Monthly Archives: January 2017

Develop concentration in your meditation practice

breathConcentration is the heart of the practice. It is how we cultivate Mindfulness. We center in and focus on the senses that are activated in the present moment. Instead of talking about it, I will offer a couple of concentration exercises for you to use.

The first is a focus on the breath. For meditators who struggle with finding the breath and staying with it, this will really help.

GUIDED MEDITATION ON THE BREATH

All sensations can be the focus of concentration practice. Sound is a particularly pleasurable sensation to attend. Here is a recording I made of a series of sounds.

MEDITATION ON SOUND

After spending time editing the recording of bells and various water sounds in nature, I was washing up the breakfast dishes and, because I was in that listening space, the sounds were absolutely amazing and wonderful. (It reminded me of being on retreat and, by the fourth day, the racket of clatter in the dining hall sounded like a beautiful symphony to me. What a gift to myself to find the joy and the beauty in simple sounds.) 

I wondered if my students, after meditating on sounds for a good part of the class, would also find the washing up so intoxicating. So we assembled in the kitchen and I did a short meditation at the sink. And indeed, with their eyes closed and their attention focused, they also enjoyed the ‘symphony’ of pouring water from pot to glass to sink and around again.

Next time you are washing up, you might try it for yourself. (Of course, don’t be wasteful of the water!)

As with all the aspects of the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path, I have written quite a bit. If you are interested, feel free to check them out.

https://stephanienoble.com/2009/04/22/eightfold-path-right-concentration/

https://stephanienoble.com/2011/02/23/eightfold-path-spacious-concentration/

https://stephanienoble.com/2013/09/22/wise-concentration-the-four-jhanas/

https://stephanienoble.com/2015/05/24/concentration-the-problem-with-problems/

https://stephanienoble.com/2015/06/02/breath-focus-continues/

https://stephanienoble.com/2015/06/09/thoughts-emotions-in-meditation-continuing-the-anapanasati-sutta/

https://stephanienoble.com/2015/06/12/the-wisdom-of-the-breath-the-last-tetrad-of-the-anapanasati-sutta/

What is Mindfulness?

laos buddha-curt firestone

Photo credit: Curt Firestone

Through the regular practice of meditation — insight, vipassana or mindfulness — we cultivate the ability to stay present with whatever is going on in our experience. It is not an escape from the difficulties of daily life. It is practice in skillfully relating to whatever arises in our experience with more compassion, spaciousness, awareness and kindness.

Next week I will be sharing effective concentration practices to cultivate mindfulness. But for now, let’s look at what mindfulness is, and what it is not.

Mindfulness is being in the moment, noticing what is present, using all our senses. It’s also noticing any desire for things to be different or to get more of whatever we are experiencing. When thoughts and emotions rustle through, as they will, we notice them without getting lost in them. If we discover we have been lost in thought, we gently return our attention to the breath.

With mindfulness when we notice a recurring pattern of thought, we can pose a question — Is this true? for example — and then be fully present for the answer when it comes.

Mindfulness is not viewing things from a lofty remote location as an observer, separate from life. It is instead continuously cultivating boundless awareness, holding all that arises in our experience with great compassion, being fully present in this body-mind, grateful for the opportunity to be alive in this form.

With mindfulness we don’t make anything ‘other’ or ‘enemy’ So we are not pushing away, blaming or punishing any aspect of self, or making anyone person or situation a scapegoat for the challenges we are facing in this moment. What presents itself as either/or can be investigated more closely to reveal it’s both/and nature. With mindfulness we open again and again to these kinds of possibilities. We discover the most skillful way to deal with antagonism is to engulf it in the power of infinite loving-kindness. When we slip into the pattern of other-making, we feel stuck in the sludge of fear that drags us down and causes us to be blind to the true nature of life.

We see how in every moment we are given the option to make skillful choices, by staying present, anchoring our awareness in physical sensation. We are powerful beyond measure when we are living mindfully. We can be responsive rather than reactive. We can dance with all that arises rather than let it keep us on the sidelines or engaged in a battle. We see that every moment is a pivotal point of power, where we can act on our truest intention with wise effort, or we can go mindless and fall into habitual behavior, driven by fear.

Mindfulness is not something we have to struggle for or chase after. It arises of its own accord through dedicated meditation practice that is rooted in wise intention and wise effort.

As we cultivate mindfulness in our sitting practice and in our daily lives, we feel some release of fear-based tension. Or at least we notice the presence of tension, which is an excellent place to start.

With mindfulness life doesn’t get ‘perfect’. But difficulties become more permeable, and we see bridges and networks revealed where we thought there were only walls. 

