just sitting

When your meditation practice does itself

Sometimes I compare the mind to a cat. Just as it’s in a cat’s nature to wander, it’s in the mind’s nature to wander. But just as it’s in a cat’s nature to come home, it’s also the mind’s nature to come home — to come home to mindfulness.

In a couple of days I have an online meditation course starting that explores a practice called “Just Sitting.” In a way this is different from other meditation practices such as mindful breathing meditation or where we cultivate kindness or compassion. There’s no specific aim in the Just Sitting practice. Strictly speaking we’re not even trying to be mindful!

This might make this form of meditation seem pointless. After all, if you’ve meditated at all you’re probably very aware of how much the mind wanders and how much work seems to be involved in bringing your attention back to your object of attention, whether that’s the sensations of the breathing or a person you’re cultivating kindness for. You may wonder: if you don’t make an effort to be mindful, wouldn’t you just sit there in a distracted state and end up wasting your time?

It’s not like that at all!

Of course, as with any meditation practice, when you’re Just Sitting there are times when mindfulness is just absent and the mind wanders. But the interesting thing is that the mind always finds its own way home.

You’ve probably noticed many times how although your intention may be to remain mindful of the breathing, for example, your mind gets distracted without you deciding that it’s going to go wandering. Unmindfulness just happens. You don’t have to decide that’s what your mind is going to do.

But have you ever noticed that your mind always brings itself back to mindful awareness again? For every time that distraction happens, there is a time that mindfulness happens. It’s a one-to-one correspondence. And you never “decide” to come back to mindful awareness, do you? Mindfulness just happens. You don’t have to decide that’s what your mind is going to do. One moment you’re daydreaming and the next you’re aware that the daydream has ended, you have mindful awareness, and you return to your original intention. Your mind knows how to do this, and you have nothing to do with it!

Often when the mind has come home like this, we feel disappointed that it’s been wandering, or we feel it’s time to knuckle down and get back to practicing again. But neither of these things is very helpful.

If your cat was to walk through the door after an absence and you were to yell at it or try to force it to sit in one place it would probably head straight out of the door again.

If you were to welcome your cat home warmly and give it time and space to settle in, it would eventually find a place to sit quietly and be at peace. So what if your attitude was to warmly welcome when the mind has — quite spontaneously and with no effort on your part — found its way home again? What if you were to feel a sense of gratitude, and happiness, and even wonder? Perhaps your mind, just like a home-coming cat, would settle down more quickly?

At first we’ll probably think about welcoming the mind home as something we do in meditation. But in time we may come to appreciate that warmth and appreciation too are qualities that spontaneously arise. Just as our attention spontaneously comes home, so warmth and appreciation spontaneously appear to welcome it. And we find that there’s now less sense of us actually having to do anything in meditation. Meditation is no longer work. Our meditation practice is doing itself. The mind has come home, and is at peace.

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Let the breathing observe you

I’d like to suggest a very different way of meditating.

Normally in meditation we think about observing the breathing. Actually a lot of people think about and practice observing the breath — air flowing in and out of the body’s airways — but I point out that it’s far more useful to observe the breathing, which is a much richer experience. When we’re observing the breathing we’re potentially observing the entire body, and how it participates in and responds to the process of air flowing in and out of our passageways.

In taking this approach of observing the breathing it’s useful first of all to relax the muscles around the eyes. This brings about a change in the way we observe internally, so that we can be aware simultaneously of a wide range of sensation in different parts of the body. With the muscles around the eyes in their default, activated state, we can only observe one small part of the body. I’ve described this as being like switching from a flashlight, which can only illuminate a small area, to a lamp, which sheds light in all directions.

Once you’ve become aware of sensations from all over the body, it’s possible to simply rest there, with thoughts still arising but no longer capturing your attention. Less effort is required, and so there’s less of a sense that you’re doing anything in meditation. Your meditation practice is just there.

You can let go even further, though, by allowing yourself to sense that you are being observed by the breathing just as much as you are observing it. You can be aware of the body as a living, breathing, animal presence — a presence that has its own intelligence and awareness.

