INTRODUCTION TO MINDFULNESS
PDF text downloadable here Session 1 Introduction to Mindfulness – Summary
Why the need for mindfulness?
In our modern fast paced society, with multi-tasking, electronic speeds and 24/7 networking, we tend to lose touch with ourselves, and with what matters. We forget to notice the beauty around us, in nature, in the eyes of our loved ones, the taste of an orange… The good news is that we can train ourselves to be more present.
Together in this course, we are going to explore practices that the Dalai Llama calls “the science of the mind”, a training in the foundation of mindfulness:
- You will learn to be mindful with your breath and your body, to bring a healing and liberating attention to your feelings and emotions, and to your thought patterns and states of mind.
- You will be invited to start a practice at home and to weave mindfulness into your life
What is meditation ?
“In its simplest and most general sense, meditation is a mental discipline involving attention regulation or concentration.”
Meditation is also used in a generic sense to cover a wide range of mental activities. There are many ways to meditate, and there are many techniques of meditation. The best technique is the one that works for you.
A meditation technique is simply what we do when we meditate. We may direct our attention to various objects, such as the breath or body, a mantra, a thought or prayer, a visualisation or mental image, a physical object, a sense of being or stillness.
Traditionally, meditation is practiced to awaken us beyond the conditioned mind and habitual thinking, so the nature of reality can be revealed to us.
What is mindfulness ?
Very simply, mindfulness is defined as “paying attention to the present moment without judgement, and is characterised by interest, friendliness and clear seeing”. It is an invitation to be present in our life.
Thich Nhat Hanh (Vietnamese Buddhist monk who has created a mindfulness community in the south of France, Plum Village)
“Mindfulness is the practice of being fully present and alive, body and mind united. Mindfulness is the energy that helps us to know what is going on in the present moment. I drink water and I know that I am drinking water. Drinking the water is what is happening.
Mindfulness brings concentration. When we drink water mindfully, we concentrate on drinking. If we are concentrated, life is deep, and we have more joy and stability. We can drive mindfully, we can cut carrots mindfully, we can shower mindfully. When we do things this way, concentration grows. When concentration grows we gain insight into our lives.”
What is presence?
Tara Brach – “Presence is not some exotic state that we need to search for or manufacture. In the simplest terms, it is the felt sense of wakefulness, openness and tenderness that arises when we are fully here and now with our experience. You’ve surely tasted presence, even if you didn’t call that. Perhaps you’ve felt it lying awake in bed and listening to crickets on a hot summer night. You might have sensed presence while walking alone in the woods. You might have arrived in full presence as you witnessed someone dying or being born. Presence is the awareness that is intrinsic to our nature. It is immediate and embodied, perceived through our senses.”
When we approach meditation practice, attitude is everything, in particular, the quality of sincerity we bring to our practice: rather than adding another “should” to our list, we choose to practice because we care deeply about connecting with our innate capacity for presence, clarity and inner peace.
Another key supportive attitude is unconditional friendliness toward the whole meditative process: very often, we enter meditation with some idea of the kind of inner experience we should be having and judgement about “not doing right”. In fact, there is no right meditation. Rather I invite you to give permission for the meditative experience to be whatever it is, and to trust that in time your practice will carry you home to a sense of wholeness and freedom.
What are the benefits of training in mindfulness?
There is an old saying that awareness is like a container of water. If you place a tablespoon of salt into a small container of water, let’s say an expresso cup, the water will be too salty to drink. But if you place it into a much larger container, for example a bucket of water, then the water won’t taste as salty. We have simply changed the ratio of water to salt.
Awareness is like that container of water. When we cultivate mindfulness or awareness, that is when we increase the mind’s capacity for being aware or mindful, we are able to adjust the ratio of the experience of awareness (the water) to the object of our awareness (the salt). What we are doing, is strengthening our mind and integrating our brain: growing the linkages among different regions in the brain, strengthening the brain’s ability to regulate our emotions, thoughts, attention and behaviour, and learning to live a life with more flexibility and freedom.
Science shows that this expanding awareness also brings a deeper sense of connection and meaning to everyday experience, and makes us healthier.
We might not get to notice all these benefits immediately, however there are two benefits that new meditators will notice fairly early on in their practice: The first one is improved concentration and focus , the second benefit is that it helps us be less yanked around by our emotions.
People are drawn to mindfulness training for a wide range of reasons. So for many it is because of a sense of stress and wanting to relax and improve their sleep, some are struggling with physical or mental illness, others have problems in their relationships, others have lost a sense of direction in their life…
The poet Rumi asked: “Do you pay regular visits to yourself?”
And a large part of this training is about paying regular visits to ourselves, to deepen our listening presence, so we can become clearer on what matters to us.
How to practice mindfulness?
The basic training is really simple, it’s a training in presence. We practice by receiving all the domains of experience with a mindful and open attention. These domains include the breath, physical sensations, feelings, thoughts and awareness itself.
Because our minds are often busy and reactive, it is helpful to use skillful means that quiet the mind and allow us to come home to presence.
At the beginning of each meditation, we can take a few minutes to intentionally awaken our senses.
Then we place our attention on one anchor that allows us to quiet and collect the mind. We will explore various anchors next week.
At the end of each sitting, we can let go of the skillful means, let go of all doings, and simply rest in natural presence.
While it is a simple practice, it requires a regular discipline and a strong commitment to sustain it. To stay motivated, it is really helpful to remember our initial intention, the reason why we were drawn to meditation in the first place. It’s about getting in touch with some yearning to be all that we can be, manifesting our innate potential. It is embodied and heartfelt.
It begins with pausing: stopping the doing, listening to our heart and remembering what matters to us.
Poem “Clearing” by Martha by Martha Postlewaite:
Do not try to save
the whole world
or do anything grandiose.
in the dense forest
of your life
and wait there
until the song
that is your life
falls into your own cupped hands
and you recognize and greet it.
Only then will you know
how to give yourself
to this world
so worth of rescue.
Awakening the sense
Arriving where we are and intention
I would like to invite you to create a container for a daily practice at home. In order to gain the benefits of meditation, we need to practice regularly, at least once a day.
The first step is to set a time –. The best time is the time that you can realistically commit to on a regular basis. For some people it might be easier to do 2 or 3 short sits rather than one long sit.
Set the duration – Deciding in advance the duration of your sit will help support your practice, start with short periods, maybe 5 or 10 minutes. If you sit every day, you will start to experience noticeable benefits (less reactivity, more calm) and this will encourage you to keep going and sit for longer periods.
Find a space – If possible, dedicate a space exclusively to your daily sitting. Choose a relatively protected and quiet space, where you can leave your cushion or chair so that it is always there to return to (maybe a corner in your bedroom). You might like to place some objects that inspire you and create an atmosphere of calm (a candle, a photograph, a nice shawl, flowers, a plant).
Intention – At the beginning of each sit, it is helpful to remind yourself of what matters to you and your deep motivation for starting a meditation practice. It will help to keep you motivated in the face of obstacles, so it does not become another “should” on your to do list, but something that you look forward to and that nourishes you.
Using a log book and/or a journal – This is optional, but it can help you to track your progress.
Starting a new habit – Identify one first step in the direction of establishing the habit of meditating, something small, manageable that you can try tomorrow.
I invite you to take a few steps towards establishing a home practice this week, that you can share with the group next week. Try and listen to the short grounding practice every day if possible, or a few times before our next meeting. If possible, listen to the longer version once before our next meeting.
Next session will be about finding an anchor for our attention.