Read an Excerpt
Learning the Way of Awareness
By Andrew Weiss
New World LibraryCopyright © 2004 Andrew Weiss
All rights reserved.
The first step in starting a mindfulness practice is to establish the basic elements. These include mindfulness of breathing, sitting meditation, and daily-life mindfulness. In this chapter, you will learn how to use your breathing to establish mindfulness and increase your awareness. You will also learn the basics of sitting meditation and get suggestions for creating your own daily-life mindfulness practice. In each subsequent chapter in this section, you will build on the practices you learn here and add new ones, so by the fourth week you will have the essentials of mindfulness practice in place.
Mindfulness practice comes in two varieties: formal and informal. The formal practice is what we would normally call "meditation," for which we set aside a specific time to sit silently with mindful awareness of our breathing, or to walk slowly and silently with mindful awareness of our breath and our walking. The informal practice involves mindfulness of our daily-life activities, and is just as much "meditation" as the formal practices are. Because the heart of mindfulness practice is the enactment of mindfulness in everything in our lives, both the formal and informal practices of mindfulness are equally important. Each supports the other. Without formal practice, it is difficult to develop a deep understanding of our minds and our true nature as living beings. Formal practice gives us a controlled, simplified environment where we can encounter ourselves and the world in the present moment. Informal practice puts mindfulness into every act and increases our concentration and awareness. Without informal practice, we would develop split personalities, with one deeper level of awareness when we are doing sitting or walking meditation and another less open level of awareness at other times.
Daily Formal Practice
Doing some formal mindfulness practice every day is important. It strengthens our concentration and gives us the opportunity to do nothing and to be present in the moment. Be is the operative word here: be and not do. We all have plenty of "do-ing" in our lives, and not enough "be-ing." We need both. Not only do we encounter ourselves and the world differently when we are be-ing rather than do-ing, we also learn quickly that the secret to living well is to "be" in the center of our "do-ing." Or to put it another way, we learn that the secret to an awakened life is to be completely, deeply still, expansive and present in the heart of whatever we are doing. We stop, come to rest. Only when we can rest from our mind's constant running can we be present to this moment.
The first formal meditation practice you will learn is sitting meditation.
Meditation teacher Arnie Kotler likes to say that sitting meditation accomplishes two things: It allows us to get to know ourselves, and it improves our concentration. Getting to know ourselves means looking deeply into our own nature and the nature of everything around us, and cultivating our willingness to allow our preconceptions about ourselves and our lives, and about everything else, to fall away. As we get to know better the true nature of our minds, we start to understand that thoughts are thoughts and feelings are feelings, and to become less invested in the drama that our thoughts and feelings can so easily create. We begin to live more gracefully.
Mindfulness meditation is not about being in a trance, or about escaping from reality. It is about waking up. We spend most of our lives caught up in the conceptual knowledge we have acquired, and in our concepts of who we are, or what our lives mean, or what a tree is or what a boulder is, and so on and on. This layer of concept sits between us and the reality of the present moment. To touch the present moment, we must allow this layer of concept to drop away. To allow this layer to drop away, we first have to be able to stop. We have to stop both body and mind. Only when our minds stop racing, only when we allow ourselves to be in one place, can we truly be present in the here and now. This is the first step we take in mindfulness meditation: We use mindfulness of breathing as a way to help us stop and truly be here. As we continue to practice mindfulness meditation, our capacity to stop and be present increases. Out of this we naturally develop deeper concentration and the capacity to look deeply into ourselves or into whatever we encounter.
This process of looking deeply is not analytical. It is spontaneous and unstudied. We don't have to figure anything out or make anything happen. All we need do is to sit, be aware of our breathing, and allow our concentration and mindfulness to penetrate whatever comes along.
In sitting meditation we begin by focusing our attention on our breathing. If we can truly be present with our in-breath and out-breath, we have stopped ourselves in the present moment, allowed our concept about what breathing is to fall away, and begun to touch the true nature of breathing. If we stay concentrated on our breathing, we will notice that our breathing changes, that no two breaths are exactly the same, and that other things, like thoughts and feelings, arise and ask for our attention. In this way we come to know ourselves, our feelings, and our minds directly, in a way that sits outside conceptual knowledge.
