Another name for meditation is awareness. When we observe what is arising moment-to-moment we enter the present moment more fully. What we are aware of during meditation is the faculty that is aware. What arises are objects with respect to this awareness. In this sense, the witnessing consciousness is pure subject. So instead of being identified with a stream of thoughts or sensations, we are able to create some reflective distance between what some call witness consciousness and the world of phenomenon. This consciousness is roughly what is meant by Emptiness in Buddhism.
What I talked about above is the essence of the meditative experience. It is as if your consciousness is a mirror reflecting what is going on, while remaining clear and spacious itself. In other words, the witness or pure consciousness is reflecting back experiences as though they were clouds floating in a bright, expansive blue sky. It remains untouched by what it reflects.
Again, this ever-present awareness is not affected by what it reflects ever. In this sense, it also like the sky where various weather fronts just pass through. If you have flown over clouds in an airplane, you get this perspective as you fly above various cloud formations that just seem to be passing through a vast space. This space is analogous to your consciousness. If you try to locate your consciousness, you can’t pinpoint it… however, it feels vast in a deep meditative experience because it is vast.
So, what you are trying to get at is a simple feeling of Being. You are in effect loosening your attention from the various objects that could grab your attention in the way a scary movie can. In other words, sometimes when we watch a movie, we are pulled in by the drama to such an extent that we forget we are just watching a movie. This is a good analogy for how we step back from the contents of consciousness when we meditate. We come to realize what we experience is like a movie and they we are a larger presence watching it from a mental distance such as when we consciously realize we are in a theater. The movie is relatively real… the theater experience is a frame of reference that is more real.
With these basic concepts out of the way, we are now ready to talk about two broad categories of meditation. I will call the first pure awareness practices because the idea is to be like the sky and loosely hold the contents of consciousness. In this type of meditation, your attention is opened up widely to take in the vista of consciousness without any one thing grabbing your attention and stealing it away from the big picture. In the context of this article, I will call this calm-abiding.
The other general type of practice involves narrowing attention. Here, you pick a very specific focal point and return your attention to it again and again. If you get distracted you just gently remind yourself that thinking (or whatever) just occurred and return your attention to the breath. The attitude that accompanies this mental labeling is gentle, loving and patient. In other words, practicing kindness toward yourself and paying attention to the tone and stance of your inner voice without judgment is one key to this practice. If you want more information on this, watch the brief video on Maitri.
If you think about it, in any form of awareness, the field of attention moves around within the space of awareness. Attention is like a search light and the beam can be set to be broad or narrow. You as the meditator get to control the width and the direction of your attention. This ability that comes with discipline will serve you at other times because when your mind is not disciplined, you will be pulled into drama, difficult emotions and the ups and downs of life more easily. Rather than identifying with your peaceful. open awareness that is your consciousness, you will be overidentified with the contents of the mind. A side effect of meditation is more general mindfulness in daily life. This ultimately translates into more options and freedom to chose your responses more skillfully.
To this point, we looked at awareness vs. attention, the correct attitude toward yourself and the concept of manipulating your attention in different ways within the field of awareness. At this high level, the other skill we need to cultivate is balance. When you meditate, you can either hold our attention to loosely or too tightly. If you are a nervous wreck that is an error in one direction and if you fall asleep that is an imbalance in the opposite direction. The correct stance is being relaxed, but alert like a cat patiently waiting for a mouse to come out of a hole in the fence. It’s like tuning a guitar string just right, not to tight and not to loose.
Now, we can bring in some additional points that can help you even further. While you can meditate in a variety of postures or positions, you want to pick one that will support the balance I’m suggesting above. Through many years, this has proven to be a posture where your spine is straight, you are well-supported by the ground or a chair, your chest is open and your chin slightly tipped downward. For now, maintaining good posture while staying relaxed is a good starting point. The eyes can be either open or closed or you can experiment with both methods.
Below, I will suggest a few different practices that will provide you with different kinds of experiences. You may want to keep a notebook with your thoughts, impressions, feelings and observations you’ve made experimenting with them. You can take a few minutes to write these things down when you are finished. These ideas will come in handy down the road. So, now we can just dive in to the meat of the article.
Calm-Abiding – In this type of meditation, you maintain a posture like I described above. Generally, your eyes will remain open, looking slightly downward and about 4-6 feet in front of you. The idea here is to relax your attention by simply counting your out breaths. You only need to hold your attention lightly on the counting to the point that you don’t lose count. You count from one to ten and then start over again from one. While you are doing this, you remain aware of everything else that is going on, but each object of your awareness is being touched lightly like a feather touching a bubble. You continue way for, however, long you decided to meditate. Even 5 or 10 minutes is plenty, when your alarm goes off or you feel you are finished, stop counting and bring your attention back to the body.
