Sunday, October 10, 2010

Harnessing the Wandering Mind

In vipassana practice, the breath is usually the primary object of attention. This is not to say that we must always have the attention on the breath or we have failed. It is impossible for the human mind to maintain attention on a single object indefinitely either by force of will or through training. Inevitably the mind will wander or become distracted, if only for a moment.

Many times I have said that the wandering mind should not be viewed as an obstacle in meditation practice. Instead, it is actually an opportunity to help us awaken. The mind is the most powerful force we know of, and its power can be harnessed and utilized in service of enlightenment and insight. It is the same principle that allows a stream of water to be put to use turning a wheel to grind grain or to create electricity.

When we begin our practice, we usually devote as much attention as we can to the feeling of the breath. This helps the mind to gather and collect more fully in the present moment (a phrase I learned from Phillip Moffitt). Once the mind has become more present, we can then turn our attention toward objects of mind (thoughts) as they arise in much the same way we devote attention to the feeling of the breath. By doing so, we can gain insight about how the habits of our mind.

For example, let's say I've been sitting for a while in meditation, feeling the body breathing in and out, getting the mind to become more present, when I notice that one of my legs has fallen asleep. I can make the choice to turn my attention toward that experience, and then I can notice the almost immediate experience of the mind creating a preference, judgment, or story about the physical event. I can witness, and at the same time participate in, the mind wanting things to be other than the way they are right now. I can see clearly all the stories that the mind tells about the leg - how I'll never be able to walk again, for instance. Then after the insight is gained, I can return my attention back to the breath.

This is the same process as noticing the wandering mind earlier in the meditation practice, but now I am able to keep my attention on the thoughts in a mindful way and store this experience as insight. This insight may be able to serve me in daily life when I notice the experience of wanting things to be other than the way they are. 

In addition, by not trying to fix or change the situation in the meditation practice, but rather by allowing it to continue, I am creating new habit patterns in the brain that will help me in daily life as well. These new habit patterns may help me to make more effective choices instead of automatically reacting toward situations.

So again we see that everything that arises during our practice (and at any time during our life) is not only grist for our mill, but can also provide the power to run the mill.


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