With mindfulness thoughts have enough space to not be constantly in conflict. And there’s room for the ‘I don’t know’ mind to hold all life with reverence and awe.

With mindfulness we can appreciate this gift of life, in whatever form it has taken, through whatever experiences we find ourselves in. The comparing mind is seen as just a fear-based pattern that softens and dissolves as we continue to practice.

Mindfulness also softens and releases the ‘if only’ mindset that had us trapped in the belief that causes and conditions are the source of our happiness, when in fact joy arises simply out of being present, aware and compassionate with ourselves and all beings.

Mindfulness is quite a life-enriching benefit to come out of spending minutes a day in meditation practice! It costs nothing. And the list of health benefits is long and scientifically proven.

As you practice, let go of expectations, but note growing awareness, growing compassion and growing sense of aliveness.

As with the other aspects of the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path, I have given a number of dharma talks over the years, and you can check out their companion posts for further understanding. https://stephanienoble.com/?s=right+mindfulness  and
https://stephanienoble.com/?s=spacious+mindfulness

Do You Get an ‘A’ for Effort?

wise-effort-handsAs we look at the aspects of the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path, at first glance Wise Effort seems the easiest to understand. We see from our own experience and by observing others how over-efforting and under-efforting cause all kinds of problems in life, from the tense host striving to make everything ‘perfect’, causing her guests to feel uneasy; to the couch potato who seems unable to move forward in life; to the ambitious dreamer who seems always in motion but whose wheels are spinning.

Any of these sound familiar? Using the Eightfold Path as a guide for self-exploration, we see that this is not about self-improvement or changing who we are. We are instead looking at patterns in our thoughts, emotions, words and actions that are causing us, and probably those around us, unhappiness. These patterns do not define us. But they may be confining us a bit, and that’s why we want to look more closely.

To investigate, we don’t use our overdeveloped muscle of critical facility, the fault-finder that is often particularly adept at turning inward and causing misery. Instead, with regular meditation, we cultivate mindfulness, compassion and spaciousness where all the tight patterns are able to loosen, soften and quiet down. Only when the cacophony of harsh judgments and strident opinions have been given enough space to settle down, do we have the opportunity to hear the quiet, calm, loving voice of our own inner wisdom, our Buddha nature. This is one of the great gifts of regular meditation practice.

Once we have accessed that inner wisdom in meditation, we can recognize it at other times as well. We can actively seek it out at any time, just by quieting down and listening in. And over time we begin to align more and more with that wiser way of seeing what is actually going on in our experience. We become less reactive and more responsive. When it comes to effort, we are better able to identify the cause of our unskillfulness. We can see what’s really happening with the examples I gave above:

If you relate to the host who wants everything perfect for her guests but instead creates tension, let’s review Wise Intention from the previous blog post. We can see that her intention is not wise. Why? She is fearfully caught up in wanting people to see her in a certain way, in order to admire, respect and love her. She is busy shoring up her separate identity. That is literally off-putting. She puts people off by setting herself apart. She wants to be seen as the kind of person she aspires to be.

A wise intention, such as the intention to be compassionate to herself and all beings, would ensure that she takes care of herself, takes on only as much as she can handle, asks for help or, if she can afford it, hire help, so that she can be fully present to interact with her guests. If this means she doesn’t get a write-up on the society page, so be it! If that was her intention, it was painfully unwise. What people respond to is coming into a space and being greeted by a person who is fully present, fully engaged and not freaking out about whether the space or the food is up to the standards of some magazine editor who probably eats mostly take out in her NYC apartment anyway.

After a dharma talk of setting truest intentions one student came up to me and said that she thinks her truest intention is authenticity, but she wasn’t sure about the wording. That reminded me of an insight I had on a silent retreat that has stayed with me for many years, and has helped me and students I’ve shared it with again and again. I promised my students I would include it here. It is:

I have nothing to hide.
I have nothing to prove.
I have nothing to fear.
I have something to give.

See if this phrase empowers you to live without regard to how people see you. For me, it helped me to stop seeing myself as an object being viewed by others, and allowed me to simply live from the center of my being. This is a challenge women often relate to more than men. Men are generally encouraged to ‘Be your own man.’ But women, traditionally, have been encouraged to put others first and to polish themselves up to be beautiful objects in body and manner in order to attract a mate. Even the princesses among us who promote themselves as the center of the universe are caught up in needing to be objects to be adored, totally dependent on exterior approval. Plenty of men fall into this pattern as well. But rather than demanding that others see us as the center of their worlds, it is possible to live with ease and clarity, making all our efforts grounded in wisdom.

