Your Question: How do I experience warmth and coolness during meditation and what is meant by 'within the body'?
Stephen Procter: 'Within the body' refers to the experience of your whole body internally and externally as it sits in meditation. To experience warmth and coolness within your body means to just generally be aware of the experience of any warmth or coolness within your body that you can feel, regardless of where it is. Location is not important and if you can or can't experience both warmth or coolness is also not important. Just tune into what it feels like to sit in meditation, into any sensations that you can feel as you sit. These sensations are being used as a gentle 'grounding point' for awareness, a reference point from which to observe habitual movements of your attention.
You Asked: How do I experience the feeling of heaviness during meditation?
My Reply: Heaviness is an experience that will arise within your body when it totally relaxes and your muscles no longer hold your body weight. We can only experience heaviness when we are totally relaxed.
To feel it now:
1. Hold your arm out in front of you.
2. Relax your effort to hold your arm up without dropping it.
3. The downwards 'pull' in your arm is the experience of heaviness.
In your meditation posture:
1. Align your posture so that your body is balanced within itself, balancing on your spine.
2. Gradually relax the muscles in your body and tune into the experience of heaviness.
You Asked: Question about posture adjustments during meditation, should these be carried out? For instance, I found my spine curving into a C and consciously sat erect to fix it. Is there a specific way to carry out such adjustments?
My Reply: Yes, in the beginning it is beneficial to play with your posture to reteach your body how to balance within itself. During my intensive practice days my posture was continuously collapsing, the strength of my samadhi continued (concentration) and the collapse did not bother me but my body was suffering from this continued abuse - this is not the middle way.
One of my teachers changed my meditation object from mindfulness of breathing to mindfulness of posture for the next 3 weeks. I made the collapse of my posture my meditation object. In this way I noticed the collapsing earlier until I could notice the very moment the alignment of my posture started to change. In observing this it is helpful to observe the relationship between the deflation of the out-breath and the compacting (or collapsing) of the body within itself, importantly the stacking of the vertebrae and alignment of the bowling ball (head) on the bow of the neck.
This is a wonderful mindfulness practice if done slowly with curiosity, also always be aware of and delay the intention to make the adjustment or movement, before following it so that the intention becomes clear to you.
Your Question: In this meditation, you say ‘... the pressure of your body as it rests on the floor, grounded...’ What does it mean to be grounded?
Stephen Procter: The purpose of 'grounding' is to create a reference point to our present experience as a counter to the minds habitual tendency to turn towards the past or future. All meditation objects in this way are 'grounding' points. This 'grounding' point gives us the ability to observe habitual movements of our attention away from it and the coming and going of that attention.
'Grounding' is the continuous bringing of awareness to the present experience until awareness immerses within that experience and is 'grounded' within it. In meditation this is called the applying and sustaining of attention and is the effort we apply during meditation. We bring awareness to our object of meditation and keep reapplying that awareness until it sustains by itself.
When creating a 'grounding' point in midl mindfulness meditation we bring awareness to the sensate quality of an experience. For example the ‘warmth’ of our body can be a 'grounding' point, the ‘pressure’ of the touch of our hands, the ‘hardness’ of our body as it rests on the floor or the ‘heaviness’ of our body as it relaxes.
In the beginning we are just aware of sensations; with practice awareness immerses into the sensate quality of the body and dwells within it without effort. 'Grounding' of awareness within the sensate quality of our body can protect us during difficult experiences. The Buddha called this Kaya-gata-sati: mindfulness immersed within the body.
Your Question: I found it difficult to stay with my body during this meditation, my mind kept thinking. How do I make it stop?
Stephen Procter: One of our first lessons in midl mindfulness meditation is that it is not easy to stop wandering off and becoming lost within thinking during the meditation session - and that this is perfectly ok. One of the key points to understand is that your mind wandering is not a problem - this is what it does. Your heart beats, your lungs breathe and your mind thinks; it wanders between all your senses. This is is job.. There are parts of your mind that are habitual and the wandering of your attention is part of that.
Your task during midl mindfulness meditation is not to stop your mind from wandering but rather to develop the skill of being able to observe when it does wander; to develop understanding about it. By taking interest in the points of change between being fully aware that you are sitting in meditation and noticing whenever you forget that awareness, the clarity of your mindfulness will increase and the periods in which you become lost within thinking will naturally become shorter. You will then start to notice your attention move without becoming lost within it. You will be able to notice these as subtle shifts of your attention away from awareness of your body.
As mindfulness develops these habitual movements of attention will become clearer to you. At this stage in your meditation skill you will start to understand, there are times when you can observe thinking, there are other times when you become lost within it; and both are ok. Both teach you about the true nature of your mind, both teach you about the impersonal nature of thinking. It is the Wisdom that arises from the understanding that develops from mindfully observing your mind that frees you from thinking. Wisdom develops at its own pace, as a meditator you just need to develop the curiosity to look.
Your Question: From what you've said, I understand that sensations in my body are reflections of the mind, can you explain this?
Stephen Procter: One of the main roles of the body is as a sense organ. Your eye is a sense organ sensitive to light, your ear to sound, nose to smell, tongue to taste and your body is a sense organs sensitive to touch. Your mind uses sensory input through these five senses to understand the world around it.
As a sense organ the bodies job is to reflect touch. Some sensations arise in the body to reflect the touch of the world it. Some sensations arise in the body to reflect the touch of the mind. As midl meditators we learn to tell the difference between sensations within our body that are reflections of the world and sensations within our body that are reflections of our state of mind.
You asked: “So if I just notice and feel the sensations and emotions in my body, does that then clear and release them from both the body and the mind?”
My Reply: It is not a matter of releasing them; while this is popular thinking it is coming from aversion; as if these sensations and emotional signatures shouldn't be there. Your body is just doing what it is meant to do, it is reflecting your state of mind. Some of these reflections are given names such as pleasant or unpleasant feeling; such as emotions. These are not something to be released from your body but instead something to be understood. They are reflections of your state of mind within your body, true reflections of your relationship towards what you are experiencing now. It is the relationship that is important not the reflection.
It is this relationship of attraction or aversion that should be observed and understood. The habitual "I like this", I don't like that", it is at this point that all suffering arises within the mind, your body just reflects this, it is of no use trying to change a reflection. It is always a matter of observing and softening relationship, of relaxing your relationship towards what you are experiencing. this creates the path.
You asked: “Is my busy mind focusing on thoughts giving them fuel?”
My Reply: Where awareness sits energy goes. Wherever your attention is focused that is where mental energy will go. I this is habitually towards thinking about something that that focus will feed the mental fire.If this is grounded within the sensations within your body then the mental energy will also be grounded.
You asked: So if I can put my awareness in my body and have that distance from my mind, it stops giving the mind fuel?
My Reply: Thinking needs participation to continue, it needs awareness to immerse within it. Like a fire that is no longer being fed it will consume the fuel and go out by itself. Immersing awareness within the experience of the body removes the fuel. The problem is that being attentive to thinking and identifying with it as ‘my thoughts’ is habitual, this is part of delusion. Wisdom brings this identification to an end.
Your Question: Could you clarify how to do this MIDL 2/52 and its purpose? I feel that I don't quite understand what I am doing and found it difficult to be openly aware.
Stephen Procter: MIDL Mindfulness Training 2/52 is the second mindfulness training concerned with the 'grounding of awareness. While MIDL 1/52 grounds awareness within the sensate quality of our body, MIDL 2/52 is concerned with grounding within the observing awareness itself. Simply we are moving from observing sensations within our body to observing the awareness of them. As we do this we will start to notice that awareness itself has the ability to focus, it can focus closely in on one thing or be open to all our senses.
Within this range of focus in most meditators a deficiency can be observed in the tendency of the mind to prefer one type of focus of awareness over another. Since the MIDL meditator is concerned with developing flexibility of attention it is beneficial to train the ability to freely adjust the focus of awareness from wide to narrow so that the full range is comfortable.
This is trained in a very simple way by first being aware of being aware of all our senses and grounding within them, then bringing awareness to our body as it sits and grounding within it, then bringing awareness to the touch of two fingers and grounding awareness within it. We then slowly cycle through these three levels of focus to decondition any habituation within the mind towards one tendency or another.
You Asked: Moving awareness was a challenge between these three points, it is hard to let go of my fingers touching to focus more broadly. Mind seems to prefer the smaller things, so my attention kept moving around to each of them in turn. It was hard to zoom out and take it all in at once and easier to observe one point.
