I heard a meditation teacher give an interesting answer to a question about trauma. She said something like this:
“Don’t make a meditation project out of healing your trauma. Instead, cultivate the qualities that meditation offers, and let them do the healing.”
Some people use meditation as a collection of tips and tricks to fix specific problems. Others meditate as a path taught by the Buddha and other teachers. So which makes sense for me?
I’m struggling with multiple problems, and the one that troubles me the most changes from day to day. So there’s a regular feeling of alarm, but an irregular answer from my mind about what to do about it. The sensation of jumping from one thing to another is what anxiety and un-confidence feel like.
However, if I take the teacher’s advice above, then I have a single challenge. Meditation starts quite simply and becomes more complex as we see the options for further practice. If I take the building of a meditation path one step at a time, then I can focus. I’ll be able to think, without being scattered by shifting priorities.
This is the ultimate trick question. Not because it tricks you into a wrong answer, but because it tricks you into the best answer: which is Yes.
If you ask the mind a question, it will try to answer it. So, if you ask the mind if it’s aware, it will check. And the only way it can do this is to pay attention to where it thinks awareness is experienced.
Attending to our experience, on purpose, is almost a definition of mindfulness. When I do this, my mind instantly goes quiet – as if it’s listening.
If you have a bit of a mindfulness practice already working, then try it.
Are you aware…?
People come to meditation for a wide variety of reasons. Some might be struggling with stress and want the medicinal benefit of secular meditation to reduce it. At the other extreme, there are those looking for a deep tradition to add to their spiritual journey.
All of these interests are matched by the wide range of meditation traditions. At the secular end are the amazing programs of MBCT and MBSR, with their evidence-based scientific approaches. Then there are the temples where nuns and monks can immerse themselves in the Buddhist traditions. And there’s everything in-between.
Wherever your goals lie on this spectrum, they will be best supported by establishing a solid base in mindfulness. Without it, I’ve seen people flailing about with poor teachings and unstable practices.
The 8-week MBCT/MBSR programs have been designed for the highest likelihood of success. Even though the programs might seem psychological and un-spiritual, they are the best chance to experience real mindfulness. The course designers know what works; they know how to teach it; and they know how to train the trainers.
What we build on top of this evidence-based foundation is up to us.
‘Discipline’ sounds like making ourselves do something we’re not going to like. If we liked it, we wouldn’t need discipline. It’s a word that has some should in it. With related tones of harshness and negative consequences.
‘Precision’ achieves the same effect as discipline.
For example, if I’m trying to meditate for a total of an hour per day, precision gets me there just as well as discipline.
Precision can feel artistic or sophisticated. It requires attention. It can be the result of flow. Sometimes precision comes from stillness rather than impulse. Using just the right amount and kind of power, not just pushing harder.
Precision has many mental qualities in common with mindfulness. Precision can be kind without compromise.
Even after years of practice, I needed to be reminded of this.
I was on a course and a teacher was doing a guided meditation. My meditation felt heavy and oppressive. I was noticing my ongoing symptoms of brain fog, and feeling quite frustrated that it was there again, changing how my practice felt. I started pushing against the experience rather than settling into the meditation.
Then the teacher reminded us that the intention is to notice what’s happening.
This non-fixing is what Mark Williams calls the being mode, as opposed to the doing mode. We can notice when we are getting caught up, trying to make things different.
Doing mode is one in which we try to close the gap between the way things are and the way we think they should be. We respond to what we hear as a call to action – and it can make us feel worse.
“Another mode of mind is required when it comes to dealing with unhappiness. Evolution has bequeathed us with an alternative to critical thinking. … It is called awareness.”
Mark Williams, The Mindful Way Through Depression. Audiobook.➹
In my ongoing saga with brain fog, today I tried the technique of expanding the awareness.
It’s common for the mind to become contracted around a small area of experience. This happens particularly when we have problems. A simple meditation practice is to push the awareness back out to a larger container.
In my case, the ‘issue’ is located in my head. When I first sit on the cushion to meditate, it’s the first sensation that I notice. The thought that comes with it is: ‘There’s a problem, and it’s here.’
My technique is to settle into my meditation posture, and let the mind start where it is – contracted to the numb sensation in my brain. Then gently push the volume of awareness out to a larger space – I chose the volume of my body. Every time I notice the mind has contracted again, I push it back out. This brings the other sensations of having a body into awareness. Now the brain fog isn’t the only thing happening.
Once I have this larger container for awareness, I can continue with my regular meditation routine. It’s not the same as before the brain fog, but it’s a lot better than being stuck.
I’m still seeing my doctor to check out why this has happened, but I have acquired a relentless brain fog. It’s been over a year now. The symptom is similar to long covid.
The relevance to meditation is that my mind has this physical feeling of numbness. It dominates all other sensations of how my mind is. Knowing how my mind was, or ‘mind state’ as it’s sometimes called, was my main navigator in meditation sittings. It was always a subtle sense, but one which I was developing nicely.
If you are practicing mindfulness, you are often being mindful of something in particular. The breath is the most common object. But it’s not the breath itself that we are developing – it’s the mind. So, adding awareness of how the mind is, while attending to the breath, is where things start to get interesting.
Once we are able to pay attention to how the mind is, we can do two things. We can watch what the mind gets up to, and we can influence the state of the mind. The latter is called cultivation practice and I was really into this.
But my previous sensitivity of mind states has been swamped by this brain fog. I sit on the cushion, calm a bit, then look ‘up’ at the mind to see how it’s doing. And all I get back is numbness.
To be continued …
It’s strange that I stopped my daily meditation practice. I did it diligently for years and then one day I just stopped. Why would I stop doing something that was so enjoyable and helpful?
I think there were two reasons.
Firstly, the problems I had when I started meditating seemed to have gone away. So that initial impulse wasn’t there anymore. I had followed Mark Williams’ fantastic book, The Mindful Way Through Depression➹. I felt that I had built a resilience to depression into my mind so securely that the fear of falling into depression didn’t seem like a daily concern.
Secondly, I made meditation too complicated. As I progressed from the basics into richer meditations, I started to study a lot. With all those extra ideas for practice in my mind, I would sit on the cushion and be overwhelmed with options. Like a child in a sweet shop not being able to choose. There must have been some extra tension in that situation. Instead of it feeling like an exciting buffet of choices, it felt more like I was choosing from a large number of ‘shoulds’. I was aware of the problem but I didn’t address it.
So the cost started to feel greater than the benefit. It happened quite unconsciously. I stopped wanting to sit on the cushion. And then not sitting became a habit.