To do sitting meditation well, you need a good and stable posture. If you sit in a chair, sit with your back straight so that your legs are at a 90-degree angle (or as close to one as you can put them) and with your feet flat on the floor. If you are sitting on a cushion, sit with your legs crossed or in a half- lotus position (or if you are really flexible, in a full-lotus) and with your back straight. It is helpful to have the cushion tilt your buttocks forward slightly to stabilize the base of your spine. Please do not lean against the back of a chair or against a wall, because if you do, you are likely to go to sleep.
Your arms should be near, but not touching, your sides. Make sure you are not pressing against your chest; this will inhibit your breathing. Your chin should be slightly tucked in. Your hands can be in any comfortable posture.
You can close your eyes during sitting meditation, or if you wish, you can keep them slightly open, with your gaze adjusted to about a 45-degree angle and directed at the floor in front of you. If you keep your eyes open, here are two important pointers: do not let your eyes wander, and gaze softly — don't drill a hole in the floor with your eyes.
Stillness in sitting is important. When we allow our bodies to stop, our bodies are still. Stillness of body contributes to stillness of mind. If you move your arms, legs, head, or hands, you will disturb the stopping of your mind and the stability of your sitting meditation. You may also disturb the other people with whom you may be sitting. If you must move because you have a muscle cramp or a pain somewhere, and the pain is interfering with your stability, please take this as an opportunity to practice mindfulness of movement by moving slowly and with awareness of each movement of your bones and muscles.
In mindfulness meditation we naturally develop abdominal or belly breathing. You can experience this by holding your hand on your abdomen and feeling it rise and fall with each breath. Focusing our breathing in our abdomens puts our attention and our breath deep in our bodies and creates stability. So as a beginner you may want to hold your hand over your belly and feel your breath to connect you with your breathing.
Beyond doing some simple breathing exercises that are explained below, we don't try to control our breath in sitting meditation. It's important to notice the breath free of our conscious control. Simple awareness of breathing is all you need. You are already breathing, so just notice it. If you notice how your breath is right now, whether it is long or short, deep or shallow, you are becoming aware of your breathing.
You will notice in meditation that the place of your breath and the nature of your breathing will change depending on the stability of your concentration and the nature of the thoughts or feelings that arise. You will notice this particularly with stressful thoughts and feelings, particularly fear and anxiety. Your breath will tend to rise up into the area around your heart or perhaps even higher in your chest. If you find yourself anxious or upset, abdominal breathing will stabilize your feelings. You can use abdominal breathing this way even if you aren't doing sitting meditation.
When you find yourself getting sleepy, focus your breathing at the tip of your nose. This will move your attention, and your blood, up to your head, and after a few minutes the sleepiness should go away. Then you can allow your breathing to move wherever it will.
If you find that you are being distracted, you might try taking very deep in-breaths, holding the breath slightly after the inhalation, and then exhaling slowly. Breathing like this for a few minutes will restore your concentration to your breathing, and you can then let your breath come and go as it will. This exercise also works well if you find yourself controlling your breathing.
Please remember that all you are doing here is noticing that you are breathing. You aren't trying to breathe — you are already doing that. You are simply allowing yourself to be aware of your breath.
Don't set unrealistic goals for yourself. If you do sitting practice for five minutes after you wake up in the morning and five minutes before you go to bed, it will help you. Once you see the benefits of sitting practice, you may find it easier and more natural to spend a little more time at it.
Your Practice Environment
To support your formal sitting practice at home, try to find a special place. You don't need much room, just a place for a cushion or chair, and perhaps some beautiful object you enjoy looking at, such as a small vase of flowers or a plant or a rock or a carving. Try to use this space only for your meditation practice: It will help you to meditate every time you sit down there. Remember, sitting meditation should be enjoyable and rewarding. If it isn't, you won't want to do it, so make the space as inviting as possible. If your back permits, try to make sure that your meditation setup encourages you to keep your back straight without the support of a wall or chair back.
You will benefit from establishing a special time of day for formal meditation practice, just as you benefit from creating a special place for it. Try to do your sitting meditation at the same time every day. If you're a morning person, try sitting before breakfast. If you're an evening person, sit about two hours after dinner. If you do formal walking meditation (a practice you will encounter in the next section), either inside or outside, try to do it at the same time every day. This kind of discipline really helps.
