One thing I have learnt having spent much time with people who practice meditation, is that there are many different views about it: views on how to do it, what it’s for, what to emphasise, how it unfolds over time, and who offers the best techniques, for example. If there is something compelling for you about the act of sitting quietly, and if you want to explore meditation practice, it can be confusing to know how to even begin. Here, I offer some reflections on how I have been learning to practice meditation and what I find helpful. My experience comes mainly from the Buddhist traditions of Southeast Asia and I teach what is often called ‘insight meditation’ or vipassana – where a direct and investigating observation of experience is emphasised. Meditation for me is an experiment in stopping, looking and being available to learn from the experience that life presents in the moment.
Start With the Body
When we sit we are learning how to express and develop a particular way of being. A central aspect of sitting practice is learning to be grounded, alert and still. We can attune to these qualities by giving attention to our posture, and noticing how it makes us feel. If we can trust the floor or chair beneath us to hold our weight, our shoulders can drop and we can relax and ground ourselves. One way to express our intention to be alert is to keep an upright
posture – our uprightness can be a declaration of our wish to be present and awake. There’s no rule about not moving during sitting practice and at the same time, the stillness of the body can help us tune into an inner, deeper stillness. Learning to look after and deepen our access to these qualities is not a secondary practice – notice if you have a tendency to want to jump over or avoid giving attention to your posture. Are you rushing? Are you impatient to experience something else?
Become Aware of the Background
We need to be available to learn from what we are actually experiencing rather than trying to experience something we have read about, heard about or previously known ourselves. The way we pay attention to our experience is influenced by our attitude and we need to become aware of what our attitude actually is. Where are you coming from? What is your intention? Are you trying to change something? Get rid of something? Get something you don’t have? The more aware we become of our attitude, the more we are able to shape it into something helpful. We need to learn how to orientate ourselves in relationship to our experience with a curious, allowing, patient and non-judgemental attitude. We want to be interested in our direct experience rather than our interpretations and thoughts about it. An essential part of practice is learning to look after a helpful background attitude, noticing when we are pushing something away, clinging to something or ignoring something. If we are not aware of our attitude then we are likely to get tied up in knots, frustrated and tired out.
The Experience of Breathing
Awareness practice inevitably leads us to confront our tendency for distraction. One of the first things we learn when we sit quietly is how much our attention moves from one object to another almost uncontrollably. If we are sincere about practising insight meditation then we need to be very patient and forgiving with ourselves because a lifelong habit of distraction is no small thing to face. Insight meditation is a process of reclaiming our power in the face of distraction – it is utterly magical that with awareness practice we learn how to choose to be present. One way we can experiment with this is to make the intention to stay present with the direct experience of our breathing. In whichever way the breathing process is presenting itself in the moment, we see if we can keep our attention with the breath. When we notice that we have become distracted we return to the breath. Playing this simple game, we start to learn what kind of effort, attention and alertness is required from us to become more present. It is a process of again and again noticing that we have become distracted.
Make Meditation an Experiment
The breath is a very helpful tool in learning how to gather our attention. We can also experiment with an open awareness, where we don’t choose a particular part of our experience to focus on. With gentle curiosity we simply receive each moment’s experience as it is and notice when we are lost in thought, fantasy or daydreams. Whether you are using the breath or a simple open awareness it can be helpful to use the mental note “thinking” whenever you notice that you are caught up in doing just that. Explore both styles of practice, perhaps using the first half of a sitting to stay with the breath before moving to an open awareness. See if you can discover how both modes of practice are useful for you in your exploration. Keep alive a gentle curiosity: What is it like when you notice you have been distracted? What is this present awareness, which breaks into a daydream? What kind of effort is required from you to remain present with your experience without needing to make it different? In this way we build a foundation for insight meditation practice.
Article also appears on Conscious 2