My Reply: Wonderful, there is much to learn here.
Notice the habituation of your attention, take interest in it. Your mind habitually wants to zoom in on one thing and has trouble being aware of many things - fantastic - now you are learning about yourself; about the mind that you view the world through. The nature of this attention will also explain the nature of your personality. This can manifest in daily life as obsessive attention. On the other hand inability to focus on one thing and always wide in awareness tends to lead to an inability to stay with one thing in daily life and continuous doubt.
Awareness is like sight.
Imagine if you moved around through the world and your sight would only zoom in on individual things; you had no peripheral vision, no ability to see the bigger picture. If this was the case you would not be able to move through the world within banging into things, you would crash if you were driving a car or your mind would endlessly be agitated as it rapidly moved from one individual object to another. Do you crash into things in your relationship to life?
This range of focus of awareness is different for all of us, for some people wide awareness is easy and one-pointed awareness is difficult, for others one-pointed is easy and wide is difficult, others side somewhere in the middle. We will see this clearly as the community shares their experience (I hope you all will as it is beneficial to seeing patterns).
We all have strengths and weaknesses in this area, this is part of the problem.
In MIDL 2/52 we are learning the skill of smooth focus of awareness, not becoming habitual or stuck within this range from narrow to wide. As we do this we also start to develop understanding of the impersonal and habitual nature of our mind, of the factors that make up attention, how they are balanced and their relationship towards resistances within our heart.
Your Question: I find it difficult to move on because in MIDL 1/52 training my mind was wandering so much I feel un-prepared to move along to MIDL 2/52 after 1 week. What should I do?
Stephen Procter: Your minds wandering is none of your business, why are you trying to make it do something else other then what it is doing. If your sense of peace is based on what your mind is or is not doing then this peace will be fragile because your mind is not under your control. It will let you down.
Instead allow your mind to wander if it wants to, but observe this wandering and observe its habitual and impersonal nature until this is very clear to you. Do this until you deeply understand "this thinking is not me". When you realize through observation that you are not your thoughts, then its antics will not bother you, you will understand that your mind is none of your business. Ironically when you give up the fight your mind will stop fighting itself and feel safe and the immune system of your mind will turn off by itself, everything will settle down including the obsessive thinking.
Your Question: What do you mean by attention and moving attention during meditation? What is the difference between attention and being distracted?
Stephen Procter: The word 'attention' is being used as a meditation language to describe your ability to be intentionally aware of something during meditation by moving it from one thing to another in a similar way you may use a beam of light from a torch to bring clarity to a dark room.
Meditative attention in MIDL is made up of four things:
1. Curiosity / investigation.
These four factors make up your attention during mindfulness meditation and allow you to be clearly aware of your meditation object. All work together and each has a particular function. Curiosity for example, the intentionally being aware of your object of meditation, stimulates mindfulness. Mindfulness, literally remembering what you are experiencing now, develops concentration, the focusing of awareness. When awareness concentrates this brings about steadiness and clarity of the awareness allowing you to experience things more clearly in order to develop Wisdom.
Habitual movement of your attention happens when your forget to be mindful, literally forgetting what you are doing /. experiencing now, causing curiosity to collapse. the habitual mind then takes over your attention and moves it towards your habitual dwelling place, in this case thinking.
Habitual distracted attention is made up of two things:
When you become distracted, that is your attention habitually moves and you do not notice it, then curiosity and mindfulness have collapsed. When distracted your attention is made up of two things, concentration and awareness. Since there is no mindfulness present in distraction you will not know you are distracted until you come out of it. And because there is no mindfulness present there will be no curiosity / investigation and no understanding cultivated. Your mind borrows this concentration and awareness and uses it to absorb into distraction such as thinking.
When I say 'move your attention' or 'your attention moves' it means:
1. To deliberately focus your awareness to one point on one meditation object.
2. To deliberately move your awareness from one meditation object to another.
3. The habitual movement of your awareness from one object to another when mindfulness collapses.
To get the most out of this exercise focus on:
1. intentionally moving and placing your awareness on one point within your body and holding it there for the desired time.
2. Mentally 'feeling' any sensations at that point.
3. Observing every time your awareness shifts from the chosen point within your body, acknowledge this movement of attention and bringing it back. Your description of experiencing many sensations is a sign that this aspect of your attention is being trained.
Do not be too concerned if you can not feel the breathing or sensations in a particular area, guided meditations need to be generic. Whatever you experience is correct, there is no need to try to experience something that is not yet present to you.
Your Question: What does breathing with my diaphragm have to do with Buddhist Satipatthana practice? I can understand this as a way of feeling less stressed but didn't the Buddha say that we should practice mindfulness of breathing?
Stephen Procter: There are many doorways that we can enter when practicing Satipatthana Vipassana (mindfulness meditation). While on a physical level, retraining of our breathing patterns to autonomous diaphragmatic breathing lowers the experience of anxiety, it also opens the doorway to something much more profound if trained as a foundation for mindfulness within daily life.
Intentional retraining of breathing patterns covers all four Satipatthanas. When the meditator begins breathing retraining they develop Kayanupassana: Mindfulness of Body by bringing awareness to the sensations within the movement of the diaphragm within their body. While in the first two stages of breathing retraining the movement of the diaphragm is controlled, during the third stage the meditator holds bare awareness of the movement of breathing as it moves autonomously within their body. Awareness of this movement develops a heightened sensitivity to the experience of breathing as well as their relationship towards it.
This increased sensitivity to breathing naturally transfers into the meditators daily life allowing them to observe their breathing patterns throughout the day creating a foundation from which they can observe their habitual relationship of attraction or aversion. Mindfulness of breathing patterns changing from belly to chest breathing throughout the day, becomes a 'red flag' that signals the meditators relationship towards experiences within their life, allowing them to observe any habitual relationships.
When the meditator enters into the third stage of breathing retraining they immerse awareness into the experience of their body and allow the re-engaged diaphragm to move autonomously, free from control. This is their first training in the skill of mindfulness of breathing and teaches them how to experience the breath, free from control. At this stage they start to notice their habitual desire to control their breathing and develop an understanding of the relationship between their state of mind and the experience of breathing within their body. They are now developing the third foundation of Cittanupassana: Mindfulness of Mind. This sensitivity to changes within their breathing patterns naturally transfers into their daily life, heightening the understanding of how the experience of their body changes to reflect their state of mind.
As breathing retraining progresses the meditator becomes very aware of the correlation between the unpleasantness they experience while chest, stress breathing and the pleasantness they experience through diaphragmatic breathing. Sensitivity to the relationship between the experience of their body, interaction of their mind and the feeling tone that arises, dependant on both, develops. This increased sensitivity to unpleasantness and pleasantness, separate from the experience of the sensate quality of the body, brings the meditator into the development of Vedananupassana: Mindfulness of Feeling.
This increased sensitivity to the experience of their body, the interaction of the mind and feeling tone as a reflection of their mind, within their body becomes very clear to the meditator at this stage taking them into Dhammanupassana: Mindfulness of Conditioned Processes. The meditator now starts to see clearly the conditioned relationship between the experience of their body, mind and the feeling tone present. This sensitivity makes habitual defensive patterns of reaction within them very clear and provides the basis from which they can observe and soften their relationship towards these patterns within their daily life. The process of observing and softening into this habitual process becomes clear to them and the Satipatthana path of deconditioning through mindful non-participation opens up thereby cultivating the factors of the Noble Eightfold Path.
Your Question: Why do we normalize the breath, making inhalation and exhalation the same length when practicing MIDL?
Stephen Procter: The Stress Response changes the way that the diaphragm muscle works by tightening or locking it in the upward position under the lower rib cage, as it prepares the body for fight / flight. If we are exposed to stress / anxiety for a period of time, the diaphragm muscle, through lack of use, tightens and shortens in its range of movement. this can also be affected by lifestyle habits such as incessant talking, free diving (holding your breath), swimming, body obsession (belly in , chest out fashions) etc. Anything that changes our breathing patterns for a period of time.
When working with different people, some have a short movement of the diaphragm on the in-breath, some a short movement on the out-breath and others both movements are short. Short = 1 - 3 sec diaphragm movement on either in or out-breath. This shortness causes the body to mimic the stress response with short, shallow chest breathing, tricking the mind into thinking it is always under stress. This leads to hyperventilation, a lowering of CO2 levels and confusion in the regulation by the brain of respiration giving rise to the experience of anxiety.
