LIKE A BABY LEARNING TO WALK
IN THE LAST CHAPTER, I INTRODUCED THE PRACTICE of Mindfulness of Breathing and encouraged you to try a meditation exercise using that method. Now that you've had some experience with this method, it may be helpful to examine some of the common observations made by new meditators and consider how to further develop your practice. This discussion will then lead us into exploring the next stage of Mindfulness of Breathing, in which we establish a more refined level of attention on the breath.
Having already taken a few steps on the journey of introspection and mental cultivation, you may have realized that understanding the theory of meditation is not the same as being able to do it. The theory is relatively simple to comprehend, but developing the practical skill requires much training and a great deal of patience.
I usually discourage students from thinking about meditation in terms of success or failure. It is far better to regard the time we spend practicing as a learning process. Every meditation period can teach us a little more about the mind: its strengths and weaknesses, its tendencies and habits. Only with the knowledge that comes from observation and experience can we achieve the goals of meditation outlined in Chapter 1. Thus, my teacher would often say that the only unsuccessful meditation is the one that we failed to do, because then we did not learn anything.
Consider the experience of a baby learning to walk. How many times does a baby try to stand and take a step, only to fall down again? If the baby started thinking about how difficult it was to walk, she would probably stop trying. Fortunately, babies do not think like that, so most babies learn to walk and eventually to run. I am sure we are all glad that, as babies, we kept getting up each time we fell down.
Let us look at the usual experience of a "baby meditator" taking those first steps.
THE BEHAVIOR OF THE MIND DURING MEDITATION
Initial attempts at meditation are a rude awakening to many people. Often they are shocked to discover that their minds have so little focus and attention. However, becoming aware of this fact is, in itself, a wonderful revelation and an important first step in getting to know the mind. Do not be disappointed if the experience is not what you expected or hoped for. Instead, carefully consider what you did experience during the meditation and how the mind behaved when you tried to remain mindful of the breath.
You probably observed two very common habits that the mind exhibits during meditation. First, you may have noticed that quite frequently the mind forgets the breath completely and gets lost in some other activity for a while. During this time, the mind is preoccupied with thoughts or sensory experience, or just drifts from one thing to another, without clear awareness. At such times, you do not even know that the mind has forgotten the breath, nor do you know what "monkey business" the mind is up to. This common occurrence can be considered a lapse in mindfulness during meditation.
Then, inevitably there arises a new moment of awareness, an instant when you realize that the mind has indeed wandered away from the breath. The experience is like waking up and becoming fully present again. It is important to embrace this moment of awareness by noting clearly what the mind is doing and, without irritation, disappointment, or discouragement, gently but firmly return your attention to the breath.
At this stage in the practice, we do not expect the mind to concentrate fully on the breath. We know that it will wander off, so the challenge is to notice when the mind drifts away and where it goes. Our primary concern is to sharpen and strengthen the faculty of awareness that allows us to notice these movements.
With regular practice, your meditation will gain momentum. As you develop greater skill, you will find that the frequency and duration of the lapses in awareness gradually decrease. My teacher compared this learning process to a dripping faucet. Each drip represents a moment of awareness. At first, the faucet drips only sporadically with long gaps between drips. Gradually, the drips become more frequent until there is no gap between drips, and the water flows in a stream. Similarly, at the beginning of meditation, the moments of awareness may seem few and far between, but with practice, the drips eventually form a stream, and we experience the wonder of being truly awake.
The second observation you will have made is that the mind seems capable of doing a number of things at the same time. While you continue to know the in and out breaths, the mind is also thinking, hearing, feeling sensations in the body, and so forth. In reality, the mind can be conscious of only one experience at any given moment. However, the mind is extremely fast, and consciousness moves from one experience to another with such speed that it gives the impression of simultaneous perception of different objects.
In contrast to the speed of consciousness, a physical process, such as breathing, is very slow. In the time it takes an inhalation to flow in, the mind can think numerous thoughts and process a great deal of information. Thus, although we may still know that the breath is flowing in, during those moments when the mind is thinking and hearing, we are not truly attentive to the breath.
