Updated: Jan 9, 2020
Meditation is the training of the mind to direct its attention towards any chosen object, for any chosen duration. Simultaneously, meditation is also the training of the mind’s ability to be vividly aware of what is happening, while it is happening, no matter what it is.
Being aware of “what is happening, while it is happening, not matter what it is” necessarily means that we engage in meditation only in the present. What we did in the past, be it years, hours, minutes or even seconds ago, is not relevant to the process of meditation. Similarly, what we plan to do in the future is irrelevant during this training. One of the first things we want to learn to do when starting off in meditation is to notice when we are thinking of, or planning for, the past or the future.
Whenever we are aware of any thinking or planning, we are meditating. When we are caught up in the contents of our thoughts and plans, we are thinking and planning. Remember that meditation is the training of the mind in awareness of what is happening, while it is happening, no matter what it is. So, to state it in a slightly different way, thinking or planning are doing what we normally do, and knowing that we are thinking or planning is starting to engage in the process of meditation.
The purpose of learning the art of meditation is to free the mind of its habitual tendencies and conditionings that cause us to suffer. We all operate through unconscious habits throughout the day. This is a good thing, for if we did not have these unconscious processes, we would simply not be able to function in life. For example, if we had to think each step of the way every time we wanted to make a cup of coffee or tea, we would probably die of dehydration within a week. Imagine noticing being thirsty, thinking of drinking, consciously having to remember where the kitchen is (let alone that the kitchen is the place we need to go to make a drink), figuring out each of the muscles in our bodies needed to stand up, walk to the kitchen, deviate from a straight course to avoid furniture, reach out for a kettle to fill it up, remember to press the button to put the kettle to boil, reaching out for the button, etc. I will spare you the details, but suffice to say, a lot of unconscious processing occurs in the mind and body simply to hydrate us each day.
So, we have established that a lot of unconscious processing is necessary for our survival. In fact, it is sometimes argued that all of our unconscious processes are formed for our survival, or at least our perceptions of our survival at that time. This may well be the case, but we sometimes also hold habitual patterns of mind that although once useful, are no longer beneficial to our lives now.
For example, in order to fend off assaults to our sense of safety and well-being when we were younger, we may have developed a strategy of arguing aggressively when criticized. While this may have worked sufficiently well when we were younger, it is likely not to be as productive if the same habit were employed in a situation at work now. However, because this reaction is so habitual, people often feel it is almost a reflexive behaviour not within their control.
While our unconscious habits play an important role in our functioning, they also sometimes cause us, and the people around us, unnecessary harm. Part of learning to meditate is to notice habitual tendencies that are not useful to us, in order to have the choice to respond in a more beneficial manner. In short, we are Freeing Our Mind of unbeneficial tendencies such that instead of simply reacting habitually, we learn to respond more appropriately.
Meditation leads to much more, though. In developing this skill, we also start to notice how the mind works. Rather than be consumed by the contents of the mind constantly, we start being more interested in the processes of the mind. When this happens, we start realizing that the premises upon which we base our understandings of the world do not necessarily always hold true; we start to see the world for the way it is, rather than the way we imagine it to be.
So, the training of awareness is essential to meditation. Concurrently, in meditation, we train the mind’s ability to attend to any chosen object, for the duration of our choosing. This simultaneous training of attention and awareness is essential in the process of meditation. Let me try to clarify the difference between attention and awareness a bit more. Right now, your attention is, I hope, on reading and understanding the meaning of the words in front of you. You have chosen to read this, which presumably means you are interested in reading it to the end. You are directing your attention to the meaning of what is written.
Simultaneously, though, you may also be aware of your posture in terms of whether you are lying down, sitting, standing or walking, whether it is dark or light in your current location, whether you are feeling generally relaxed or tensed, whether or not you are hungry, and so on. You can be vaguely aware of what else is happening for you, or vividly aware. Meditation trains your awareness to more clearly ascertain what is occurring for you in this moment, in addition to training your ability to keep your attention on whatever you choose (in this case, reading this article).
An object of meditation we often use is the sensations related to our breath. Whether or not we are aware we are breathing at any given time, and whether or not we put our attention to the sensations of our body that indicate to us that we are breathing, our breath is always with us. This makes it a very useful object of meditation. So, assuming we are choosing our breath as our object of meditation, what does the distinction between attention and awareness feel like?
