Most of us find life stressful at times, particularly when afflicted by illness or faced with difficulties. We tend to be impatient, and lost in the past or in the future instead of being present. We also tend to resist or react to things by denying, commenting, or judging them rather than being receptive and trying to understand them. This reaction creates more stress. We do not fully live our life if we are not entirely in touch with our present life experience.
We tend to take care of our body but neglect our mind. Mental cultivation can be effectively done through meditation which can enhance one's emotional intelligence (EI).
Meditation is a form of mental training. There are two general types of meditation.
The meditator usually holds on to a static (fixed), chosen (or given), and often conceptual (or imaginary) object. It could be a physical one such as the breath, a color disc, certain sounds, or a mental one such as visualization, a mantra (repeated words/phrases) prayer or well-wishing and/or compassionate thoughts. Its goal is to cultivate inner goodness or relaxation or to build deep concentration, which could reach the level of absorption (jhana), a deeply calm state where one, although awake, may not be aware of external phenomena.
The object for this practice is, on the other hand, dynamic (changing/adapting), choiceless (no preference) and real (direct, present time, actual experience at all sense doors as described in the Four Foundation of Mindfulness). It is usually the most predominant/obvious object that we perceive. Only the presence of skillful mindfulness, balanced persistent interest and concentration/calm can give rise to deepening insight.
The two practices (concentration and insight) can be mutually beneficial and practiced together, but it would be skillful to know the difference between the two, which mode is predominant, and to let go of holding on to any experience if one's aim is to be on the insight path.
Mindfulness meditation explores life as it is occurring in the present moment, without being attached to pleasant experiences or resisting unpleasant ones. By paying nonjudgmental attention to all aspects of life, one develops insights into its ever changing, unsatisfactory and impersonal nature. One therefore faces the ups and downs with more equanimity/composure, encountering less stress and confusion, more joy, and inner peace. This form of meditation is traditionally practiced in meditation centers in South and South-East Asia and more recently in the West in the form of silent retreats and practiced by people of diverse backgrounds. A secular and “generic” form is often taught in western clinical settings under the name "Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction" (MBSR) as an eight-week course (initially established by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn of the University of Massachusetts) or Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) used in psychotherapy for depression and anxiety and related mental disorder. MBSR also includes Yoga and other relaxation techniques. There are numerous medical publications reporting various medical and non-medical benefits of this practice for chronic pain, stress, anxiety, depression etc. including studies in cancer patients and healthy volunteers showing improvement of their quality of life and immune function.
Mindfulness is a mental quality that reminds one to be present. It is the bare, choiceless, relaxed, moment to moment non-judging attention to the mental or physical activity that is occurring here and now. It pays equal respect to pleasant and unpleasant objects. It also possesses a quality of inquiry, patience, and acceptance toward all that is occurring in the present moment.
Mindfulness is one of the "universal" wholesome (skilful/beautiful) mental factors that when fully present, will enhance other beautiful mental qualities (such as loving-kindness, joy, equanimity, generosity, etc.) and weaken the unwholesome (unskilful) ones (such as anger, jealousy, fear etc...) Therefore practicing mindfulness is a way to make one's mind beautiful.
There are four ways of establishing mindfulness which explore four different aspects of life experiences:
1) Body (or physical aspect).
One establishes mindfulness by being aware of:
-The breath: being aware of its nature (in or out, long or short, the motion, pressure, tingling, warmth etc.)
-Body postures (sitting, standing, walking, lying...)
-Physical activities/movements: bending, stretching, reaching, stepping, holding an object, putting on clothes etc...
-Physical sensations within the body.
A direct way to experience physical sensations is to be aware of reality, the elemental nature: texture (hard or soft, rough or smooth, light or heavy), cohesion (binding or wet), temperature (warm or cool) and dynamics (moving, vibrating or pushing). This differs from the usual concept of “my body” as a generalized form or shape which is to be kept in the background in formal practice. These four kinds of manifestation are traditionally known as the earth, water, fire, and air (wind) elements.
2) Feeling tone.