As long as the attention on the breath remains somewhat superficial, we may continue to have a lot of mental activity, even while successfully counting the breath from one to ten. Our task is to gradually thin out extraneous mental activity by continually encouraging the mind to be interested in the breath rather than in other things. The process is a bit like being in the midst of a group of people who are all talking. If we are really interested in hearing a particular person in the group, we can focus our attention almost exclusively on what that person is saying while disregarding all the others.
In summary, we can say that in the first type of experience, in which the mind completely forgets the breath, there is a lapse of awareness for a period of time. In the second, where the mind seems capable of doing a number of things at once, there is awareness, but attention is not yet focused.
HELPFUL ATTITUDES IN MEDITATION
How should we continue at this stage? Needless to say, practice improves with patient effort. However, it is obvious that the way we view or approach any undertaking greatly influences the experience and the outcome. With the appropriate attitude, we will find it easier to sharpen awareness and strengthen concentration, resulting in a more peaceful meditation experience. Therefore, I greatly encourage fostering three mental attitudes helpful in the practice of meditation: interest, carefulness, and contentment.
If we can arouse interest in the meditation object, in this case the breath, the mind will automatically remain attentive to it and become focused more easily.
Now, is the natural breath interesting? New meditators often complain that the breath is "so boring." The reality is not that the breath is boring, but rather that we are bored. There is nothing in this world that is intrinsically interesting or boring. There are only interested minds and bored minds. The interest does not come from the object; it comes from the mind perceiving that object. If this were not the case, then everyone would be interested in exactly the same things. But because interest comes from the perceiver, anything can be interesting, and everything can be boring.
In meditation, we want to develop inner strength and self-empowerment. We are striving to train the mind so that we can focus attention on the object we choose at the time we desire. This means that we are not just waiting passively for some fascinating and exciting thing to grasp our attention. Rather, we are actively generating interest from within ourselves. Self-empowerment means that we stop being the monkey whose attention is drawn by whatever bright object comes into view and take hold of the freedom we have to arouse interest in the task at hand.
To help stimulate interest in the breath, you may want to contemplate the fact that life and the act of breathing are inseparable. Since taking the first breath at birth, each exhalation has been followed by an inhalation. But, one day there will be an exhalation and . . . nothing. No inhalation. Moreover, we never know which breath this last one is going to be. Now, this thought is not intended to frighten you or to cause anxiety, but simply to arouse interest in that next breath through the realization that each breath is indeed precious.
The ability to pay careful attention is very much the same as being able to concentrate. Consider the degree of carefulness a neurosurgeon needs to have when performing an operation. If we can arouse the same quality of carefulness while being attentive to the breath, the mind will have little time for distractions. Being carefully attentive to the breath means that we care about it. Caring allows us to experience each breath more fully, for a longer time without distraction.
Being contented with the present moment is indeed a blessing. Contentment allows us to experience the moment fully, and it is therefore a prerequisite for mindfulness. Do not confuse contentment with complacency. Complacency implies disinterested laziness, while contentment is the ability to abide in the present, free from the compulsive habit of always wanting something else.
If we can establish an attitude of contentment during meditation, the mind will be more willing to remain with the breath and less inclined to chase after distracting thoughts. It will be easy to let go of or relinquish concern for the past and the future, to put aside everything else, and to embrace only the experience of one breath at a time.
Practicing Mindfulness of Breathing with these attitudes will greatly facilitate progress by sharpening awareness and strengthening concentration. The mind will become more peaceful and reach a deeper level of meditation.
MINDFULNESS OF BREATHING - Part Two
As described in the last chapter, the first stage in Mindfulness of Breathing is simply to know whether the breath is coming in or going out. I referred to this stage as "knowing the in and out breath."
At this level of awareness, our experience of the breath remains superficial and sporadic. However, if we continue to practice on a regular basis, making an effort to sharpen awareness by using the skillful means described above, then the mind will naturally experience the breath in more detail. Thus, the meditation becomes deeper, and we gradually arrive at the second stage in the practice of Mindfulness of Breathing.
