation)

Witnessing your mental state and your emotions in the moment (Third Foundation)

Opening to the impersonal truth of life that is revealed in this moment (Fourth Foundation)

These Four Foundations of Mindfulness and all the practices associated with them are described in depth in the Buddha’s Satipatthana Sutta. By building your awareness utilizing these four foundations, you gradually develop clear seeing (sampajanna), the ability to be mindful in the present moment. In so doing you begin to have insight about what is true and how to respond skillfully in any situation.

When you are just beginning this practice, you serially investigate all Four Foundations of Mindfulness. For instance, if the mind is pulled away from the breath by a strong body sensation, then you temporarily abandon the breath as an object and let that body sensation become the object of your attention. When the mind gets tired of staying with the body sensation and starts to move to other objects, return to the breath. At this stage of practice you do not investigate your emotions or your mind states, only body sensations. The challenge is to sustain your attention on a particular body sensation in such a way that you can feel it. Is it a pulsation or a wave? Is it expanding or contracting? If it’s painful, what kind of pain is it? Does it twist, stab, burn, pinch, and so forth? If it’s pleasant, is it sweet, warm, tingly? In the First Foundation of Mindfulness the attention is to be focused on the body from within the body, meaning that you are not training your mind to be a distant, indifferent observer of your body; rather, you are being with your aching back. This same method of keeping attention within the experience is used for all Four Foundations of Mindfulness.

The Buddha started vipassana practice with mindfulness of the body because for most people it is far easier to stay present with the body than with the mind and because the body participates in all other experiences you have in ordinary consciousness. He said, “If the body is not mastered [by meditation], then the mind cannot be mastered, if the body is mastered, mind is mastered.” He went on to say, “There is one thing, monks, that cultivated and regularly practiced, leads to a deep sense of urgency, . . . to the Supreme Peace . . . to mindfulness and clear comprehension, . . . to the attainment of right vision and knowledge, . . . to happiness here and now, . . . to realizing deliverance by wisdom and the fruition of Holiness: it is mindfulness of the body.”

Many experienced students of meditation tend to skip over the body and focus on the emotions and mind states, thinking they are getting to the really juicy part of practice, but as the Buddha’s quote indicates, this is a significant misapprehension. I have found that cultivating body-awareness is the surest way for most students to start to impact their daily life with their mindfulness practice. Therefore, as you move from the First Foundation of Mindfulness of the Body to the Second Foundation, remember that throughout the practice, you use the breath as an anchor to collect and unify the mind while expanding your mindfulness to an ever-greater range of experience.

After you develop mindfulness of the changing nature of body experience, you are ready to work with the Second Foundation—the feeling tone of your experience. You start to include the pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral flavor contained in each moment of body sensation in your field of attention. You don’t try to control these sensations but simply to know them. For instance, you notice how pleasant the warm sun feels on your face on winter mornings or how an aching leg feels unpleasant from within the experience. When body sensations are neither pleasant nor unpleasant, they are neutral. Ordinarily you don’t notice the neutral sensations, but with mindfulness they become part of your awareness and expand your experience of being alive. Developing awareness of pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral sensations and how they condition the mind is a critical factor in finding peace and well-being in your life.

After you have worked with body sensations, you are ready to work with the Third Foundation, mental events (your emotions, mental processes, and mind states), in your meditation. At first just take emotions as a field for investigation. Notice when your mind is pulled away from the breath by an emotion. What is the nature of the emotion? How do you feel it in the body? In my experience, all emotions are accompanied by body sensations. What is an emotion, really, when you deconstruct it? Is it not an internal image, or words, or a pleasant or unpleasant feeling accompanied by many coarse or subtle sensations? I’m not referring to what caused the emotion, which is a combination of perception, belief, intent, and response, but rather to what happens when the mind registers an emotion. Does the mind keep feeling the emotion, or does it arise and pass like a body sensation? Remember to continue to use your anchor object so that you don’t get lost in your emotions.

Many times you will discover that you do not know what emotion you are feeling or that there is more than one emotion competing for attention. In these instances, just be aware of emotions; do not try to name them. Likewise, sometimes you can’t name a body sensation, so it only feels like numbness; numbness then is the body sensation. Don’t insist on specificity; just be aware that there is a body.

Now you are ready to examine your mental processes. You will quickly notice that the mind is almost always thinking and that much of this thinking is based on the past or future in the form of remembering, planning, fantasizing, and rehearsing. Observe each of these. Are they pleasant or unpleasant? What happens to them as you turn your attention on them? Do they stop or intensify? Or do you get lost in them and lose your mindfulness? What underlies your constant planning? Is it anxiety? When you bring up a fear or worry over and over again, is it really unpleasant or does it induce a kind of reassurance? What happens if you stop? Is the constant worrying really a false reassurance? Does it actually induce a habit of anxiety? Remember to feel your mental processes from within them—the fuzziness and excitement of fantasy, the heaviness of worry and fretting, and the speed of planning. Notice what it is and how it then changes.

Finally, you are ready to experience the Buddha’s insights as they manifest in your life—the life you have been examining until now, which includes your body sensations, emotions, mind states, and mental processes and the pleasantness and unpleasantness that accompanies each of them. With the Fourth Foundation of Mindfulness, you see how each moment constantly changes and that most of what you take personally is actually impersonal and is not about you. For instance, in our earlier example, the person at the office who upset you was not really focused on you, but was reacting to her own inner turmoil, and you just happened to receive the eruption. You also notice which mind states lead to suffering and which don’t, and you begin to live more wisely.

by Phillip Moffitt

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