If you related more to the couch potato, your compassionate investigation will not include derogatory terms like ‘couch potato’! That’s not your wise inner voice but one of the many judgmental ones that contributed to the pattern of lethargy you find yourself succumbing to. Set a wise intention — to meditate regularly, to be compassionate, and to attune to the muscles that want to move and the mind that wants a challenge. As a kindness to your heart, eat sensibly and get up and move about. Find the natural strength and fluidity that is within you, waiting to be set free. That is compassion. If you just can’t muster the will to make an effort, ask for help. But choose someone who will help you investigate what’s going on rather than a drill sergeant who makes you feel even more miserable about yourself even as you ‘get into shape.’ Compassion is not giving in to your most fear-based patterns of thinking, but attuning to the vibrant potential for living fully in every moment.

You might be inspired by this story from PBS Newshour called ‘Back on my feet’ : http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/morning-run-can-first-step-homelessness/

If you recognize yourself in the dreamer with the spinning wheels, your compassionate investigation will be to notice the circular patterns, the walls you have set up and the short circuits in your thinking that bounce you back to square one again and again. By living in the future, imagining some perfect life, you are completely missing the offerings of this moment. No matter what your situation, no matter how imperfect, there is in this moment some beauty, some light, something funny, something touching. There is a zen story that speaks to this:

There was once a man who was being chased by a ferocious tiger across a field. At the edge of the field there was a cliff. In order to escape the jaws of the tiger, the man caught hold of a vine and swung himself over the edge of the cliff. Dangling down, he saw, to his dismay, there were more tigers on the ground below him! And, furthermore, two little mice were gnawing on the vine to which he clung. He knew that at any moment he would fall to certain death. That’s when he noticed a wild strawberry growing on the cliff wall. Clutching the vine with one hand, he plucked the strawberry with the other and put it in his mouth.

He never before realized how sweet a strawberry could taste.

So set the intention to meditate, then listen in to that wise inner voice, the one that helps you set an intention to be present in this moment, compassionate with yourself and all beings. Discover how to live fully in this moment and your life will unfold in its own way, more and more aligned with your truest intention. Let your life surprise you with its gifts!

Wise effort is not how much we accomplish, but the kind of the effort we are making in whatever we do. Often when we are exercising we are caught up in a goal: To get to the end of the course, the trail, the time period allotted; to change the way our body appears so that it will be more attractive or acceptable; to have bragging rights that we are able to run or even won a marathon. There’s nothing at all wrong with winning, but focusing on that isn’t wise effort. We can win with wise effort and go on to enjoy the activity. Winning with unskillful effort leaves us exhausted and without a sense of purpose in our lives.

Wise Effort is meditating on a regular basis, setting up and sustaining a daily practice. Kudos for that! Once we are sitting, we continue to use Wise Effort to stay present and compassionate with ourselves, to adjust our posture as we so that it is both erect and relaxed, and we rely on the bones instead of the muscles to support us, and if we notice any tension, relaxing and releasing it to whatever degree we are able.

Goal-setting in meditation is not wise effort, sabotaging our ability to stay present and compassionate. The goal stays ever distant, always on the horizon. When we shift away from imagining the outcome and instead cultivate in this moment a spacious way to be in relationship with all that is occurring right now, we become available to insight and deepened understanding.

Awakening is both potentially instantaneous and a lifelong rich exploration. It happens each time we become fully present, each time our heart is cracked open a bit more with compassion, each time we recognize that we and all beings are intrinsic to the whole of being. We become more and more familiar with our Buddha nature, that wise inner wisdom that speaks softly, has no agenda and all the time in the world. So it really is up to our Wise Intention and our Wise Effort to practice meditation, become more spacious and available to attune to that inner wisdom. All the fear-based judgments and opinions within our thinking mind have enough room to co-exist and feel heard, even if they don’t get to rule the roust. We understand the protective impulse of their fear-based intentions. Over time we begin to see them for what they are: patterns of thought initially launched by some words or actions of someone long ago, who was unskillful because of all the fear-based patterns they were dealing with. Another opportunity for compassion. Which is not the same as condoning or approval of behavior.

Our Wise Effort is to keep cultivating spaciousness and compassion, for ourselves, for everyone in our lives, even those who push our buttons, and for the contributors from the past whose own unskillfulness set off an unskillful pattern within us. This is our practice. Sometimes it is skillful to put distance between ourselves and someone who pushes our buttons. Although we are developing inner wisdom, there is no reason to force ourselves to confront our demons constantly. In fact, we are actively seeking our community of people who support us in our wise effort, and letting go of actively involving ourselves with people whose fear pushes them to antagonize us. At some time we may be ready to sit with them, but we can give ourselves permission to wait until the time is right. Meanwhile we send them infinite lovingkindness whenever we think of them: May you be well. 