Before we go further, it is important to understand that the terms "first" and "second" stage do not refer to separate steps in the practice. It is not that you practice stage one for a week or month and then decide to move on to stage two. These terms are used only as markers to indicate a gradual progress in the process of being increasingly attentive to the breath. There is no clear-cut demarcation between stage one and stage two; nor do you intentionally move from one stage to the other. Rather, you experience these stages as a natural progression that results from skillful training of the mind.
Have you ever been to the beach and walked slowly out into the sea? As you walk in, the water gradually covers your feet, ankles, knees, waist, and so forth, until you are completely immersed. We can think of progress in meditation as being a similar experience: a gradual immersion into the sea of serenity as the mind becomes increasingly attentive to the meditation object.
Metaphorically, we "walk into the breath" by observing the breath more carefully and with more interest. We then notice that the rhythmic flow of the breath is not an unchanging process. The quality, feel, and character of the breath change according to the needs of the body. Sometimes the breath flows slowly, taking a long time to come in and go out; at other times, the breath is rather short, coming in and going out more quickly.
It is important to remember that we are not intentionally interfering with the breath or altering its natural flow. The body continues to breathe as it wants. We are simply paying more careful attention to the breath, thereby observing it in greater detail.
These observations bring us to the second stage of Mindfulness of Breathing, which I call "knowing the long and short breath."
Knowing the Long and Short Breath
The terms "long" and "short" refer to whether the breath takes a long time to flow in and out, or only a short time. These terms do not have any independent significance and are only meant to indicate the relative changes that naturally occur in our breathing. In other words, an in breath is only long in relation to another in breath that was shorter and vice versa.
Going back to the example of watching a passing train, at the first stage of observation, we are aware only of the fact that the train is coming from the west going east, or coming from the east going west. But at this stage, we are more attentive and take greater interest in the train. Not only do we notice the direction of the train, but we also know whether it is a long train or a short train.
DEEPENING YOUR EXPERIENCE IN MEDITATION
In order to deepen your meditation experience, continue practicing Mindfulness of Breathing on a regular basis according to the exercise given in the last chapter. If you are feeling comfortable meditating for fifteen minutes, you may want to lengthen the time of your meditation by five minutes or so. However, the quality of your effort is more important than the duration of the meditation period.
Try to be attentive to each breath, continually encouraging the mind to let go of, abandon, and relinquish all other activities. Learn to be content with the experience of one breath at a time. Consider each breath as precious, as though it could be your last. When the breath goes out, remain attentive: will it come back in?
By practicing in this way, your mind will incline towards the breath more easily and remain attentive to it longer. You will observe the nature of the breath in greater detail, noticing what the breath feels like: whether it is long and slow, or short and quick. With this increased level of awareness and concentration comes a deeper meditation experience. The amount of mental dialogue and activity will gradually diminish and the mind will become increasingly quiet and peaceful.
A WORD OF CAUTION REGARDING PROGRESS
Having introduced the notion of progress in meditation, it may be valuable to conclude this chapter with a word of caution.
Generally speaking, we can say that if the practitioner is experiencing a greater degree of comfort, peace, and clarity during meditation, then the practice is going in the right direction. However, there is no way of knowing how fast or slow, with what ease or difficulty any of us will progress along this path.
Each of us brings a unique set of attributes, both positive and negative, to the practice of meditation. If you have accumulated a lot of careless and frenetic mental habits (welcome to the club!), it may take considerable training to achieve a peaceful state of concentration. On the other hand, those who have calm, clear, and disciplined minds to begin with may find the process easy from the start. Needless to say, you can only start from where you are, but do start!
It is also worth remembering that there are many ups and downs in the practice of meditation. Training the mind is not a simple and smooth progression towards ever deepening levels of meditation. Sometimes the experience can be like taking one step forward and two steps back. Obviously the meditation will be greatly affected by your mental and emotional moods as well as the physical state of the body. For instance, if you have just received some bad news or are ill with the flu, it will not be easy to concentrate the mind on your breathing.
Finally, I usually discourage meditators from being overly concerned with the notion of progress. This is because such a preoccupation can become a distraction for the mind, preventing it from achieving calmness and concentration. Naturally, you will wish to make progress; however, having established that aspiration, you should simply get on with the practice, patiently creating the right conditions. The results will come naturally.
