To Do With Your Mind
we teach is called Insight Meditation. As we have already
said, the variety of possible objects of meditation is nearly
unlimited, and human beings have used an enormous number down
through the ages. Even within the Vipassana tradition there
are variances. There are meditation teachers who teach their
students to follow the breath by watching the rise and fall
of the abdomen. Others recommend focusing attention on the touch
of the body against the cushion, or hand against hand, or the
feeling of one leg against the other. The method we are explaining
here, however, is considered the most traditional and is probably
what Gotama Buddha taught his students. The Satipatthana Sutta,
the Buddha's original discourse on mindfulness, specifically
says that one must begin by focusing the attention on the breathing
and then go on to note all other physical and mental phenomena
watching the air going in and out of our noses. At first glance,
this seems an exceedingly odd and useless procedure. Before
going on to specific instructions, let us examine the reason
behind it. The first question we might address is why use any
focus of attention at all? We are, after all, trying to develop
awareness. Why not just sit down and be aware of whatever happens
to be present in the mind? In fact there are meditations of
that nature. They are sometimes referred to as unstructured
meditation and they are quite difficult. The mind is tricky.
Thought is an inherently complicated procedure. By that we mean
we become trapped, wrapped up, and stuck in the thought chain.
One thought leads to another which leads to another, and another,
and another, and so on. Fifteen minutes later we suddenly wake
up and realize we spent that whole time stuck in a daydream
or sexual fantasy or a set of worries about our bills or whatever.
a difference between being aware of a thought and thinking a
thought. That difference is very subtle. It is primarily a matter
of feeling or texture. A thought you are simply aware of with
bare attention feels light in texture; there is a sense of distance
between that thought and the awareness viewing it. It arises
lightly like a bubble, and it passes away without necessarily
giving rise to the next thought in that chain. Normal conscious
thought is much heavier in texture. It is ponderous, commanding,
and compulsive. It sucks you in and grabs control of consciousness.
By its very nature it is obsessional, and it leads straight
to the next thought in the chain, apparently with no gap between
thought sets up a corresponding tension in the body, such as
muscular contraction or a quickening of the heartbeat. But you
won't feel tension until it grows to actual pain, because normal
conscious thought is also greedy. It grabs all your attention
and leaves none to notice its own effect. The difference between
being aware of the thought and thinking the thought is very
real. But it is extremely subtle and difficult to see. Concentration
is one of the tools needed to be able to see this difference.
has the effect of slowing down the thought process and speeding
up the awareness viewing it. The result is the enhanced ability
to examine the thought process. Concentration is our microscope
for viewing subtle internal states. We use the focus of attention
to achieve one-pointedness of mind with calm and constantly
applied attention. Without a fixed reference point you get lost,
overcome by the ceaseless waves of change flowing round and
round within the mind.
breath as our focus. It serves as that vital reference point
from which the mind wanders and is drawn back. Distraction cannot
be seen as distraction unless there is some central focus to
be distracted from. That is the frame of reference against which
we can view the incessant changes and interruptions that go
on all the time as a part of normal thinking.
Pali texts liken meditation to the process of taming a wild
elephant. The procedure in those days was to tie a newly captured
animal to a post with a good strong rope. When you do this the
elephant is not happy. He screams and tramples, and pulls against
the rope for days. Finally it sinks through his skull that he
can't get away, and he settles down. At this point you can begin
to feed him and to handle him with some measure of safety. Eventually
you can dispense with the rope and post altogether, and train
your elephant for various tasks. Now you've got a tamed elephant
that can be put to useful work. In this analogy the wild elephant
is your wildly active mind, the rope is mindfulness, and the
post is our object of meditation-- breathing. The tamed elephant
who emerges from this process is a well trained, concentrated
mind that can then be used for the exceedingly tough job of
piercing the layers of illusion that obscure reality. Meditation
tames the mind.
question we need to address is: Why choose breathing as the
primary object of meditation? Why not something a bit more interesting?
Answers to this are numerous. A useful object of meditation
should be one that promotes mindfulness. It should be portable,
easily available and cheap. It should also be something that
will not embroil us in those states of mind from which we are
trying to free ourselves, such as greed, anger and delusion.
Breathing satisfies all these criteria and more. Breathing is
something common to every human being. We all carry it with
us wherever we go. It is always there, constantly available,
never ceasing from birth till death, and it costs nothing.
is a non-conceptual process, a thing that can be experienced
directly without a need for thought. Furthermore, it is a very
living process, an aspect of life that is in constant change.
The breath moves in cycles--inhalation, exhalation, breathing
in and breathing out. Thus it is miniature model of life itself.
of breath is subtle, yet it is quite distinct when you learn
to tune into it. It takes a bit of an effort to find it. Yet
anybody can do it. You've got to work at it, but not too hard.
For all these reasons, breathing makes an ideal object of meditation.
Breathing is normally an involuntary process, proceeding at
its own pace without a conscious will. Yet a single act of will
can slow it down or speed it up. Make it long and smooth or
short and choppy. The balance between involuntary breathing
and forced manipulation of breath is quite delicate. And there
are lessons to be learned here on the nature of will and desire.