Counting the Breath
One of the most basic exercises we do in mindfulness meditation we call "counting" our breathing. The purpose of this exercise is to help us to be truly aware that when we are breathing in, we are breathing in, and that when we are breathing out, we are breathing out. Does this sound simpleminded? Consider for a moment how often during the day you are actually aware of your breathing. The answer probably is, not much. One good way for us to start developing awareness of breathing is to count our breaths from one to ten, and then from ten back to one. I suggest that you do this by saying to yourself silently the word in during your in-breath, and then the word one when your breath turns from the in-breath to the out-breath. Next, say to yourself the word out during your out-breath, and then one when your breath turns from the out-breath to the in-breath. On the next in-breath, say, "In, two," and then "Out, two," and so on up to ten. Then do it in reverse. Start with "In, ten" and "Out, ten," and go back down to one. If you can keep your attention completely focused on your breathing for these twenty breaths, you have established good concentration. When you lose track of the numbers or of your breath, you should go back and start at "In, one" again.
If you judge yourself for not doing this exercise correctly, you are finding out some useful information about yourself. This is mindfulness in action: Your perfectionism is showing itself! To help you cut through the judgments, try considering the exercise as a game. It's like hopscotch: If you step outside the lines, go back to the beginning.
This simple counting exercise is an excellent way to begin any session of sitting meditation, no matter how experienced a meditator you may be. Once you have established your concentration by counting your breath, you can drop the numbers, and just say "in" on the in-breath and "out" on the out-breath. Now you can start to notice the quality of your in-breath and out-breath: long or short, deep or shallow, in the chest or in the abdomen, ragged or steady. You are already on the path of awareness.
Informal Practice: Daily-Life Mindfulness
The heart of mindfulness practice lies in imbuing each act and each moment with mindful attention. It is essential, therefore, for us to pay as exquisite attention as possible to our every thought and activity from moment to moment. This is daily-life mindfulness. It helps us to stop, and ultimately it becomes a different and profound way of life. If you focus entirely on a simple act, such as turning on the ignition of your car or putting the key in the lock of your front door, you will allow your mind to rest in the present moment and eventually attain a new and more complete understanding of yourself and the world. You get the point: This informal practice is critical.
Everything that you read in this book about formal practice applies equally to the informal practice of daily-life mindfulness. The act of washing dishes can be just as precious an opportunity to wake up as the time we spend doing sitting meditation. Being engaged in the moment means being present, no matter what we are doing. It means putting aside the tricks we use to hide from being right here right now and giving ourselves completely to whatever we are doing, whether it's walking or peeling a potato. One meditation teacher has described the process of mindfulness practice as the slow settling of water in a pond. As the pond settles, the water becomes clearer and clearer. In the same way, as we become more mindful, and our mind comes to rest more steadily, our understanding and true presence become clearer and clearer. For me, it is as though a veil has dropped away and I come into direct contact with myself and the world around me.
The concentration necessary for completely engaging in your daily activities is something you will cultivate over time, so please don't be discouraged if at first you find your attention wandering. As in formal meditation practice, you cannot expect your mind to stop completely when you engage yourself mindfully in daily life. The thoughts or feelings that may come up while you are mindfully engaged are important windows on understanding. They will provide their own opportunity for you to wake up. You will want to acknowledge them and be with them in an accepting, nonanalytical way, just as you do during sitting meditation.
Many of us find it helpful to use gathas — little poems — to encourage mindfulness of what we're doing. Some of these are included in part two of this book, and are for some common everyday acts, such as waking up in the morning, washing dishes, turning on the television, and so on. Please feel free to use others from the two books of gathas in the recommended reading list, or make up your own.
Here are some possible ways to reinforce mindfulness in your daily life. During your first week of practice, please pick one or two and give them your wholehearted attention. You can use conscious breathing — awareness of breath — as a foundation to encourage daily-life mindfulness, just as you use it as the foundation for your sitting and walking meditation practice. Each week's home play includes adding another daily-life mindfulness activity to your daily routine, so you will be referring back to this list frequently as you go along.
When you wake up in the morning, allow yourself some slow, mindful breaths before you get out of bed. See if you can be aware of your breathing and of making the transition from sleeping to waking. Be aware of the sound, the quality of light, or the darkness. Feel each in-breath calm your body and mind, and each out-breath release any tension or thoughts you're holding. Try smiling and see what happens.
As you rise from bed, be aware of your feet making contact with the floor. Notice how different your body feels in the lying-down, sitting, and standing postures. Be aware of your weight on your feet, of the floor supporting your body, and of the motion of your feet and legs as you begin to walk.
Excerpted from Beginning Mindfulness by Andrew Weiss. Copyright © 2004 Andrew Weiss. Excerpted by permission of New World Library.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.