Coming Back to Your Seat...
Coming Back to the Breath...
A Primer for Insight Meditation
Meditation is the practice of stopping in order to observe. Normally we get caught up in thinking, judging, anticipating and doing all the time, often without realizing it. With stopping we step out of our habitual patterns of being swept away by constant thinking, judging and doing, and allow our minds to drop in on what is really going on here and now. If our habitual thinking is a boat adrift, then stopping (or concentrating) becomes possible if we have an anchor to steady the boat. Common to virtually all meditation traditions, that anchor, or refuge, that brings us home, centered in the here and now, is following the sensation of the breath.
So typically in a seated position, with a posture that you might consider dignified and yet comfortable, and closing your eyes or gazing softly a few feet in front of you, you can begin noticing the sensation of the breath as it is naturally occurring without trying to manipulate it or change it in any way, just observing it as it is in each moment, each breath. You may notice the breath as air flowing in and out of the nostrils, perhaps through the expansion and contraction of the chest, or perhaps as the rise and fall of the abdomen. Wherever you choose to focus on the breath, you will soon realize that the mind does not like to stay on the breath and at the first opportunity wanders off somewhere else. This is what minds naturally want to do. Discovering that the mind has wandered off, whether it is a few seconds or 15 minutes, gently but firmly escort the mind back to your focus on the breath. No matter how many times the mind wanders off and no matter for how long, there is always the opportunity to bring the mind back to the feeling of the breath -- a fresh start, a new beginning, is always available to us. (All that is required is for us to continue breathing!) One definition of meditation is that the mind wanders off, and we bring it back to the sensation of the breath. Meditation is not graded. There is no way to fail as long as you show up for practice.
After spending some time becoming familiar with this landscape of the sensation of the breath, and knowing that you can always come back home to the breath, you can begin expanding your field of awareness to include sounds, body sensations, thoughts (which may include visual images), and emotions. If you choose to focus on sounds, you may notice that the mind immediately wishes to categorize sounds by where they come from, what they mean and judging them as good, bad or neutral. Allowing yourself to set aside interpretations and judgments enables you to experience just the pure sensation of sounds.
Being present for body sensations allows us to investigate areas of pain, tension or relaxation, fullness, emptiness, temperature, flutters or tingling, etc., with an attitude of interest and curiosity, neither grasping nor pushing away such sensations, just being present for them as they are. Such sensations may or may not be accompanied by certain thoughts or emotions. Expanding our field of awareness further, we may then notice associated opinions or judgments our mind is creating in relation to the sensations, as well as associated emotions, such as anger, fear, sadness, elation, longing, etc.. Paying attention to our thoughts and emotions, we notice how they come and go and seldom stay the same for very long. We become aware of just how much our mind is flooded with random thoughts and judgments; our task is not to modify but to simply observe this process with acceptance and self allowance.
Meditation is not about trying to relax or become a better, wiser person as we are practicing; it is simply about being awake and present. Setting aside at least a few minutes or more each day for formal practice, and also informal practice of being mindful as much as we can in day-to-day living, can make all the difference.