Intentionally moving the diaphragm slowly down and back up again, strengthens the diaphragm muscle and increases its range of movement. This does not mean that we always breathe a 5 sec breath for example, it means that our brain has the option to use this full range of movement when we are under load such a jogging or exercising without having to resort to chest, hyperventilation (over breathing).
You asked: I felt that counting seconds along the length of the breath made me too aware of that, so I didn’t feel any calmer when breathing more slowly.
My Reply: Then don't count. Guided meditations by their nature are generic; they cannot be adapted to every person that uses them. Learn to be sensitive to yourself, anything that is said in a guided meditation is just a suggestion. Use it as a structure for your meditation, investigate the suggestions. If they don't work for you then drop them like a hot rock and move on. Later revisit them and see if they are useful.
You asked: Should ribs/chest be engaged in daily life or only when Softening into something?
My Reply: During this training we exercise the full range of the breath. When stress breathing, the diaphragm disengages and the chest moves up and down in short shallow breaths. During stress breathing the ribs do not open and the chest does not expand, it just moves up and down. The muscles in the upper chest become fatigues and tightness appears in the upper chest and middle of the back under the shoulder blades. This is all part of anxiety.
The important part of the stress breath is that it is upside-down. The breath habitually moves from the top of the chest downward, when I ask someone with anxiety this is how they breathe - upside down. A normal, non-stress breath is experienced as starting below the belly button, moving up through the ribs and into the top of the chest - the opposite direction.
To retrain correct breathing patterns as a basis for the MIDL Softening skill it is not enough to just breathe in our belly, we also need to learn to bring it through our ribs, expanding in our chest. This also offers the brain, as mentioned above, to use the full range of breathing when it is under physical load, returning to short, gentle breathing in the belly when we are relaxed.
You asked: In daily life, I’m never able to notice where my breath is automatically. I actively remember to do diaphragm breathing every now and then during the day - but have no idea of how it was before this. Will this come over time?
My Reply: If you approach this training in a mindful and gentle way, yes, your breathing patterns throughout the day will become very clear to you and you will notice the slightest change within your breathing, in particular the movement of the diaphragm, in relation to your state of mind. At first you just get glimpses of this, but if practiced daily for 3 - 4 weeks, this will become much more natural and sensitivity will be greatly increased. The noticing and not noticing as exactly the same as when you are in seated meditation; it is the same game that we play.
You asked: So, I didn’t feel any calmer. When I heard the instruction ‘... breathe out further than ever before...’ I tensed up. I started to put effort in breathing out fully. How can I feel calmer?
My Reply: Yes this is right, the meditation is doing exactly what it is meant to do, it is highlighting your desire to control. When you heard the instruction you tensed up, this is giving you a clear insight into the relationship between sound, your mind and your body.
Isn’t this interesting?
Is there a correlation between your effort to breathe out and the tension? What did you do with this effort when you noticed it? The over-efforting, the over-trying to achieve is the problem here, not the meditation. Whenever you notice the desire to strive use it to learn how to relax your effort. Use it to learn how to give up any desire to do anything.
You asked: When I heard your new instructions about ‘... feeling heavier...’: I became even more tense, then started to cry. I can’t relax, but I want so dearly to be able to.
My Reply: Can you see the irony of this statement that arose within your mind? "I can't relax, but I want...." Wanting and relaxing are opposite; the tension you feel is coming out of the effort of your wanting. Heaviness arises only when we relax, relaxation arises when we give up all effort, especially the effort to do anything at all, including the desire to relax.
We are starting to see a pattern within your mind, this is wonderful, and this is showing you the way out. It is not the meditation technique that is the problem here, it is the desire to achieve, the desire to control. Whenever you do any meditation I would like you to make this desire your meditation object, learn to observe and relax into to desire. Also learn to observe that this desire is not you, it is a habitual protection mechanism released by your Survival mind in order to protect you.
It is not personal.
Your Question: I have noticed sometimes when I breathe into the ribs and particularly up into my chest it feels like there is a tightness there almost like I have run out of breath, is this part of the stress response?
Stephen Procter: From my experience this tightness in the chest arises in four ways:
1. Breathing Downwards from The Chest:
Trying to inflate the belly by breathing from the chest downwards towards the belly. This is still stress breathing, the breathing is up-side-down. It is possible that you can think that you are diaphragm breathing and you are not. In this case the breath in the belly will be experienced as a 'push down' from the chest, you may be trying to push down the diaphragm muscle. This will give a feeling of tightness in the middle of the chest and lower ribs as the inflating lungs push against the locked diaphragm. It is best picturing the diaphragm being pulled down rather then pushed, like you have a handle or rubber band below your belly button pulling it down. This can be tricky at first but one it is experienced the difference is very clear.
2. Over Inflating the Belly:
If you over-inflate your belly before bringing the breath up into your chest you will experience tightness and lack of breath in your chest. This is opposite to above. Your chest can only inflate while your diaphragm muscle is moving downwards. If you fully inflate your belly before bringing the breath up (you can try it now), Your breath will feel stuck at the base of your ribs and will not be able to move up into your chest. It is only necessary start the breath below your belly button with a small breath before bringing it up into your ribs and chest to allow them to inflate.
3. Slumping In Your Body:
If you are slumping forward in your body, this can happen lying down but is more susceptible when sitting up, your lower rib cage will turn inwards and press against the base of your lungs preventing them from inflating properly (try slumping forward now and take in a deep breath). This will give a feeling of tightness in the chest and also an uncomfortable feeling in the solar plexus - its bad posture. This slumping is often the cause of the nervous, sick feeling in people with anxiety and depression because of their body slumping forward as they return to fetal position. You can observe people do this when they feel unwell, trying to go back into the safety of the womb. With posture adjustment = shoulders forward, up, back and then dropped down, the chest will open and this feeling will go away (try a deep breath now with the ribs extended out-wards instead of slumping).
4. Over-inflating The Chest:
If you are putting in too much effort into the inflation of your chest you will develop an uncomfortable tightness within it. It is not necessary to inflate the chest to the point of tension, any opening of the chest will come from relaxing the muscles not from engaging them.
Your Question: I notice the resistance and also some anxiety about not being able to get enough breath.
My Reply: When our stress response is on we over-breathe, this means that our respiration rate is too fast. When doing the MIDL Mindfulness Training we intentionally slow down our respiration rate as well as start breathing through our nose, the breathes become long and slow rather the short and fast. to the mind that is used to a faster rate of breathing it can feel like we are not getting enough breath and suffocating. This will also happen at the final relaxation stage where the breath in the belly becomes so subtle that it feels like we aren't breathing at all.
To the mind survival instinct this can be fearful and the urge to take extra big breathes will arise. this fear is experienced as an anxiety, which of course changes the breathing rate and brings it into the upper chest. This is the game we are playing. If you observe that even though your mind is saying you are suffocating, if you look, your are still alive, so obviously your are not; instead you are dealing with habit.
This of course can be caused by any of the four points above.
Your Question: Regarding breathing exercises for anxiety, I note your advise on breathing. Just for your information, in past I was doing box breathing which was helping me. It was 5 sec inhale, 5 sec hold, 5 sec exhale, 5 sec hold. There problem was after 2, 3 rounds it was feeling little bit suffocating
Stephen Procter: When working with anxiety it is not about breathing in order to make yourself feel better. It is about correcting incorrect breathing patterns that are happening naturally throughout the day. While this type of box breathing may help you feel a bit better in the short term, it will not improve your breathing patterns, actually it may even make them worse.The feeling of suffocation comes because with anxiety we are already over-breathing, but because of the hyperventilation and lowering of CO2 levels, our brain becomes confused and thinks that we are not breathing enough creating the feeling of suffocation.
The problem is not the breathing, the problem is that the diaphragm muscle becomes weak due to prolonged stress and disengages from respiration. Your focus should be on doing diaphragm breathing exercises in a correct way, with the correct intention, in a way that strengthens and slows down the movement speed of your diaphragm so that it re-engages naturally throughout the day – by itself. So that diaphragm breathing in the belly becomes your normal way of breathing.
