The following is rather long, but worth a look. It is found here: http://personal.bgsu.edu/~mbelzer/do.html
A companion text, "Practicing with form, not holding on to form," is found here: http://personal.bgsu.edu/~mbelzer/notdo.html
And the above is found here: http://personal.bgsu.edu/~mbelzer/index.html
"Practicing Mindfulness: HOW TO JUST DO IT!"
I would like to talk about a couple of mental activities that are at the heart of mindfulness (vipassana) meditation practice. We have been here for a week in seclusion, in silence, observing basic moral precepts, endeavoring not to harm in any way, and experimenting with renunciation of many of our normal pleasures, projects and so forth. This is unusual to do, but having tried the experiment, it is natural to want to make the most of this time, to go deeper into the experiment.
The two activities are not unfamiliar to us, since they are based on the normal capacities to attend to objects of consciousness. The two activities are: (1) aiming attention to, and (2) sustaining attention with, objects of consciousness. To develop concentration we choose neutral processes (such as the sensations associated with the normal breath) as objects of the meditation practice. By ‘neutral’ I mean ‘not emotionally charged’. The centrality of these two activities for meditation is, of course, not an idea original with me. On the contrary, it is deeply embedded in the theravadan buddhist meditation traditions; and I am led to begin here by my own practice, especially the practice with Sayadaw U Pandita, a Burmese monk and renowned meditation master to whom I was introduced some years ago by Zoe Alexander.
A couple of years ago, whenI began teaching a basic meditation course for credit in my university, I found students came to the course eager to practice. there already is quite enough hype about meditation in mainstream culture, you know, celebrities who meditate or do yoga, rock bands called Nirvana, or the Beastie Boys rapping their version of the Bodhisattva vow, and so forth, so that it isn’t even unusual now for advertizers to use the image of a meditator nowadays -- so anyway the students have been eager to have the opportunity really to try it out. But they also are busy, there is lots of competition for their attention. So I wanted to cut to the essentials for practice; to get beyond the images of practice, to give the students the opportunity to experience for themselves what it is like to develop a daily practice for the four months of the semester. -- And so in the beginning of the course, my focus is on the two mental activities I will discuss here, precisely because this is HOW TO JUST DO IT.
So the two essential activities are AIMING and SUSTAINING conscious attention.
(1) Aiming, or directing, one’s attention is the activity of connecting consciously with a chosen process, such as the normal physical sensations in your body associated with the inbreath --and it helps to connect attention with the inbreath just as it begins. If one misses the beginning of it, it can be difficult to connect at all. At times this activity requires a lot of energy and effort; at other times, it is more receptive. Either the way, the point is the connection itself. It is simply to describe, but it requires patience and diligence to practice it.
(2) Sustaining the attention with the chosen process --such as the sensations associated with the normal breath--can feel like "rubbing" into the process, permeating, penetrating, enveloping or being enveloped by the process.
Ok. That's it. Just do it. You may not need to hear more about it for awhile. I will keep talking, but the main idea would be simply to practice it. Don't worry about listening very closely to what I have to say. Just try connecting and sustaining attention with the normal sensations in your body associated with the breathing process, catching the very beginning of the inbreath, following it; the very beginning of the outbreath, following it; and so forth.
Your doing that is almost certainly a lot more important than your hearing anything else I have to say.
But, all the same, I will keep talking for awhile. --In the theravadan literature, as well as in UP’s teaching, there are a number of analogies and metaphors that are used to illustrate these two activities. First, about connecting: consider the simple activity of using one’s hand to scratch an area of the body that itches. We first direct the hand to the area that itches; that is like connecting attention. Then about sustaining: consider how we rub the itchy area with our hand. That is like connecting. So--we aim the hand, we rub with the hand. Connecting with and rubbing an itch is a sort of remarkable feat, if one considers that there are infinitely many points in space around one --to be able to direct the hand to that particular point where the itch is taking place, and to be able to keep it there for a moment! -- In any case, this simply activity is a good analogy for the mental activities of aiming and sustaining attention.
