Introduction to Meditation
Class One Notes
Buddhism & Vipassanā
Buddhism is not a belief system or dogma; it is a map and practice for exploring your life, enabling you to tap into your innate happiness, love, wisdom, and balance. In this course you don’t blindly take our word for it; you test Buddhism by practicing meditation to see if you can verify the map in your own direct experience. That is what this series is all about.
Buddhism happens to be an extremely well-articulated path that, for the past 2600 years, has helped millions of people attain freedom from suffering. The Vipassanā tradition within Buddhism focuses on the direct teachings of the historical Buddha. Here, at Mountain Stream, we practice a lineage within Vipassanā that was transmitted by profound masters from the forests of Thailand. Our form of meditation involves turning our attention inwards to explore, or rather “see,” or even better yet “feel,” our human experience with a mindful awareness. The word “Vipassanā” literally means “seeing clearly,” but, throughout our course, we will have an emphasis on embodiment and “feeling clearly.”
What is meditation? Guess what—it is not about stopping your thoughts. If I had only one word to define meditation, it would be “choice.” Upon examination, we find that we are habitually lost in thought. We are also often blindly acting out our conditioning and reacting where we “re” “act” that which we’ve done a million times. With meditation, we show up for the fullness of our lives by sustaining a mindful awareness of what’s happening in our direct experience in the present moment. [Note: our definition & use of the term mindful awareness is how mindfulness is often defined.] Doing so engages the innate capacity of choice that is available only when we aren’t distracted or reactive. It allows the space for a wise response to emerge. During formal meditation, we can be laying down, sitting, standing, or walking—all typically in silence.
So, why would someone meditate? What do you think it offers besides choice? Maybe you have heard of the health benefits and the cognitive bonuses. There is a mindfulness craze in our country with courses being offered at corporations and even the military for many thousands of dollars per person. You actually will get all of that here and something more—liberation. The Buddhist form of meditation provides a framework of understanding, ethics, and practices that lead to the end of suffering. To freedom.
Mindlessness, Mindfulness, and Mindful Awareness
When we start on a journey, it is helpful to have a sense of how we will travel our path. Therefore, we will take a moment now to define some terms and flesh out elements of a conceptual framework as a vehicle for our exploration. The intention right now is for you to have an initial understanding that can then deepen from the idea level to the experienced, and ultimately, embodied levels as practice unfolds over the course of years. Don’t worry if it does not all stick right away. We will revisit this material continually, and a concrete understanding is not necessary to learn to meditate. Imagine that you are planting seeds now that will continue to bear fruit for the rest of your life.
When we’re mindless, it’s as if we are actors in a movie up on the screen in a plot that’s written by our conditioning and a train of associations. We lack choice. We are reactive to what’s happening and “re” “acting” what we’ve done so many times before. We are contracted onto the screen by identifying with the never ending stream of thoughts and impulses that are hopping from place to place—the associative train chugging along. Thus, we are imprisoned by whatever is happening, which is often stressful. Sure, there are lovely moments, but one minute we are up, the next down—being carried along in a life without true choice.
With mindfulness, we pull ourselves off of the movie screen and take a seat in the theater. When we watch a movie, we know that we are watching a movie. We are in the context (or orientation) of being in our seat. Thus, mindfulness is a matter of orientation to our experience. It is taking the seat in the theater.
Awareness is the capacity to know, or be conscious of, our experience. We are aware all the time when we are awake. By awake I simply mean not being asleep in our beds or physically unconscious. We know we are awake because we are aware of what is happening.
We are aware of what is happening through our five senses—sights, sounds, bodily sensations, tastes, and smells. We are also aware of the thoughts that arise in our minds. All of what is happening falls into those six categories. I’m often asked, “How about emotions or intuitions?”. When we look closely, we see that our emotions, intuitions, or “feelings” are actually a combination of thoughts and sensations. There is a whole class where we will explore this one topic. As Joseph Goldstein says, the categories of experience are like a six piece orchestra, and the music is your life. You are aware of these elements, and, together, they make up your lived experience. Put another way, there’s what’s happening and the awareness that knows the “whats” that are happening. This is a framework for understanding that we will continue to unpack throughout our course.