Not to be misunderstood as emotion or (physical) sensation (which it is sometimes translated), it actually is the impressions or quality that is associated with any physical or mental experience: pleasant (agreeable), unpleasant (disagreeable), or neutral (neither of the above). One notices that there is simply pleasantness, unpleasantness (physical or mental) or neither (=neutrality) present in this moment.
Mindful awareness of consciousness and mental states/emotions/thoughts.
4) Phenomena (Mental objects/contents):
Mindful awareness of phenomena, things that we experience at our sense doors, including "the mind's door": the dynamic functions and relationships of consciousness, mental states and thoughts.
With respect to the last two, there are overlaps between Mind and Phenomena (mental objects) and any object that does not fit in the first three could belong to the fourth one. Therefore, to simplify (in the context of this introductory course), 3) and 4) could be considered together as mindfulness of the mind. This involves non-judging awareness of (and objectively observing how they are manifesting):
- thoughts (thinking, reflecting, remembering, planning, etc.),
- mental states and emotions (sadness/joy, fear/hope, aversion/appreciation, anger/love, confusion/clarity, drowsiness/agitation etc.) or
- consciousness itself, (the knowing, the container for the above, just as a clear glass holding water or yellow juice... and is colored by them).
It also includes the observation of specific mental qualities or effects such as the hindrances (difficulties) of the practice, awakening (insight/enlightenment) factors and the sense door experiences (seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, touching etc.) - including the mind's reaction to them. We can also see how we are caught in these experiences, thus being able to free ourselves from them.
In practice, one does not need to figure out which element or foundation the object represents but simply to directly experience it, with a relaxed interest without wishing it to be a certain way. It is helpful however to know which experiences are real (see Concept and Reality) and to pay more attention to them.
CONCEPT AND REALITY
We normally identify with the conceptual aspect of life. This conventional reality of names and forms: "I am a student", "my knee hurts", "I am angry" etc. It can be useful for functioning in the world although it is quite often colored/distorted by our biases, prejudice, past experiences (positive or negative) or by misunderstanding, overlook or ignorance.
In formal mindfulness practice, one keeps the "concept" (conceptual reality) in the background and pays more attention to the true nature or "ultimate reality" of all phenomena (what one directly experiences in the moment without interpreting or referring to past knowledge). Instead of "my knee hurts" (concept) one feels the reality of pressure, tension or heat at the knee (first foundation) or physical unpleasantness (second foundation) or aversion to it (third/fourth foundation). Instead of "I am angry" (concept), one experiences this emotion or mental state simply as anger (third/fourth foundation), or mental unpleasantness (second foundation) or the associated heat or tightness (first foundation). One does not identify with these experiences as being me, mine or myself but objectively observe them in order to understand their true nature, just like looking at clouds in the vast sky, like a scientist observing an experiment without bias.
Observing reality helps develop insights and this wisdom allows one to see more reality and less concept.
At the beginning of the sitting meditation, consider the breath your home or primary object, a place to take refuge in during the sitting meditation.
First, take two or three deep breaths if needed to help feel the sensations associated with breathing: the expansion and contraction of the lower chest or abdomen with each in-breath and out-breath, one breath at a time. (You can place a hand on the stomach to help feel these few breaths better). Then breathe naturally without controlling the breath. If you have difficulty observing the breath there you could try to focus on the area of the nostrils or upper lip (or in between). Label (mental noting/naming "in" or "rising" and "out" or "falling") as needed.
Follow the changing sensations continuously from the beginning to the end of the in-breath then from the beginning to the end of the out-breath. Feel the motion/movements, tingling, pressure, vibration, lightness, heaviness, warmth, coolness... (reality) rather than paying attention to the superficial form or shape of the abdomen/body or "I am breathing" (concept). Try not to miss the end of both the in-breath and out-breath. This interest in seeing the end helps sustain the attention on the object.
After a few moments, you may realize that you are lost in thoughts instead of staying with the breath. Be willing to begin again and again in the present moment by simply make a soft mental note of “thinking” or “wandering”, then gently allow the attention to fall back on the breath. You can also make a gentle but firm determination (“not now/later”, or "thank you for visiting/sharing") to help letting thoughts go without trying to get rid of them harshly. Remember that the nature of the mind is to think, therefore do not judge yourself or be discouraged but be happy that you recognize them (we usually do not) without feeding them or indulging in them.