Many of these control methods, such as holding the breath, do not train natural breathing patterns and therefore have the potential to make the experience of long term anxiety worse, not better. They also involve breathing down into the belly, which is incorrect for retraining the diaphragm. You should not be focusing on controlling your breathing but rather on retraining your diaphragm in order to change your habitual stress breathing patterns, so that diaphragm breathing happens autonomously, by itself.
You said: Alternate nostril breathing I liked, I can count up to 7 to 10 sec. But both above technique and nostril breathing caused tightness in skull and neck area hence I stopped.
My Reply: Alternate nostril breathing has nothing to do with anxiety and should be avoided in treating anxiety. It will not change the way that your diaphragm functions in any way that will remove anxiety, and may even change your breathing patterns in a way that will lead to further anxiety. Using breathing to alleviate anxiety symptoms does not address the problem, it just hides it. In the case of alternate nostril breathing as commonly used in yogic practices, this is a form of hyperventilation for temporarily silencing of the mind. Since habitual hyperventilation is what creates many of the symptoms of anxiety I recommend not doing these techniques.
Your Question: When doing this meditation my diaphragm returns to breathing and happens naturally in my belly but when I finish the meditation and go back into daily life it disengages and I start breathing in my chest again. How long does it take to change my breathing patterns?
Stephen Procter: Diaphragmatic breathing is a foundation skill in MIDL and retraining your breathing pattern so that diaphragmatic breathing becomes natural is a doorway of self observation in MIDL mindfulness meditation.
If you practice breathing retraining correctly twice per day it usually takes 3 - 4 weeks to change from habitual chest stress breathing patterns. You are correct that in the last phase of this meditation the diaphragm will re-engage and diaphragmatic breathing will happen autonomously. You will than experience the benefits of correct, natural non-defensive breathing. You are also correct that when you finish the meditation and return to normal life that at some stage your diaphragm will lock and habitual chest chest breathing will start again.
The change of your breathing pattern to chest breathing is a habitual defensive behaviour that re-engages your stress response. There is nothing wrong with this process, it is doing what it is supposed to do, the problem is that this pattern has become habitual so is not turning off when no danger is present. This is a normal part of working with any habit, something will trigger the habitual behaviour and you will fall back into it again and again.
The task of this breathing retraining has four levels:
1. Strengthen and lengthen the movement of the diaphragm by moving it slowly within the belly. This is aided by placing your finger tips just below your belly button, slightly pushing in, and lifting them away from your body by slowly extending and lowering your lower abdominal muscles. In the beginning the range of move may only be 2 - 3 seconds and the diaphragm will move too fast. With gentle practice this will lengthen to 5 seconds on the in-breath and 5 seconds of movement on the out-breath which is a more comfortable range. Even though we train this movement in this way during the meditation, this does not reflect the breathing rate in daily life. your brain will naturally adjust this dependent on what you are doing it just has a greater range of speed and length to work with.
2. Reverse stress breathing from starting at the top of the chest, moving down towards the base of the ribs to starting from below the belly button and moving up towards the top of the chest. This is also necessary because habitual stress breathing lowers the ability of the ribs to expand and contract with breathing.
3. Lying still and allowing the diaphragm to move autonomously for a period of time, without control to reteach your mind what natural breathing feels like. It is not unusual to deal with the desire to control your breathing during this stage, distract yourself and allow your body to do what it already knows how to do.
4. Observing and re-engaging diaphragm breathing throughout your day, whenever you notice that your habitual stress chest breathing pattern has re-engaged again. This is done by placing your finger tips below your belly button, pressing in slightly and slowly lifting and slowly lowering your fingers with your lower abdominal muscles five times. Slow movement is important. This will cause the diaphragm to re-engage autonomously.
Your whole task during this process is to create gaps in the habitual cycle. At first these gaps will be small, your breathing will change back again and again. This does not matter. Gradually the period of time that your diaphragm is re-engaged in breathing throughout the day will increase as will your sensitivity to changes within your breathing patterns.
From this platform you will start to observe and understand the correlation between your resistance towards what you are experiencing in life and changes within your patterns of breathing. This is real mindfulness of breathing from which you will be able to observe and decondition defensive patterns of reaction deeply embedded within your mind.
Your Question: Cognitively I get the purpose in developing breath awareness and the softening skill. My resistance lies in my mind thinking this is not real meditation because of the exercise vs sitting with a "normal" meditation focus. Can you please help me understand how this is meditation?
Stephen Procter: To understand this it is helpful to understand how meditation techniques are structured. Most meditation techniques have a very specific way of structuring attention, this then gives rise to a very specific path of experiences that a skilled meditation teacher, within a tradition, can use to guide your meditation practice. This predictability of the conditionality of experience is one of the purposes of specific meditation techniques in different traditions.
When you structure attention in a specific way you will get a specific experience, what appears as a path of development. This predictable path of development of experience is needed, for without this it would be very difficult for one person to guide another in meditation. This predictability of specific techniques also provides a sense of stability and safety and is based on the development of concentration.
MIDL on the other hand takes a different path and this path is more practical when we wish to develop mindfulness meditation while living a normal life. MIDL does not attempt to structure awareness in order to give rise to a specific path of experience or to change our state of mind. Instead it seeks to observe the mind, as it is, in its natural state, without interfering with it.
The mind in its natural state, without the structuring of attention, is messy as it wanders between the six senses. You will experience this messiness when practicing MIDL, it gives a feeling of being out of control and of experience being impersonal. To clarify this mess without changing it, MIDL focuses on developing the watching, the observing, mindful awareness that does not alter the structure of the habitual mind. This is done in order to develop understanding of the interaction of the mind and the six senses to create the conditions for Wisdom to arise.
While structuring attention in a specific way gives rise to a specific path of experience allowing a skilled teacher to guide the meditation path, MIDL does not have this luxury. Instead of using a specific path of experience to guide a meditator's practice, the skilled teacher of MIDL, since concerned with the 'observing awareness', guides the meditation path through observing the relationship of that awareness to the experiences that arise within the mind, instead of the experiences themselves. Since this path is based on relationship, the path itself is transparent and awareness can be structured in different ways in order to challenge the habitual patterns within the mind.
Since the path starts with a mind that is based on habitual attraction and aversion and ends with a mind that is equanimous towards all experience, specific tools are needed to tread the path. The first is based on developing a flexibility of awareness, so that the structuring of attention does not interfere with the mind. The next is the development of the skill of Softening any habitual attraction or aversion that arises within the mind, dissolving the stickiness of awareness as it grasps onto experiences. Stillness is what arises within the mind when the stickiness of attraction and aversion come to an end. At first temporarily due to Softening, eventually permanently due to Wisdom.
As in the repeated stanza in the Satipatthana Sutta, describing the mature meditator "... In this way they dwell independent, not clinging to anything within the world. ..", it is all about the relationship of clinging.
The resistance that you experienced is this habitual clinging and why we meditate.
Within this we can however see the development of your MIDL practice. You said: "...in terms of noticing sounds and grounding in body sensations. It felt like I was able to be more observant more quickly..." This tells me that your ability to observe your mind, without interfering with it is developing. You also said: "..Gently brought myself back and was fairly successful at not judging myself..." This shows your ability to observe and Soften your relationship towards your experience is developing.
So since the mind observed in this way is messy how can you know if your practice is developing?
Again: "..dwell.....not clinging to anything within the world. .."
You will start to notice an increase in self awareness in seated meditation and through out the day. There will be a 'calming' or 'softening' of your personality, your defensive cycles will last for shorter period and you will have less extremes of highs and lows. Everything starts to calm down. Your desire to control in everything will start to fade, as will attraction and aversion within your mind. Periods of equanimity will start to arise and your mind will regularly fall into stillness. The drama will calm from your life and life itself will flow, your concern with past and future will come to an end.
Because the habitual mind, free from control is a mess, it can seem that there is no clearly defined path of meditation. But when we understand that the path is not what arises within the mind but rather observation of the relationship of awareness towards its object, a clear path reveals itself to us, one that has no confines, shape or form. One that is not confined by structure, posture or situation.
Your Question: Could you explain what softening breathing is, how do I do this breathing and if there any discernible movement of my body with each breath?
Stephen Procter: The breathing associated with Softening is focused on using slow, deep diaphragmatic breaths in order to bring about deep physical and mental relaxation. While intentionally breathing with your diaphragm you will experience some movement associated with the inflation and deflation of your body with each breath.
When training your Softening skill it is helpful to picture your breath coming in from below your belly button, then moving it upwards towards the base of your ribs and into the top of your chest. As you let the breath out, do so slowly. Like you are deflating; allowing your whole body to relax.