If we put our attention to bodily sensations related to our breath, be they at the location of our abdomen, our nostrils, or even our hands or any other part of our body, we want to keep it there for as long as we can. As anyone who has tried to meditate has undoubtedly discovered, though, our attention often moves from what we initially chose. How do we know it has moved? Initially, we may not notice for a long time that we have become distracted and forgotten that we had planned to place our attention on our breath. But, out of the blue, we suddenly realise we are now thinking of something else, or tending to some sound in our surroundings. We realise this because of our natural faculty of awareness.
Now this is an important part. Remember that we are simultaneously training our awareness and attention. If attention has faltered but awareness has picked this up, we want to be able to strengthen the ability of our awareness to continue to notice whenever our attention weakens. The best way to do this is to form a positive feedback loop in our brains. So, how do we do this? We learn to appreciate that each time we notice that we have been distracted, we are actually doing exactly what we are meant to do in meditation. In this case, we are training our awareness.
What most people do at this point is get a bit frustrated or annoyed that they have faltered in their attention, when they should really be happy that their awareness was strong enough to have picked up on this. When awareness does its job, we need to reinforce this such that it continues in the future. Rather than getting annoyed or frustrated, we need to congratulate ourselves for noticing. Only after appreciating our success in awareness should we let go of the thought or distraction, gently bring our attention back to the sensations in our body related to our breath, enjoy the relaxation of the body as a result of this letting go, smile for a job well done, and then continue to train our attention.
Positive feedback is the best way our brains work to learn a new task. For example, if we were to train a puppy to sit, irrespective of how frustrated or annoyed we are with the puppy who clearly doesn’t understand English, the puppy will initially not be able to comprehend the command ‘sit’. However, if whenever the puppy does sit upon the command, we praise it enthusiastically, pat it or reward it in some way, it will happily listen out for which of the dozens of stimuli and actions that occurred prior to the praise is likely to get it the reward again. In this way, the puppy happily learns to sit upon hearing the command in no time.
We need to train our minds in a similar manner. If we punish ourselves for not being able to sustain our attention on a chosen object, we are missing the opportunity to train our minds by rewarding the awareness aspect of this training. If we don’t do this, we don’t give our minds the most optimal way of learning; that is, through positive reinforcement. So, every time you notice your mind has wandered off, be happy that you have noticed. We call this spontaneous introspective awareness, and this ‘aha!’ moment is a key aspect of this training. This is what allows for new discoveries. So, rejoice in these moments of awareness at every opportunity. This is the best way to train the mind.
One thing that I have not mentioned yet is the attitude of one’s mind while meditating. A mind that is meditating comes from a space of openness, clarity and acceptance. From this vantage, whatever we notice that is in touch with reality, is allowed. This includes times when we notice that we are distracted, like we just discussed. It is good that we have noticed, and we should reinforce this ability to be aware. Sometimes, we also notice frustration in our practice. This is also good. Remember, we are training our minds to be more aware. Not being frustrated at our frustration is a key way to not increasing its re-occurrence. This is the first step.The next step is to learn to let go of it.
Letting go is an essential part of this training that is sometimes difficult to do. When we start meditating, many things distract us. Not only do they distract us, though, but they also appear more enticing such that even when we are aware that they are there and that we are no longer meditating, we still are seduced into continuing to place our attention on them rather than the less interesting sensations related to our breath. This is a normal part of this process.
If you consider letting go as simply shifting one’s attention from one object to another, this provides a practical way in which you can start this aspect of the practice. So, we start with a decision to diligently move our attention back to our object of meditation every time we notice it has wavered. Whenever you next notice that your attention has been inadvertently pulled to a thought, for example, be happy and congratulate yourself for having recognized this, then gently shift your attention back to sensations of your body related to your breath. If you have to do this a dozen, or even a hundred, times in the next few minutes, you will have that many opportunities to train your mind in awareness and in letting go. Simply having this attitude of mind will allow you to naturally, and happily, train your mind in attention.
True mindfulness is when you have an optimal balance between attention and awareness. Until that time, these foundations of practice are essential. Once you develop your abilities in attention and awareness, everything else falls into place.
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