Mindfulness meditation is free. There are no health insurance premiums, drug costs, or expensive therapies. And it works! But first you have to understand the authentic instructions, and secondly you must practice diligently. If you do this, mental and physical problems will melt away. Try it! How can you lose?
To begin with, each of the 8 steps below may take a day, a week, a month, even a year before you are confident in your grasp of that particular step. But before you become impatient, remember that building a good foundation by not rushing from step to step will pay off big time later. If you practice only step one, fully, with confidence and awareness, it will lead to total liberation from stress, and eventual “enlightenment.”
But rushing from step to step, trying to hurry the process and get somewhere quickly, results in nothing but restlessness and boredom. There will be no internal shifts, no AHA! moments, which are those experiences that can occur in any of the steps if the step is practiced deeply enough. It’s these moments of split second insight, these experiences of ‘other worldliness’ that are so important for unshakable faith to develop the practice. Remember; this is not a belief system, this is unquestionable personal experience.
Whatever you do, please don’t make meditation a stressful exercise. Relax in all aspects of it. If you are too tight, if you concentrate too hard trying to attain this or that, stress will develop instead of calm. Let go, let go, let go.
Conversely, if you are too lax and simply drift through your practice haphazardly and casually with only feeble attempts to concentrate and calm the mind, no penetrating wisdom will result. The depth of your mind’s concentration, sharpness, calmness and a knack for randomly seeing “what is’ in each moment, are what determine the resulting quality of the mind’s insight and wisdom, which then leads directly to a stress-free life.
In other words, there will be no abandonment, no disinterest, no dispassion or understanding about the things, circumstances and people that are currently the objects of your stress. Without this disenchantment and relinquishment, deeper states of meditation are not possible.
There will be no transition from the world dominated mind to the free, spiritual being because the mind is simply too entangled in the wrong ways with worldly concerns. There may be perceived spiritual progress, but only the spiritual progress that you imagine. What you do and think about constantly all day and night are the real indicators of where you are and where you are headed.
So, how do we put this all together in a practice that leads to a new understanding of life and a reduction of stress?
There are two basic meditation techniques presently practiced by most meditators. One is called concentration meditation, (jhana), and the other is called wisdom or insight meditation (vipassana), which is nowadays called ‘mindfulness meditation.’
The method described here combines both, and is based on the actual suttas of the Buddha, not the commentaries or ideas of those that followed the Buddha. It therefore combines concentration and wisdom as the Buddha laid out 2550 years ago in his Anapanasati Sutta, indicating that concentration and insight are inseparable.
This method however does not advocate practicing the methods separately – practicing one method (concentration) for awhile, and then practicing the other (insight or mindfulness meditation) for awhile, as is presently practiced by many Buddhists. The method described below practices both concentration and insight at the same time.
Therefore, your practice is balanced at all times. This not only makes the practice tranquil and non-stressful, but naturally results in eventual deep insights into the mind and body that can occur rather quickly, providing that the correct kind of effort and time is devoted to the practice.
STEP 1. Thought Awareness
In order to establish a firm foundation in your meditation, begin by practicing simple “thought awareness.”
Thoughts about what you did yesterday, what you will do tomorrow or next year, how much longer the meditation session will last! What you will do after meditation, or about that itch, or having to swallow all the time. All these thoughts can ambush you.
When thoughts do steal your attention, where you become involved in them rather than being mindful that you are thinking, you lose your awareness. When this happens, be kind to the thought that stole your attention – but not too kind.
Allow each thought to have its space without angrily pushing it away, but at the same time, shift your focus from the content of thought, or what you were thinking about, to the feeling of the thought. You will feel a tension in the brain when you are thinking, even thinking so called happy thoughts. It’s subtle, but the tension can be discovered with some practice.
Thought is a conflict solver. So, when you are thinking you are naturally in conflict. Thinking how to balance your checkbook, or what you have to do tomorrow, or even thinking about how you can get people to like or respect you – this is all conflict. Fear of running out of money, becoming unpopular or disrespected, getting something you crave but can’t have, or putting up with something you dislike and can’t get rid of – these are objects of thought where thinking tries to resolve the situation by figuring it all out.