As your skill develops the movement of your body with each breath will become more refined until it is barely discernible. You will no longer need to control your breathing and will be able to relax deeply just by observing the expansion and deflation of the natural breath within your body.
You can now use your skill in Softening with your breath any time you experience attraction or aversion to any experience within seated meditation and daily life. You will have developed the skill of Softening all resistance with each natural out-breath.
Softening develops in this way:
In MIDL 3/52 you develop the ability to use slow, diaphragm breathing in order to make diaphragmatic breathing, your normal breathing. This is a training of the body which involves lengthening and strengthening the diaphragm so you can take slow softening breaths from belly > ribs > chest > relaxing with the out-breath.
In MIDL 4/52 you bring these skills into a seated meditation posture belly > ribs > chest > relaxing with the out-breath. You learn this in order to use the Softening breath while sitting up. But the most important part of this training is aligning awareness with the deflation of the body with the out-breath and learning to 'borrow' the relaxation of the body as the breath goes out. It is this 'borrowing' that moves this into the skill of softening. Borrowing the relaxation of the out-breath is practiced in two stages. The first stage is done by controlling the breath. The second stage is done by allowing the breathing to happening by itself, naturally, and 'borrow' the relaxation of each out breath by aligning awareness with it and abandoning all effort. Allowing the relaxation that arises within the body to enter the mind. 'Allowing' is the key word here.
In MIDL 5/52 we add an extra stage that brings this from physical relaxation to mental Softening. We bring the softening breath in as normal belly > ribs > chest > but on the out-breath we bring awareness to the area in the middle of our forehead and slow down, extend the out-breath through our nose. While we do this we abandon all mental effort, we give up the mental effort 'to do'. This has an interesting effort that is experienced as 'the frontal lobes relaxing'. This however is an experience of relaxing of mental effort or strain. the slow breath out through the nose enhances this relaxing, this abandoning, so much so that when you observe someone doing it properly all personality melts from their face as the cognitive part of their mind temporarily shuts down and they enter into a more primitive level of mind.
The frontal lobes are just a pointer, the experience is the area of the frontal lobes relaxing, sinking. this is a very simple process, it takes hardly any effort at all and since it is a relaxing of mental effort, any effort to relax this effort is the opposite direction. In the early stage through this we can borrow the relaxation of effort to bring deep relaxation to the functions of the mind. Once developed thinking processes and desires to react can be brought to an end, through one simple, slow breath out through the nose; a mental abandoning.
This process of developing Softening goes from very gross - working with the body, to very subtle - abandoning within the mind.
Your Question: Sitting up while breathing from the belly up into the ribs and the chest caused my chest to feel tight and kind of stiff, why would this be?
Stephen Procter: The most common cause of this is posture. To train Softening breathing while seated requires balance in our posture, if the posture is not balanced then this will interfere with the ability to inflate and deflate the chest. The fault is usually found in rounding of the shoulders and slumping forward slightly, this causes the bottom of the rib cage to tilt inwards and press against the base of the lungs causing a tight feeling in the chest. to adjust the posture push your shoulders forward, up, back and then drop them down into place. Notice how this brings the base of the rib cage out and opens the chest. try the breathing while slumping then try it with the chest open and notice the difference.
The other cause is when we think we are breathing with the diaphragm but we are not. this tightness in the chest is caused by breathing downwards to push the diaphragm down instead of breathing from the lower belly up to pull the diaphragm down. Subtle difference but huge difference in the experience.
You Asked: My body is kind of stiff. Probably my muscles aren't used to work against gravity like this.
My Reply: If stress, upper chest breathing is normal for us then there is a significant lowering of the movement and flexibility of the rib cage. Because of this tightness with each in-breath we need to initially help the breath move up by pushing out and opening our lower ribs. With practice this changes and the breath becomes easy and natural.
You Asked:The flow of the breath while doing this training had a slight stuttering quality to it. The slower I tried to breathe, the more I noticed this. Breathing faster caused the flow to be smoother.
My Reply: Yes this is correct and good observation. You are observing the tightness and weakness of the diaphragm muscle through lack of use, this is initially why we do this training. The stuttering can be seen in any muscle that is weak and being worked, slowing the movement during this training makes the diaphragm muscle work. I call it strengthening and lengthening. If I go to the gym to strengthen a muscle, when I first start lifting weights to strengthen the muscle the movement is not smooth or controlled. As the muscle strengthen the movement becomes more controlled and smooth, when full strength appears in the muscle I notice a difference in smoothness and solidity of the movement.
The diaphragm is strengthened by slowing the movement down and moving it precisely on the in and out-breath. When this challenges the muscle it starts to become jerky and vibrate, this will gradually go away as the muscle strengthens and is a normal part of training. Of course we should be sensitive to force through over-effort verses skillful training. As a note of interest I have observed this stuttering of the diaphragm movement in every person i have worked with for anxiety and depression. They all have a weakness in their diaphragm, as the diaphragm strengthens the symptoms of anxiety and depression also fade.
Your Question: During the 3rd stage when you guide to let go of control over breathing is when I experience the most relaxation. However during this stage l also find myself breathing shallower then usual; it feels like it is mostly in my upper chest may not be belly breathing. Should I practice MIDL Training 3 more?
Stephen Procter: As your mind calms it is natural for your breathing to calm as well, one reflects the other. During the stage of letting go of control, breathing can become very subtle and difficult to perceive. If you are relaxing deeply during the meditation and not feeling restless then it is likely that your diaphragm is still engaged, it is just that the movement has become very small. In this case do not concern yourself with your breathing just allow it to flow naturally and find its own balance.
If you are still unsure and feel that your breathing is only in your upper chest, then it will not hurt to repeat MIDL Mindfulness Training 3/52. MIDL 3/52 and 5/52 are similar in that they both have a third stage of letting go of control over breathing. It is just that 3/52 is focused more on engaging the diaphragm and 5/52 is more focused on the deflation of the whole breath. When you understand this you can change your focus to begin this MIDL Training using the diaphragmatic breathing learnt in MIDL 3/52 and transition it into MIDL 5/52 softening when you reach the third stage of the deflation of your whole body.
Your Question: Enjoying the series! wondering about the sigh instructions...don't know if I can distinguish the difference between a sigh and exhale.
Stephen Procter: A gentle sigh out through the nose is like an extended out-breath, slow, gentle, calm. This is done by slightly increasing the back pressure to make the out-breath slow and gentle. Like air coming slowly out of a valve in a car tire. When you first train this it may make some sound but with practice it becomes incredibly subtle with no discernible sound at all.
The slow, gentle sighing releases mental tension, this tension is associated with thinking - literally thinking needs mental tension to exist. Through learning to use the gentle sighs to 'mentally deflate', any thought process can be dropped out at will, creating a tool for deeper MIDL practice.
You Asked: I have a couple more questions on the "sigh" upon exhale. Is this through the nose or through the mouth and is there any audible voice with the sigh? I notice that when I try to slow my sigh that I begin to tighten up which seems counterproductive to the "softening into". When I sigh more naturally the exhale is quicker than the inhale.
My Reply: The breath is always drawn in and out of the nose, we never use our mouth to breathe during MIDL meditation. Initially sound may be produced because we are placing too much effort into the breathing, as our skill refines there is no audible sound with each breath.
The breathing for gentle sighing is diaphragmatic breathing, not chest breathing and is based on MIDL Mindfulness Training 3/52: Retraining Autonomous Breathing. The ability to do this properly is supported by strengthening and lengthening the natural movement of your diaphragm. If your diaphragm muscle is tight and weak then it will return too quickly creating a fast exhale.
The tightness that you are experiencing when you try to slow down your out-breath points towards the tightness and shortness of range of movement of your diaphragm. Your exhale being faster then your inhale when you naturally exhale is also a sign of this. This tightness is created through habitual chest stress breathing usually triggered by periods of stress within our life.
Sitting down reading this, place your palm on your lower abdomen just below your belly button. Slowly extend your lower abdominal muscles out-wards to lift your palm noticing how this movement draws air in through your nose. Lower your palm to let the breath go back out again. Slowly repeat these breaths. Notice that as this breath draws in from this lower abdominal movement that there is very little discernible movement in your upper belly or chest.