In sitting meditation, when one is using the sensations of the breath as the primary object in order to deepen concentration, one simply aims the attention so as to catch the sensations occurring at the beginning of the inbreath, then simply lets the conscious attention rest with the flow of sensations. If one is observing the inbreath in the abdomen or chest, one catches the beginning of the "rising" and lets attention rest with this process; likewise, if one is observing the inbreath at the nose. One does not create either the sensations or the awareness of the sensations -- do you know how to do that? So in any case there is no reason to try to create the sensations -- and insofar as there is effort here, it is to aim or connect with the beginning of the flow of sensations associated with the inbreath, and then sustain the attention with that flow of sensations as it takes place. Then, again, catching the beginning of the outbreath, whether in the abdomen, chest, or nose (whatever place one has chosen to observe the breath): catching the beginning, then sustaining attention, allowing conscious attention to permeate the process. Then catching the very beginning of the next inbreath, and so forth.
These two activities, practiced with neutral processes like the normal inbreath and outbreath, can deepen concentration enough so that mindfulness becomes clear and bright. Please do not just believe me about this. It is pointless simply to have beliefs about it -- the idea is to try it out for yourself.
In walking meditation, one uses the sensations in the feet as the primary objects of attention: connecting with the sensations as they occur just as one begins to move one’s right foot, sustaining the attention with the flow of sensations as one moves the foot, places it, and settles into it. Likewise, connecting with the sensations in the left foot just as one begins movement with that foot. Even though the processes used as the primary objects of attention differ in sitting and walking meditation, the two activities of connecting and sustaining attention are just the same --and those are the central activities that are important for deepening concentration.
In both sitting and walking one can use quiet mental labels to aid in connecting attention with the beginning of the inbreath, outbreath, and so forth. These labels are thoughts, they shouldn’t occupy much of one’s attention (no more than, say, 5%), and one shouldn’t use them if it seems to be unnecessary. At times, though, they can be useful -- ‘rising’ or ‘in’ just as the inbreath begins; ‘falling’ or ‘out’ just as the outbreath begins; in walking ‘right’ or ‘stepping’ just as the right foot begins to move; ‘left’ or ‘stepping’ just as the left foot begins to move; and so forth. The idea is that these thoughts are useful insofar as they help us connect clearly and directly with the chosen processes.
U Pandita likens the two activities to washing dishes: grabbing and holding a dish to be washed is like aiming the attention; scrubbing the dish is like sustaining attention. The metaphor of an "anchor" often is used when we speak of "anchoring" attention to deepen concentration. Letting an anchor drop from a boat is like aiming or connecting attention --this needn’t take a whole lot of effort, but of course lifting the anchor and letting it drop takes some effort and is quite different from letting it just sit in the boat -- and then the anchor’s resting at the end of the rope is like sustaining attention with the chosen process. Of course, if we imagine what it is like for an anchor underwater, we can imagine various objects bumping into it -- big fish, little fish, ..., a jellyfish [laughter], amoebas... water molecules flowing over it ... Sustaining attention isn’t choosing or creating objects to be aware of, it is receptive --we can imagine a sponge in the water simply absorbing, this is like the receptive aspect of sustained attention.
In the literature one finds some energetic images for aiming or connection, such as a tiger leaping on its prey-- this represents one’s using a lot of energy at times --even courageous effort -- to stay present enough in order to make the connection between attending consciousness and the chosen object, such as the beginning of the inbreath. A gentler image is a butterfly landing on a flower --this too is liking connecting attention; or even the image of the flower being landed on, which can represent the receptive aspect of connecting --in any case, the butterfly is on the flower; the connection is made.
Sustaining the attention is like standing face to face with a friend. Or placing one’s own palms together--aiming attention is like bringing the palms together, sustaining attention is like holding them together, where there is no distance between attention and phenomena being observed, attention is right in the midst of the process being observed --whether we are using the breath or the sensations in walking.
By the way, if you start to find this talk repetitive and boring --you can just imagine then how my students feel after two or three weeks of it!! -- I am emphasizing these two activities in different ways in order to try to make it vivid how central they are -- whenever one is trying to meditate and there is any question what to do? -- Well, once again: connect attention with the primary object, sustain it there. It actually doesn’t matter what the "primary object" is for the meditation, as long as one tries to maintain the continuity of these two basic activities.
