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.➹
It’s often assumed that mindfulness has kindness built-in. I don’t think this is true. A counter-example is the way that some beginner meditators criticise themselves for not being mindful enough. It’s an act of unkindness towards one’s self.
Mindfulness needs to be deliberately filled with the quality of goodwill.
As well as making a healthy static meditation practice, kindness can also be used to give a sense of direction to the practice. It’s the first signpost that we are moving along in the direction of less suffering.
Mindfulness without kindness is like standing on one leg. It won’t get us very far along the path.
Job Kabat-Zinn➹ gives us a definition of what mindfulness is.
Mindfulness is awareness, cultivated by paying attention in a sustained and particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgementally.
Jon Kabat-Zinn. Mindfulness for Beginners. Sounds True. Hardback Edition.➹
Thich Nhat-Hanh’s➹ is more a definition of what it feels like.
Mindfulness is the energy of being aware and awake to the present. It is the continuous practice of touching life deeply in every moment.
Thich Nhat Hanh. Happiness. Parallax Press. Kindle Edition.➹
One of the biggest mistakes that a new meditator can make, is to become judgemental about their ability to be mindful.
The scenario is that a meditator is being asked to place their attention on an object, such as the breath. When the mind drifts, the student is to bring the mind back to the breath. However, instead of bringing the mind back, the student starts criticising themself for ‘failing’ to keep the attention on the breath. This is a mistake because the criticising thoughts compound the distraction.
There is a simple counter to this self criticism – it’s kindness. You should apply it proactively. So now the instructions are like this: Place your attention on the breath. When you notice that the mind is no longer on the breath, fill yourself with the quality of kindness. Then, remembering your original intention, ride the kindness back to the breath.
If you find it hard to bring the quality of kindness to life, then practice it. Mindfulness and kindness are the two legs of a beginners’ practice. You need them both, so you can move along.
It seems like mindfulness teachers are obsessed with the breath. They are always telling us to pay attention to it. But it’s the attention rather than the breath that we are developing. So why is the breath always chosen as the object of mindfulness?
The breath is subtle
Most of the time, the breath is noticeable enough that we can pay attention to it, but subtle enough that we can ignore it. This makes it a perfect challenge for training the mind.
Once we have gained some skill with mindfulness, we can also let the breath fall into the background, while we notice the shape of the mind in the current moment. That’s when things start to get really interesting.
The breath is in real time
Since the breath is something we perceive through our senses, our minds are focusing on what is happening in real time. Attending to the body brings us back to the present moment.
The breath is always with us.
The breath is portable. We always carry it around and we never leave it at home.
The breath has a rhythm
When the mind drifts away, breathing is a cycle of events that can eventually remind us that we were meant to be doing something.
The rhythm is just the right frequency to prompt us in the next interval in our distracted thinking. If you miss this breath, there’ll be another one along soon.
The breath is private
No-one has to know what you are doing. You can bring your attention to the breath in a meeting, during an argument, at a bus stop – anywhere.
The breath is essential
No matter how bad things are, the breath is usually available.
As Jon Kabat-Zinn says, “If you are breathing, then there is more right with you than wrong with you.”
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.