Why is it that, when I meditate on the breath, I often feel tension in my eyes, as if I were staring at something?It may be that you are trying to focus the mind on the breathing with too much effort. Try spending a little more time relaxing the muscles in your face before turning your attention to the breath. Also, while practicing Mindfulness of Breathing, encourage the mind to sink into the breath and relax with its rhythmic flow.Avoid forcing the mind too much; give it some "rope." Rather than just trying to concentrate on the breath, put more emphasis on noticing the movements of the mind. Only after awareness has been well established will it be possible to make greater effort to strengthen concentration.It is useful to remember that, while training the mind in meditation, we try to emulate the attitude of a caring mother rather than that of a harsh prison warden.Can I have music playing during meditation?When practicing Mindfulness of Breathing, it is usually best to meditate in a quiet place without distracting noise or music. This will make it easier for the mind to remain attentive to the breath. However, playing soft, tranquil, and unobtrusive background music may help you calm down and achieve a meditative mood more easily. Soft music may also act like "white noise" that helps to blunt the effects of other sounds. You may wish to experiment with this option. However, remember that there is nothing more peaceful than the sound of silence.While meditating, I see different colors in my mind. How should I react to this experience?Unlike the perception of light that many meditators experience when they attain deep concentration, the appearance of colors or images in the early stages of meditation is mainly due to the proliferation of an active mind. If you are practicing Mindfulness of Breathing, you treat such images in the same way as thoughts, sounds, or sensations. Simply recognize them when they come into consciousness and let them go, continually encouraging the mind to return to the breath.As a general rule, it is best to consider the various perceptions that arise in the mind during meditation as "visitors" passing through. Neither become infatuated and led into distraction by the visitors, nor fight to get rid of them.Is it true that I should choose a meditation method that is compatible with my character type?There is an element of truth in this view, because you may find practicing one particular method a little easier than another. However, of far greater importance than the method used is the way in which it is practiced. In other words, you must gradually discover the most effective approach to guide and teach the mind in order to achieve clarity and concentration.Depending on your temperament and mental tendencies, you may need to adapt the approach regardless of the method being used. For instance, if you tend to be very rigid, stern, and controlling, you need to be wary of using too much force in the meditation practice. A more relaxed approach may be more effective. On the other hand, if you are very casual and easygoing, you may need to be a little more strict and firm with the mind when training it in meditation.Through practice and careful observation, you will begin to understand the tendencies of your mind and thus be able to fine-tune the approach so as to achieve the desired results.When I play a computer game, I become completely focused on the game. I don 't hear the people around me, and time seems to pass very quickly. Is that like a meditation state? And why doesn't the same thing happen when I practice Mindfulness of Breathing?It is quite easy to become absorbed in things we find interesting and exciting. When we become absorbed in that object of attention, the mind is indeed in a concentrated state. However, this type of concentration is not usually accompanied by the qualities of awareness and serenity and is not, therefore, the same as a meditative state.While reading an absorbing novel or watching a captivating movie, we can easily become so involved in the experience that we lose track of time and our surroundings. But the mind is by no means peaceful and clear during that time, nor do we feel refreshed and clearheaded afterwards.No, I am sorry to say that we cannot achieve the lofty goals of meditation by these means of escape. In fact, you will usually find it much more difficult to meditate after being absorbed in such a way, because the mind will be even more cluttered than normal. Have you noticed how your mind is full of images, memories, and dialogue for quite some time after watching a movie? A stimulated mind makes it very difficult to practice Mindfulness of Breathing.Of course, there are occasions in ordinary life when we automatically enter states of concentration that resemble meditative states. For example, consider the experience of watching an extremely beautiful sunset in a state of awe and wonder. The mind becomes completely quiet and clear as you partake in the visual feast of colors and majesty. After such an experience, you indeed feel refreshed, alert, and more fully alive, just as you would after a good meditation period.In answering the second part of your question, as to why you cannot replicate the same degree of concentration while practicing Mindfulness of Breathing, I assure you that, if you can arouse the same degree of interest in the breath, the mind will become equally focused. However, unlike the exciting computer game, the breath will not normally appear interesting to the mind. You will need to generate the interest through effort and skill. True, this is more difficult, but the rewards are well worth the effort.