Deepening the Practice of Mindfulness
Jill N. Henry. Ed.D.
In "The Practice of Mindfulness" I described a simple 5 minute breathing exercise to understand your mind and thoughts. In this article we will take the practice one step further.
Why Practice Mindfulness Meditation?
In the Katha Upanishad (400-300 B.C.) the essential Self is described as the chariot owner, the body the chariot, the deep mind the charioteer, and the surface mind as the reins. The poem goes on to say that those whose surface minds are undisciplined are out of control, "Like mean horses uncontrolled by a charioteer" (in Riding the Ox Home by Willard Johnson). Most of us spend most of our days out of control! We have so many thoughts that send us into the past or into the future and take away our present moment of power. Mindfulness meditation allows us to contact the present, and empowers us to creative action.
How Can I Control my Thoughts?
Most of the time we identify with the surface mind, the reins. We think that our thoughts are who we are. Yet there is a deeper self who is holding the reins. And there is an even deeper self who owns the chariot. Or, if you like a more modern analogy, we identify with the car, the steering wheel and the road and forget that we own the car and can direct it where we please. In the practice of mindfulness we observe our thoughts, sensations, and feelings without becoming attached to them. We assert control by letting go of all the surface clutter and by realizing that all these things going on are not us.
What Am I Doing with All These Thoughts?
Steven Levine, in his book A Gradual Awakening uses the metaphor of a train to describe thoughts and thinking. Imagine standing on the roadside, watching a train go by. Each boxcar on the train contains a thought. In one boxcar there is the thought about the rent due next week. In another is a thought about what you are going to have for dinner tonight. The goal of the practice of mindfulness is to see the landscape beyond the train. We begin to meditate. We focus on our breath, coming and going. We feel the breath at the nostrils. We begin to see the landscape. Then suddenly a boxcar thought goes by. In this boxcar we are arguing with our boss. We hop aboard that boxcar and we are off and down the track. One thought leads to another, and to another. We are far and away from following our breath, from seeing the landscape.
So What Do I Do in Practice?
Begin by finding a comfortable place where you will not be disturbed. One student of mine put a big pillow in the bathroom and meditated there. It was the only place in the house where she had any privacy! Set a timer for 20 minutes or more, then set it away from you so you will not be tempted to "peak" to see how much time is left. Close your eyes and focus on your breath. Feel the breath coming and going, going and coming from your nose. Simply observe your breathing. Do not try to control it.
- When you find yourself distracted from the breath, you may try the following.
- Distracted by Thoughts/Feelings Try labeling each thought and feeling. Use such labels as "future thought", "past thought", "angry feeling", "loving feeling". As soon as you have labeled the thought, return immediately to the sensation of your breath.
- Distracted by Sensations Avoid the tendency to respond to sensations. Do not scratch an itch or adjust position because of a discomfort. Notice the itch as "itch" and the discomfort as "pain". And return immediately to the sensation of your breath. The mind cannot calm down if the body is in constant motion. If you are really in an awkward position, then mindfully change that position and return to your breath.
How Will All This Benefit Me?
Over a period of time, with consistent daily practice, you will naturally become less responsive to and more respons-able for the contents of your mind. Consistent practice is essential. You cannot learn how to play tennis if you only go to the courts once a month for 20 minutes. Meditation is a skill and a habit. Once you have developed both, you will not want to be without them. There are some added benefits. Try extending your practice time to 40 minutes or even one hour once a week. You may find yourself traveling to the landscape completely beyond thought - a wonderful place of pure healing, light, and love. But don’t expect it! An expectation is just a thought. And thoughts keep us from experiencing the light of pure awareness. The bottom line is that we are more than our thoughts. Thoughts are just encapsulated energy. To experience Essential Self, our state of pure energy, will heal and free us to grow and serve.