And just as you are aware of the body, the body is aware of you. Allow yourself to be seen.

Perhaps at first it may be a little uncomfortable to do this. After all, being observed can be uncomfortable. But think of this observation not so much as visual and more as felt, as sensory. And think of your body as a warm, loving presence that enfolds you intimately in its embrace.

This gives us an opportunity to surrender even further, and to sense our meditation practice from a place of deeper receptivity. There’s now nothing to do. We don’t even have to be present for the body, since the body is always present for us. When we come back to mindful awareness after a period of distraction we find that the body is still there, sensing us, and we can realize that it’s never stopped doing that.

This may sound fanciful, or even absurd. I just suggest that you give it a go, and see what happens. It may change your meditation practice, and perhaps even your life.

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Do less, notice more, accept distraction

lgijThe purpose of “Letting Go Into Joy” is to help you cultivate what’s called “jhana.” Jhana is a Pali word that literally means “meditation.” The Sanskrit equivalent is “dhyana.”

But there’s a more specific and technical meaning of the word. Jhana, in Buddhist terms, is an experience, or range of experiences, where meditation becomes effortless and enjoyable.

Jhana is seen as important in the Buddhist tradition for three reasons. First it helps to calm the mind, temporarily ridding it of disturbing mental states such as anxiety, craving, and ill-will. Through repeated experience of jhana, these mental habits become less likely to recur, and the mind becomes more positive. Second, the experience of being at ease with ourselves shouldn’t just be a peak experience. It should percolate into our daily life as well. Jhana affects who were are, and how we function. Thirdly, the calmness of mind that jhana creates makes it easier for us to look closely at our experience, and this in turn helps us to bring about spiritual insight. Just as it’s possible to look deeply into still water, it’s possible to look deeply into a still mind.

In terms of modern psychology, jhana is a “flow” state. Flow is where a person performing an activity becomes fully immersed, with a feeling of energized focus, undistracted presence, and enjoyment. When you’re enjoying your experience in jhana, it’s easy to become absorbed in paying attention to it. When you’re absorbed, you appreciate your experience undistractedly. When there’s nothing to distract you, you remain in a state of happiness. This feedback loop keeps you in a stable, calm, alert, pleasurable, joyful, and focused state of mind. That’s what jhana is: a self-sustaining flow of positive states.

Letting this flow state arise is going to be a process; there’s no switch in your brain that you can flip so that you can instantly be in jhana. There are skills to be learned. You need to learn to calm the mind, to drop deeper into your experience of the body, to accept discomfort without reacting to it, to accept pleasure without grasping after it, and to allow joy to arise. Those are some of the skills we’ll be focusing on. There’s no rush. Ultimately you have your whole life to work on this.

Jhana can be cultivated in a variety of practices, including mindfulness of breathing, and development of lovingkindness meditation. I’m going to assume that you’re familiar with those practices, but if you’re not, then please follow the links and start learning them.

I have a guided meditation for you today. It’s a form of mindfulness of breathing in which I’m going to encourage you to do three things:

1. Do less in your meditation. As you go into meditation, allow yourself just to be with your experience. Relax your effort. Let your body be relaxed. Find ease through doing less.

2. Notice more. Be open to whatever is arising. We all have habitual patterns where we pay attention to certain sensations and ignore others. We go into meditation and—boom, boom, boom—we’ve fixated on a small subset of sensations. So as you relax your effort, allow yourself to notice what’s going on in the places you don’t usually pay attention to. Whether you’re doing mindfulness of breathing, metta bhavana, or some other meditation practice, be open to everything that’s arising before you begin actively working with your experience.

3. Accept distraction. Relaxing your effort may, in the short term, lead to more distraction. That’s OK. Just be kind with yourself. Let go of any idea of getting anywhere in your practice. Just allow yourself to be with whatever is arising, as fully as possible.

You could also try integrating these three principles into your lovingkindness practice, and into any other form of meditation you’re doing. Just keep following these three suggestions for the next few days, and see how it goes.