Next, slowly bring your breath up from your lower abdomen, to your ribs and then into your upper chest. Then allow your whole body to slowly deflate with the out-breath. Notice I said 'slowly' a lot?
This is because the skill in diaphragmatic breathing is to learn to move your diaphragm muscle 'slowly'. The slowness of the movement creates the gentle sign out through your nose. This sigh is created by slowing down the exhale through the nose so that it lengthens the breath by allowing the slow return of your diaphragm to extend the out-breath.
Again this is dependent on your retraining of diaphragmatic breathing in MIDL 3/52. Allowing yourself to physically and mentally relax as you abandon all effort with each slow out-breath.
Your Question: I don't understand the difference between "soften" and "relax". Are they the same thing? Second, how can one relax the frontal cortex? I mean it's not a muscle so I don't get what I am supposed to do! Third, I thought the "softening breath" was the big deep belly/ribs/chest then let all go on the out breath. But then you used this term for the unregulated gentle breath. So I feel confused about that. Lastly, towards the end, when my attention wanders from my feeling of sitting there and breathing naturally, you instruct me to take a deep softening breath to bring me back into my body. We have been using this breath to let go/relax. I'm not sure how to use this breath to do that.
You asked: "I don't understand the difference between "soften" and "relax". Are they the same thing?"
Relaxation is what we experience when we give up any effort in our body or mind. Relaxation has an aspect of physicality to it, like to relax the effort of the muscles in your body to hold you upright or to relax the effort in your mind to do.
The word Softness or Soften is used because it describes the experience of mental resistance and acceptance. When we mentally resist something our mind becomes 'hard', we experience tension. When we 'soften' this hardness through acceptance and surrender our mind becomes 'soft' and pliable. Softness is of the heart / mind and is based on our relationship towards what is being experienced now, namely any attraction or aversion towards pleasant or unpleasant feeling. Softness arises within the mind when we 'soften into' our relationship towards what we are experiencing now, when we abandon our participation with it. As softness grows in the mind it also appears within the body, softening from the outside inwards.
RELAXATION & SOFTNESS During the instructions you will find an interchange of the words 'relax' and 'soften'. This is because softness is always preceded by relaxation. While relaxation within itself does not always contain softness of mind, softness of mind always is preceded by relaxation. This comes from the relationship between mind and body, as our body relaxes then our mind can take on that relaxation, as the mind softens through a change in relationship towards experience this softness also appears within the body.
You asked: "....how can one relax the frontal cortex? I mean it's not a muscle so I don't get what I am supposed to do!.."
My Reply: The first thing to understand is that meditation is always discussed in terms of 'personal' experience, when deciphering meditation instructions they are always based on the experienced world rather then the physical world. For example, when we talk about the breath in meditation we are not referring to the process of respiration but rather the experience of respiration which we call breathing. Physical respiration is located between the nose and the lungs, breathing can be experienced in your belly, toes, hands and head, it is common in yoga to 'breathe into' a muscle to help it relax. In the physical world this is nonsense but in the experienced world people experience this as being real every day. The experiential world is not defined by physicality.
When using the word 'frontal lobes' I am pointing towards the 'experience' of tension in the area in the front of the head that arises when we mentally engage in any activity. While the frontal lobes in the physical world may not be able to relax as they are not a muscle, experienced through the eyes of meditation they can definitely be experienced as tense and can very clearly be experienced as relaxing.
You said: "...I don't get what I am supposed to do!.."
My Reply: Your not supposed to do anything, this is a giving up of doing, a relaxing of doing, an abandoning of doing. Any attempt to do anything will have the opposite effect and cause more mental tension. Doing = tension. The softening of this effort within the mind first comes about by learning to 'borrow' the natural relaxation of the deflation of your body that occurs with each out-breath. This means aligning your awareness with the deflation of the out-breath and giving up all effort in-line with that breath.
This sits on a basis of diaphragmatic breathing as trained in MIDL 3/52 and will not work if stress breathing, breathing in the upper chest, is normal. While stress breathing tightens the body with each out-breath, diaphragmatic breathing inflates and deflates the body like a balloon creating natural relaxation. In MIDL 4/52 we borrow that natural relaxation through abandoning in our body with each out-breath. In MIDL 5/52 we bring this relaxation into the mind to give rise to softness through aligning awareness on the slow exhale of the out-breath through the nose while allowing the area of the frontal lobes to relax and eventually soften.
When relaxation appears within the mind the frontal lobes feel heavy, when softness arises in the mind all cognitive mental activity ceases, including thinking, and experience of content peace arises within the mind.
You asked: "I thought the "softening breath" was the big deep belly/ribs/chest then let all go on the out breath. But then you used this term for the unregulated gentle breath. So I feel confused about that."
My Reply: The 'Softening Breath' is not just a big breath in and out, it is developed from gross to subtle.
1. Learning to breathe with the diaphragm.
2. Learning to 'borrow' the relaxation of the deflation of the out-breath to relax the body.
3. Learning to 'borrow' the relaxation of the deflation of the out-breath through the nose to relax the mind.
4. Learning to soften the mind.
You asked: "...when my attention wanders from my feeling of sitting there and breathing naturally, you instruct me to take a deep softening breath to bring me back into my body. We have been using this breath to let go/relax. Im not sure how to use this breath to do that...."
My Reply: When your attention wanders from the experience of sitting towards thinking, this is a habitual movement within your mind. This habit of thinking contains a relationship of interest towards the story within the thoughts. By taking an intentional, gentle softening breath at this stage and relaxing mentally the relationship towards the thoughts is dissolved and you can then bring your awareness to the experience of 'sitting' or whatever meditation object you are using at this time.
The skill of Softening is not separate from our meditation practice, we use softening in many ways:
1. When you notice you are distracted, acknowledge it and soften.
2. When you notice that you are stress breathing, acknowledge it and soften.
3. When you notice that you are attracted or averse towards an experience, notice it and soften.
4. When you want to strengthen positive qualities such as loving kindness, then soften into the feeling.
Your Question: I have been practicing Meditation 6/52 and am really enjoying it. However, I definitely notice tension that you say is a result of effort and doing as opposed to just letting the breath happen naturally. I try “softening” into that control, but I don’t know if I am doing it effectively. I essentially just take a deep, slow belly breath, and on the out breath I try quietly sighing while intending to relax. Should I be doing something differently? How will I know if I am practicing softening correctly?
You said “...I definitely notice tension that you say is a result of effort and doing as opposed to just letting the breath happen naturally...”
Wonderful, this training is designed to allow you to observe the habitual tendency towards control within your mind. We are using the breath to observe the mind. Breathing can happen autonomously, regulated by the brain or it can be over-ridden by an intention within the mind. For example you can allow your breathing to happen naturally or you can intentionally take a deep breath in and out now. We are using this characteristic of breathing as a way of observing and deconditioning the tendency of habitual control within the mind.
You said “...I try “softening” into that control, but I don’t know if I am doing it effectively. I essentially just take a deep, slow belly breath, and on the out breath I try quietly sighing while intending to relax....”
When we learn the softening skill we initially take deep, slow belly breaths, this is like the training wheels on our bicycle. As we refine our softening skill in MIDL 5/52 this skill becomes much more subtle until the breath control is hardly perceivable at all.
All you have to do in this training is to slowly breathe out through your nose then relax and wait, whenever you notice your mind interfering with the breathing. You do not need to take deep breath in and out, just a gentle breath out, relax and wait for the brain to produce a signal to breathe in again. The breath will then draw in by itself, its experience will be different to the controlled breath. If you experience fear at the end of the out-breath then this is where you soften that fear. You do this by learning to give up the effort of the fear, the effort of the fight.
What is also interesting is that when the natural breath occurs, controlled by the brain, the diaphragm engages in that breath. This is what we see in stress breathing, the mind out of fear has taken over control of the breath, disengages the diaphragm causing anxiety to arise.
Your Question: I couldn't work out during this meditation whether I was controlling the breath or not. Can you please make more clear how to do this meditation?
Stephen Procter: The habitual control over breathing can be very subtle and difficult to discern at first. Anytime you think you may be controlling your breathing try this:
1. Breathe in gently then breathe out slowly through your nose.
2. Do not breathe in again but relax and wait - (Do not hold your breath).
3. Wait and relax and the breath will come in naturally.
4. Gently 'mentally feel' the breathing as if from a distance. The breathing will now be light, smooth, and beautiful.
5. Notice any tightening that appears within the breathing - this is your mind habitually trying to control it - relax the control.