Awareness is how our waking lives unfold. Whether we are up on the screen mindlessly or mindfully in the seat in the theater, we are, in both cases, aware. The question is, do we have a mindless awareness that leaves us imprisoned on the screen, or have we taken the seat of a mindful awareness that allows us choice and freedom? When we are aware, we know what’s happening. When we are mindfully aware we know that we are knowing. We know we are in our seat.
One of the default things that happens when we have a mindful awareness is that we are seeing what’s happening here and now. Instead of being lost in planning, which pulls us out into the future, we might watch the process of planning happening in our minds and understand, “Oh, planning is happening right now.” Given that understanding, we might make the choice, “Not now. I’m meditating, and planning can wait.” Then, we can return to our intended focus for that meditation period.
The “whats” that are happening can be likened to clouds that pass through the open space (or sky) of our awareness. We notice that the sky does not judge the clouds. It simply is the space through which they move. It doesn’t make up stories about them. It doesn’t get upset about them. It allows them. When we attend to our experience from the seat of mindful awareness, the awareness does not become contracted onto the screen by identifying with the “whats” that are happening. It remains off the screen—open and spacious like the sky.
Some clouds stay for a longer while. Sometimes they are stormy. The sky just lets them all pass through. No matter how big, or dark, or persistent, or thunderous the clouds might be, the sky is not damaged or stained by them. It is free. Which means we can be free. If we truly, deeply, learn to stabilize our orientation to life from the seat of mindful awareness, we can be completely free—not with a cold, disinterested, passive, dead, clinical observation but with an attentive engagement that offers us choice, wisdom, and an aliveness unboxed in by crippling mountains of stories. We can be fresh, and open, and helpful, and caring. We can hold our humanness tenderly. We can learn, as the title of a meditation book by Phillip Moffett suggests, to “Dance with Life.” All this simply because we took the seat of mindful awareness and stayed in it.
This introductory series of classes is all about developing our connection with the seat of mindful awareness and then, staying in it.
We focus today on the most noticeable process in our direct embodied experience—the breath. In the next class we’ll explore the immediate, unfiltered experience of our bodies. Very cool. Next will be emotions, and then thoughts, until we open (in our fifth class) to what is considered true mindfulness, with that open (or choiceless) attention, which accepts all six categories of “whats” together. This gets us prepared to bring our meditation off the cushion and into our daily lives. In our last class, we will explore the mystery of awareness itself.
One note before we dive in—the point of meditation is not meditation—it is to lead a fulfilling, clear, authentic, present life in which you embrace your innate wholeness. You are not here to become the greatest meditator of modern times. Relax. Ease into this. Your system is not used to taking this orientation, this seat of mindful awareness. Be kind and gentle with yourself the way you would be in training a puppy. The biggest obstacle you will initially face is your expectation of how things should be and how you should be. Be patient with any expectation as it arises and let it flow through—just one more passing cloud.
Suzuki Roshi, of the Zen tradition of Buddhism, equated having the proper posture to enlightenment itself. That is because when we fully open into our bodies in a relaxed, attentive manner, with no compensatory contractions of our muscles, we open to a naturalness of physical being that is effortless and free. Vipassanā is ultimately a somatic practice. We drop out of the penthouse of our head-centric, thinking minds and inhabit all of ourselves. We touch our experience so thoroughly and intimately that we touch through its ephemeral and empty nature to the very awareness that holds it.
The core idea with sitting posture is to be upright and yet completely, muscularly relaxed with the skeleton bearing the weight through the bones. This requires a balance of the spine above the hips such that no pelvic, belly, or chest muscles need to be engaged. If you are in a chair, see if you can sit upright without leaning on the back rest. Make sure your legs and feet aren’t pressing into the ground. The knees should ideally collapse in towards each other with the lower legs at a right angle to the thighs.
