At the first Mind Life conference in 1987, the Dalai Lama was asked by a journalist what was the happiest moment of his life. He was silent for a while and then he gave a mischievous look and said, “I think now”. And this is really the essence of the training in mindfulness, our capacity to come right here, right now into presence. All the training in mindfulness comes around to this question: can we be here? You might even pause for a moment and just sense what that really means, to be here. We spend a lot of our time lost in the virtual reality of our thoughts, planning the future or rehashing the past. Instead, can we sense the aliveness that is right here, right now, in this moment?
The Two Wings of Mindfulness : the Power of Loving Presence
The Dalai Lama invites us to trust the power of heart and awareness to awaken through all circumstances. Heart and awareness are in Buddhism the two wings of mindfulness: the first wing is the wing of awareness, recognising or seeing clearly the reality that is here. The second wing is compassion or unconditional friendliness towards all of our experiences, not trying to change or judge what is happening, but bring our loving presence to it. The psychologist and meditation teacher Tara Brach describes the whole process of healing as this process of coming home to loving presence, coming home to who we are.
The Physiology of Mindfulness
Students often ask the question of how is mindfulness working, what is actually going in the brain when we pay attention on purpose to our moment-to- moment experience?
MRIs of experience meditators show that when they practice mindfulness, the region of the brain correlated with positive emotion, the left prefrontal cortex is activated, while the limbic system, especially the amygdala that correlates with fear, is deactivated. Mindfulness practice helps to reduce the sympathetic nervous system response of fight and flight, and strengthen the parasympathetic nervous system responsible to rest and digest.
Supports to Mindfulness Practice
During our practice, it can be very helpful to name what’s happening. Research shows that in the moment of noting, because noting calls on the frontal lobes, there is more of a sense of space, more of a sense of being able to relate to and not from an experience—so we are less identified with the contents of what is happening. Especially when working with thoughts, mindfulness of thinking, noting is helpful, because in the moment that you note even just thinking, thinking, in that moment, you are less inside the thought.
Imagine that you are flying in an airplane through a cloud. When you are in the cloud, there’s no remembrance, no sight, no image, or view of the world. And then when you fly out of the cloud, you can see the clouds, but you can also see the rest of the sky and everything else. When we’re inside a thought, that ends up shaping our reality. In the moments that we note, oh, thought cloud– the content of the thought might still be there, but there is also a remembrance of a larger truth.
So noting is a support for mindfulness.
We are so lost in our thought clouds that we tend to be disconnected from feeling our body. So, another support for mindfulness is a sense of embodiment, coming back to feeling the body. It is helpful to start your practice by taking some time to do whatever helps to establish an embodied presence: a body scan, a guided relaxation, or an invitation to let the senses be awake.
Anchors for the Attention
Maybe the most well-known and central support to mindfulness practice is having some anchor or focus for attention, a home base to come back to when we get distracted. The breath is the most common, but it’s really just one of many– the hands, feeling the whole field of bodily sensations, sounds, a mantra, a set of meaningful words can all be used to establish an anchor or home base for the attention.
Key Intention: Learning to Stay
The framing of meditation in terms of “coming back” and “being here” is very helpful. And it’s not truly two separate processes because even in being here, there are many moments of leaving and coming back. The key intention is learning to stay. Rather than bicycling away from what is difficult or uncomfortable, we practice countering that conditioning, so we can actually stay with our experience and feel what is going on. When we learn to stay and be with what is there, we discover the healing and freedom that are possible.
Thus, one of the key inquiries when we practice mindfulness is asking two simple questions:
“What is happening right now?” and “Can I let this be?” or as an alternative “Can I be with this?”
Part of what happens in mindfulness training is that at the beginning, it’s really hard. The mind is so habituated to false refuge and obsessive thinking, to leaving the present moment, that it is very hard to go against that conditioning to get to presence, and we keep being pulled back into the trance o thinking. However, with practice, presence becomes more familiar, so that when we leave, we kind of naturally wake up and slide back into presence again. There is more ease, and waking up from our thoughts becomes more and more a natural reflex.
Mental noting, embodiment, anchors and learning to stay with our experience are called Skilful Means. They’re all ways of intentionally directing our attention. They take some effort. The challenge with skilful means is that even though it’s subtle, there is a sense of a doing self, that behind the curtain, there’s somebody that’s controlling and guiding the meditation. In contrast, the Buddha talked about choiceless awareness.