With love,

I hope you’ve enjoyed this preview of the first lesson of our “Letting Go Into Joy” online course, which starts August 1, 2016. For more information, or to enroll, visit this page.

Bellow you’ll find the first guided meditation from this event.

Guided Meditation

Here’s Meditation #1, a guided meditation on just resting with an awareness of the breathing. It’s about 30 minutes long in total, including the introduction.

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Just Sitting: a “non-meditation meditation”

This is a preview of the first of the posts from our online meditation course, “Just Being, Just Sitting.”

“Just Sitting” is a meditation practice where the aim is just to be, allowing thoughts, feelings, and sensations to come and go within awareness. It’s a very open and spacious meditation practice, in which there is simply the observation of whatever arises in experience, whether that’s from the body, the mind, or sensations arising from the outside world.

In a sense, this is a meditation practice without a goal. We’re not trying to do anything, except to return in a gentle way to an open and accepting awareness. Just sitting is essentially a state of aware rest in which the mind self-organizes. In other words, “you” don’t do the meditation practice. The meditation practice does itself. “You” simply notice this happening.

At least that’s the ideal. Just as we may have to do a lot of preparatory work before going on vacation, in practice we may have to do a certain amount of work in order to achieve a state of aware rest in Just Sitting. Sometimes the turbulence of our emotions and thoughts is such that we need to consciously apply the brakes—slowing the mind down in order to create a little calmness. As with any meditation practice, the mind will tend to wander, and again we have to make an effort to bring our attention back to our experience. But gradually the mind settles down, and as it does so we can make less effort. Eventually, we can let go of any effort or willed intention, and simply let the meditation practice happen.

The “non-meditation” of Just Sitting is a useful complement to other, more active, forms of meditation. Overall it is necessary for us to make effort in meditation, and to have goals at which we aim (e.g. cultivating calmness or kindness) but sometimes our efforts can backfire on us. For example, we can become addicted to doing, so that we become unable to sit back and let our experience unfold. Or we can end up repressing certain aspects of our experience, not allowing them into awareness as we make a willed effort to focus. The radical letting go that takes place in Just Sitting helps us to trust our own deeper nature, giving us confidence that the mind, on some level, wants to be calm and spacious, and also knows how to bring this about.

Just Sitting can be a standalone practice, but it is also something we can do at the start and end of other, more effortful, meditations. For example, we can Just Sit at the start and end of a period of mindfulness of breathing or metta bhavana (lovingkindness practice). Over the next two days I’ll discuss in more detail how we can start and end other practices with Just Sitting, but for now try setting a goal of spending five minutes “arriving” at the start and at least two to three minutes “assimilating” at the end of every meditation you do.

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Sitting without a sitter: the practice of “Just Sitting”

When I was on my first ever meditation retreat — two weeks of intensive meditation in the Scottish Highlands — I’d sometimes hear the instruction, “And now we’ll just sit.” No further instruction was given! And we’d sit there for a period of time — maybe ten minutes, maybe thirty minutes.

It was at first deeply confusing. I was sitting there waiting for further instruction. I wanted to be told what to do. Then I’d get bored and restless. Thoughts would come and go and I’d get caught up in them.

As the retreat went on sometimes those thoughts would begin to clear, and the mind would become alive and yet alive and vibrant. I wasn’t focused on any one part of my experience. It was as if my senses were wide open, and I was aware of everything at once: sounds, light, space, the sensations arising in the body, my emotions, and the odd stray through that would pass through.

There was a “field of experience,” and if there was a center to this field, it was the breathing, but it was there as a lightly held focus. It was there as one experience among many, and just happened to occupy the center by reason of its centrality in the body. But often it would seem as if there was no distinct center to the field of experience. There simply was a field of experiences, which would arise and pass away. There’s no “activity” going on when this state arises (although there may be activity leading up to this state appearing).