Then, too, that point at the tip of the nostril can be viewed
as a sort of a window between the inner and outer worlds. It
is a nexus point and energy-transfer spot where stuff from the
outside world moves in and becomes a part of what we call 'me',
and where a part of me flows forth to merge with the outside
world. There are lessons to be learned here about self- concept
and how we form it.
is a phenomenon common to all living things. A true experiential
understanding of the process moves you closer to other living
beings. It shows you your inherent connectedness with all of
life. Finally, breathing is a present-time process. By that
we mean it is always occurring in the here-and-now. We don't
normally live in the present, of course. We spend most of our
time caught up in memories of the past or leaping ahead to the
future, full of worries and plans. The breath has none of that
'other-timeness'. When we truly observe the breath, we are automatically
placed in the present. We are pulled out of the morass of mental
images and into a bare experience of the here- and-now. In this
sense, breath is a living slice of reality. A mindful observation
of such a miniature model of life itself leads to insight that
are broadly applicable to the rest of our experience.
step in using the breath as an object of meditation is to find
it. What you are looking for is the physical, tactile sensation
of the air that passes in and out of the nostrils. This is usually
just inside the tip of the nose. But the exact spot varies from
one person to another, depending on the shape of the nose. To
find your own point, take a quick deep breath and notice the
point just inside the nose or on the upper lip where you have
the most distinct sensation of passing air. Now exhale and notice
the sensation at the same point. It is from this point that
you will follow the whole passage of breath. Once you have located
your own breath point with clarity, don't deviate from that
spot. Use this single point in order to keep your attention
fixed. Without having selected such a point, you will find yourself
moving in and out of the nose, going up and down the windpipe,
eternally chasing after the breath which you can never catch
because it keeps changing, moving and flowing.
ever sawed wood you already know the trick. As a carpenter,
you don't stand there watching the saw blade going up and down.
You will get dizzy. You fix your attention on the spot where
the teeth of the blade dig into the wood. It is the only way
you can saw a straight line. As a meditator, you focus your
attention on that single spot of sensation inside the nose.
From this vantage point, you watch the entire movement of breath
with clear and collected attention. Make no attempt to control
the breath. This is not a breathing exercise of the sort done
in Yoga. Focus on the natural and spontaneous movement of the
breath. Don't try to regulate it or emphasize it in any way.
Most beginners have some trouble in this area. In order to help
themselves focus on the sensation, they unconsciously accentuate
their breathing. The results is a forced and unnatural effort
that actually inhibits concentration rather than helping it.
Don't increase the depth of your breath or its sound. This latter
point is especially important in group meditation. Loud breathing
can be a real annoyance to those around you. Just let the breath
move naturally, as if you were asleep. Let go and allow the
process to go along at its own rhythm.
easy, but it is trickier than you think. Do not be discouraged
if you find your own will getting in the way. Just use that
as an opportunity to observe the nature of conscious intention.
Watch the delicate interrelation between the breath, the impulse
to control the breath and the impulse to cease controlling the
breath. You may find it frustrating for a while, but it is highly
profitable as a learning experience, and it is a passing phase.
Eventually, the breathing process will move along under its
own steam. And you will feel no impulse to manipulate it. At
this point you will have learned a major lesson about your own
compulsive need to control the universe.
which seems so mundane and uninteresting at first glance, is
actually an enormously complex and fascinating procedure. It
is full of delicate variations, if you look. There is inhalation
and exhalation, long breath and short breath, deep breath, shallow
breath, smooth breath and ragged breath. These categories combine
with one another in subtle and intricate ways. Observe the breath
closely. Really study it. You find enormous variations and constant
cycle of repeated patterns. It is like a symphony. Don't observe
just the bare outline of the breath. There is more to see here
than just an in-breath and an out-breath. Every breath has a
beginning middle and end. Every inhalation goes through a process
of birth, growth and death and every exhalation does the same.
The depth and speed of your breathing changes according to your
emotional state, the thought that flows through your mind and
the sounds you hear. Study these phenomena. You will find them
not mean, however, that you should be sitting there having little
conversations with yourself inside your head: "There is a short
ragged breath and there is a deep long one. I wonder what's
next?" No, that is not Vipassana. That is thinking. You will
find this sort of thing happening, especially in the beginning.
This too is a passing phase. Simply note the phenomenon and
return your attention toward the observation of the sensation
of breath. Mental distractions will happen again. But return
your attention to your breath again, and again, and again, and
again, for as long as it takes until it does not happen anymore.
first begin this procedure, expect to face some difficulties.
Your mind will wander off constantly, darting around like a
drunken bumblebee and zooming off on wild tangents. Try not
to worry. The monkey-minded phenomenon is well known. It is
something that every advanced meditator has had to deal with.
They have pushed through it one way or another, and so can you.
When it happens, just not the fact that you have been thinking,
day-dreaming, worrying, or whatever. Gently, but firmly, without
getting upset or judging yourself for straying, simply return
to the simple physical sensation of the breath. Then do it again
the next time, and again, an again, and again.
in this process, you will come face-to-face with the sudden
and shocking realization that you are completely crazy. Your
mind is a shrieking, gibbering madhouse on wheels barreling
pell-mell down the hill, utterly out of control and hopeless.