If you are on a cushion, the elevation of the cushion tilts your hips forward, enabling the pelvis to hold the spine directly above your sacrum. If you tilt too far though, you will have to push back to keep your balance so work with as little height as possible. People from cultures that do not use chairs typically sit in meditation on the floor without any cushion at all and can be perfectly comfortable for hours. Check the legs and feet for any tightness, which can be invited to release by imagining the breath moving into it. Typically, one calf is in front of the other, and you can switch for the next sitting. Or you can try half lotus with one on top of the other. I don’t know of anyone that can hold a full lotus position for long periods and don’t recommend that you try it. It is hard on the knees, and you will just end up striving and possibly injuring yourself. Play with your posture and find what works for your unique body.
Try gently, slowly, swaying the spine from side to side and (separately) forward and back over the pelvis then let all muscle effort go. Allow the swaying to settle effortlessly into the balance point of each of these directions. Explore your pelvis, belly, and chest with your attention and invite any tightness to release, again by breathing into it. Alternatively, you can purposefully clench a contracted spot and then release it. Similarly, explore the shoulders and neck. Allow the hands to rest in your lap or on your knees such that the shoulders are not pulled forward. Make sure you are not pressing through the arms. The shoulders should relax towards the back, allowing your chest and heart to open. Relax the jaw and tongue, and tuck the chin slightly, which straightens the spine and adds a sense of lift through it. The skull should float on the axis joint of the top vertebrae.
All of these suggestions represent the ideals of proper posture. Primarily because of our use of chairs and staring into screens, or because of injury, physical limitations, or inactivity, there may be significant, habitual holdings that may not work themselves out without patience or physical therapy of some kind. Give yourself plenty of time to get used to sitting still. Your body is not used to this. In some ways, it is a bit of setup. Discomfort is often part of the initial practice until our bodies acclimate. Be patient and curious. Explore discomfort. It is a profound teacher, which we will explore more fully in our next class. Qigong and Tai Chi are especially helpful, as is Feldenkrais awareness through movement practices. Yoga can be effective, especially the forms that stress conscious embodiment without any pushing. Some yoga practices, however, emphasize attaining postures and stretching out muscles and tendons. That orientation most commonly induces striving and can be counterproductive to settling naturally into an easeful posture.
Imagine softening the crown of the skull itself and then the forehead. Relax the area behind the eyes and imagine that they are melting into your brain. Soften the cheeks and allow the lips to spread backwards towards the ears. Adding just a hint of a smile sends a neurological signal of ease throughout your whole being. This is why so many Buddha statues show that faint enigmatic smile, which can meet any experience as a friend.
Mindful Awareness of Breathing
Once we attain a posture that allows our bodies to be relatively still, the most noticeable process we discover is that of breathing. Unless there is respiratory difficulty, the breath is a wonderful object to explore for establishing a settled, continuous, mindful awareness. My wife, however, struggled with the suggestion to follow her breath because the sensations of energy moving through her body were more natural to her interest as an object of attention. In our next class we will expand our exploration to the whole body, but, for the purpose of training, I’m going to ask you to be with your breath for this class and for at-home practice until next week.
We choose an individual object for initial practice because having a focus allows the mind to collect and stabilize in being present over time. It is a training. The breath and the body are always here and now—the mind is so often there and then. It is rehashing the past or trying to plan the future. Anywhere but right where our lives actually unfold—this present moment. Because it so deeply habituated to jump around, we need to be kind and truly patient, relishing the moments when we do show up. Expectations just get in the way. Our practice is really just having the sincerity to start over—again, and again, and again—with a relaxed heart.
We connect with breath as a process. We are curious, like a newborn. How do we know we are breathing? Are we even breathing, or is the breath breathing us? We allow the breath to be just as it is, not forcing any particular yogic principle or other agenda. We are simply open. We receive the breath almost in the same open way we receive a sound while listening.