And of course these same two activities can be brought to any sort of conscious phenomena. Consider an itch again. I used this earlier as an example of the sort of thing with which one can connect with a finger -- I used it illustrate what aiming attention is like. But of course one also can simply aim attention to the itch but without touching it with either of one’s hands --one can aim and sustain attention with an itch, without scratching it --and, of course, that can be an interesting experience. I once was teaching meditation to some teenagers in the Bronx, and one girl was incredulous that I was suggesting that one might try simply observing an itch without scratching it. She thought the whole idea was absurd! Well, she might be right. But anyway by the end of the week, she was talking about how she had simply observed an itch, without scratching, and it was pretty interesting. In any case, if there is an itch somewhere on one’s body, it takes little effort to observe it, and one can practice mindfulness with an itch--aiming the attention to it, permeating it with attention, and simply observing what happens.
Likewise with aches and pains in one’s body. If one is sitting and notices that pain is taking place somewhere, there are various ways to work with it. If one has a lot of energy at the time, one can aim the attention right into the middle of the painful area, and simply observe. If energy is low, one might stay with the breath in order to maintain some calmness and stability. If there is a sort of medium level of energy, one can direct attention to the periphery of the painful area and observe what is taking place there. When connecting with pain, if one loses composure, simply return to the breath to deepen concentration. One can go back and forth between the pain and the breath. Either way one maintains the continuity of connecting/sustaining --even as the objects of attention change --and it is the continuity of these mental activities that deepens concentration.
So also with mental states, such as emotions. Experience of emotions is not usually localized in the body, although one can at times find sensations in one’s body that are associated with emotions, and so aiming or connecting has a different quality -- connecting with anger or fear is less like touching with one’s hand and more like simply being receptive, like the way one can connect with sounds. One allows attentive conciousness to experience the emotion, to abide with it like standing in a light mist or fog -- sustaining can be more like simply not turning away than anything more active. Connecting and sustaining attention with difficult states of mind, such as disturbing emotions, can at times be as simple and even indirect as just being willing to try to intend some day to be willing to accept and show interest in these states --gesturing in their direction, acknowledging their reality.
In general, the idea is that in formal practice, whenever there is a question about what one should do, one simply connects and sustains attention with the primary object of the meditation (the sensations associated with the breath or with walking); but, then again, allow the same activities to be brought into other phenomena as they come to mind.
One can bring these same activities of connecting and sustaining attention into normal actions. Mahasi Sayadaw, a great Burmese meditation teacher-- he was U Pandita’s teacher, by the way -- gives elegant instructions for developing mindfulness in normal actions. Consider eating. I was travelling once with a friend who had come across Jack Kornfield’s Living Buddhist Masters, which contains a chapter of instructions from Mahasi Sayadaw. She said, "here is something you might find interesting"-- and she read me his beginning instructions which includes instructions on using noting while eating. One can use labels: Looking... Seeing ... Gathering ... Bringing ... Placing ... Chewing ... Chewing ... Tasting ... Liking ... Swallowing ... Looking ... Seeing ... Gathering ... --I was amazed to hear this --People really do that?? Indeed, this can be practiced, not in a forced way, yet gently and firmly connecting attentively with these activities, penetrating attention into the activity of eating --something we think we really like but to which we rarely are paying very much attention.
In daily activities such as washing one’s face or cleaning a sink --same thing. In the movement of our hands and arms, we usually are pushing or pulling--one can use labels like ‘pushing’ or ‘pulling’ in help connect with the sensations associated with these movements--but remember that the labelling sometimes will just clutter experience and isn’t always useful. But the idea is simply to maintain continuity of connecting and sustaining even through the normal daily activities that are part of the retreat in addition to the formal sitting and walking meditation. The very first time I met U Pandita was in a bathroom -- it was actually in an old Baptist church in Nashville, Tennessee, -- he had come there to lead a seven-day retreat, and some Burmese people in Nashville had purchased the building, but it needed to be cleaned before the retreat. -- so there he was encouraging my friend to clean the sink mindfully --"rubbing, rubbing," he was saying.