6. If your breathing tightens then repeat this process to develop your skill.
Your Question: I'm just having trouble with relaxing enough to let go of controlling my breath. I find that when I try to let go, my breaths are very shallow and unsatisfying. I usually meditate lying down, could this be the problem? What is a natural breath like, is it like the way we breathe when we're asleep?
Stephen Procter: Breathing has a particular quality that no other meditation object has: It can be controlled intentionally - you can breathe in and out now - controlling it or when you are not controlling it, it will naturally come in and out - without your help. This is one of the reasons breathing is used as a meditation object, it is perfect for observing your desire to control things within your life that do not need to be controlled.
Your breathing - or the tightness within it - is trying to teach you how to 'let things be', how to put down control. The hard part about this is that much of the control that we apply to life - and also to the breathing - is conditioned; it is a habitual pattern of reaction. This means that it will happen without any obvious participation on your part.
In this MIDL practice we are working with these habitual patterns and deconditioning them - that is where the freedom can be found. This is not 'just about the breath' this is about observing the habitual functions of your mind as they 'reflect' within your breathing.
You asked what the 'natural breath' is like - by natural I do not mean 'how it is now' but rather how breathing is experienced when it is free from control - free from mental interference. "The 'natural breath' is slow, deep, soft and wispy like a cloud". It is beautiful, enchanting and endlessly interesting.
To work with 'control' I would like you for now to stop using guided meditations, instead sit in a quiet place and be aware of the feeling of your whole body - 'heaviness and touch'. Notice that you can feel the breath moving in and out of your body. "Can you feel any tension within the breathing?" Is your breathing shallow or deep?"
If there is tension present or your breathing is shallow then there is some sort of control within the breathing. Each time you notice this I would like you to gently breathe out though your nose and 'relax and wait' for the breath to come in naturally - 'by itself' (don't hold your breath). The breath will then draw in by itself, observe the difference of a breath without control - without resistance. Notice that during this breath your diaphragm engages. Then observe your breathing and notice every time it becomes shallow or there is tightness and 'rinse and repeat' - This is your training.
Your Question: When this week meditation instruction tells us to breath freely with no control, I have a conflicting feeling that my natural breathing is not “right” and that it should involve full movement of my diaphragm, but that involves controlling my breath, in this way I am confused. Can you help me understand?
Stephen Procter: Firstly, intentional, controlled diaphragm breathing and natural diaphragm breathing controlled by the brain are two different things. While we make the movement of the diaphragm longer when training it in order to strengthen and lengthen the movement, when the breath is controlled by the brain it will adjust the breathing rate to suit the oxygen demands. This means when you are seated in meditation, doing nothing, that the movement of your diaphragm will be short and shallow. If you were walking or running this movement will become bigger, this is how it is. If you are doing nothing it will idle, if you are active it will increase in revs like in a car. When you relax it will go to idle again.
The feeling that your natural breathing is not right and your natural breathing are two separate things. As mindfulness meditators we observe our breathing as it is now. If your breathing is short, tight and shallow, then that is how it is. If it is slow, short and gentle then this is how it is. If it is long and deep then this is how it is. This is why we meditate, to find out what is going on. This then gives you information that will allow you to make a decision to improve it.
But the feeling that your natural breathing is not right has nothing to do with the breathing, this is a fear judgement produced by your mind, a judgement based on the fear of giving up control, the fear of letting things be. MIDL 6/52 is designed to allow you to observe your minds fear of letting go of control, your fear has arisen as judgement of the breath. Ironically it could be this very judgement of the breath not being right, your habitual desire for things to be perfect, that creates the tension in the breathing in the first place.
This is the fun games we play with the mind.
You Asked: “...Hence , I don’t know what to do in this situation. I just give up and allow my natural breathing to continue....”
My Reply: Yes this is the correct thing to do when practicing MIDL 6/52, just allow your natural breathing to continue. However as mentioned above there are two skillful areas that you can investigate as a meditator:
1. Allocate a period of time to intentionally retrain your breathing patterns.
2. Observe your resistance towards your breathing not being a certain way.
You Asked: “...Also, no matter how hard I try to fully relax and give up control , breathing with my stomach always leaves me with some sort of turbulence and unrest....”
My Reply: Yes this is the anxiety arises when the mind is exposed to something that is new and out of its control. ‘Trying’ and ‘relaxing’ are two different things, we cannot try to relax, they are different directions and we also can not try to give up control for this is control. These are the paradoxes of the mind and why we become stuck within them.
In MIDL 6/52 when I say “breathe out, relax and wait” what I mean is to get out of the way, to allow whatever is going to happen to happen. This then exposes resistance and fear within the mind of abandoning control.
When we notice this resistance / control then we soften. To soften means to relax all effort, to give up the effort it takes to resist. If you feel you don't understand softening yet I recommend revisiting and refining your skill in softening, your skill in abandoning as practiced in MIDL 3 -5/52. These create a foundation for this particular training.
You Asked: “...However , when I switch to just observing my breath at the nose area I immediately feel relaxed and peaceful. Quite an extraordinary difference just by switching the area of observation....”
My Reply: Isn’t this interesting, you are able to observe the habituation of your mind. You have been observing what happens within your mind when you go against or with its habitual patterns. When you do what it wants it becomes your best friend and gives you pleasure, when you go against it tendencies it throws a tantrum and gives you unpleasant feeling to try to make you do what it wants. This is habit, this is addiction. It is so wonderful that you are observing this, this is the meditation path.
Also, what you are seeing is not confined to seated meditation, this is a snapshot of your mind in daily life. After all we aren’t doing anything special, we are just closing out eyes, breathing out and waiting for the breath to come in by itself, it isn’t complicated yet the mind makes it so out of fear.
Your Question: I started 6/52: following the natural breath. I have an observation to share. This is about the instruction to wait for the next breath to come in on its own. Please point out if I missed something or misunderstood something.
Consider these three a alternative instructions: After the end of our-breath,
1. let the breath come in habitually.
2. wait and let the breath come in when only when you become aware of the intention to breath in.
3. wait and try to resist the impulse to breath in.
Now, with this background, this is my observation: In this training of following the natural breath, you don’t mean points 1 or 3. You mean point 2. I knowingly write point 2 in slightly different language than you have used because I want to check if I understand you correctly. So, please tell if this is what you mean.
Also, I am amazed at how different your teaching is here from most of other teachers who ask just to do the point 1 above where you simply follow your habitual breath even if it is erratic and even if there is an habitual tendency to control it. As long as you are not intentionally doing it, they will be okay with your following it. Also, some teachings like TMI recommend not to alter breath in any way. But, what strikes me is that investigation of breath always alters it! So, thanks for pointing this out. Now I can give myself permission to investigate and alter my breathing. Of course, not in the active sense as in point 3 where you intentionally try to hold it and elongate the pauses but as a natural study of control and intention.
You Asked: "...2. wait and let the breath come in when only when you become aware of the intention to breath in..."
Breathing can happen in three ways:
1. Intentionally controlled by the mind.
2. Habitually controlled by the survival mind.
3. Autonomously controlled by the brain.
I use brain and mind separately to describe natural breathing. When we are not stressed or not controlling the breath the brain sends a signal that causes the diaphragm to engage automatically depending on oxygen and CO2 levels. This is automatic just like the beat of the heart.
Using the mind I can over-ride this and intentionally take a breath in and out. Or the survival part of the mind can over-ride the breathing patterns as part of the stress response.
When I refer to natural breathing I mean autonomous, diaphragm breathing, controlled by the brain. (no.2)
You Said: "...I am amazed at how different your teaching is here from most of other teachers..."
In MIDL we retrain any habitual stress breathing patterns before we even start mindfulness of breathing. In retraining diaphragmatic breathing a number of things have already happened.
1. We have turned off the stress response thereby significantly lowering the five hindrances.
2. We have created the conditions for observing autonomous breathing with makes concentration easier to develop.
3. We have already started to decondition habitual mental control.
4. We have developed a heightened sensitivity to breathing patterns and our state of mind.
5. We have developed the basis for the MIDL softening skill as away of mindfully abandoning participation.
You Said: "...Now I can give myself permission to investigate and alter my breathing..."
To observe the relationship between body and mind, develop understanding and not use it to your advantage is for me completely missing the point. Our body and mind are part of nature, they follow very specific, predictable laws. Wisdom is understanding and aligning with these laws to direct the flow. It is not a process of suppressing them but rather a process of skillfully following them to direct the flow.
