Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The Wandering Mind

It is not unusual for students of mine, both new and long-term, to imagine that a "good" meditation would be one during which the mind never wanders. They may mistakenly believe that the object of vipassana meditation is to always be mindful of the breath without any extraneous interfering thoughts. Once, during a question period during the meditation group, a student mentioned that he had been told that if you could count 84 consecutive breaths (or some number like that), it meant you had attained mastery of the practice. This kind of thinking is not only meaningless, it only serves to erect an obstacle of achievement orientation in our path.

First of all, let me assure you that the mind will always wander. It is not possible to keep the mind focused exclusively on just one thing for very long, so we must release our attachment to this being the hallmark of a good practice. Secondly, the practice itself is not the slavish attention to the feeling of the breath. Vipassana offers a gentle way of training the mind to become more aware and conscious during daily life. Holding the attention on the breath is useless in relation to this kind of training. What needs to happen is for the mind to temporarily go into a mindless, automatic state, such as it does when the mind wanders, and then for conscious awareness to engage so that the choice can be made to return the attention back to the breath.

This form of practice training serves as a model for how to deal in daily life when we are face-to-face with difficult or upsetting habits of mind: we return the attention to a place of mindful awareness through a present-moment sensory reality. If the object of vipassana were to hold the attention only on the breath, then this kind of process would never happen during meditation, and therefore no practice would take place.

So while we don't want to encourage the mind to wander aimlessly during meditation, awakening can only take place when it does. Once we awaken, we return our attention back to the breath, and each time we do that, we gently encourage the mind to take other neuro-pathways. When we get up off the cushion, this becomes the model that we take into our daily life to learn to groove new neuro-pathways there as well.

Here are four simple (but not easy!) steps for meditation practice as outlined by teacher Larry Rosenberg:
1. Just do one thing at a time.
2. Pay full attention to what it is you are doing.
3. When the mind wanders from the present moment, bring it back.
4. Repeat step 3 several billion times!

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