As one deepens concentration during a retreat context, maintaining the continuity of mindfulness throughout all one’s actions is invaluable -- the momentum one gains in formal practice is maintained.
The two activities of connection attention and sustaining attention are regarded as specific antidotes to two common problems commonly encountered by people when they begin to practice a form of meditation.
Connecting, or aiming, attention is the antidote for drowsiness or sluggishness, when it is difficult to be alert, the mind is heavy, and so forth. The activity of aiming attention (such as to the beginning of the inbreath and outbreath, or the beginning of the step) can be energizing; it can be very surprising. When one feels sluggish, the very idea of making effort is difficult, one’s mind feels unworkable--yet if one can summon the effort just to connect with the primary object, one definitely can experience how this activity itself can refreshen one’s mind. It is quite amazing.
Sustaining, or permeating, one’s attention is the antidote for doubt or lack of confidence. In entering into an experiment like this retreat, it is natural for questions to arise about what one is doing here? How did one get into a situation so difficult as this? There can be a general lack of confidence in the practice, the teachings, the teachers, and there can be a sort of paralysis of indecision --"should I go or should I stay?"-- and one can get all wrapped up in a process of continuous thinking of this type. Of course the questions that arise also can be worthwhile insofar as they open up into reflection on what really is motivating one in life -- what AM I doing here?-- and into questions about one’s real nature, about meaning in one’s life, about what really is love? What would freedom or love mean for me? -- In any case, the point here is that these processes of thinking can be distracting in a way that hinders the development of stable concentration. And the activity of sustaining the attention, especially with a neutral, often boring process like the sensations in the breath, is the antidote to the lack of confidence that underlies these thoughts. One develops a sort of confidence in one’s own observing powers, and this factors into a simple willingess to continue the experiment further, to see what might happen next.
Gandhi said, "Truth and nonviolence are as old as the hills. All I have done is to try to experiment with both on as vast a scale as I could." Likewise, mindfulness is nothing new. What we are doing here is experimenting with simple methods to deepen concentration and brighten mindfulness. Aiming and sustaining attention is at the heart of this experiment, and these activities by themselves help one continue insofar as they refreshen one’s mind and engender a sense of confidence and willingness to continue connecting and sustaining attention with the ordinary phenomena -- and it really is not a matter of speculating, theorizing, adopting beliefs, or seeking great ideas ...from anyone.
When one does persevere wholeheartedly for awhile, one finds that a certain seclusion of mind develops. In addition to the external seclusion of our environment --the silence, the distance from normal projects and responsibilities and so forth -- there develops a very interesting inner seclusion. It is a seclusion, most notably, from the hindrances of sluggishness and lack of confidence just mentioned, and this seclusion in turn is said to allow three other qualities of mind to emerge: delighted interest in phenomena (even quite ordinary phenomena), a sense of physical and mental comfort, and one-pointedness or concentration. These five features taken together -- directed or connecting attention, sustained attention, delighted interest, a sense of comfort, and one-pointedness -- comprise a powerful and important combination of qualities of mind; when experienced --and it can be experienced as a sort of quantum shift -- there certainly is no question about the value of these states. --And the literature is quite clear here: connecting and sustaining are the causes of the other qualities.
Just as connecting counters sluggishness and sustaining counters lack of confidence, so also the other three qualities of mind are said to counter other states of mind that can be experienced as problematic (especially when one sits to try to meditate). One-pointedness is the antidote for the wild distractedness of mind arising from preoccupation with sensual desires. The delighted interest (or rapture, joy) is the antidote for nagging or ferocious aversion (states like judgment, anger, boredom, fear). The sense of comfort is said to be the antidote for uneasy restlessness (worry, agitation, remorse, regret, etc). When all these qualities are present there is a general seclusion from problematic states of mind, and the mind becomes calm, clear, engaged.