Wise Effort has a quality of effortlessness because the exertion is appropriate for this body, mind, time and place. It is enough to keep us engaged in an optimum way and mindful so that we are not prone to accidents.

What are some examples in your own life of wise or unwise effort? What might be a skillful way address the challenge?

On silent retreat at Spirit Rock Meditation Center, all attendees are given yogi jobs so they have a hand in helping to maintain cleanliness or create meals. Over the years I have worked in the kitchen, vacuumed dormitory hallways, swept porches, cleaned bathrooms and maintained the Council House. But on one retreat I really wanted as little potential interaction with other retreatants as possible, so they gave me the job of scrubbing shower stalls.
Right away I noticed my lack of enthusiasm for such a task, including an aversion to being in a small windowless space.

Since I was in a state of mindfulness from seven or so hours of meditation a day, each day as I took up my sponge, squeegee and scrub brush, I discovered a shift in my attitude toward the work. It started with bare tolerance, trying to be a good sport. Then I noticed some hope of praise for a good job, or at least a lack of criticism for a poorly done job.
Then, because these were the showers the retreat teachers used, I did it as a service in kind, out of gratitude for their teachings.
A few days in I sensed into my body — my arm rotating as I scrubbed, my legs supporting me as I reached or crouched. I felt my mind attend this as a simple meditation, a place to put my consciousness. I felt my breath steadily fueling this engine of activity.
I let go of any concern for the outcome. The shower stalls were scrubbed every day, by me on this retreat, but by other dedicated retreatants throughout the years before and after me.

As a practice of mindfulness. This exercise trained me in Wise Effort more than anything else I have ever done. The first thing I did when I got home after the retreat was to scrub our shower stall! But the lasting effect was a change in how I tend all my necessary tasks. They are yogi jobs I do for a set period each day, and with daily application, I can trust that all will be done.

So coming into the present, noticing all the judgments and opinions that arise in relationship to what we are doing, we develop a skillful relationship with even the most mundane tasks. In this way all we do becomes part of our practice. That’s Wise Effort.

No one has our individual answers. But if we notice that we are out of balance in the area of effort and that this under or over efforting is causing problems, then we can skillfully test out either taking on physical or mental challenges, or we can let up on the whip a bit.

I have written many posts over the years on Wise Effort. Feel free to explore more.

Find Your True Intention

What is your true intention?
startwithheart
Jack Kornfield says that setting a long term intention or vow is like setting the compass of your heart. I love that. A compass of your heart. Wherever you find yourself in your thoughts, emotions, decisions and challenges, there’s the compass of your truest intention that can guide you.

In fact all eight aspects of the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path form a helpful guide for us to rely on when we find ourselves at a crossroads. And we are always at a crossroads, because whatever our current situation, even if we can’t change the circumstances, we have a choice about how we relate to what’s arising in our experience. We can mindlessly react out of fear and potentially do something unskillful, even harmful. Or we can align ourselves with our truest intention, use our wisest effort, deepen our understanding of the nature of things, cultivate mindfulness and come up with the wise words and actions that make the best possible response to the situation.

And if we have done something unskillful, we can use the Eightfold Path to figure out where we went wrong. Instead of wallowing in misery, guilt and self-loathing, we can actively investigate and then renew our intention. It’s a very handy-dandy guide indeed!

Over the next eight weeks we will explore all eight of these aspects. We begin with intention, in part because it is the first week of the new year, but also because finding our truest intention will help us in our exploration of the other aspects. The other aspects might help us to refine our intention as well.

For now, we can test whatever current intentions we may have to see if they are true. Especially right after the new year when we to one degree or another often create resolutions. Most popular ones are to lose weight, to exercise more, etc. Nothing wrong with either, but they are not our truest intentions. And if our short term goals are not aligned with our truest intentions, they usually fail.

Why do they fail? Because they are rooted in fear. It’s like choosing to run on a gravel road barefoot. How long will you last? The ‘gravel’ is all the negative inner thoughts we have to contend with that force us to constantly question and justify our set intention. There’s another option. One that is full of kindness and compassion, and rooted in a deeper understanding of life. We can choose to run on the Eightfold Path that is truly supportive.