Meditating on Sound – This is a practice I love to do outside with my eyes closed, but you can also do it indoors or with a recording. This is another type of loose attention practice and the idea is to notice various sounds as they arise. It doesn’t matter if the sound is near or distant, but by focusing on the sound you will be carried more fully into the present moment. For me, this practice is very relaxing and being outside makes it easier to get in touch with the spacious quality of consciousness.
A nuance in this practice is that with your eyes closed, it will seem as though your awareness is this vast expanse where various sounds are arising. This helps you to disidentify with your consciousness being located in the head. This is actually a habit of how we pay attention because our eyes are located in our head. In this practice, you may even lose awareness of the boundary of your body, which is good. If you are a nature buff, you are likely to enjoy it and because of it’s focus on spaciousness, it’s a good practice for stepping back from strong emotions.
Now that I have introduced two types of loose attention practices, I would like to suggest a couple of concentration practices where you narrow your attention. The first of these sounds very simple, but you can use it for the rest of your life and it will just keep getting deeper and deeper. The simplest things done well are often the most advanced techniques!
Breath Meditation – In this technique, you pay attention to breath, but here the attention is more concentrated. You start by simply noticing the sensations that accompany the breath as you breath in and out. In the beginning, you can even say in and out mentally or rising and falling (referring to your abdomen). Alternatively, you can focus your attention on the subtle sensation of air flowing in and out at the edge of one nostril (more difficult) or the expansion of the shoulder blades moving apart and coming together.
In this form of meditation, the idea is to not let your attention be carried away from the focus of the meditation. In the beginning, it may get carried away hundreds of times, but you just gently return your attention to the object you have chosen. Jack Kornfield has compared this process to training a puppy to go to the bathroom on a newspaper. The puppy will wander off and you just keep gently bringing it back over and over again.
The value of the practice above is that you become aware of just how active and all over the place your mind really is. Over time, you will also start to notice that the process slows down and you will even become aware of gaps between each thought. The awareness of the gaps is like when you are watching a train go by, but you can see between the cars to the other side. When this starts happening, you are making progress. Don’t follow the cars down the track, keep you attention where it is.
Of course, you can also use other things as a focal point for meditation such as a sensation in the body, a feeling or even thinking itself. If you choose to experiment with these methods, it is good to be proficient in breath meditation and then use your breath as an anchor that you can return to if you are overwhelmed with everything that is going on. I will describe how to do it in more detail below.
Meditation on Sensation – In this meditation, you start by meditating on breath. You keep doing this for one third to a half of your meditation time in the beginning. However, at a certain point when you feel you are ready, let go of the breath and focus your attention on whatever sensation in the body is most apparent to you. This sensation may grow stronger, weaker or go away entirely, just notice this the whole process. If another strong sensation arises, follow that in the same manner. If no sensation is strong, return to meditating on the breath. The breath is your anchor for your awareness in this practice and others like it.
In my next article, I will discuss other forms of meditation and provide some additional tips for your practice. In the meantime, please experiment with these methods with openness and curiosity. When you are learning, more frequent short periods are better than forcing the process. Rather than forcing, simply let your practice unfold naturally. If you are not looking forward to your next meditation session, consider the possibility that you might be moving forward to fast. Less is more at the beginning!
One last tip, is when you get the hang of these techniques, consider alternating between calm-abiding and the breath meditation or some other form of practice. This will give you the experience of experiencing your consciousness in different ways and manipulating your attention from moment-to-moment. It gives you an opportunity to experience your consciousness from different vantage points, which will help you latter. However, it is really the process itself that is important, NOT the contents of your experience on any particular day. In other words, the path itself is the destination! The HOW is more important than the WHAT.
In my next article on meditation, I will also discuss some finer points of breath meditation, provide additional tips to deepen this practice and introduce the practice of choiceless awareness, which is a more advanced technique, but naturally follows from practicing meditation on sensation. This will help you to experience your mind and consciousness at an even deeper level.
If you can, it always good to attend workshops, retreats or work with a good teacher. The beneficial effects of meditation on the body and the mind are now well-documented. In fact, in long-term meditators there is even a thickening of the prefrontal lobes of the brain that occurs as a result of new neurons forming and connecting. That is a staggering finding with far reaching implications.
In future articles, I will also take up the topic of the various heart-centered practices. Just as you can cultivate the mind, you can cultivate the practices of loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity. There are others as well and they all require some degree of proficiency with the techniques above. As in sports, playing music and other skills, the basics are critical.
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