Balancing inner and outer experience

Walking meditation - footprints on beachOne thing I haven’t mentioned so far in this discussion of the four foundations of mindfulness in walking meditation is our awareness of the outside world.

Our awareness of the world is obviously dependent upon our senses, which are part of our bodies. So you might think that it would be best to focus on the outside world right at the beginning of the practice.

However, I find it useful first of all to connect with my body, and only to focus on the outside world when I’m becoming aware of my feeling responses to what I perceive in my environment. Of course, I’m aware of the outside world for the whole of the period of the walking meditation (it would be dangerous not to), but I only focus on the outside world once I have thoroughly “grounded” my awareness in my body. Otherwise I’m likely to get distracted.

Once I have been through the whole experience of my body, feelings, emotions, and objects of consciousness, I like to try to balance my awareness of the inner and the outer worlds. During walking meditation, there are some experiences that are purely internal (the sensations in your body, your emotions, etc.) and there are some that relate to the outside world (you are seeing trees, and grass, and rocks; you are hearing the sounds of the wind and of vehicles).

It’s paradoxical, but being more aware of our inner world makes us more deeply aware of the outside world. When you develop more mindfulness, you become more intensely aware of what is around you. By contrast, when we are distracted we tend to get rather wrapped up in ourselves and hardly notice the outside world, or only notice it in a superficial way. When our minds become calmer, we find we are more open to the beauty of the world.

I find that it is possible to have an awareness of both inner and outer experiences, more or less simultaneously, and that when I can balance my awareness of inner and outer experiences my mind settles on a point of quiet, calm, lucid awareness.

One thing that will help you to establish a balanced awareness of the inner and outer is to pay very close attention to the angle of your head (as I mentioned in the section on body awareness during walking meditation). When your chin is tucked too far towards your chest, you are likely to get caught up in your emotional states. It’s as if you get sucked into a whirlpool of emotions, often of a rather dark and brooding nature.

When your chin is too high, and your chin is pointing in the air, you are likely either to get caught up in a maelstrom of thoughts, or to get very caught up in the outside world.

When you develop a balanced head position, so that your chin is very slightly tucked in, it’s much easier to be aware of your thoughts, your emotions, and the outside world in a balanced way. At this point of balance, you’ll notice that the muscles on the back of your neck are long and relaxed.

Your skull is also balanced perfectly and effortlessly, with the crown of your head supporting the sky. The back of your neck feels open, and your chin is very slightly tucked in. Your gaze is into the middle distance; you are neither looking at the ground directly in front of you, nor are you gazing at the horizon. Your gaze is directed slightly downwards, perhaps meeting the ground 50 yards in front of you.

There can come a point where the very distinction between inner and outer ceases to have much meaning, and there is simply undifferentiated experience, with no sense of self or other. When this kind of experience arises, it’s very joyful. It almost feels like a huge burden has been laid down – the burden of self.

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