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Cultivating Mindfulness - A Step by Step Guide

Excerpted from Life is Spiritual Practice by Jean Smith (Wisdom Publications, 2014).


When I teach meditation classes, I begin by asking why people want to learn to meditate, what their expectations are, and—for more experienced practitioners—why they stay with the practice. Almost always the reasons for beginning meditation include stress reduction, a bliss trip, the need to change one’s life. People who stay with meditation regularly report that they do so because “it works”; “I feel better when I meditate,” they say, or “I feel like I’m coming home.”

Trying to help my students pin down just what meditation is gets a bit trickier. Its simplest explanation is that meditation is the study of the mind; with practice, we can actually change the nature of the mind. Interestingly, the Buddha was meditating when he achieved enlightenment, but he didn’t stop then. He continued to meditate for forty years after his enlightenment because he had learned that we can change—we can purify—our basic thoughts, actions, and ideals by continuously cultivating mindfulness.

The topic of meditation is often confusing because the term is used to mean so many different things: thought, deliberation, contemplation, reflection, even an altered state of consciousness. In this book, the term meditation is used for three specific and interrelated endeavors: concentration (samadhi, or single-pointed focus); insight (vipassana, or seeing things just as they really are); and mindfulness (satipatthana, or full awareness in the body and mind of what is happening).

Many formal courses in meditation begin with concentration, then expand to insight, and finally address mindfulness. Though, in fact, it is virtually impossible to do any single form without the others creeping in. Here we’ll first look briefly at concentration and insight, and then focus on mindfulness—which is the most critical aspect of meditation for making our lives into spiritual practice.

As I learned more about mindfulness, I came to understand increasingly how absolutely necessary it is to spiritual practice. Perhaps because mindfulness is in the present moment, in the now, which is the only time that is “real,” the only moment where we have the choices that affect our future lives. Also, being mindful in the present moment enriches our lives greatly, as we’ll see at the end of this chapter when we explore mindful eating. As meditation teacher Jack Kornfield likes to say, quoting a sign in a Las Vegas casino: “You must be present to win.”

The Basics of Meditation

The most important thing for a beginner on the path to spiritual freedom is to make the decision to establish a daily meditation practice, even if only for a few minutes, at a regular time and place. The goal is to find a quiet spot where you will not be interrupted. If it is possible to choose a place in your home where you can regularly meditate, perhaps with a small altar there, that is ideal. If not, you can learn a lesson from the Dalai Lama, who when he travels frequently meditates sitting in the center of the bed in his hotel room.

There’s nothing magic about sitting in a position like a pretzel on the floor. This posture has been favored for millennia by people who were raised in cultures where they sat frequently in a cross-legged posture throughout their lives. There is one advantage to sitting this way: it is very stable, and if you can build up your flexibility enough to sit crosslegged, the perception of balance and stability can enhance your practice. In fact, there are four positions for meditation: sitting, standing, lying down, and walking. If you can think of any others, they’d be fine too. One option, if you need back support, is to fold a blanket several times to be a “mat” on the floor and then to fold over a pillow to be your “cushion,” which you position against the side of the bed so that you lean on it. As the population that ardently embraced meditation in the West has aged, many practitioners—including some teachers—have chosen to sit in a chair to meditate. Whatever posture you choose, find one where you can sit still erect and alert but not rigid—for as long as you plan your meditation session to be.

Concentration Meditation

Basic concentration practice is one-pointed focus on an object. The breath as the object of contemplation is ideal; it’s free, and it’s always available. Most importantly, when you focus your attention on your breath, you become immersed in your body, with immediate access to body, feelings, mind, and mind-objects.

Here are basic instructions for concentration meditation:

  • Let your eyes gently close. Rest your hands on your lap or thighs, or clasp them loosely just below your waist, in front of and against your abdomen.
  • Sitting comfortably, take several deep breaths, then let your breath return to normal and do not control the length or depth of each breath.
  • Identify where you feel your breath most strongly: perhaps the upper lip or nostrils, or perhaps the abdomen, slightly below the navel.
  • Keenly observe the details and subtleties of your breath at this focal spot. Is your breath long or short? Is it deep or shallow? Is it coarse or smooth?  Is it cooler on an inhalation than on an exhalation? Is there a space between your inhalation and exhalation? Is it longer or shorter between your exhalation and inhalation?
  • As soon as you realize that your attention has wandered—and it will—bring your awareness back to your breath.

In the same way, you can begin using the breath to achieve stillness and balance, and to focus on any feelings of pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral that come up. With practice, you also can become aware of activity of the mind and of thoughts and emotions. But just as you let the sensations of the breath arise and pass away, so too do your perceptions of other frames of reference, such as sounds, arise and pass away, without your becoming attached to them, in what Thanissaro Bhikkhu refers to as “choiceless awareness.” These arisings and passings away are the heart of insight and mindfulness practice.

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