Mindful Meditation Class #1
This is a course for anyone who wants to meditate and practice mindfulness. We’ll cover mindfulness on the cushion and off the cushion. What this means is we’ll explore mindfulness not only while meditating.
In the end, we meditate and even go on retreat so we are better when we come back to people in our lives. Mindfulness looks like a solo pursuit, and it is, but the end purpose is to help us live better lives in the midst of other people.
In this course, we’ll focus on being present instead of chasing our thoughts. We’ll look at how to be connected to something real – our bodies. Being present includes walking and everyday tasks, and we’ll explore how you can remember to be present. And finally we’ll look to develop some calm through concentration.
The big word, Nirvana. This concepts isn’t mentioned a lot in the dharma world because it’s experiential. It is not a “state you finally achieve” but rather a feeling you get while you are practicing mindfulness. This state is hard to describe and can cause a lot of ambiguity for meditators.
We can begin to understand it as having less ego or less Identity. In western society we are taught to rise up and define ourselves. To “be someone” to have an “identity.” But if we really investigate a social identity, we find it puts expectations on us. So in certain situations we have to “live up” to our expectations and in turn our identities. This "living up to" can take away our freedom to just be however we want to be.
Finally, this identity creates expectations about how things ”should be.” The “should be” can sometimes become a static state but we know that life isn’t static. Life keeps changing and the rub between change and static causes us a lot of problems.
In the end this practice has the purpose of reducing our ego or identity. Our thoughts and emotions are often related to our identities, and when you hear a meditation instruction, “Just let go” this really means let go of your thoughts and feelings related to your ego or identity.
In order to have less ego or identity, we need to know the path to get there. This course is going to cover concentration in the first week. What is it and how does it work. Then we’re going to distinguish the stuff of meditation when we close our eyes. We’re going to distinguish the difference between our thoughts, feelings and body sensations. In the third week I’ll introduce the concept of bare awareness as the essential skill for mindfulness. And in the last week we’ll revisit the most important attitude you’ll have towards your own mindfulness, kindness.
For our purposes concentration falls into skills. ”Catch it” and then ”hold it.” It’s like catching a baseball and holding it in your mitt. We want to catch our thoughts, emotions or body sensations.
These experiences often stream extremely fast and at times chaotically. If we don’t have “enough” concentration we can’t “catch” each thought, feeling or sensation and end up feeling overwhelmed. Then we give up on meditation.
Concentration helps us focus and “catch” that one thought before it streams out of our awareness.
After we “catch” the thought, emotion, or sensation we want to ”hold it” so we know what it is. We want to have self-awareness because it can improve our decision making. We can make choices based less on the spur of the moment and more from a thoughtful and balanced point of view. When we see our thoughts and emotions in a single string of events, we can get psychological insight about why we think and feel the way we do. And more importantly, because we now see why we act the way we do, we can make different choices.
Ultimately though, from a mindfulness point of view, we want to “hold it” so we can eventually see it “fall away.” This is an important function as it pertains to letting go of our identities and getting closer to nirvana.
Mindfulness needs concentration as a foundational skill.
Just a note. This is a hard subject because we often judge ourselves for undeveloped concentration. Our knowledge economy runs on processing information and this requires concentration. If we feel we can’t control our minds because of low concentration, we could end up feeling embarrassed or weak. Concentration is like aerobic fitness. The more you walk the better you lungs and heart eventually get. Without walking, hiking or running our aerobic health doesn’t improve. Same with concentration. We need to practice it.
It’s suggested you practice concentrating on your breath or body for 30 minutes since it usually takes 20 minutes for most people's concentration to stabilize. And of course, the more frequent you practice the stronger it will get over time.
This week try to practice as much as you can or want. The meditation is to watch your breath or “ground” in your body like we discussed in class. Grounding in the body is important for many reasons. For one, if you should ever encounter some difficult thoughts or emotions in your life or practice, grounding can serve as a way to rest. It’s a good safety skill in case life gets temporarily overwhelming. You can calm yourself by coming back to your body.
Remember, when you “ground” or “anchor” as some say, you’re grounding in something boring and reliable. It’s supposed to be boring because it metaphorically represents an emotional “safe harbor.” We’re not going to stay in this grounded experience the whole time, but in terms of skill development grounding is very important.