Introduction to Meditation
Class Five Notes
Mindful Awareness—AKA Choiceless Attention or Choiceless Awareness
In our previous classes we have focused on specific, direct aspects of our experience to follow with a mindful awareness while meditating. We started with the breath, then moved to bodily sensations, with emotions next, and, most recently, thoughts. This creates a useful framework of concentric rings of experience that are more subtle as we move from the breath at the center to the outer circle of thoughts.
Once we have familiarity with these elements of our lives, it is well within our capacity to include the other basic categories of our experience, which are sounds, sights, tastes, and smells. Remember that emotions are a composite of bodily sensations and thoughts, and the breath is composed of sensations alone. In our first class we determined that all human experience can be broken down into the objects of the five senses plus thoughts—a six piece orchestra and the music is your life.
So, up until now we’ve had an individual category of experience to attend to with a mindful awareness in each class. This helps to collect our attention and familiarizes us with direct and non-conceptual exploration of objects unfolding moment by moment. It is as if we have had an anchor each week. Today we unhook and set sail with a mindful awareness of the full flow of our lives.
As always, our job is to stay mindfully off of the mindless movie screen so that our awareness can be like the sky, and the six types of phenomena can be like the clouds passing through. We are interested in the process of what’s happening (not the content). This keeps us from getting wrapped up in the stories of our thoughts and from judging our experience. It simply is as it is, moving and morphing in every moment.
Everything is in a state of perpetual perceptual flux. We may think a rock is stable, solid, and unchanging, but our perception of it is constantly changing. We change our physical view, even ever so slightly—or we blink—and it has changed in our minds. We touch it and the sensation of that is alive with temperature, hardness, heaviness, and the subtle vibrations we find in every tactile experience. The rock itself is a very slowly moving verb. It will ultimately wear down into dust. At its atomic level, it is a swirl of rapidly vibrating energy blips. Everything, everything, everything is constantly changing. Wow.
When we unhook from any particular object and open to the full flow of life, we start to see the constructed or compositional aspect of our experience. First, we are mindfully aware of a thought, then a sensation, next an image arises in our minds, another thought, another thought, another thought and, ooh, now an emotion…. There is a predominant object in the forefront in each moment being replaced in the next. Sometimes the object of one moment looks very much like the object of the last, but, if we are really precise, we will notice some degree of change.
Our intention is to stay mindfully in our seat. This keeps the awareness from getting contracted onto the mindless movie screen by identifying with what’s happening and then getting lost in stories and judgments. Instead our mindful awareness stays open allowing the parade of experience to pass through and be known. There is a choicelessness to this openness. There is no agency selecting what to pay attention to and no one creating the “whats” that are occurring. It is simply experience happening and being known.
To help us stay connected with this flow of experience, moment by moment, we can use gentle background notes—just as we’ve done before with the breath. In this case, we pick an easeful, consistent rhythm and softly name what happens. “Breath, image, thought, thought, sound, sound, sensation, emotion, emotion, sensation . . .” Like a metronome, we simply name the basic category of what we notice arising in the sky of our mindful awareness. We name the clouds passing by. This can take some practice. If you feel tightness or strain in the mind, let it go and hang out with the breath until you are settled again. Then try it again. If it feels ok just to be present to the flow and not use noting, that is fine too, but noting helps most folks initially to connect and hang in there with the unfolding process.
When we practice with a mindful awareness with a choiceless attentiveness, we feel life as it truly is. We feel the change. We feel the open, free, sky-like nature of the mindful awareness that lets the clouds pass through. The clouds are always changing, but does the sky change?
Since the clouds are always changing, we recognize that if we hold on and try to stop them, we will suffer. We’ll get burned just like we would if we were trying to hold onto a moving rope. We also start to notice that there isn’t a “me” somewhere creating the clouds. They just arise. Whoa. Amazingly, we can see that whatever we’ve been spending time and energy on tends to set the stage for many of the clouds that come. We are habitual creatures with all types of patterns and ways of relating to life through our coping mechanisms, views and, opinions. It’s the way we organize experience so we can make sense of it. Very necessary and useful. Thus, this is not a problem if we are mindfully aware of how this is operating and not mindlessly being led around by it. When we feel change, suffering, and impersonality really clearly, our systems naturally let go, and we come into the balance of freedom. Yay!
Cultivating an Open Heart—Metta Practice
Now that we’ve seen that what we spend time and energy on creates the conditions for more of the same to arise, the good news is that we can choose skillfully. And perhaps the most skillful choice of all is to cultivate an open heart. When the heart is open, it automatically allows everything to be just as it is. Flowing and alive. It connects and accepts and allows. It is not struggling, controlling, and suffering. It is in balance. It sees everything as an interconnected whole—not as separate pieces and parts. It is innately aligned with change, non-suffering, and impersonality. Very cool. We can cultivate an open heart, or friendliness, or loving-kindness with Metta practice. Repeat softly and silently three to four phrases you create such as “May I/you be happy” May I/you be at ease.” Try this for a few minutes each day and see what happens. You can do this while driving or in the checkout line or . . . . Be creative. And enjoy. Don’t worry if the opposite arises sometimes. Metta can act like a magnet. Hang in!