Choiceless awareness is really being awareness– just resting in. And even “resting in” isn’t quite it, but just being presence itself where there’s no controlling whatsoever. If there’s an intention, it’s just totally to let be. To experience the deepest freedom is really to experience life just happening, taking form and dissolving, the continuous flow of changing sensations and experiences.
Sometimes meditation practitioners get hooked on skilful means and never just put them down and say, “OK, let’s just let be. Let’s stop controlling. Let’s just be with what is, fully be with.”
So part of what is really important for each of us in our own practices is the possibility of, when things start quieting down and when there’s a certain degree of a sense of stability, exploring non-doing. It’s such a gift.
Our life is our practice
Our entire life is our practice and is our teacher so that nothing is exempt.
The Importance of Slowing Down and Pausing
Remember to pause through daily life as many times as possible. We tend to tumble into what’s next. We tend to spend most of our time on our way to something, which becomes very sad as you start getting in touch with mortality, because you realize you’re racing to the finish line. And what’s that? Death.
So I invite you to pause a lot. For example, when you drive somewhere and arrive, maybe don’t get immediately out of the car, instead just wait, even if it’s for 10 seconds, take a few mindful breaths, do a light body scan. It’s amazing. Ten seconds can be a kind of homecoming. And then you enter what’s next with more presence and awareness. Or you could take a short pause after hanging up the phone before going into the next thing. So just the pausing and letting the body be a kind of anchor through the day is really helpful for us.
Practice in Relationship
When we commit to practice, we need circles of friends that have a similar commitment to waking up. Practicing in community is very supportive to our own growth and awakening. the Buddha said, “Good friends are the whole of the holy life.” It’s that quality of friendliness that, as many of you know in here, is what carries us through the most painful times in our life. So finding a group of like-minded people to practice with can be very supportive.
Of course, formal practice really makes a difference. So I really encourage practice. It’s a gift to the soul to have some rhythm. And to have some rhythm in our life of intentionally creating space, pausing for homecoming, can really make a difference. The invitation is to set aside a small amount of time each day for formal practice, even if it is only five minutes to begin with.
The Right Attitude to Practice: Unconditional Friendliness and Wise Effort
There is an attitude that is essential to practice, because meditation can be really discouraging and more than almost anything else, play into the trance of unworthiness. We have an idea of a meditative experience, and when our actual body-mind conditioning and inner weather systems don’t match our expectations, we might start criticizing our practice and judging ourselves negatively. Therefore, it really helps to bring an attitude of unconditional friendliness towards all of our experiences during meditation.
The question that comes up over and over again is how hard to try, whether it’s formal practice, informal practice, whatever it is.
Even with the most advanced, experienced practitioners, the question of wise effort is really at the centre of practice. On the one hand, if we don’t have a really deep aspiration to wake up, we’re not going to be energized and stay with what’s here. It really takes contacting and being conscious of caring about waking up. On the other hand, if fear kicks in, or grasping, and we start making a striving kind of effort, this is counter to our practice. Striving doesn’t work in meditation. It just reinforces a sense of an imperfect self. We want to find a middle path between having enough energy and aspiration to practice without trying too hard.
Thich Nhat Hanh invites us to connect with the nourishment we get from practicing meditative concentration, and to find joy in our practice. When we come back home after a busy day at work, we can be looking forward to having some quiet time to meditate and connect with the peace and calm within ourselves. When we pause and sit down to meditate, we can start to sense the peace and joy of meditation as we set aside the stresses of our day. He gives the following example to illustrate this: If you ask a child, “why are you eating chocolate?” the child would likely answer, “Because I like it.” There is no purpose in eating the chocolate. (…) Sit in order to sit. Stand in order to stand. There is no goal or aim in sitting. Do it because it makes you happy.”
The last piece to mention is aspiration, finding out what it is that really matters to you. The more moments that we are in touch with what we sincerely care about, we are actually in touch with our own awareness. Tara Brach reminds us that “What we most deeply want and who we are the same.” So, as we prepare for our practice, it is helpful for us to connect with our longing to realize our own loving presence, the truth of what we are.
Tara Brach – Meditation and Psychotherapy
Thich Nhat Hanh – Breathe, you are alive