Sometimes our mindfulness gets to the point where it’s well established, and it’s time to stop doing and simply be. In the earliest Buddhist texts this is called apanidhaya bhavana, or non-directed attention. It’s also known as “choiceless awareness.” In the Zen tradition this meditation is called shikantaza, or “Just Sitting.” In Tibetan meditation there are similar meditations in the Dzogchen (Great Perfection) and Mahamudra (Great Seal) traditions. All have the characteristic of simply allowing experience to arise. There is little or no activity going on. You’re neither meditating nor not-meditating.

This might all sound rather mysterious, but there are ways that help us enter this kind of meditation — activities that we do in order to get to the point of non-activity. And we can also begin and end our meditations (including mindfulness of breathing and metta bhavana) with Just Sitting.

Beginning and Ending Meditations

At the beginning of meditation I encourage people to develop an expansive awareness of the world around them, and to allow a sense of equanimity to develop. We notice the sound and space and light around us. We’re simply accepting whatever is arising, and we’re not doing anything with what arises beyond noticing it.

In a sense, noticing isn’t even an activity. The mind is “noticing” all the time, in that impulses are continually flowing along nerves into the brain. It’s paying selective attention that’s the activity — for example focusing our attention on the computer screen in front of us — and it’s this selective attention that causes us to filter out other perceptions that are arising. For example, when we’re reading on a computer screen, as you probably are now, we often filter out what’s happening in the world round about us, so that we fail to hear someone talking to us, and we tend to filter out sensations from the body, including sensations of discomfort that are arising because of the way we’re sitting. But the sensations are still arising, even if we’re focusing on something else. The mind is naturally open and spacious, but we fail to notice this because we narrow down our field of awareness.

In Just Sitting we let go of our narrow focus, and simply become aware of these sensations that are already arising. You don’t need to find those sensations. You don’t need to make an effort to discover them. They’re already coming to you. You just need to stop avoiding them.

Sometimes at the beginning of meditation, we’re able to include an awareness of both our inner experiences (the body, mind) and our outer experiences (contact with the world) at the same time. I encourage people to do this if they can. But sometimes people find the have to let go of our contact with the world in order to focus on the inner world. That’s fine. But having cultivated an open, expansive, and equanimous state of mind, we then move into focusing more narrowly on the breathing, or on cultivating lovingkindness.

At the end of the practice we reverse this narrowing process. We let go of any activity we’ve been making in the meditation, and we gradually allow more and more of our experience to come into conscious awareness. We move from, say, noticing mainly the breathing, to noticing the rest of the body, our emotions, our state of mind, our contact with the world.

And — and this is a very important part of Just Sitting as the conclusion of a period of meditation — we allow ourselves to become aware of the fruits of the practice. Sometimes we’re so busy doing that we don’t notice the effects of what we’re doing. It’s not uncommon to think your meditation isn’t going well, or hasn’t gone well, only to realize that there’s an emotion of joy present, or that the mind is actually very clear and still, or that there are pleasant sensations in the body. Simply opening up to what’s present allows us to appreciate what’s happened as a result of our practice. Sometimes this is full of surprises.

Our meditation practice can become a bit imbalanced, with too much emphasis on doing and not enough on being, with too much emphasis on activity and not enough emphasis on receptivity. If our practice does become unbalanced, we call this willfulness. We end up focusing on what we expect to find, and don’t pay attention to other aspects of our experience. For example, we might be trying so hard to focus on the breathing that we don’t notice that we’re feeling tense, and that in fact our effort is making us tense. We may bot actually be mindful of the breathing at all, but just paying attention to what we expect the breath to be, noticing only a few token sensations. We may even be trying so hard to cultivate lovingkindness that we don’t notice the actual emotions that are present! This ends up being the opposite of mindfulness. We cultivate a narrow focus and inadvertently repress, or at least ignore, other aspects of our experience.

Activity needs to be balanced by receptivity. In fact, any activity in meditation needs to take place within a context of receptivity. This isn’t saying anything revolutionary. It’s just saying that our meditation ideally should involve mindfulness (sati) as well as focus (samādhi).

Active meditation — cultivating mindfulness or metta, for example — while often enjoyable, can also be tiring. The mind needs periods of spontaneity and freedom, and beginning and ending meditation sessions with Just Sitting helps it to be spontaneous, free, and rested.