This seclusion should not be identified with repression of the senses or states of mind. While there are concentration practices that involve repression, when one is connecting and sustaining attention with normal phenomena (such as itches, pains, emotions, etc) in addition to the primary objects, one develops a mindful seclusion in which one can be clear and calm in the midst of normal states of mind. The good qualities of mind emerge because of the mindfulness practice which I have described; and in this type of meditation one connects and sustains attention with the primary objects (breath or walking) when there is any question about what to do; yet it is not exclusively a concentration practice. "Just enough" concentration is developed, so it is not a form of repression, and it is simple mindfulness of what is taking place (whether in the primary objects or elsewhere) that is the name of the game.
When one gets a taste of what is possible here, it is difficult to forget it. After spring break last year I received an email message from a student who’d been in my meditation class the year before. He said that he and several friends had been able to find a cheap house on the beach in Cancun (only $200 for the week) and they went there fully prepared to party. But, he wrote, as he was sitting on the beach in the sun, fully prepared, etc, suddenly he felt a yearning for solitude, for the seclusion of a meditation retreat. No it was not as though they had forgetten something one needs -- knowing this guy, I am quite sure they really did have everything one might need for a successful spring break! --Including music, pot, girls in tight bikinis, so forth-- but once one gets a taste of what is possible as one deepens concentration enough to brighten mindfulness, one just doesn’t forget it. U Pandita asks in his book, In This Very Life --the book edited so nicely by Kate Wheeler-- he asks:
• • Does it seem strange that in relinquishing the comfort of the senses [--this is really what we have been doing on this retreat, leaving our ordinary lives for awhile, just by being here and by practicing with the techniques about which I’ve been talking--] Does it seem strange that in relinquishing the comfort of the senses one gains a very comfortable state of being liberated from the very senses we have relinquished? This is the true renunciation of sense pleasures.
Does it seem strange? Yes, it is strange. This activity is so unusual, and yet when one experiments with it one comes to appreciate what Michele McDonald-Smith calls the "kindness of renunciation" -- renunciation as simply conserving energy so as to appreciate some of the simple, deep, and beautiful qualities of our existence.
I realize that there may be little value in your hearing somebody like me talk about this -- and it can even be irritating, especially in the middle of a retreat when the difficulties may be foremost -- yet what I am saying is it is in the literature and it can be verified. I have verified it, and I know many others who have done so. I am not presenting these ideas as speculative or theoretical or experimental. Of course, for each of us, it is a sort of experiment, but I am not giving this talk as an experiment. I am simply reporting on fundamental aspects of an ancient form of meditation practice. And in practice, of course, there is no need to try at all to seek directly for the seclusion from difficulties or to look directly for the calm, comfortable states of mind--rather, as noted, when there is any question about what to do, simply aim and sustain with the breath or walking as the primary objects of the meditation.
By the way, the terms in the Pali language for aiming and sustaining are vitaka and vicara, respectively; the seclusion to which they give rise is viveka, and the two activities naturally give rise to the one-pointedness, etc.
In practice it is important to balance the two activities with each other and also with the energy one has at any given moment. For instance, it is possible to put too much effort into aiming or connecting --if you aim too aggressively, you actually may miss the connection, that is, you won’t really observe the beginning of the inbreath, having "overshot" it-- it is like somebody who is learning to drive, who thinks they need to keep adjusting their steering, with the effect that they weave down the road. No. One aims generally in the direction one wants to go and adjusts only when necessary, certainly does not readjust the steering wheel all of the time. One often hears that to meditate one has to try to "stay in the moment" -- this can be nuanced a bit, since if one thinks of this as an activity that one does by continually re-connecting with each new moment --well, whew! That’ll be a lot of work. There are lots of moments! Now ... Now... Now... So staying in the moment is important, but it is not a matter of making effort to connect with each moment.
Likewise, the idea of sustaining attention with a process like the breath can be overdone if one takes the analogy with "rubbing" too literally --as if, for instance, one continually moves attention around. No. Simply allowing permeation of the process is enough.
Likewise it is very common for students to report that when they try to observe the normal, natural breath, it seems as if they are also controlling the breath. This sometimes is due to one’s aiming too much -- so one can aim gently, but once attention is there or close enough let both the breath and awareness of breath take care of themselves. As Joseph Goldstein says, mindfulness is not difficult; what can be difficult is to remember to be mindful. So we can put effort into remembering to connect --it is here that practicing with a method helps -- but having remembered (or not having forgotten), connecting and sustaining often unfold on their own without much effort.
