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The technique that many of us use to become more conscious of the fundamental elements of our lives is meditation, which can be defined simply as awareness. There is an infinite variety of things to be aware of: our breath, body sensations, thoughts, moods, physical movements; the animal presence of other people in the room; the sounds we hear—to name a few.
Learning how to pay this kind of attention can radically change the quality of pain or stress, because the kind of mind it produces is clear and focused compared to our usual churning, busy, jumbled mind. This lucid mind gives us a perspective from which we can set priorities in our lives based on our real values rather than mere habit. A great deal of our daily stress stems from confusion over what is really important to us. Do we actually need to get dinner on the table as fast as possible, or is that just a habit we could reevaluate? It is good to become conscious of our actual values. We might really believe that our well-being is more important than living efficiently, but we might have forgotten our beliefs in the crush of daily demands.
So how do you begin to develop this ability to pay attention and use it to cultivate your healing, your sense of ease, your capacity to discover the happiness that is already there?
Every day you can practice paying attention to the world in which you live this very moment. Sit still for twenty to thirty minutes and just notice your sensations, thoughts, and sense impressions. Practice noticing them without worrying about what they are. After some weeks of this sort of practice, you will find it easier to shift into this mode of attention whenever you wish. Even though the stress of pain or anxiety is very compelling, the more you practice bringing to it your full attention, the more skilled you become. When you become able to include this awareness in all your everyday interactions, you will notice that your life takes on a more wholehearted quality, as though you had more of yourself available for each thing that you do.
Another form of meditation practice is to focus your attention on just one thing, like your breath, carefully counting your inhalations and exhalations and noticing the pauses in between. Focusing on anything to the exclusion of everything else is called a concentration practice. You are developing your ability to focus all your attention on one particular thing and let everything else, no matter how potentially riveting, drop away.
When you are doing a concentration practice, you not only notice when your attention is steadily focused on the object you have chosen, but you also notice when it wanders away. If you are new to meditation, you will probably be amazed at how often your mind wanders away from the object on which you have chosen to concentrate. This wandering quality is a basic propensity of the mind. I call it “puppy mind,” a tendency to run about and sniff everything.
It doesn’t matter how many times your mind wanders away, perhaps thousands in a single half-hour meditation session. What’s important is that you notice that your mind has wandered, and specifically where it has wandered to, then you gently disengage from that diversion and guide your attention back to your chosen focus, whatever that is.
I think of concentration practice as developing the “coming-back” muscle. The more times your mind wanders away, the more opportunities you have to develop your ability to refocus your attention, to strengthen your coming-back muscle. Concentration meditation practice is not a matter of ruthlessly eliminating the random thoughts that tug at your attention; it is a matter of patiently and kindly, ideally without self-criticism or irritation, abandoning the side roads and turning your attention back to the object of your concentration.
The following is a good practice to build up your coming-back muscle:
1.Arrange yourself in a position that is both stable and comfortable.
2. Settle yourself and begin to notice your breath, specifically the inhalations and exhalations.
3. Without changing the rhythm or pace of your breath, begin to count the inhalations and exhalations from one to ten. An inhalation and an exhalation count as a pair. That is, the first time you breathe in, you say “one” in your mind; when you breathe out, you say “one” again. The next inhalation is “two”; the next exhalation is “two.”
4. When you get to ten, start over again, so that you are counting a continuous series of one to ten. Continue this throughout your period of meditation—say, for twenty to thirty minutes.
Whenever your attention leaves your counting, note specifically where it goes—for example, to what you have to do after this period of meditation, to a fantasy of what you’d rather be doing, to thoughts of irritation or agitation, to sleepiness, to a work project, whatever. It doesn’t matter where it goes; what’s important is that you gently return it to your breath and your counting. The counting is to help you notice that your attention has strayed.
What may be especially interesting to you is where your attention goes. You may notice obsessive patterns and habits of mind you weren’t aware of before starting this practice. No matter how many times you lose track of your counting, note where your attention goes, over and over again, and then gently bring it back to your counting. This exercise both develops your coming-back muscle and reveals your own particular habits of mind, the favorite places you revisit again and again.
When we become skillful at noticing our habits of mind and letting them come and go without disturbing us, we realize that each state of mind, including strong emotions, only lasts for seconds before being replaced by another one. Anger turns to sadness, which turns to melancholy, which turns to comfort, which turns to relaxation, which turns to enjoyment, and so on. We come to appreciate that the underlying nature of puppy mind is actually a ceaseless, uninterrupted flow of thoughts and feelings. When we understand this truth, we can choose to settle into the awareness of each thought or feeling as it arises and passes. In this way, we cultivate some freedom from the frantic imbalance created by each one.
In general, it is very important to be patient with yourself when you are beginning a meditation practice. You are attempting something that is inherently very difficult: breaking old habits. And these habits aren’t even as blatant as biting your fingernails or smoking cigarettes. They’re habits of mind. The rule of thumb is that it takes ten thousand times to notice that you have a bad habit, ten thousand more times to catch yourself doing it, and ten thousand more times to substitute an alternative behavior. The ancients who derived this dictum understood the coercive power of habit. With this practice, you will begin to as well.
©2000 Darlene Cohen. Used by permission of Shambhala Publications.
Darlene Cohen is a Zen teacher at the San Francisco Zen Center. She counsels chronic pain clients and gives workshops and lectures in the Bay area on arthritis and living with pain. This article is adapted from her book, Finding a Joyful Life in the Heart of Pain, published by Shambhala Publications.