Even my most active movement classes always begin with a centering practice. Sitting or lying down, resting into the body.
From there, we often employ different approaches to meditation. I usually offer more than one because no approach seems to always work all the time for everyone.
You might already have a sense of which meditative approaches feel most natural and which ones resonate less. You have probably also become aware that there is no sure way of knowing in advance how a particular session of practice will unfold.
During practice, we are feeling our way into the current of meditation and not thinking about theory. This article gives me a chance to appeal to your intellectual side and discuss the theories and philosophies a bit more. The more we understand the background of a technique, the more effective it becomes as a tool. The more techniques we know, the more options we have.
Also, very important: It is helpful to know that we have permission to use a variety of techniques- or none at all. Also, how to tell if it’s time to transition focus from one to another- or just sit there without any technique at all!!
In the beginning, we need our techniques to learn, to focus, to cultivate a taste for quiet and stillness, and cultivate the ability to remain comfortable in the body. Eventually, we find that our methods are formalized ways to lead us to a simple state where meditation flows naturally. The current of meditation already exists. We just have to find it.
For most of my twenties I felt I could not meditate or even focus on the breath without anxiety and frustration. No one told me I did not HAVE TO focus. Had I understood that I could drift through periods of seeming nothingness, seeming emptiness, to periods of turbulence, distraction, and fogginess, I might have become a consistent practitioner. I might have felt capable and stayed interested had I given myself permission to spontaneously let go of one technique and take up another, and that it was OK if no technique seemed to “work.”
Fortunately, I finally realized I wasn’t supposed to remain on a single track, squashed within a single layer of mind. I realized that my practice was mine to have and that it was actually creative- and even my creative drinking fountain where insight was there to find- or not. Even when I feel an epic “FAIL” at meditation, I feel calmer and happier later just because I had the time of quiet stillness.
For this reason, I would like to examine our most used techniques in greater detail. The more we understand the purposes and theories behind our method, the better we can practice. Ultimately, meditation (and all of yoga- even yoga philosophy!!) is experiential and must be practiced rather than just understood intellectually. As experience unfolds, we need to know when to drop the technique and allow discovery…….
Discovery through failure- or seeming failure- is a discovery indeed. So don’t worry if dropping a technique seems to ruin the experiment. Begin another experiment right away.
Here are the techniques we use most often in class as a primary focus or core practice—>
Breath to Breath
There is an element of watching the breath in most practices. Therefore it is the most basic.
- “Just sitting, just breathing” is the most simple in one sense, but is difficult in another sense because it is so open.
- Counting the breath provides more for the mind to do as it monitors the length of each breath for a number of seconds.
- Also, tracking the breath’s progress through the body as the belly rises and descends with each inhale and exhale, respectively.
- We can also monitor the attributes of breath: length, texture and depth- one after another as the breath naturally refines itself over time.
Breath practices are handy because they can be done anywhere, anytime. Because breath is so elemental, breath practice is powerful. The breath not only provides oxygen, but watching the breath coaxes the mind to stay focused inside.
When/ why move on from this practice?
- Tedium, monotony, boredom.
- When watching the breath increases an already anxious breath due to stress or trauma.
- When like watching the breath becomes confining or seems to be blocking other experiences that are ready to emerge.
Watching the Mind
The mind flows just as breath does but can be way more difficult to follow! It can think discursively, plan, judge, analyze, interpret, edit, daydream, play bad pop music, tell stories and deceive itself and others. When we are in a state of monkey mind, we do all at once- or so it seems. Techniques for watching the breath include:
- watching thoughts come and go like clouds or like things carried in a current. There is a linear flow but also dimensional layers. We watch the shapes configure and reconfigure as they flow in one direction- then another- as pieces become covered and uncovered, become still, or disappear completely. The intention while watching the flow of mind is to just observe and not get caught up in one particular thought. We view the whole- everything as one- by watching the simultaneous movement of its individual parts.
- Or, when one piece becomes prominent, we use it as a primary focus, viewing it’s transformation until it no longer serves as a focus.
- Visual or sensory thinkers can use the power of imagination to both focus and relax the mind. If lying down, we can imagine the skull and mind melting back into the floor away from the forehead and the eyes falling back from the eyelids. Or, sitting upright, that the mind is not just contained within boundaries of the skull, but expands out from the center of the skull into vastness, as a part of everything.
We get so caught up by one thought that we lose sense of practice, maybe even lose sense of where we are and are someplace else in our lives such as the bank, in conversation with someone- or asleep! Eventually we realize we got lost and remember we are practicing and find a focus.
When/ why move on from this practice?
- As with the breath, tedium, monotony, boredom.
- When watching the mind increases an already anxious mind due to stress or trauma.
- When the mind seems to have little structure, presence, clarity, and/or we feel lost.
- When our thoughts are too disturbing and the technique of just “being aware that we are disturbed” makes things seem worse.
- When the heart / emotion or bodily sensation wants to emerge or when we feel too much “in the head’ and disconnected from our emotional and physical selves.
Listening to sound or tracking external phenomena
This technique is very harmonious in outdoor practice. We listen to sounds, manmade or in nature. We feel wind, insects coming and going, maybe a bit of mist. The smell of flowers or perhaps something less pleasant.
- We open all senses to the external environment but remain firmly planted inside our center. There is some awareness of sitting and of being self contained and having an inner self while the awareness radiates outward.
- This technique also works well when external phenomena are impossible to ignore. A noisy person enters or leaves the room. Loud noises and soft breezes waft in through an open window. We have the chance to become aware of our preferences and aversions and our reactions when we get what we want – and when we don’t. We get to practice patience and acceptance with things we dislike and non- attachment to things we like.
- In extreme situations when confronting highly impinging, extremely unpleasant external phenomena, we can practice “radical tolerance.” We repeatedly and frequently renew attention, relax, and begin to strip away our labels and reactions to the phenomena. (Once, during meditation our guide led us through radical tolerance awareness as the floor we were sitting on vibrated as it was being drilled into from underneath by several workmen, each with a noisy drill. Also, twice I have been in meditation during an earthquake. I was among those who broke practice, fell into panic and prepared to run. Others remained still, eyes closed, monitoring the situation without breaking practice. They were just as prepared to run- maybe more so- for not having fallen into the grip of fear.)
When/ why move on from this practice?
- -When meditating in a controlled environment like a meditation hall in a remote place, by design, there is not much outside ourselves to perceive.
- -When we lose the inner connection to ourselves. Those of us who are very empathic, vicarious or habitually monitoring the actions and reactions of others might use this practice less often than an inward focused practice.