Entering into Mindfulness: Notes on teaching, sitting, and being mindful

Some reflections on my own meditation practice today are inspired by a facebook friend and fellow meditation teacher, Melanie Yetter. Melanie begins her wonderful piece on her mindfulness meditation sitting by acknowledging that "My experiences during my formal cushion sitting practice varies according to the mood of my mind and the flexibility my body has to offer that day."

This is true for me as well, and I am sure you will find the same. One of the road blocks we can unconsciously put in front of ourselves, however, is to expect this to somehow not be the case. We might expect that meditation is like climbing a ladder, each day we should get a little higher until we reach the top. In reality, each day is completely new. An "amazing sit" yesterday might become the distraction of today (wishing "oh, why can't I settle in to it like that again" over and over...). Or a really rough time - fidgeting, mind wandering, distracted - yesterday might set the stage for wonderful calm and depth today. 

When we come to our meditation cushion, we come with what Suzuki Roshi called "Beginner's Mind" - an openness to the experience in its fullness. Sometimes I have that. Sometimes I don't! And sometimes, even when I think, "okay, beginner's mind time" as I sit down for meditation, once on the cushion, a world of thoughts invades my little solitude. At the end, all I can do is smile and acknowledge that this is where I am at today. 

My typical practice

I like to sit after exercise and a shower. For me, exercise is usually a run (or run-walk if I'm not in shape!) or high-intensity interval training, a sort of fast-paced muscle-building routine. I prefer to use a buckwheat "zafu" or meditation cushion to maintain cross-legged posture, though sometimes I use a wooden bench and use a kneeling position. 

Once in my posture, I typically use a basic timer on my phone or sometimes log into Insight Timer for their customizable timer and sounds. I tend to see all of the gadgets as "crutches" that could easily become distractions in their own right, so I urge caution with them. Setting a 20-minute timer on my phone and beginning is typically the quickest and most beneficial entry into the meditation for me.

From there I bring my attention to my breathing. The sensations of the air reaching my body, entering, and filling my chest and belly. Once this is established I simply "rest" there. Sometimes that takes a while. Sometimes there is a lot going on and the mind is constantly abuzz with thoughts, memories, planning, and so on. Sometimes an entire 20-minute sit is consumed by those. And that's okay. I bow, smile, and go on with my day. 

But more often than not, around 5 minutes in or so, any kind of busy-mind begins to calm down and rest or focus arises. Melanie offers some techniques she uses, that I'll share and add to here, to help along the way:

Counting 1-5, inhale 1 exhale 2 inhale 3 exhale 4 inhale 5 exhale 4 inhale 3 exhale 2 inhale 1
What is This, Don’t Know, using the practice of a curious child with each passing moment, Zen practice don’t know mind or beginner’s mind.
Contract and Relax Body, inhale contract abdominal region, chest, hands & arms, shoulders up to ears, jaw, whole face, hold for a count of three and exhale releasing until belly is soft and shoulders relax, good for racing mind/tense body.
Candle Gazing, night time practice, starting with eye movement exercise, gazing at flame until you are able to bring the light within, relaxing and warming practice.

My counting practice is slightly different. Usually, I will count, silently to myself, on the inhale or on the exhale. So, inhaling ("one"), exhale. Inhale ("two"), exhale. And so on until I reach 10 (if I reach 10), and starting again at one. Whenever the mind wanders, I gently note "wandering" and bring it back to where I was last, or I start again at one. 

The curiosity practice is excellent as one becomes more adept in meditation. In my teaching, I urge students to develop curiosity toward the breathing: knowing that each moment provides unique sensations, if only we are open to feeling and observing them. Curiosity with thoughts and emotions that arise can be used later, once one has a firmly established practice - as it can otherwise lead into daydreaming and fantasizing. 

The contract and relax practice is not one I do much. But an article recently sent to me by a friend has piqued my interest, so I might incorporate it more. It is a useful way of "coming into the body" and feeling clearly what tension feels like. I tend to do a gentler practice, having students place their hands on their belly or heart, both places of tension in many people, and having them sense the tightness or openness there as they breathe and undertake the practice. Both of these techniques provide "bio-feedback" to the meditator, connecting the mind and body in consciousness, which is essential to mindful living.

In my daily practice, I might use the "hand on heart" or "hand on belly" technique from time to time or the counting. It is a matter of trying and seeing what feels right and what brings my focus into the breathing. This is why teachers offer a variety of methods. A single method might not work, leading to discouragement. Yet, too many methods and one might get lost in the variety and detail. So, a fair number should be taught and tried. Mostly, these days I focus on the point where the air first enters and leaves the body and this is enough to establish concentration.

And that is my practice in brief. It is simple. It is always a bit different. And some days I don't "acheive" much calm or focus. And that's okay because it's just practice and there is always tomorrow.

The author meditating near Polebridge, Montana, 2009.

The author meditating near Polebridge, Montana, 2009.