Getting started with mindfulness

5 mins read.

Without mindfulness, alertness, and concentration, our unpeaceful, uncontrolled thoughts (aka delusions) will keep running the show forever. In other words, we won’t be able to stop our suffering.

crazy elephantCarrying straight on from this article, Improving our focus 

In Essence of the Middle Way it is said that we need to bind our elephant-like mind to the stake of our virtuous object with the strong rope of mindfulness and use the hook of alertness to subdue it. ~ Joyful Path of Good Fortune

A “virtuous object” or an “object of meditation” can be a state of mind, such as love, or an object that is not a mind, such as impermanence or a mantra. (It is not an object of sense awareness such as a tree or a candle). You can read more about objects of meditation in Joyful Path. 

Breathing meditation, such as the simple one explained here, is a good place to start training in mindfulness, alertness, and concentration (MAC). The objects of other meditations, such as love or impermanence, require contemplation to find and to hold; but we are always breathing, so even if we lose our object of meditation, the breath, we can get back to it immediately.

Mindfulness functions both to keep the mind on an object that has not been forgotten, and to bring back to mind an object that has been forgotten. ~ How to Understand the Mind

For example, if our object of meditation is the breath, (1) mindfulness lets us resist the temptation to follow our other thoughts so that we stay with the breath; and, (2) when our attention does drift and can be found wandering to pizza, mindfulness brings it back to the breath.IMG_5353-EFFECTS

I think this is an important point: it doesn’t matter how often our mind wanders — even if that is a hundred times — provided that we notice and bring it back to the next breath, for this is still strengthening our mindfulness. In other words, however busy or distracted your mind feels, you are still meditating and improving.

As mentioned in the last article. the ability to notice that our mind has wandered and has forgotten or is about to forget its object is called “alertness”. Alertness is said to be like a spy or lookout that reports back to the generals of mindfulness and concentration.

If we don’t notice and bring it back, that’s just business as usual, namely our regular uncontrolled thinking! But consciously bringing our attention back to our breath, breath after breath, and focusing clearly on it is training in MAC. And we’ll soon see how much more calm, clear, and peaceful our mind becomes.

Which is what we need, because most of our thoughts are not necessarily that calm or peaceful. Often, they are grumbling or boring or distracted or worried. We don’t want to think them, but we cannot help it.

If we are not in a state of deep peace all day long, or if we lack mental space and clarity, this is a sign that we need more MAC.

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It doesn’t take much to get started

It only takes 10-15 minutes a day training like this to make the difference.

You can be confident that it all gets easier and more effortless with practice – you’ll get better at it if you do it, for sure, not of course if you don’t. If you practice breathing meditation consistently — 10 or 15 minutes a day being plenty to start with — there will definitely come a time when you can plop your mind on your breath like plopping down a glass of water, and it’ll stay there till you decide to move it. Blessed relief.

With improved MAC, gradually you’ll be able to set your mind on any object you have learned about and keep it there, including loving-kindness, compassion, or emptiness, so that you are experiencing these peaceful, wise states of mind all the time! At this point, as Geshe Kelsang explains:

If we train in meditation, our mind will gradually become more and more peaceful, and we will experience a purer and purer form of happiness. Eventually we will be able to stay happy all the time, even in the most difficult circumstances.

You’re not a lost cause

Just one more thing, in case you’re wondering …  you’re not a lost cause

lost causeSometimes when people start out meditating they complain that they’ll never be able to settle on their breath, that they’ll never be able to get their crazy minds to meditate, that basically they are a lost cause.

So in case you are one of them, I would like to point out two things:

  • However busy your mind, every time you bring your attention back to your breath, you are improving at meditation, as discussed above.
  • Long before you get really good at single-pointed concentration, and even when your mind is still going a hundred miles a minute, you can also practice mindfulness, alertness, and concentration in your daily life, and this is still the practice of meditation. In fact, as we spend most of our time out of formal meditation sessions, it is arguably the most important part of meditation practice.

Meditation, “gom” in Tibetan, translates as gaining familiarity with positive ways of thinking, and this can be happening throughout our day. So, as an example, if we don’t get mad when someone criticizes us, but see them as suffering and/or kind instead, we are training in meditation.

We are using alertness to be self-aware of what thoughts we’re having, catching inappropriate attention or negative thoughts early so they don’t spiral out of our control. We are using mindfulness to remember a positive state of mind such as patience or love and to forget the inappropriate attention we’re paying to that person’s faults. We are using concentration to focus on that patience or love.

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And, eh voila, this is how we take control of our own mind and behavior, and this is how we stay peaceful and happy. It is also the practice of moral discipline, which in turn greatly advances our concentration once we’re back on our meditation seat.

Next part of this topic coming up shortly – how to keep mini-meditations going throughout the busy day.

Meanwhile, over to you. I would love to hear your experiences of employing mindfulness, alertness, and concentration both on and off the cushion.

Related articles

How to meditate – a selection of articles on breathing meditation 

Control your thoughts or they’ll control you

Twenty bits of advice for daily living

 

 

Improving our focus

6 mins read.

focus on the solutionWhen we first attempt breathing meditation:

Our mind will be very busy, and we might even feel that the meditation is making our mind busier; but in reality we are just becoming more aware of how busy our mind actually is. ~ How to Transform Your Life

All we are asking our mind to do is focus on the in-breath and out-breath, how hard can that be?! But apparently we have an inane and endless talk show going on in our head. This is what we are dealing with when we close our eyes and try to focus on our breath — our uncontrolled mind has other ideas. A lot of other ideas. Some of them terrible ideas! Which is all the more reason why we need to bring it under control through improving our focus.

