Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Learning to Meditate is Like Learning a New Language

The actual practice of vipassana (insight/mindfulness) meditation is a lot like practicing fluency exercises when we are trying to learn a new language, or like practicing scales when learning a musical instrument. The idea is not to become proficient at the exercises, but to be able to play the instrument or speak the language out in the world of day-to-day living.

So we get the body into a position that is 1) comfortable, and 2) alert and awake. Once we find this sitting posture, we often close the eyes gently (although you can also do this with eyes open and unfocused), and then bring the attention to the feeling of the body breathing itself. Of course, the mind will wander constantly, so we just constantly bring the attention back to the feeling of the breath.

A word about the wandering mind: it is as much a component of vipassana practice as is the feeling of the breath. Without the wandering mind experience, we would not be able to make the choice to return the attention back to the breath. Making this kind of choice indicates that we have awakened and are exercising our volition to stay present. One of my teachers, Christopher Titmus, once said that "it is easier to walk on the Sea of Galilee than to feel three complete breaths!" So don't let the wandering mind become an obstacle to your practice. Rather, it is a doorway toward awakening.

Once the mind is gathered and collected a bit more fully in the present moment due to the attention on the present-moment experience of the breath, we can perhaps sustain attention on sense objects that arise during the practice. An itch arises on the nose and we notice 1) an arising sense experience in the body, 2) that it is unpleasant, 3) the perception that the feeling is, indeed, an itch, 4) that we can stay present with this sensation without needing to get rid of it, and 5) conscious awareness of how the itch gets stronger, how it eventually goes away on its own, and how the mind reacts to the entire experience.

And so it goes. Every experience that arises and makes sense contact can be investigated in this way. When we feel ourselves getting lost or wandering again, we simply return the attention back to the feeling of the breath. This will help recharge our sense of mindful awareness.

Once we have practiced these "fluency exercises" enough, we begin to notice the same experiences occurring in our daily life. A feeling arises in the body, perhaps a strong emotion, and we can be present with it without needing to get rid of it because we know it will pass in time, just like the itch. If the feelings are particularly strong and unpleasant, we can use the sensation of the emotion as an object of attention. When the mind comes to rest in this kind of present-moment sensory reality, the thought that precipitated the emotion tends to drop away and lose its power.

This is radical way to greet our emotions, which we have become conditioned into believing are powerful things that can actually hurt us. When we see them as merely arising, abiding, and subsiding events in the body, they lose a lot of their power, and we can begin to relate differently to them, rather than reacting from them.To gain this kind of fluency in daily-life, however, we must practice on the cushion.


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