Monday, 21 September 2015

Putting Some Pepper into Your Practice

I engage in sitting and walking meditative practice regularly. I spent 2 years as a student with a Soto Zen monastery practicing very disciplined mindfulness meditation (Hoshin, 1994). After that, I explored the Shambhala community and have been trained as a Level II warrior in the "Way of Shambhala" (Trungpa, 1984). I find the contrasts between these Buddhist schools and their approach to meditation very interesting.

My studies at Atlantic University exposed me to Jack Kornfield (Kornfield, 2008). Using his approach to meditation was like trying a favorite dish at a new restaurant. It was familiar, but with some new nuances. It has been a long time since I sat with the explicit direction of a teacher (from Kornfield's CD) in mind. In my past experience the approach was to recognize and let go of anything that arises during sitting practice (thoughts, physical sensations, emotions, etc.) Trying to enact this new style where you spend more time thinking about your distractions led me to lots of thinking about how many different paths there are and lots of reverie about my past meditations, instruction and experience. Oops, thinking, thinking, thinking...oops thinking some more.

For those who are new to meditation, take heart, you can't go wrong! Even those who have spent years in practice can still have wandering mind, idle thoughts and fantasies sneak in and catch them. What a playground the mind is. The neat part is to not let ego beat you for having a wandering mind or praise you when you have meditated 'really well'. That is all illusion and story telling by the voice in your head.

I like to sit for 30 minutes, in order to push past the natural 20 minute attention span of the average adult (this is how the Zen monastery trained me). For longer sittings, 30 minutes of practice are alternated by 15 minutes of walking practice. I use a timer so that I am not distracted by wondering how much time has passed. Time sometimes passes very fast and sometimes very slowly in my meditative experience. I like to use a Tibetan singing bowl to chime the start of my practice. The slow fade of the tone of the gong marks the passage from everyday mind to mindful sitting awareness.

As far as my schedule of meditation goes, 30 minutes of sitting while my partner tends the animals (we run a boarding stable) can vary exactly when it happens but usually after supper in the evening. I supplement this with walking in at least 10 minute intervals two or three times during the day, usually once in the morning and once in the mid afternoon, when afternoon sleepiness tries to creep in. I am presently commuting for an hour in each direction, and I try to use at least part of my driving time, to drive mindfully. In contrast to the Zen monastery that aims to be always mindful, but applies very strong rules to how and where to meditate, Shambhala training says to practice mindfulness meditation whenever you can, wherever you can, (even if you can only grab five minutes of meditation at a stop light!) So I really have peppered my personal practice with what I like about each discipline I have studied.


Hoshin, A. (1994). The straight path. Ottawa, Canada: Great Matter Publications.

Kornfield, J. (2008). Meditation for beginners. Boulder, CO: Sounds True Inc.

Trungpa, C. (1984). Shambhala: The sacred path of the warrior. Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications Inc.

Wednesday, 16 September 2015

Mindfulness & Meditation

If you have ever experienced the situation of driving on "auto-pilot", when you arrive at your destination without really recalling the journey itself; or if you have ever had a daydream and failed to hear or observe something that was going on around you at the time, then you can appreciate the difference between being mindful and not being mindful. Being mindful means living in the moment and fully experiencing each moment as it is. Frequently we do not keep our attention on the present moment as our minds get busy wondering or worrying about the future or rehashing what has happened in the past.

When we speak of mindfulness, we are seeking to recognize that the past is over and the future has not yet happened. We may miss the experience of the present if we allow our minds to wander into those states of memory about what has been or fantasy about what may be. To counter those tendencies to miss out on present experience, we may practice mindfulness meditation. Mindfulness meditation is about practicing keeping the mind in the present to fully experience reality moment by moment.

Unlike meditation methods that have you focus on particular words or ideas or on particular images, mindfulness meditation is best undertaken by trying not to focus the mind upon any particular thought or idea. Instead, we seek to experience each thought and idea as it arises; recognize each of them for what it is and then move on, rather than dwelling upon them. When you try to experience each present moment, you may find that it is a challenging thing to do. There are many thoughts, feelings and ideas that want the attention of our minds. As if that was not enough to distract us from the pursuit of being mindful, our bodies also seek the attention of our minds with complaints like being cold or itchy or hungry or having physical pain and discomfort that are difficult sensations to ignore. The world around us is also fighting to draw our attention with noises or sights that can send our minds scurrying off into reaction, thinking or otherwise leaving behind our attention to the moment. Mindfulness seeks not to suppress or ignore, but rather to notice the thoughts you have, the physical sensations and the environment around you and to experience them -- as well as your reaction to them -- as they occur.

