Exploring mindfulness


Lately I’ve been noticing that “mindfulness” seems to be everywhere these days –including mainstream news.  As the term is bandied about I’m often surprised by where I’m seeing it or who is talking about it, but as I look at much of what is being said, I question how well many people really understand mindfulness.

In many places I see people speaking of it as if it’s only about controlling your mind as an act of will. To me mindfulness is so much more, I feel a little sad every time I see someone settle for such a narrow idea — or for the particularly American tendency to want to control everything, including the mind.

After sitting with a vipassana group for a year I began seeing how many forms of practice there are in which you can quiet your mind into a single focus and achieve more mindfulness:  yoga practiced with breath, or yoga nidra when followed with focus, or chanting when concentrating on the words of the chant,or pranayama while noting only the breath, etc.  To me the point is using practice to learn how it feels to be in the moment in a state of “empty mind” and peacefulness.

When you keep practicing, your mind starts learning to stay more quiet all the time, the state of calm begins to expand throughout your life, and your whole perspective shifts.  It’s so much more than just wrestling my thoughts into submission in a given moment.

When I complete a practice I’m in a space or a zone that has its own feeling tone.  I feel it in my heart.  I feel the calm throughout my body.  I feel in tune with something larger than myself.  Tapped into the Universe.

To me, mindfulness is more about surrender than controlling or willing anything.  In emptying my mind and flowing with the chant or pose or breath or silence, I let go of managing and fall into what Wayne Dyer called “the gap”.  Over time I also learned surrender involves letting the practices take me wherever they lead.

Plans have gone awry and life has unfolded in ways that would never have crossed my mind if I’d kept trying to follow a blueprint designed long ago.  Sometimes it’s uncomfortable.  Sometimes it’s scary.  I wouldn’t change any of it.  I like the person I’m becoming.  The change from being mercurial to finding equanimity, from neurotic to peaceful, from anxious to calm…

The quiet mind achieved in mindfulness practices doesn’t involve controlling thoughts.  It’s a space encompassing the moment and peace and higher consciousness.  With practice the space begins to fill life more and more with presence in the moment.  From that place of presence, you can choose to hold onto a thought or let it go.

But you don’t learn true mindfulness if you just try to force your mind regularly to moments when you pick different thoughts.  You’re missing so much if you don’t let yourself be taken to the place where mindfulness is a way of being present, calm, connected and new.

Chanting Mindfully for Peace

Meditation in Rocca di Cerrare by Dedda 71. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Pagan_meditation2.jpg

Peaceful Meditation

This week’s challenge was to practice mindfulness while chanting or praying — to keep your focus only on the words of the chant or prayer or vision and to notice what intruded.

I didn’t manage to do a separate chant ahead of time so I combined tonight’s practice with the mindfulness practice.  I actually always try to stay mindful when I chant so I really just added trying to simultaneously stay mindful and yet notice what crossed my mind.  I wasn’t very mindful tonight.

I was interested to see that the thoughts that arose related to launching this prayer effort.  I’ve been really excited because being a part of moving toward peace has been very important to me for a long time.  Yet I don’t have the feeling so far that very many others are excited, so at first my thoughts jumped to feeling that this has failed (even though I know that it takes time to launch something like this and I have a lot of work still to do about getting the word out).

I pulled my thoughts back to the chant and then they wandered to the point, six or seven years back, when a dear friend–with excellent skills at using right listening to guide her friends deeper into their own hearts–led me to create a workshop I called Journey to Peace along with realizing that I seriously want to be assisting the world toward peace.  I haven’t taught the workshop in a while and I thought I should dust it off and bring it out again.

I don’t feel there’s a deep analysis to do about these thoughts as they swirled around the launching of this project and why I started; doesn’t seem too surprising given what and why I was chanting.  Sometimes I do note deeper issues like some part of me that wants to distract me from the possibility of being peaceful, at ease and happy…. but not tonight.

The last few minutes I managed to successfully use my trick of watching the words float across my inner visual “screen” to stay focused only on the chant.  That, of course, was when I finally dropped into a deeper and more peaceful space.

Tell me about your experience with the challenge.  Or just how it feels to participate in meditating.



Several people lately have asked me for suggestions about quieting and/or focusing the mind. My main suggestion is meditation but there’s more than one sort and I think you have to figure out what works best for you. Every tradition I’ve encountered offers some form of meditation as part of the journey to higher consciousness. Lots of teachers make claims that the particular form of meditation they practice is the one and only way to “truly” meditate. Any time I encounter a teacher who makes such a claim I roll my eyes and never go back. So if you want someone to tell you there’s only one right way to meditate you’ll probably find my approach too eclectic; there are plenty of other teachers out there who’ll be happy to dictate everything you need to do to be “correct”.

One form of meditation that’s found in a number of traditions is mindfulness (which often has other names). The basic idea is to try to empty your mind of all thoughts and sit in the silence. A number of types involve some sort of focus on breath and there are also variations that involve such things as staring at a flame or counting backward from five to one and having to start over every time a thought intrudes, etc. Some forms have very specific requirements as to exactly how you must sit while meditating and some even add details like being wrapped in a shawl or sitting on a particular type of cushion.

In the early years of my journey I was way too antsy for those kinds of focused meditations. At the time the only other form of meditation I knew was guided, so I only practiced guided meditations. Over the years I learned chants and moving practices and mantra meditation and the more I came to understand mindfulness the more I felt that all of those techniques can be used as mindfulness practices.

The main point of mindfulness is to spend time with a quiet mind and to learn to hold that quiet space wherever you go and whatever you do. If you chant and concentrate only on the chant, then you have to learn to keep other thoughts out and stay focused on the chant (the words of the chant generally will have some energetic effect on you also). If you do a walking meditation or practice something like chi gung, you need to keep your mind quiet so that you can stay focused on the movement. Guided meditation requires that you quiet your mind to stay in step with the instructions. To me all of these techniques join the specific mindfulness meditations in helping you to quiet your mind; in a way you’re meditating on the chant or on the movement or on the guided words. Personally I think the universe has provided a wide array of options so that everyone can figure out which type suits best.

A quiet place is the usual recommendation for meditation and, up to a point, I agree. Particularly when you’re new, it’s hard enough to get your wild mind to settle down without having a bunch of distractions. But the ultimate point of all the meditating is to create a state of calm and a quiet mind that is so much who you are that you are calm and quiet in the middle of the Chicago Loop at 5:00 pm. or on the floor of the stock exchange, etc. So I get a kick out of it when people complain about street noise or other distractions when attending a meditation. After all, isn’t that why you’re meditating—to be able to hold the quiet space even when life is busy or noisy? I think of it as a chance to practice being mindful in ordinary life.

Eventually I started practicing vipassana (the Theravadan Buddhist form of mindfulness meditation) successfully. It has never become my preferred form but I think that the years of guided meditation, yoga, chi gung and chanting served to quiet my mind and calm me down enough to be able to “sit vipassana”. If you’ve had trouble meditating, I suggest that you try a different type and if necessary keep trying until you find one that feels good to you.

This post is for ABC Wednesday and today it’s “M”.