Now sit down and try it.
Thursday, October 7, 2010
Can Yoga and Buddhist Meditation Mix-Part 2
The ABCs of Mindfulness Meditation
The main teachings of the Buddha are summarized and centered in the Four Noble Truths: Suffering, the cause of suffering, the end of suffering, and the eightfold path to end suffering. It is no secret that the world is full of confusion , hatred, madness, and suffering. This suffering arises because people are trying to manipulate or change the external world to suit their viewpoint and satisfy their desires; they are caught up in greed, hatred, and delusion. The Theravada Buddhist approach advises a person to first change one’s inner world, to change and purify one’s mind; then the external world will gradually come along and be more peaceful. When people purify their own mind and learn to live peacefully and harmoniously within their surroundings, then they will be able to live at peace with the whole world. This is just a brief and basic overview of the Buddha’s teachings. Mindfulness and meditation play the most important roles in bringing about this inner mental transformation. The inner transformation brings about the outer transformation.
In Buddhist teachings taking care of the body is not often addressed. But the truth is that the mind operates through the body. The mind is not separate form the body and the body is not separate from the mind. They are intimately connected, especially for the day-to-day activity of ordinary persons. If the body is sick and weak, if it has tired blood and/or poor energy, this will affect our life. Because of poor shallow breathing and stiffness and inflexibility in the body, our psychic energy, the nervous system energy, is not able to flow freely throughout the body. Thus, the body and mind remain lethargic and dull, or will be easily excitable and restless. Our perceptions and thinking ability won’t be very orderly and clear. So Yoga practice emphasizes and enhances having a healthy nervous system and body, having good posture and blood circulation. The posture is important in meditation, especially keeping the spine straight.
Most people have difficulty in meditation because they are not able to keep their back straight. This is because we sit in chairs most of the time; when we travel in the car, sit at the computer, watch television or sit at the dining table, people are usually slouching or hunched over. So the back muscles are not very strong and it is difficult to keep sitting up straight. It becomes a constant battle to keep your back and head erect in order to have a clear and relatively painless meditation. Despite keeping the back straight, however, there will still be a certain amount of physical discomfort and pain involved in meditation. Learning how to skillfully deal with physical pain and mental pain is a large part of meditation. There is a saying: “Pain is a fact of life, suffering is optional.” When people are born into this world pain is “a given;” they’re going to experience pain. But the struggles against pain and the mental anguish that arises is optional. When you have physical pain and then add mental suffering onto it, then you get “double trouble.” There is also a mathematic formula you can remember: “suffering = pain × resistance.” The Buddha’s teaching and meditation practice is not about removing pain. However, it is about the lessening and eventual eradication of the causes of suffering.
The simplest, most basic definition of mindfulness is “to remember.” To remember what? In the Dhamma teaching, mindfulness is very specific. It means remembering the present moment, remembering what the body is doing right now and remembering what the mind is doing right now. Normally, our body is doing one thing and the mind is doing another. We might be eating or driving a car but we are often lost in thought and/or distractions. The first stage of mindfulness then is to bring the mind back to the body, remembering what the body is doing. The beginning of mindfulness practice is mindfulness of the body. The body is always in the present moment, it is always here and now. Now you’re sitting. That’s what the body is doing right now. But, as you will see in meditation, after five minutes of sitting your mind may have gone traveling around the world several times already. So, when your body is sitting you should be mindful that it is sitting; when breathing in and out, you should be mindful of breathing in, breathing out. At any time of the day the body is sitting, walking, standing, or lying down, and, of course, breathing. To remember that this body is sitting/breathing, or standing/breathing, walking/breathing or that it is lying-down/breathing, this is the basic grounding in mindfulness practice. This is our bodily life process that is going on 24/7. You have heard the expression 24/7, but we have to add one number, 24/7/365. It’s 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. and the next number we don’t know, because we can die at anytime.