The important thing here is that, while various concepts and analogies may be suggestive in explaining the activities of connecting and sustaining attention, there is no substitute for making the experiment oneself. --And then in doing so, one necessarily has to use one’s own discrimination even to use a simple method like this. For in any given moment, in the split-seconds of practice, no method can prescribed exactly what one needs to do in order successfully to connect and sustain attention with the inbreath, or to balance effort with concentration, or to develop mindfulness skillfully when painful sensations are present. To find the right balance, one has to exercise one’s own wisdom from the very beginning. One can hope that this practice will deepen one’s wisdom, of course, but one also necessarily relies on it --one’s own wisdom -- from the beginning. As one deepens concentration, there will at times be unexpected shifts in consciousness (even the process of deepening concentration involves shifts that at times are not necessarily experienced as good) and so this practice invites a readiness for anything.--And this readiness is freedom of mind. This sort of meditation is from the beginning an experiment with freedom.
This freedom can be experienced in the most practical ways. For example, many people find that once they get the hang of walking meditation, they find it relaxing, and then a good opportunity just to mull things over, to ruminate on whatever comes to mind. But instead of walking along just lost in thoughts and fantasies, one can practice slipping into clear mindfulness, letting the attention drop like an anchor to one’s feet, receptive to the simple, ordinary flow of sensations there. This is an experiment in freedom with the ordinary patterns of thoughts and emotions that may tend to emerge; there is, of course, nothing necessarily wrong with those patterns -- but it is quite interesting to experiment with freedom right then & there. --By the way, you can experiment in this very moment just by sitting there, dropping attention away from the sound of the words I am saying and connecting with the sensations in your own breath. I would not be insulted at all if you did that. On the contrary, that is the point; and that is exactly how I have sat through very many talks by U Pandita, with his giving me the same sort of encouragement. Actually I sometimes wondered if he didn't design his talks to be so boring and repetitive it was sort of the only way to tolerate them!
Similarly, recall that the anchor underwater is not grasping on to any of the objects that might bump into it -- the little fish, the water molecules --perhaps a whale this time -- these just come and go. And of course, in experience of something like the breath, we cannot hold on to any sensations. We may try to do it, but we find we cannot do it.
Even with respect to questions about practicing in a beneficial way --these questions themselves can reflect a yearning for a type of control that we try to exercise over things in daily life -- we often find ourselves seeking a strategy or a program to get us through a sitting, or through the day, or to enable us to complete the whole retreat -- and these very yearnings present us with opportunities to observe patterns of mind which often are enmeshed in an assumption that I do have genuine control over things. These patterns can be linked to patterns of greed and possessiveness, giving rise so often to fear. Yet such patterns and states of mind often hold us back from that for which we most deeply aspire in life.
One of my students last year responded as follows to a question about which I asked them to write. We had been reading Jack Kornfield’s book, A Path with Heart,-- though we didn’t use any books for two or three weeks; during the first weeks, the only assignment was to do two things --I will leave that for you to figure out, what those two things were -- and, anyway, I had asked them the following question: Kornfield says "we must make certain that our path is connected with our heart." What does that mean to you?" -- Well, one student replied: "For me it is a challenge to make sure that I am doing exactly what I want most to do, IN THE BIG PICTURE."
It is quite possible that development of concentration and mindfulness can enable one to develop an awareness and freedom of mind so that one really can do what one wants to do, in the big picture. In any case, I invite you to continue to practice to explore this possibility, not merely that we can imagine and think about freedom, but to develop it in the most practical ways. In practice, then, we may begin to touch on issues about personal identity that we may have considered in more theoretical terms. --For we naturally become open to questions about who is this being who wants? Who am I, in the big picture? But, again, in this type of meditation we do not tackle these types of questions head on. As I said, this is more basically a practice of freedom relative to our ordinary patterns of reflection and speculation and analysis. The methods we are using are simple to describe but they are not easy to do. I hope I have made them more clear. Thank you for your attention.