So while we are practicing, we no longer participate any further in a thought once we realize that we are thinking. We stop trying to figure things out, or indulging in the content of our thoughts, regardless of how important it is that you solve whatever conflict the thought is trying to resolve, or the plans it is trying to complete.
When you continue to think, after you are mindful that you should be meditating – that is not good meditation. On the other hand, noticing thoughts, gently letting them be and returning to your mindfulness of thought awareness – this is good meditation, even if you have to do it a million times.
Noticing how mind works
When you find yourself caught up in a thought and then successfully let go of the contents of the thought, take one more step: Take a moment to realize the attachment you have for this particular thought (it seems very real and important to you).
Then notice how that attachment causes stress, and how the more important a thought seems, the more stress it causes.
This noticing and realization does not come about by thinking some more about the thought and our attachment to it, but by merely experiencing the feeling of stress or tension that the thought causes in our brain. Then, we experience how that tension releases when we let go of the tight grasp the mind has on that thought.
This is how you will begin to acquire wisdom about how the mind works. You will also discover what your attachments and aversions are. In addition, you may discover how a “self” is fabricated from thought, and therefore our ‘self’ is nothing more than a mirage. Eventually, after practicing this way for some time, we can let go of our assumed self importance, which is the cause of most of our stress.
This is how vipassana (insight) is developed within the tranquil jhana (concentration) practice, and how mindfulness meditation develops.
So to recap: When your mindfulness remembers that you are thinking about something instead of simply being aware of the thinking mind, there is a tendency to quickly push the thought away, hating it, considering it to be a hindrance to your meditation, and then quickly jumping back to your object of meditation, which is simple thought awareness.
Instead of quickly pushing the thought away, however, take a moment and apply your mindfulness to the grasping, the feeling of tightness that the thought has caused the mind. Don’t think about the content of the thought itself, just notice the feeling in the mind that it has caused. The thought seems very important to the mind because something either has to be resolved, or we are trying to think how to position ourselves so that we are more liked, admired, respected, secure, happy, etc.
So, the mind is either trying to solve a conflict, or trying to build the idea of “me ” and “mine” – reinforcing the “I” thought. But you don’t have to think about all of this or try to figure it out. Simply notice the tension that thought creates.
Then release that tension. Release the grasp that the mind has on that particular thought. You will feel your temples and eye muscles physically relax when you do this.
Then allow the mind to expand, releasing itself from the confines of the brain. Let it expand as far as it likes, out toward unlimited space.
Now take a deep breath, and as you exhale, relax the body, let the arms fall from the shoulders, relax the face and abdomen.
Now happily notice your uninterrupted awareness of the mind without thoughts, as long as you can.
Again, here’s what you do when you find the mind is distracted in thought:
A. Apply your mindfulness to the grasping, the feeling of tightness
B. Then release that tension.
C. Then allow the mind to expand
D. Now take a deep breath, and as you exhale, relax the body
Insight into how the mind works is not a result of the brain trying to figure all of this out. Insight comes as a flash, after which perfect understanding prevails. No need to keep reading more books or practicing anything other than keeping your mindfulness and awareness as an anchor, watching thoughts come and go. You are now an observer, not a doer. Eventually, if one wants to go deep into jhana and vipassana practice, the controller, the doer, must go.
All the wisdom of the universes and beyond is inside the mind. All you have to do is calm the mind, then direct it toward avenues other than those which you have been traveling all your life until that innate wisdom has a chance to surface.
Practice this Step 1 until your thoughts slow down to the extent that you can catch each and every one and apply ‘A’ through ‘D’ below:
A. Apply your mindfulness to the grasping, the feeling of tightness
B. Then release that tension.
C. Then allow the mind to expand
D. Now take a deep breath, and as you exhale, relax the body, and go back to standing on the beach.
Then go on to step 2, but don’t hurry step 1!
STEP 2. Gaps between thoughts
As you practice, thoughts settle down becoming less frequent. You will then notice gaps between your thoughts. These are brief moments where there is an anticipation of what comes next, as if the mind suddenly has become empty of thoughts and you find yourself ready to ambush the next thought that comes your way.