To find our true intention we might start with the intention to meditate on a regular basis. If we follow that intention and develop a regular habit of meditating, we find an opening, an easing of tension, a softening of that harshly critical mind — the one that builds walls rather than bridges, that strives to be clever rather than kind, the one that thinks it has something to prove. We discover that our striving comes from a sense of separation, and that sense of separation is rooted in fear. We discover we have nothing to hide, nothing to prove and nothing to fear from simply being fully alive in the world. And, once we understand that, we discover we have something to give. We can engage in life with a loving generous spirit.

Once that regular habit of meditating is in place, we find our understanding deepening and widening, and our truest intention becomes broader as well.

You might pause for a moment now, or for a few minutes after your meditation practice when your mind is quieter, to see what comes up for you when you ask ‘What is my truest intention in this life?’ And then simply allow whatever response arises to come up. Notice if what comes up is loving, calm, wise and undemanding. That’s your Buddha nature, your wise inner voice, offering guidance. If what comes up is full of shoulds or shouldn’ts or this is a bunch of bs, well that’s just an inner aspect that is rooted in fear, trying it’s best to protect you from the dangers it perceives everywhere. While we offer these kinds of voices respect, we can also respectfully decline to be motivated by them. Make room for that inner wisdom to be heard. It may be challenging amidst the cacophony of more frantic thoughts, full of judgment and skepticism. But if you sit quietly enough for long enough, you will create enough space for it to be heard. Because it isn’t going anywhere. It is always within you. You may not have heard it because we tend to pay attention to what is loudest, fastest and most demanding. Inner wisdom is none of those things. But it is there offering lovingkindness and the wisdom to give you exactly what you need right now. Let it tell you your wisest intention. Then write it down, bring it to mind often, and see how living with that intention shifts the way you relate to life. Maybe you begin to see the gifts rather than only the problems. Then you know you’ve set a wise intention.

For a number of years now I have been living with two intentions: To be present in this moment, anchored in physical sensation; and to be compassionate with myself and others. These two intentions have stood me in good stead. Feel free to try them for yourself and see if they are your truest intentions too. I begin my daily meditation practice, and I use them throughout the day as I make choices at every turn. When I’ve forgotten my intentions, I see pretty quickly how valuable they are, and I return to them with renewed appreciation.

One way in which I was not connecting with my two truest intentions was in relationship to my weight. I had a lifetime of thought streams running through me that were pretty compelling. They went something like this: You’re fat. Well, you’re not THAT fat. What’s wrong with being fat? Why do you want to lose weight? Who are you trying to impress? I don’t want to have to buy a larger set of clothes, so I need to diet. It would be fun to look great in that outfit on that model in a magazine. But what kind of attention would I be trying to attract? etc. etc. You know the drill. A lot of inner conversation and very little positive action. Mostly self-deflating sabotage.

Then one summer day I ate my neighbor’s delicious home-grown cherry tomatoes as if they were candy and, because I hadn’t had any oil or bread (I found out later) I developed a horrendous case of heartburn. I’d never had heartburn, didn’t know what was happening, so called the doctor. The advice nurse said get to the hospital pronto. So I did, and ended up spending the night in the cardiac unit under observation. The next day the cardiologist put me on the treadmill and assured me that my heart was in excellent shape. ‘But,’ she said, ‘as a kindness to your heart, you could lose a little weight.’

As a kindness to my heart? Those words sang out to me, so aligned were they with my truest intention. Suddenly all the inner conversation fell away. All my wimpy resolutions to lose weight fell by the wayside. All I had to do was live my truest intention and be kind, compassionate to my dear little heart. I had never ever thought of my heart that way. It was always just a pump. I was grateful that it was reliable, but it was just so much plumbing. Now, with the doctors words, I had something I could work with by simply widening my intention to include my heart.

Just this week I saw a study on PBS News Hour about how important emotion is in motivation. When we look at the experience I had, we can see how suddenly the doctor offered me an emotional connection to my heart, a request to be kind to it. So as we set our intentions, we might consider their emotional content. Fear is a short sprint motivator but backfires and fails in the long run. An intention based in love is a lifelong relationship.

If you set a lifelong intention, you can set short term goals that are aligned with your true intention, and they will be much easier to meet. If they are not easy, investigate!

If you don’t have a meditation practice, establishing one as a kindness to yourself, your family, friends, coworkers, and the world, is a great place to start. (If you don’t know where to begin, start here.)

If you have an established practice, congratulations. You might in meditation find some inspirational insight that guides you to your truest intention that speaks to any challenges you face right now.

I have taught the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path several times, so here’s a link to other posts on the subject: [READ MORE ON FINDING YOUR TRUEST INTENTION.]