As soon as you start to react to a distracting thought, feeling, sensation or external stimulus, you leave mindfulness and begin to listen to an internal story that your mind starts to tell you. The stories may be long or short. They may be based on past experiences good or bad. They may be flights of fancy about what may happen or should happen. They may be mundane like wondering what to have for dinner, or they may be detailed dreams about the person who lives across the street. None of the stories we unconsciously tell ourselves demonstrate mindfulness. Ironically, even when we tell ourselves that we are being mindful, it is just another story!

How to Practice Mindfulness

To spend more waking attention within each moment as it happens, one must practice. To practice mindfulness, start by assuming a comfortable position, sitting up straight. You want to be comfortable to minimize the immediate complaints that your body will start making otherwise. You want to sit up straight to pay attention. Face the wall. You do not need to have anything pretty to look at. In fact, having something to look at is just a source of more stories for your mind to weave. Set a timer for ten minutes and then let your gaze focus midway between you and the wall. Take a breath and release it. Notice how the breath felt and how it sounded going in and out of your body. Keep breathing and let your attention be on each breath as it happens. Do not count the breaths. Do not try to make them fast or slow. Just breathe. Breathing is a good place to start exploring mindfulness, because breathing happens automatically, whether we think about it or not. It keeps happening as long as we live. Breathe in and breathe out. Notice each breath.

As you notice each breath, you may find that your mind wanders. You may start thinking about better ways that you could be spending your time or start congratulating yourself on how well you are doing at breathing. You may be distracted by sounds or other distractions or by sensations you experience. Each time that you catch yourself paying attention to anything other than the breath, notice what you have done and bring the attention back to the breath. Try to stay still and just experience the feelings and thoughts that arise. Notice your own reaction when you catch your focus wandering. Do not praise or condemn yourself for distractions. Just notice them and let your attention come back to the breath. Continue doing this until the timer rings.

When the timer rings, stretch and reflect upon your experience. You may have found that the time seemed much longer or shorter than you expected. You may have found the experience to be interesting or that it fuels your creativity. You may have found it ridiculously boring. Whatever your reaction to the experience, use it as an opportunity for further mindfulness. Look at your reaction in the moment of its occurrence rather than trying to recapture the past few minutes or plan for what you will do next.

The typical adult human has been said to have a natural attention span of approximately 20 minutes. To truly practice mindfulness, you need to stretch your mind beyond that natural attention span. There could have been many distractions or few that arose in your first ten minute session. Next time, set your timer for 30 minutes in order to force yourself beyond the comfortable natural attention span and see what happens. The procedure remains the same. Bring your attention to the breath. Do not fixate upon the breath or on anything else. When you notice wandering thoughts, feelings or reactions, acknowledge them and return your attention to the breath. With a longer session you may find that you have different experiences or just more of the same.

Using Mindfulness

Regular mindfulness practice can help improve mental and physical health. It can help reduce stress by reminding you to take each moment as it comes. It has been clinically proven to reduce blood pressure, as it has for me. It can also provide you with a feeling of mental refreshment or rejuvenation.

As you become more familiar with the way that you experience it in your own mind and body, you can begin to apply it like any skill. Being mindful can help you be more attentive to others. It can make you a better listener if you try to pay attention to what someone is saying instead of thinking about what you will say or what you should have said. It can help you recognize other facets of communication like tone or body language that you may overlook if you are not being aware within the present. It can heighten your own sensory awareness by making you notice things that you may not have seen, heard or felt before.

With practice, you can use mindfulness to enhance your own creativity or to explore your own thoughts and emotions by setting an intention before you begin to practice. Always use the breath as your touchstone, but use mindfulness to recognize what you are thinking or feeling about the topic or the intent of your meditation. You may want to keep a journal close by so that when you finish your practice you can record what you noticed during the session.

As with any practice, mindfulness is not something that can be mastered in one or two practice sessions. It is easy to say "be mindful" and yet it can take a lifetime or more to actually experience each present moment as it occurs. The benefits of doing so can be life changing. After all, life is nothing but a series of present moments, one after another. If we fail to experience them as they occur, then we are always living in the past or dreaming about the future and we may miss the life we have been given.