Keep practicing this way until the periods between thoughts lengthen. Don’t go to STEP 3 until just the image of the empty mind, without thoughts, can be maintained for about five minutes.
STEP 3. Noticing the body breathing in the silent gaps between thoughts.
At some point within these gaps between thoughts, and simply because nothing else is going on, the mind will begin noticing that the body is breathing, It will notice the in breaths and the out breaths. It doesn’t matter where you notice this breathing, you just notice it. You just know that the body is breathing.
Stay with this awareness of breathing in and breathing out Stay with this noticing as long as you can before you find yourself caught in a thought. Keep doing this breath awareness until the mind can remain mindful of the breath for about 20 uninterrupted minutes with no or few thoughts, before moving to STEP 4.
STEP 4. Now we will begin following the Buddha’s actual instructions on mindfulness of breathing, or the Anapanassati Sutta.
“There is the case where a monk having gone to the wilderness to the shade of a tree or to or an empty building sits down folding his legs crosswise holding his body erect and setting mindfulness before everything.”
Get into the best posture you can, one that you will be able to maintain for the entire length of your meditation period without moving. The best position is the full lotus posture where you place your right foot on top of your left thigh, and your left foot on top of your right thigh. This is only for very flexible people! Keep in mind that all meditation positions have to be worked at for some time to become comfortable, and in the meantime there will be some pain.
Another good position is the half lotus, where the right foot is placed on the left thigh. Most statues and pictures of the Buddha depict this position.
Burmese style is also very good where the feet are not placed on top of the thighs but laid out in front of them. There are pictures of these sitting positions under the “Fundamentals of Buddhism” tab.
Sitting on a chair is okay as well, just sit with your back straight but relaxed, and don’t lean back.
The important thing with all of these postures is to eventually put mindfulness of breathing before everything else. This means being able to sit comfortably, upright, and stable for long periods of time where you are involved only in your breathing rather than getting caught up in moving the body around and fidgeting.
Now, put your mindfulness completely on the breath and go to STEP 5.
STEP 5. Detailed breath awareness
” Breathing in long, he discerns, ‘I am breathing in long’; or breathing out long, he discerns, ‘I am breathing out long.’ Or breathing in short, he discerns, ‘I am breathing in short’; or breathing out short, he discerns, ‘I am breathing out short.”
Simply know detailed aspects of each in breath and out breath as you are breathing – whether it is long or short, shallow or deep, fast or slow, or calm or stressful. You can become aware of the length of the breath by how long it takes to inhale and exhale. One way is to see if the inhales and exhales are equal, or whether one is longer than the other. Another way is to see how calm and relaxed the breath can become. If you notice your breathing is tight and constricted, try to loosen or relax it. Play with the breath and see how many subtleties you can detect.
Do this until you can notice the beginning, middle and end of each in breath, and the beginning, middle and end of each out breath for about 20 minutes without intervening thoughts.
STEP 6. Body awareness
“He trains himself, ‘I will breathe in sensitive to the entire body'”. He trains himself, ‘I will breathe out sensitive to the entire body.'”
Here we will begin two exercises which will open and familiarize us with the energy centers of the body (and all the while remembering to keep all the in breaths and out breaths in mind in the background). The in breaths and out breaths become our anchor, our “go to” guy when we find ourselves losing our awareness of that mindfulness that the Buddha said is to take priority over everything else.
The first exercise harmonizes the body and can protect it from illness. The second harmonizes both body and mind and keeps the meditation practice stable and balanced.
Begin with a deep inhalation at your tailbone and visualize it moving up your spine to the top of your head (in a seemingly counter intuitive fashion). Then let the exhale fall over your chest like a waterfall and around the pelvic area before you begin another circling inhalation at your tailbone. Do this three times. Be sure to relax your body fully on the out breath – allow you arms and face to fall. Relax the belly, let it hang out! This is the first exercise, which takes about 30 seconds.
