“The natural quality of mind is clear, awake, alert, and knowing. Free from fixation. By training in being present, we come to know the nature of our mind. So the more you train in being present – being right here – the more you begin to feel like your mind is sharpening up. The mind that can come back to the present is clearer and more refreshed, and it can better weather all the ambiguities, pains, and paradoxes of life.” ~ Pema Chödrön
Having guided thousands and taught hundreds of people how to meditate, I know that coming in “too hot” is one of the biggest obstacles to developing a consistent meditation practice.
We busily go about our days from sun up until sun down, thinking, planning, remembering, and moving hurriedly on autopilot.
When it is time to meditate, we expect our minds to follow our desire for presence and quiet. We are surprised by how the mind bucks against us, continuing its planning and remembering when all we want is peace and presence.
Sound familiar? Let’s try a four-step practice for settling the mind that works.
Before we go there, it might be helpful to understand the nature of the mind’s landscape. Simply put, our mind is here to help us make decisions and to analyze events as they occur. Most importantly, the mind is here to search for danger and to help keep us safe. I like to think of this like a boat radar searching for incoming vessels. We don’t know what their intentions are until we gather more information. Until that information is adequately gathered, the mind will stay on alert looking for additional information to keep us safe.
Interestingly, this natural scanning state of mind is both the source of our inability to direct and sustain our attention under our own volition and it is the mechanism by which we can learn to direct and sustain our attention under our own volition!
If you have ever experienced being stuck in a thought-cycle, you know the power of the mind to fixate single-pointedly. Perhaps it was on the love you wish you had, the job opportunity you were pining after, or the words that cut through your heart. Take a moment to remember a time that the mind got fixated on something and you couldn’t shake it. Despite a deep desire to “let it go,” recall the feeling of helplessness as the mind churned. Recognizing the mind is an exceptionally powerful machine that can either serve or hurt is the entry point to the power of meditation.
When we meditate, we are switching out the object of our attention to something of our own volition. Rather than searching like a radar, instead we choose an object to direct our attention toward. This might be a mantra, a flame, the sensation of breath, or something else.
Regardless of the object, when we choose to place our attention on the object again and again, we are using the natural proclivity of this powerful machine to fixate in order to retrain the mind to focus on a certain object. We are teaching ourselves to sit and stay with presence rather than losing ourselves in reaction and analysis. This requires a consistent daily practice.
However, most of us never get to a place where we enjoy our meditation practice enough to look forward to it each and every day.
This four-step practice for settling the mind can change that:
1. Notice your surroundings.
Sit down in a relatively quiet place. Be comfy. Sit in a chair if you like or lie down. Turn off your ringer. Set a timer for 10 minutes. Everyone has 10 minutes to set aside each day to formally practice. Close your eyes and find repose. Take a few slow breaths, emphasizing the exhale. Allow the mind to simply wander for a few minutes by taking in your immediate surroundings. It’s best to move the mind through the five senses. Notice the raw inputs coming in and try not to engage a bunch of thoughts or overlay. What do you smell? How does the air feel on your skin? And so on.
After getting a sense of our surroundings, then we shift to ourselves.
Notice how you are feeling physically in this moment, including the contact between any part of your body and the surface you are seated or lying down on. Notice how you are feeling emotionally. Don’t worry if you’re ever not sure. Sometimes it is obvious; other times less so. Simply notice. And finally, notice the state of the mind in that moment. Does it feel open and vast or racing and small and fixated or something else?
We are simply noticing the landscape of our present moment experience. Again, try to allow the feelings and sensations to shine through without placing judgment or story atop.
3. Bring your attention to the sensation of breath in your body.
Start by taking a few fuller breaths and noticing the movement of your whole body being breathed (Note: if working with the sensation of breath is triggering for you, shift to noticing sensations in the palms of your hands and/or feet). Notice how your upper thoracic and belly moves with breath. Feel the sensation of breath at the chest. Move to any sensation of breath on your face. Is there anywhere interesting that you can notice the breath in your body? Can you feel the sensation of breath in your fingertips or toes? Just notice.
4. Find the sensation of breath at your nostrils.
Finally, move your attention to the sensation of breath at your nostrils and notice the difference between the inhale and the exhale. Note the breath cycle: an inhale, little pause, exhale, and extended pause. Take your time and use this powerful anchor for your mind.
Before you know it, the timer will ring and it will be time to move back into our busy days. Spend most of your time in steps one through three.
With time and consistency, this simple practice will create new grooves in our mind and will allow us to take a pause before spinning out. It will allow us to consider the hearts and minds of the people around us.
It sounds simple, but as anyone who has tried to meditate knows, the mind is a powerful mechanism and it takes concerted effort to consistently find presence. As we do so, the powerful reward chemicals of dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin will help to create an upward cycle and our ability to be here and now will increase, as will our natural desire to sit each day consistently in order to be a helper in this aching world.