Having established an intention to let the breath be natural, it does help to start with a few deeper breaths that make it all the way to the belly, registering the astonishing range of sensations floating in our mindful awareness. After a few cycles, see if there is a certain location (such as at the tip of the nostrils, the sinuses, the chest, or the belly) that commands your attention. Perhaps there is a quality of the breath that you find interesting. Is it long or short? Ragged or smooth? Easeful or labored? Whether you choose a location or quality, allow that refinement to become your anchor or home base, where you return after your mind inevitably wanders.
If the mind is particularly active or restless, we can use a gentle background noting and counting practice to give the thinking mind a job. It also helps to connect our attention to the object. As you breathe, count “In one, out one, in two, out two…” up to ten. When you lose your place, simply start back at one and continue. Do this as long as it feels supportive. Then let it go and see if you can stay naturally with the process of breathing. Such notes should be only 5% of the experience. If it feels oppressive, don’t bother—just give your mind time to settle. Some days we sit and scarcely have a present moment. Other days the practice flows easefully. Neither is better or worse. This is a process—a training. Our job is to keep showing up with sincerity. As the practice unfolds, the breath reveals its subtleties—its mysteries. Something we have taken for granted turns into a joy, anchoring us here and now. What is it like in that moment when we return from being lost?
A key point of meditation is to make it your own—for it to be authentic to you. One way to enjoy meditation and make it your own is to have it be a friend. Literally. Could you invite this practice into your life’s flow the way you would welcome a dear friend? How would you greet it? Maybe you would offer your friend a cup of tea or light a candle to create a comfy mood. Maybe you’d dress in casual comfortable clothes. Maybe you would have a cozy, quiet, private place set up. Play around with what feels right. Be truly curious about what makes meditation a friend of yours? What makes it your own?
Like any endeavor in life: the more you give, the more you receive. I’m going to offer you suggestions for homework, and I urge you to take them to heart and do them to the best of your ability. This is for your benefit. Meditation is a practice. Practice takes practice—not jaw-grinding enslavement but a balanced effort. You are touching into something that can profoundly bless your life, not to mention the lives of those around you. That being said, we are so quick to judge ourselves, and we all have such busy lives, I don’t want to trigger self-criticism or stress. The reality is that just by being here something good is happening for you. But, it is so much greater if you engage and practice over these weeks. I honestly hope you will. It supports you and the whole group. But if you haven’t done anything between classes, please don’t let that stop you from coming. No judgments here. You are welcome as you are.
Try to meditate as much as 20 minutes a day, following your breath as we did in class this week. When is the most conducive time in the day? I find that in the morning, before I get pulled into too much activity, and at night, to chill out before bed, are conducive times. I often start with a silent dedication that has evolved over the years. It signifies to my nervous system that “mediation is beginning,” and helps me drop in. You might try “I dedicate this practice to the benefit of….” Having a simple cue is key to starting a new habit. Then, you have the practice and, lastly, see if you can think of a reward. A treat. Maybe a cookie or a cup of tea. Choose something that is basically a pleasure for you. This completes the habit-forming triad of Cue, Practice, and Reward—a scientifically-proven sequence to get your new habit rolling.
Recognize that, in any moment, you can drop into the seat of mindful awareness; you don’t have to be on the cushion. Notice if mindful awareness happens organically in a moment; this might happen simply because you are taking part in this class. Notice what it feels like when it happens. You might be driving or standing in line or washing dishes and—whoa—you’re following your breath! What’s the difference between the two orientations of mindlessness and mindfulness? On the screen or in the seat? What does it feel like?
If you’ve reached the end of your day and haven’t had one mindful moment, don’t despair. That is actually a great noticing, an insight. Take a couple of minutes as you lie down in bed and practice. The more you put in, the more you will receive (and, in turn, support the community). I also ask that you listen to the first talk in the Introduction to Meditation series by Gil Fronsdal at:
and bring a brief (one to two sentence) reflection from that talk for your check-in. Again, if you can’t get to it, there will be no shame but please do try.