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 is here – 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