No problem. You are not crazier than you were yesterday. It
has always been this way, and you just never noticed. You are
also no crazier than everybody else around you. The only real
difference is that you have confronted the situation; they have
not. So they still feel relatively comfortable. That does not
mean that they are better off. Ignorance may be bliss, but it
does not lead to liberation. So don't let this realization unsettle
you. It is a milestone actually, a sigh of real progress. The
very fact that you have looked at the problem straight in the
eye means that you are on your way up and out of it.
wordless observation of the breath, there are two states to
be avoided: thinking and sinking. The thinking mind manifests
most clearly as the monkey-mind phenomenon we have just been
discussing. The sinking mind is almost the reverse. As a general
term, sinking mind denotes any dimming of awareness. At its
best, it is sort of a mental vacuum in which there is no thought,
no observation of the breath, no awareness of anything. It is
a gap, a formless mental gray area rather like a dreamless sleep.
Sinking mind is a void. Avoid it.
meditation is an active function. Concentration is a strong,
energetic attention to one single item. Awareness is a bright
clean alertness. Samahdhi and Sati--these are the two faculties
we wish to cultivate. And sinking mind contains neither. At
its worst, it will put you to sleep. Even at its best it will
simply waste your time.
find you have fallen into a state of sinking mind, just note
the fact and return your attention to the sensation of breathing.
Observe the tactile sensation of the in-breath. Feel the touch
sensation of the out-breath. Breathe in, breathe out and watch
what happens. When you have been doing that for some time--perhaps
weeks or months--you will begin to sense the touch as a physical
object. Simply continue the process--breathe in and breathe
out. Watch what happens. As your concentration deepens you will
have less and less trouble with monkey-mind. Your breathing
will slow down and you will track it more and more clearly,
with fewer and fewer interruptions. You begin to experience
a state of great calm in which you enjoy complete freedom from
those things we call psychic irritants. No greed, lust, envy,
jealousy or hatred. Agitation goes away. Fear flees. These are
beautiful, clear, blissful states of mind. They are temporary,
and they will end when meditation ends. Yet even these brief
experiences will change your life. This is not liberation, but
these are stepping stones on the path that leads in that direction.
Do not, however, expect instant bliss. Even these stepping stones
take time and effort and patience.
experience is not a competition. There is a definite goal. But
there is no timetable. What you are doing is digging your way
deeper and deeper through the layers of illusion toward realization
of the supreme truth of existence. The process itself is fascinating
and fulfilling. It can be enjoyed for its own sake. There is
no need to rush.
end of a well-done meditation session you will feel a delightful
freshness of mind. It is peaceful, buoyant, and joyous energy
which you can then apply to the problems of daily living. This
in itself is reward enough. The purpose of meditation is not
to deal with problems, however, and problem- solving ability
is a fringe benefit and should be regarded as such. If you place
too much emphasis on the problem-solving aspect, you will find
your attention turning to those problems during the session
sidetracking concentration. Don't think about your problems
during your practice. Push them aside very gently.
break from all that worrying and planning. Let your meditation
be a complete vacation. Trust yourself, trust your own ability
to deal with these issues later, using the energy and freshness
of mind that you built up during your meditation. Trust yourself
this way and it will actually occur.
goals for yourself that are too high to reach. Be gently with
yourself. You are trying to follow your own breathing continuously
and without a break. That sounds easy enough, so you will have
a tendency at the outset to push yourself to be scrupulous and
exacting. This is unrealistic. Take time in small units instead.
At the beginning of an inhalation, make the resolve to follow
the breath just for the period of that one inhalation. Even
this is not so easy, but at least it can be done. Then, at the
start of the exhalation, resolve to follow the breath just for
that one exhalation, all the way through. You will still fail
repeatedly, but keep at it.
you stumble, start over. Take it one breath at a time. This
is the level of the game where you can actually win. Stick at
it--fresh resolve with every breath cycle, tiny units of time.
Observe each breath with care and precision, taking it one split
second on top of another, with fresh resolve piled one on top
of the other. In this way, continuous and unbroken awareness
will eventually result.
of breathing is a present-time awareness. When you are doing
it properly, you are aware only of what is occurring in the
present. You don't look back and you don't look forward. You
forget about the last breath, and you don't anticipate the next
one. When the inhalation is just beginning, you don't look ahead
to the end of that inhalation. You don't skip forward to the
exhalation which is to follow. You stay right there with what
is actually taking place. The inhalation is beginning, and that's
what you pay attention to; that and nothing else.
is a process of retraining the mind. The state you are aiming
for is one in which you are totally aware of everything that
is happening in your own perceptual universe, exactly the way
it happens, exactly when it is happening; total, unbroken awareness
in the present time. This is an incredibly high goal, and not
to be reached all at once. It takes practice, so we start small.
We start by becoming totally aware of one small unit of time,
just one single inhalation. And, when you succeed, you are on
your way to a whole new experience of life.