We use our centered attention on the body to act as a home base or anchor in order to restrain the wild mind, to tame the “monkey mind.” The mind of the untrained person is constantly thinking about this and that, getting lost in worries or anxieties, is in the past or future, is running here and there all over the inner world. This is what produces stress, tension, anxiety, and suffering. The mind is usually lost in the past and future; all problems arise from dwelling in the past or the future. When the mind is resting fully in the present moment no problems can exist. This is an essential but hidden truth. So the basic practice is remembering what the body and mind are doing right now. You remember by directly feeling your body: you feel the weight or heaviness of the buttocks pressing into the seat; you feel the way your feet are tucked under your body; you feel the straightness of the back or the head balanced between the shoulders; you feel the hands touching together. You are aware of “sitting” and aware of “breathing in—breathing out.”
Breathing awareness forms a special focus of concentrated mindfulness. In the beginning we want to develop what is called “deep slow breathing.” The breath and the mind are related. The quicker and shorter your breaths are, the more agitated your mind is. However, the slower and deeper the breaths are, the more calm and peaceful the mind is. That is because the body needs oxygen to live. Every cell in this body needs oxygen to do its work, but because we often breathe in a very shallow way, the cells do not get enough of this essential life force. We have to breathe faster and the heart and lungs have to work harder. This causes wear and tear in the body and agitation in the nervous system. When you breathe deeply, you get enough oxygen in one breath. When you hold the breath in for two or three seconds, even more oxygen will absorb into the blood and enter into circulation. So the heart does not need to beat faster. The body and mind become more peaceful and we can get into meditation more easily.
What you need to learn when starting to meditate is to establish a good foundation for the practice. We talk about establishing a long-term foundation because the practice of meditation is a continuous life-long process. Most people sit in a slouching posture that constricts the abdomen and rib cage/chest so the lungs cannot expand fully; the body does not get enough oxygen, and the cells in the body are half dead. In meditation this results in a constant fight with pain and drowsiness. Establishing a good foundation will help the mind go into deeper meditation more easily. I have seen many people whose meditation stagnates because they did not build up a good foundation. That is why I stress so much about how yoga helps, how important the posture and breathing is. Don’t worry about getting into deep Samadhi (deep concentration) too quickly.
One misconception about meditation is that you have to block out all your thoughts. It is true that thoughts distract from meditation, but you can’t block them out. You need to learn to observe and be aware of them, to not get lost in them, and keep coming back to remember, “breathing-in/sitting, breathing-out/sitting.” Thoughts will still be coming and going but so long as you are linked by mindfulness to the sitting/breathing body you will not become totally lost. You can maintain some sense of centeredness. What we are trying to develop is being grounded or being centered in the body, which is the same as being in the present moment. This helps us see clearly what is happening. The body is like a tethering post. In the school yard game of tetherball, when you hit the ball, the ball goes around the post. If the chain or rope breaks the ball will fly away and perhaps be stolen by thieves or squashed by a passing car. In the same way, if we get lost in the past and future, our mindfulness can be stolen by outer distractions or inner thoughts; then defilements and suffering arise. The post is the breathing body and the ball is the mind. The rope is mindful attention that connects the mind to the body. When you hit the ball it goes around the post but does not get lost. In meditation the breathing body is in the center of awareness even though sounds and thoughts still arise and pass away in the mind. The calm awareness of breathing remains in the middle, so you don’t get exhausted. People get lost in their thoughts because they are not grounded in the present moment of “Now,” or they go to sleep because too many scattered thoughts have drained their energy.
The basic practice is using the breathing body, in whatever posture, as the focus of present moment attention. The secondary objects are the external loud sounds, bodily discomfort, itching sensations, and scattered thoughts that will distract you. You have to mentally note these potential distractions, to “know” that you are hearing, feeling and/or thinking, and getting distracted by something. This “knowing” will help you to let go and come back to the center, to sitting and breathing. If you have a pain or an itch, you do the same thing by a mental recognition that “discomfort is pulling at the mind.” This will allow you to let go of it, get objective distance to the discomfort, and relax around and through it.
Now sit down and try it.
Now sit down and try it.