After your three circling breaths, the second exercise involves putting your attention on the energy centers of the body, or the ‘chakras:’ This one takes about a minute:
Calmly breathe in and out two times from the forehead area just between and above the eyebrows. Imagine this forehead area, as well as all the organs in this area, opening and expanding.
Now do the same at the throat – the hollow area below your Adam’s Apple – breathe in and out two times and imagine this area and all the organs in this area opening and expanding.
Now do the same at the heart – the center of the chest.
Next the solar plexus, or an area 2″ above your belly button.
Next the pubic area.
Then the tailbone area.
And finally bring the breath around the back to about 2″ above the top of the head.
4. Solar plexus
5. Pubic area
7. Top of head
It is recommended that these two short excises be practiced before each meditation session.
STEP 7. Tranquilizing the body
“He trains himself, ‘I will breathe in calming bodily fabrication (breath).’ He trains himself, ‘I will breathe out calming bodily fabrication (breath).”
Now simply watch the in breaths and out breaths. Make sure that you know the beginning, middle and end of each in breath, the beginning, middle and end of each out breath. Don’t concentrate too hard. Just sit there completely relaxed and calmly know the different parts of each breath. Try not to miss any part or any breath. If you do lose attention, that’s okay. Just go back and begin again.
As you are doing this, occasionally think “Easy, calm, relaxed,” and your breath will calm all by itself.
If the meditation is done properly with the correct emphasis on ‘relaxed, and with consistent effort, the mind will increasingly calm down until the sensation of breathing becomes very refined and almost unnoticeable. Many other things can happen as well, as mind begins to explore amazingly interesting regions it never knew existed.
Do this for as long as you can until the breath either disappears, or a bright light appears right in front of the (closed) eyes. It is good to consult a qualified teacher at this point, as signs and experiences can be misinterpreted.
STEP 8. First jhana
“He trains himself, ‘I will breathe in sensitive to rapture.’ He trains himself, ‘I will breathe out sensitive to rapture.’
Step 8 is really not a step but a result of Steps 1 through 7. Now your mind is catching on to deeper mental states, and it becomes engrossed! This is the beginning of deep shifts in consciousness and understanding. This is the beginning of the jhanas.
There is nothing you can do directly to bring these on. As a matter of fact, trying to bring them on will ruin them because they are very subtle states. The mind alone decides when it is ready for them. All you can do is the above practices wholeheartedly and see what happens, not expecting or anticipating anything. Then, when the mind begins to drop into jhanas, let it drive the car. Just sit back, relax, and enjoy the scenery. The mind itself will find its way through all of the jhanas if you can learn to let it lead without your “self” doing anything.
When the mind is ready to go into these deeper states, it will do so by itself, as was stated. You must let go of all control now. Don’t do anything except be mindful and aware. Allow the mind its space to follow its instincts. Trying to do anything except be aware at this level will stop all progress. The thinking, intellectual mind is much too gross to live in the same world as jhanas.
The first indications that the mind is going into beginning jhanic stages are physical feelings of “rapture.” Initial feelings of rapture are usually physical, and can include, but not limited to, goose bumps, hair standing on end, extraordinary feelings of freedom or release, and many more.
In the beginning, the problem is that when one is not accustomed to this rapture, there is a tendency to think, “Wow! What was that!” Then of course, that grossness of mind will immediately take the mind out of jhana. Then you will spend the next three months (or years) thinking about the rapture and trying to duplicate the experience instead of letting go and doing the indirect practice that originally brought it on.
So it takes some experience before you can relax into the joy that rapture provides.
Once you can relax into that joy, still always keeping the breath in mind in the background, mind will want to go into deeper stages than merely rapture, which it begins to see as too coarse for the sensitive states that will follow. This is the point where the mind will begin to slide into second jhana.
Here is the stage in your practice where a good teacher with experience in jhanas becomes invaluable, just because it is not easy to know which way to go in practice. There might be a hundred different ways for the mind to go, with only one being the way towards enlightenment. Visions, lights, nimittas, effort, mindfulness, view – all these things and many more need to be explored and understood.
So this is good for now. If you can get this far, enlightenment is not so very far away. It’s always up to you.