Dear Still Water Friends,
Each week at our Still Water gatherings we sit together in silence and then usually talk about an aspect of mindfulness in daily life. This Thursday evening, after our meditation period, we will turn our attention back to what we do in sitting meditation. We will have a chance to share our experiences and ask questions.
Usually, when I sit, I begin with finding my breath. When I teach new practitioners I suggest they use the phrases “Breathing in I know that I am breathing in" and "Breathing out I know that I am breathing out” to accompany the in-breath and out-breath, or simply the words "In" and "Out," to help them settle. When I’m just sitting and not guiding others, sometimes I use the phrases and words, but often I go right to the wordless awareness of the experience of breathing in and breathing out.
If I’m feeling restless I may begin just with the awareness of my breath going in and out through my nose. When I’m calmer, I become aware of the passage of the breath through my body, feeling it especially at my nose, throat, chest, and diaphragm. When my breathing and mind feel relaxed and stable, I widen my awareness to my body. Sometimes I do a body scan, sometimes I give attention to whatever part of my body seems to want attention. I continue throughout my meditation to use my breath as an anchor, aware of my breathing in and aware of my breathing out.
When there is a stability in the body, I open to affect, especially to feelings, emotions, and mood states. And when there is a peacefulness and ease in my affect, I again open wider to cognitive processes: especially awareness of thinking, wanting, and imagining. Finally, when the thinking, wanting, and imagining have calmed down some, I open to sensory experiences: the flow of sounds, tastes, touch, colors and form, and smell.
If and when it all comes together, there is a peaceful aliveness, a delightful sense of being fully present to experience, with very little mental chatter. This meditation poem by Keizan Zenji, a 14th century Japanese Zen teacher, beautifully captures, for me, the process and potential of sitting meditation:
Abandoning myself to breathing out
and letting breathing in naturally still me.
All that is left is an empty cushion
under the vast sky,
the weight of a flame.
At the Congressional Retreat in 2011, Thich Nhat Hanh talked very personally about how he sits and what he experiences:
When I practice sitting meditation, I do not open the doors of the eyes, the ears, the nose, the tongue, the body, or the mind, and yet I feel very alive. I feel cozy. I practice breathing in mindfully and I touch the fact that I am alive. I touch the miracle of life within me. I enjoy breathing in and breathing out. I generate the energy of mindfulness.
Mindfulness is the energy that can help protect us. In the Buddhist tradition, mindfulness is the essence of a Buddha. A Buddha is someone inhabited by the energy of mindfulness. Mindfulness is the energy that allows you to know what is going on. What is going on is that you are alive. What is going on is that you have a body. What is going on is that there is a paradise of forms and colors available in the here and the now.
What is available is the Kingdom of God, not only around you, but in you. That flower is a wonder and if you have enough mindfulness and concentration you recognize that as something belonging to the Kingdom of God. If we get in touch deeply enough with that flower, we get in touch with the Kingdom and we get in touch with God. That is thanks to mindfulness.
What do you do when you sit? What brings you joy? What challenges you?
You are invited to join us this Thursday evening.
Below are two addition excerpts on sitting meditation by Thich Nhat Hanh and Joseph Goldstein.
Sitting is the Best Thing to Do
by Thich Nhat Hanh, from a Plum Village Dharma Talk, June 2, 2012
Every time we feel that we are not very peaceful, we have some suffering, we are restless, we don’t know exactly what to do, sitting is the best thing to do.
You sit down and immediately you follow your in-breath and out-breath. You enjoy breathing in, you enjoy breathing out. You breathe in in a way that can give you pleasure. You breathe out in a way that gives you pleasure. You breathe in a way that you are aware that your body is there. You breathe out in such a way that you can release the tension in your body. If you are in touch with your body, you can be in touch with the wonders of life around you. . . .
When you are not restless, when you are OK, sitting gives you pleasure. Seating is very nourishing and healing. We should enjoy sitting. We just sit there and allow our body to relax and enjoy breathing in and breathing out. During that time, there is no thinking, whatsoever. We enjoy breathing in and breathing out. We enjoy releasing the tension. We enjoy our body. We don’t need to think. If you mind is focused on your in-breath and out-breath, you can release the past and the future, and your projects. You are free. Breathing in, I am aware of my in-breath. Your in-breath becomes the object, the only object of your mind. When your in-breath is the only object of your mind, you release everything else. You become a free person. Freedom is possible with your in-breath. Freedom can be obtained in two, three, seconds. You release all the sorrow and regret about the past. You release all the uncertainty and fear about the future. You enjoy breathing in; you are a free person. . . . Without that freedom, there is no real happiness possible. So to practice mindfulness is to get freedom – freedom from the past, the future, from your projects, from your worries – and enjoy the fact that you are alive.
Relating to Thoughts
by Joseph Goldstein, from Insight Meditation
Meditation is not thinking about things.
The thinking, or discursive, level of mind pervades our lives; consciously or unconsciously we all spend much or most of our lives there. But meditation is a different process that does not involve discursive thought or reflection. Because meditation is not thought, through the continuous process of silent observation, new kinds of understanding emerge.
For the purpose of meditation, nothing is particularly worth thinking about: not our childhood, not our relationships, not the great novel we always wanted to write. This does not mean that such thoughts will not come. In fact, they may come with tremendous frequency. We do not need to fight with them or struggle against them or judge them. Rather, we can simply choose not to follow the thoughts once we are aware that they have arisen. The quicker we notice that we are thinking, the quicker we can see thought’s empty nature.
Our thoughts are often seductive, and meditation may pass quickly when we sit and daydream; before we know it, the hour has passed. It may have been quite an enjoyable sitting, but it was not meditation. We need to be aware of this sidetrack in practice and remember that the kind of wisdom we want to develop comes intuitively and spontaneously from silent awareness.