How to do Mindfulness
(with warm thanks to Shambhala Sun)
“When you’re sitting, you’re Buddha.” (Chan Buddhist proverb)
“Always abide by the first appearances, and add nothing yourself from within.” (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book 8)
Mindfulness is a mental discipline that you can learn in an evening, and spend a lifetime perfecting.
In mindfulness, we’re aiming at a mind that’s stable and calm. This equanimity is a natural mode of the mind. Through mindfulness practice we’re just developing and strengthening it, and eventually we can rest peacefully in our mind without struggling. Our mind naturally feels content, but alert.
Creating a Favourable Environment
There are certain conditions that are helpful for beginning the practice of mindfulness. When we create the right environment it’s easier to practise.
It’s good if the place where you meditate (even if it’s only a small space in your home) can be set aside for that purpose. Even if it’s just a chair, you shouldn’t use it for any activity except practising mindfulness.
It’s sometimes said that you should meditate in a place that isn’t too noisy or disturbing, and that you shouldn’t be in a situation where your mind is going to be easily provoked into anger or jealousy or other emotions. This is certainly true while you’re still a novice; but, eventually, you’ll want to be able to switch into mindfulness in any setting.
Beginning the Practice
Practise sitting often but briefly—ten minutes is good. If you force it too much the practice can get complicated, and training the mind should be simple. So you could sit for ten minutes in the morning and ten minutes in the evening. Then you just stop, get up, and go.
Often – say, when you get in from work – you might just flop down and let the mind take you wherever it wants. In mindfulness practice you have to create a personal sense of discipline. When you sit for mindfulness practice, remind yourself: “I’m here to work on my mind. I’m here to train my mind.” Say that to yourself when you sit down, literally.
Use a chair for practice. Sit upright with your bare feet flat on the floor. You can rest your back against the back of the chair, but don’t slouch; slouching interferes with the free flow of your breathing.
Spend some initial time settling into your posture. Imagine that your body is being pulled upwards from the top of your head so your posture is elongated, and then settle.
This posture helps you to stay relaxed and awake. The practice you’re doing is very precise: you should be alert even though you’re calm. If you find yourself getting dull, or hazy, or falling asleep, check your posture.
The gaze should be downward, focussing a couple of inches in front of your nose. The eyes are open but not staring; your gaze is soft. You’re trying to reduce sensory input as much as you can, purposefully ignoring what’s going on around you.
When you practise, you become more and more familiar with your mind. You learn to recognize the movement of the mind, which you experience as thoughts.
Start with a sense of your body, and a sense of where you are, and then start to notice the breathing. The whole feeling of the breath is very important. The breath should not be forced, obviously; you’re breathing naturally. You’ll notice a rising sensation in your chest, and then it peters out. After a moment or two, you’ll find a falling away. This, too, fades out at the bottom of the cycle. Then, once more, you’ll feel a rising in your body.
Observe these sensations, this cycle. Don’t judge them. They’re not good or bad, they just are.
Within seconds of starting, you’ll find thoughts appearing in your mind. No matter what kind of thought comes up, you should say to yourself, “That might be really important, but it’s not what I’m doing. Back to the breath.”
These thoughts might be about what you’re going to have for tea, or how you embarrassed yourself at work, or your favourite TV programme, or the crick in your neck, or you might think “what the hell use is meditation, anyway?” or “hey, I’m quite good at this!” or “oh, I’m really bad at this”. Whatever it is, just note it—label it somehow—and go back to the breath.
This is the point where many people say to themselves, “I can’t do this: every time I attend to the breath, something pops into my head”.
You think that’s bad? That’s not bad. Just go back to the breath. This is what you’re practising—going back to the breath. Not having an empty mind, but going back to the breath. If you find yourself making any kind of value judgement, say “That might be really important, but it’s not what I’m doing. Back to the breath.”
If you notice that you’ve been lost in thought, label it “thinking” or “wanting” or “blaming”—gently and without judgement—and come back to the breath. When you have a thought—no matter how wild or bizarre it might be—just let it go and come back to the breath, come back to the situation here.
What we’re talking about is very practical. Mindfulness practice is simple, and completely feasible. And because we’re working with the mind that experiences life directly, just by sitting and doing nothing, we’re doing a tremendous amount.