Updated: Dec 18, 2021
Thank you for joining me last night as we investigated the present moment using the breath.
Your homework is to give your self the gift of 5 or more minutes of presence and awareness practice each day. I would suggest trying in the morning before the busy portion of your take takes aware your attention, or try it just before you go to bed. You could do it on your lunch break. If you need a little support, you can go and download an App for your phone called Insight Timer, it has built in timer with a bell and there are literally thousands of guided meditations and talks on various topics. So when you can't practice in a group or you are having trouble getting completely motivated, you can try out some of the various teachers there.
I have uploaded a video recording of the class and you can access it here on the blog for my site, or you can just click through to the video on the youtube.
Included here are the talks I gave last night. These are slightly different in wording from what I delivered because I was feeling inspired as I spoke with you to focus on certain areas and maybe drop or de-emphasize others.
Have a great week, and next week we will make friends with our body,
Introduction to Mindfulness
What is mindfulness. The simple definitions it is awareness.
Jon Kabat-Zinn has this to say - Mindfulness is awareness, cultivated by paying attention in a sustained and particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.
When we are lost in our thoughts, we are not really paying attention to anything specifically, the mind is running the show. Usually thinking about something in the past or something that might happen in the future. We are not aware of what is happening in the present moment.
The non-judgemental portion of this is we observe without pushing away or pulling towards ourselves things that we find unpleasant or pleasant. If you are walking down the street you might see a beautiful flower and go up to it to smell its beautiful scent (pleasant body experience), or you may reminisce on a past experience with a friend while you are thinking and say to yourself that was a fun time (pleasant thought). The flip side is you are walking down the street and you see a car crash a stop sign and hit a telephone pole and your turn away in fear (unpleasant experience), or you are sitting in meditation and there is a pain in your foot (unpleasant body sensation).
When we take a non-judgmental perspective on our experience, we do our best to not get involved in the story associated with these thoughts or experiences.
Tara Brach my teach describe mindfulness as natural presence. Presence is the felt sense of wakefulness, openness and tenderness. It occurs when we are fully here and now in the present moment. Each and every person has experience mindfulness at some point in their life. Perhaps you have experience it walking on the beach and listening to the waves or feeling the water wash over your feet. It is easy to feel presence when you are walking alone in the woods and you are tuned into the sounds all around you. Presence is right now, and embodied experience, that is perceived through our senses.
Jack Kornfield has this to add about mindfulness, “mindfulness includes an appropriate response to the present situation.” In other words it is our ability to respond to what is happening right now in the present moment, rather than react. When we are in a state of reactivity we are not in a state of awareness or presence. For instance you are driving down the street and someone cuts you off, you could react by screaming and going into road rage and try to run them off the road, or you could respond to the situation by noticing that you are feeling scared angry because this person cut you off and was driving unsafely. With that noticing of what feelings and thoughts are arising in that moment you are staying aware, and your next step might be a thought, - oh that person may have been having a hard day, or was in a rush to get home because their wife was in labor.
What we have summarized here are what neuroscientist call the “three pillars of mind training”. Which are
1) Focused attention
2) Open awareness
3) Kind intention
Scientists have done research into what these three qualities of practice and have concluded is that practice will :
1) Reduced stress – reduced cortisol levels
2) Optimize cardio vascular risk factors, and improved cholesterol levels
3) Reduced inflammation – by modifying epigenetic regulators
4) Improved immunity
5) Slow the effects of aging – by repairing the telomeres at the end of your chromosomes
All of us seem to be born into the experience of separateness. During infancy, we come to distinguish between “self” and “other.” As we develop, we devise a complex group of ideas about who we are, which is our ego. Ram Dass has this to say “Hundreds of times a day, we shift costumes to fit appropriate roles. This is the life of the separate self, moving through the world of “other.””
As we practice mindfulness meditation and cultivate awareness, presence, and kindness we can begin to break down our beliefs of the separate self. We open ourselves to the awareness of the interconnectedness to all the beings around us.
No matter how despairing or cut off we can feel at any given time, we are not actually severed from the essential flow of life or from one another. If we get quiet for a while and pay careful attention, this is what we realize.
Introduction to mindfulness of the breath
Breath-focused meditation practices have numerous known cognitive benefits, including increased ability to focus, decreased mind wandering, improved arousal levels, more positive emotions, decreased emotional reactivity, along with many others. According to neuroscientists, simple breathing exercises are know to calm the area of the brain which is responsible for the fight or flight arousal. So with a breath based mediation we can bring our mind into a calmer state where we can begin to cultivate awareness.
We start with the breath as one of the most universal of all meditations, because it's always with us. From the moment we are born to the last moment of our life, we are accompanied along our path by our breathing.
And it can be used to steady and to focus. And even when the mind is rather distracted,
which we notice as a symptom of our time and our culture, the breath is only a moment
away to come back. Julia Child says, "in department stores, so much unnecessary kitchen equipment is bought by people who just came in to buy men's underwear."
When we meditate at the beginning we start our attention on the breath. What we find is that our attention can get pulled away from the breath. So we need some way to actually keep us here and steady.
And the thing about the breath is not only is it ever present, and it's always
changing, it's morphing and moving, and it's long and short and has all its different rhythms to it. It connects us with all the things around us. The trees, the oceans, the animals, other people, all of us breathing the air of our planet earth
As we rest our attention on the breath, we get to see around it everything else that's going on. The moods we have, the states of our own body, the feelings, the thoughts, the stories, all those will become more apparent, because the breath helps us to become more present.
But with mindfulness, what we're actually doing is letting the breath bring mind and body
together, maybe mind, body, and heart, in some way of presence of allowing the body to
breathe itself as it chooses.
As you breath, pay attention to where you feel it most easily in your body. In this way we become embodied. We arrive in the moment, anchored by the breath and the sensation in the body.
Thich Nhat Hanh would say, to bring in a half smile to your face (slight up turn at the corners of your mouth), to soften the belly, to stay with the breath, and notice the body and mind, but stay with the breath.
If you are having a hard time feeling the breath in your body or the sensation of the breath is so subtle that it is hard to land your attention on it. You can whisper to yourself silently, I calm myself when I breath, or I breath with ease, or breathing in with ease, breathing out with ease. Another approach is simply counting each breath, 1,2,3,4,5 and start again.
Meditation while using the breath as the anchor should not be work. It can be a pathway to joy and connection with our hearts. Life is full of suffering already, why would we want to suffer while we practice being mindful. When we bring a half smile to our faces and we breath we can practice with sentences - Every breath is life. Life at every breath.
As we arrive and work with our breath many things may happen, as our nervous systems settle and slow down, we will become aware of sensations in our body. There may be thoughts and feelings that arise. These may take your attention away from the anchor of your breath and you may find yourself swept away in the river of thoughts that follow. Don’t worry that is normal, you can always return to your anchor the breath and restore your awareness and start over again, as many times as needed. There is no right way to do this.
The goal is not to stop thinking or feeling, there is no real goal. What we are wanting to do is to cultivate our awareness and attention and notice what is happening moment by moment. Oh there is thinking, there is a feeling, ah that is my body feeling uncomfortable. Like anything that we do, we need to practice.
At first you may find yourself unable to count past 2 or 3 before getting lost in a story. That is ok, you can always come back to the breath and start again. Over time we will be building new neural networks in our brain, training ourselves, building new responses and changing our brain chemistry as we practice with the breath.