One technique to keep the mind from wandering (particularly if there is a gap between the out-breath and the in-breath) is to note at that gap (or the end): "rising"... "falling" “sitting” (briefly bring the awareness to the sitting posture) ... then “touching” (feel a point in the body such as the buttocks, the hands, the legs etc…where there is contact or pressure; change the points at the next “touching”). If it is too much to note, just “rising..., falling, touching” (or "rising..."falling" ..."sitting", or "rising" , "sitting", "falling", 'touching") would be fine.
Another way is to note "rising...rising...rising, falling...falling...falling..." throughout the in-and-out breath.
An additional way to reduce the wandering mind is to count the breaths (at the end of rising and falling) from one to five: “rising…one, falling… one, rising…two, falling…two…” (begin again with “one” after reaching “five” or if you lose track of counting)...
When a sound, thoughts, feelings, or physical sensations become predominant in your awareness, gently bring your attention to it (in order to be aware of it with interest without trying to suppress it, nor feeding it), and as it passes away or no longer stays obvious, gently bring the attention back to the sensations of the breath. It is like a spider investigating an insect caught in part of the web, then returns to its center.
If you find yourself lost in thoughts, rather than judging, simply acknowledge it as “thinking…or wandering” then gently focus your attention back on the breath. Patiently begin again and again in the present moment by returning to the primary/home object regardless how many times you lose it due to wandering thoughts. Accept thoughts as part of a natural process, not something that should not be there. Later in the course, you can learn more how to work with thoughts.
1/ Informal mindful walk:
As you take a stroll or walk from place to place, simply pay attention to general present time sense door experiences (moving, stepping, seeing, hearing, touching, breathing, coolness, pleasantness, etc...) or just have a relaxed, open soft gaze into the moment-to-moment present time life experience. Although the awareness could occasionally fall on the breath, one does not need to intentionally keep it there. This type of walk is considered walking meditation in some traditions. It is a very helpful and practical way of applying mindfulness but it does not replace the formal walking meditation in this tradition. Likewise, overall mindfulness in daily life activities does not replace formal sitting.
2/ Formal walking meditation:
During formal walking meditation, one establishes mindfulness mainly through the physical aspect (first foundation) without paying attention to other experiences. Simply choose an individual path and walk back and forth while applying mindfulness of the body: the body moving, the feet touching the ground, the changing sensations of motion, heaviness, pressure, tingling, coolness...
(More description of the sitting and walking techniques will be presented in the course).
To be relaxed yet alert.
Have no expectations.
Let go of controlling. Let it be. Try not to make any thing happen but also not to reject anything (not adding or subtracting anything, just observe things as they really are).
Hold a joyful interest in understanding life by simply watching it unfolding in each moment: accept and observe both "good" and "bad" experiences, not wishing the pleasant ones to last and the unpleasant ones to stop.
Roots of stress:
-Wanting something to happen is attachment.
-Wanting something to go away is aversion.
-Not knowing what is happening is delusion.
Just like a farmer preparing the land before planting his/her crop, to embark upon the mindfulness practice, it is helpful to commit oneself to a harmonious way of life, allowing the mind to be peaceful and more conducive to this practice. Be kind to yourself and to others. One traditional way is to follow, as best as one can, the five training guides or commitment of refraining from
1) Killing any living being
2) Taking what belongs to others
3) Harmfully expressing one’s sexual energy
4) Using untruthful or harsh speech and
5) Habitual or more than moderate use of substances (such as alcohol or drugs) that could cloud the mind or harm the body.
Instead of feeling guilty if one breaks one of these training guides, reflect on how it was unskillful and resolve to do better the next time.
Try to renew this commitment daily, perhaps as you begin the day or before the formal sitting.
You can also take the positive approach of the above by making an effort to
1) Protect lives
2) Be generous
3) Keep harmony and commitment in relationships
4) Utter comforting and beneficial speech and
5) Live a (physically and mentally) healthy life
*Try your best to commit to this way of life at least during this course for it to be fruitful.
**You do not have to be a vegetarian but try to avoid hunting/fishing, becoming drunk/drowsy...