Mac n med

Concentration as explained in Buddhism is our ability to control our mind, to direct it at will, to focus on one meaningful object and eventually stay there for as long as we want. It allows us to think the thoughts we want to think as opposed to the thoughts that make us feel sad, bad, or mad.

Concentration makes our mind strong, clear, and relaxed, and we become more productive. It always makes us feel better, far more peaceful. It even makes us more physically comfortable. And, as mentioned in this article, we are not a moment too soon in getting better at it.

lotusConcentration goes along with mindfulness, which remembers our object by preventing forgetfulness or distractions. In How to Understand the Mind, where these mental factors or states of mind are all explained in detail, it says:

If we meditate with strong mindfulness our mind will remain on its object without distraction and we will naturally develop stable concentration.

Concentration also goes along with alertness, which is a type of wisdom or self-awareness that actually knows what our mind is up to, including wandering off to other things.

Meditation makes full use of all three – mindfulness, alertness, and concentration (MAC for short 😉 ) – improving them steadily. If we are to have any hope of experiencing the lasting happiness and mental freedom we long for, we need to train in MAC both in meditation sessions and in all areas of our life.

And it doesn’t have to be hard work. Frankly, it is far harder work to spend all day every day having to keep pace with our uncontrolled thoughts.

Reclaim your mind

distractionsWe don’t need to go on courses to learn how to feel busy and have out of control thoughts. That comes pretty naturally already. What we do need to learn to do is control our mind so we can direct it at will, get it to do what we want it to do rather than the other way around.

We already try and control everything else – where we eat, what we wear, who we date, where we live, what we do for a job, who we root for in politics, and so on. Of course this doesn’t always work out – but, even those times we do manage to control other people or our external circumstances, it makes little difference to our peace of mind if we don’t have control over our thoughts.

It is frankly weird that we don’t have control over the thoughts in our own mind, if you think about it. It is torture to have to think stupid stuff all the time — yet it is also utterly “normal”. We accept it as normal. But it is the reason we are suffering. And it doesn’t have to be like this. With just a little effort, we can get a whole lot better at staying focused on peace and happiness.

(By the way, some people don’t really like the term “controlling the mind” as it sounds a bit too, well, controlling. So you can think of it as taking charge of our mind and/or having choice over what our mind does and/or mastering our mind. Being a real superhero.)

Bigger picture

duckNot to mention the bigger picture … where are all these uncontrolled, unchosen thoughts taking us? To more uncontrolled, unchosen life — more samsara. How could they be taking us anywhere else? With irritation and attachment, jealousy and confusion, and so on, and the confused intentions and actions that arise from these minds, we are busy creating the karmic causes to experience some form of future unease or pain in our body and mind.

Today I overheard a woman in the park saying, “In my next life I want to be a duck.” Although she was watching an admittedly laid-back duck sunning himself on a rock, I thought, “No. Mm mm. No, you don’t. Don’t even joke about it.”

Our conceptual thoughts and sense consciousnesses cease at death, along with our sense of self or our current personality; but our deepest level of mental consciousness continues after this body screeches to a halt, our karma going with it. If I die today without having controlled my mind and my karma, where can I guarantee ending up tomorrow? What choices will I have?

Single-pointedness

Concentration is the ability to stay single-pointedly focused on an object, a skill that is key in the pursuit of happiness. For example, we may be surrounded by all the necessary conditions to become upset, such as grumpy co-workers or scary politics, but if our bench and reflectionmental spot light is trained on patient acceptance, we will not experience any unhappiness. And we will be able to respond more constructively to whatever is going on.

Concentration is the focus in our mind that enables us to get closer and closer to the object. With strong concentration our mind mixes with the object, as if there is no space between the object and us. It is like that beautiful TS Eliot quote:

music heard so deeply
That it is not heard at all, but you are the music
While the music lasts.

We’re actually already very good at concentrating on some things, namely objects of desire or aversion. When we’re attracted to someone, we call up all their features in ravishing detail with very little effort. When we’re angry with someone, we have single-pointed concentration on their faults. But this is not the concentration referred to by Buddha, which is necessarily positive or virtuous. To be happy, we want to be able to maintain these levels of concentration on wise and virtuous objects, which lead us in a positive direction. If we focus all our attention on, for example, the loving thought ‘May everyone be happy’, it’s like a laser beam trained onto a happy, powerful experience.

Buddha said that there is nothing more powerful in this universe than a fully concentrated mind. The reason our mind lacks power is because it is fractured. It is all over the place. We talk to ourselves, apparently, at a rate of a thousand words a minute: IMG_5328-EFFECTS‘What’s going on, who’s that coming in, what am I doing later, how should I respond to that insult?’ We rarely focus on one object. Our mind is currently in a state of constant motion, flitting onto anything that catches its fancy, then flitting away again.

Buddha likened the uncontrolled mind to a monkey scampering up and down a tree grabbing and throwing stuff, or a crazy elephant wreaking havoc on a village. For a modern-day example, I think that being trapped in an out of control, unfocused mind is like trying to drive a car without a steering wheel. Or without brakes. Or even while we are locked in the trunk!

Part Two coming up tomorrow or the next day. I figured your coffee break might be over.

Over to you! Comments welcome below.

Related articles

How to meditate – a selection of articles on breathing meditation 

When the mind wanders, happiness also strays

Breathe your way to inner peace