We can also periodically check during meditation to see what’s going on, broadly, in our experience. We can let go of any narrow focus, allow the full breadth of our experience to enter awareness, and then return to focusing again. In this way a session of active meditation is interspersed with short breaks in which we Just Sit. If we’re doing the mindfulness of breathing in four stages, or the development of lovingkindness in five stages, then the transitions from one stage to another are an opportunity for us to let go of our narrow engagement with the object of meditation (the breath, our emotional relationships), and to open up to everything else that’s going on. We may find there are things we want to change (adjustments to our posture, changes to our attitude). We gently make any necessary changes, and then move on to the next stage of the practice.

Just Sitting as a Practice in its Own Right

We may Just Sit as a separate practice (or non-practice) for anything between a few minutes or (on retreat) for a few hours.

Just Sitting may be a practice that we do in order to balance activity and receptivity. The flow of our practice may go: mindfulness — just sit — metta — just sit — mindfulness — just sit — metta — just sit.

Many people, after some years of practice, find that Just Sitting becomes the main form of meditation that they do.

When we Just Sit, we begin the meditation, as I’ve explained above, with opening up to the breadth of our experience. But that’s where we stay. We don’t move on to focusing more narrowly, as we do in the mindfulness of breathing and development of lovingkindness meditations. We simply stay in touch with our wide open field of awareness in a non-directed way. Or at least that’s what we do in theory…

In practice, there are several stages we may move through:

  • At first, the mind may need some time to settle. There may be considerable inner distraction. The mind may go on long meanders through thought and memory. At this stage we may have to make an effort, although it’s a gentle one as far as possible. We need to let go of any trains of thought, and relax into the breadth of our awareness. But over time the mind clears and our thoughts settle.
  • Boredom may appear. Ideally we just note boredom as another experience that is arising. We can have confidence that this experience of boredom will pass in time, and that our experience will become more interesting. This is an opportunity for faith (in ourselves) and for patience (with the mind, the practice) to emerge.
  • We find ourselves watching, and taking an interest in our experience. The mind may gravitate toward particular experiences that are either pleasant or difficult. We may find that we do some “creative thinking.” This doesn’t have the same feel as the raw distraction that arose earlier. In fact it feels quite positive, and because of that it’s seductive. We shouldn’t beat ourselves up about this, but we can notice that it’s happening, make a mental note of any “good ideas” that have arisen, and return to the breadth of our awareness.
  • Then there is the stage of clarity. We are just watching, with no distractions, not even positive ones. Thoughts still arise, but we notice them pass by without any engagement with them. We may consciously note that all of our experiences are arising and passing away. They’re all impermanent. We’re no longer caught up in them because we’re no longer identifying with them.
  • Then there’s the stage of non-self. This is a state of complete non-activity, and yet of complete aliveness and spontaneity. Experiences are arising, and we realize that they are just happening. We’re not making these experiences happen. Even the realization that experiences are just happening is just another experience that’s arising. There’s no sense that these experiences are owned by anyone, or that there’s anyone to do any owning. There is just seeing, with no one who is seeing. There is no action, and no one to do any action. There is no effort. And yet this is an emotionally warm state. There is a sense of openness and stillness. There is a sense of meaningfulness and clarity. But there is no longer any “self-ing.”

And then at some stage we find ourselves starting to return to a more normal way of being, and the meditation comes to an end.

The Just Sitting practice is in the end tremendously encouraging and life-affirming. Through simply not-doing, we find that the mind naturally clears itself and reveals a gentle and compassionate energy. It’s like water in which mud has been mixed; all you have to do is leave it undisturbed, and it will settle down. The water will become clear and pure all on its own.

Once a certain amount of momentum has developed in our mindfulness, positive qualities such as joy, compassion, and awareness begin to arise spontaneously. At a certain point “we” no longer need to meditate. In fact there is no longer any “us” there to meditate. Meditation is simply happening. Just sitting is happening, but there’s no sitter.

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