Your Question: One of my struggles is trying to watch the breath from a distance. I'm not able to achieve that view. Can you please provide me with some direction on how to do that?
Stephen Procter: There are two aspects to observing our breathing in MIDL mindfulness meditation. There are the sensations of breathing that arise as it moves through our body and there is the awareness of the mind that knows the experience of those sensations. To watch the breath from a distance is to be aware of the awareness of the sensations of the breathing rather than just focusing on the breathing itself. It is a shift from focusing on the sensations of breathing to the knowing quality of awareness.
To learn to observe the awareness of your breathing it is first beneficial to train your ability to observe natural breathing, free from control. When control is present within your mind then your focus will be so intent on your breathing that the awareness that knows the experience of breathing will not be clear to you. Begin with MIDL Mindfulness Training 6 / 52: Experiencing the Natural Breath where you will learn to relax your control of your breathing.
This is done by gently breathing out through your nose, relaxing and then waiting for the breath to come in 'by itself'. You will then be able to observe natural, uncontrolled breathing without interference; relaxing any interference which appears as tension or tightness within your breathing. This training will separate the awareness of breathing from the experience of breathing and you will start to observe from a distance.
You can then move on to MIDL Mindfulness Training 7/52: Experiencing the Whole Breath. During this training you keep your awareness grounded within the experience of your body as it sits: warmth, coolness, heaviness and touch. This creates your observing platform for mindfulness of breathing. Once awareness is grounded in your body you then relax your chest and belly and allow the breathing to flow freely. While keeping awareness of your whole body as it sits you will then be able to feel the flow of breathing as it moves within the experience of your body, as if from a distance.
As your practice deepens you will start to become aware of the awareness of your body and the awareness of your breathing. This transition from the object of awareness to becoming aware of the awareness itself happens naturally with the development of mindfulness and concentration. Having a foundation to observe from, such as mindfulness of your body as developed in these above training, makes this transition easier.
Your Question: I was wondering about one comment you made in this meditation something to the effect that when my mind wanders, I should say “thinking” until the thought dissolves. Does that mean that I should stay with that thought until my mind quits with it, rather than directing my mind back to my meditation object/my breath as soon as I recognize that my mind has wandered?
Stephen Procter: To understand this it is helpful to understand the purpose of your meditation. If you are doing a concentration practice to develop tranquility then your task is to ignore anything that draws your attention away from your primary meditation object as it will interfere with the development of concentration. In the case of mindfulness meditation however, distraction is not ignored but rather is to be understood - distraction is the content of the meditation practice and where we cultivate Wisdom.
Your meditation objects primary purpose during MIDL mindfulness meditation is as a reference point, as a grounding point, from which to observe your attention move. The movement of your attention is what needs to be observed and the experience of whatever your attention moves towards - such as a thought / sound / sensation - needs to be 'tasted' for Wisdom to arise.
A label is an intentional thought that we create that has the purpose of directing our attention towards the current experience and clarifies our awareness of it. In terms of when we have been distracted by thinking using the label 'thinking' clarifies where our attention has shifted to and creates separation between the thought and the awareness. We cannot think two thoughts at once so the intentional thought (the label), cancels out the habitual unintentional thought.
Once labelled a gap will be created in the habitual thought stream and it will most likely dissolve under the awareness of your mindfulness. The most important part to observe is the impermanent and impersonal nature of your habitual thought process. Once you have observed these aspects and ‘tasted’ what it feels like now that the thought has dissolved, you can then return to your primary meditation object with your effort towards observing the next time your attention moves.
If the habitual thinking continues to draw your attention away from your primary meditation object than it is more skilful to make the restlessness of the thinking itself your meditation object. By widening your awareness, grounding it within your body and allowing your mind to run wild the restlessness can be observed and will settle when its fuel runs out. If however habitual thinking continues but does not draw your attention towards it then it is enough just to know that there is restlessness within your mind and to relax into your primary meditation object.
Your Question: I am still having a hard time following the breath without the need to control it, what should I do?
Stephen Procter: You noticing that you are controlling your breathing seemingly unintentionally is a good thing, it is a sign that your mindfulness meditation practice is progressing. This desire to control breathing is not to be gotten rid of but to be understood, it is at this point that you can train yourself to be able to observe the breath without this habitual interference.
You can train yourself in two ways:
1) When you notice habitual interference within the breathing process use your softening skills as trained earlier in MIDL Mindfulness Training 3 – 5/52 and breathe out slowly through your nose to relax your participation. After this softening out-breath you then wait for the breath to come in naturally, by itself, triggered by your brain.
At first some fear may arise that you will not breathe in. This is also ok; this is just your fear of giving up control. Relax / soften into the fear and wait again for the in-breath to draw in. This is the game we play with retraining defensive patterns within our mind. During this training we are using breathing because it reflects defensive habits of our mind, in this case the fear of giving up control. It is this fear that you are working with and this fear that makes it difficult to observe breathing free from control.
After breathing out always make sure that you are not trying to control by holding your out-breath; just relax and wait. When the breath comes in by itself it will appear as what I call the natural breath. It will be long, smooth, light and wispy - beautiful. This beautiful breath may continue for a number of breaths or it may tighten after the first, this does not matter. The breathing is doing its job; it is reflecting the state of your mind. Repeat this exercise and learn what it means to soften / relax your participation. Relax, relax, relax, this is your current path.
2) Now that your breathing is happening naturally you can observe it as it moves throughout your body and be aware of any interference that appears within it. You will also be able to notice any over effort in your watching, this will also appear as a tightening within the breathing. When you notice tightening use your skill in softening to mentally relax any effort present by releasing a slow, gentle breath out through your nose. Then again wait for the in-breath to draw in by itself. In this way you will un-train this desire to control that which doesn't need to be controlled. This is particularly targeted in the previous MIDL Mindfulness Training 6/52.
Your Question: How do I know when I have developed enough concentration to suppress the five hindrances, is this when perception of my body ceases?
Stephen Procter: The function of perception (sanna) is to recognize an experience "I know what this is". When concentration becomes one pointed the function of perception can be suppressed and the recognition of experience at the six senses ceases. Firstly it is important to understand that during MIDL mindfulness meditation it is not necessary for you to develop the level of your concentration to the stage that perception ceases. This may happen during meditation but it is not necessary.
This fading of perception however can be used as a sign to know when enough concentration has been developed in order to temporarily suppress the five hindrances to meditation. Sounds may become distant and lose meaning, your body may become comfortable with no borders and thoughts lose their attraction and meaning. This suppression through the development of concentration leads to temporary clarification of awareness in order to observe reality.
It is from this stage that you switch from developing concentration for tranquility, to pure mindfulness meditation by investigating your experience in order to develop understanding. This is done by switching from suppressing the five hindrances through fixed concentration, to allowing the hindrances to arise and your mind to wander. By observing the wandering itself and the elemental quality of any hindrances present within it, understanding of the mind in terms of the three characteristics can be developed.
Your Question: My meditation practice is currently in the doldrums, very sporadic and I feel as though I am spinning my wheels. Thank you for your response previous Stephen and the reminder that mindfulness is now. It has nothing to do with what I have or haven't done. I am aware of the breath right now.
Stephen Procter: The usual cause of the meditation practice 'spinning its wheels' is a weakness in the factors of investigation & mindfulness. Mindfulness brings the present experience to mind, free from delusion and it is investigation that makes the meditation practice endlessly interesting. While mindfulness remembers to remember, when combined with a sense of investigation it turns from the sensate experience to observing the awareness of the relationship towards it. Mindfulness meditation is all about observing relationship towards the experience rather than the actual experience itself.
While the factor of mindfulness can simply be seen as remembering to remember, as you said "I am aware of the breath right now", there needs to be much more to the meditation practice than just watching the breath come in and out, if we want to cultivate wisdom.
We can think of the function of mindfulness in different ways:
1. We remember to remember.
2. We remember to remember what we are doing now.
3. We remember to remember our experience of what we are doing now.
4. We remember to remember our relationship towards our experience of what we are doing now.
5. We remember to remember to soften into our relationship towards our experience of what we are doing now.
MIDL mindfulness meditation applies mindfulness using stage 5, it is only by applying investigation and mindfulness in this way that we can observe and decondition habitual patterns.
If we are just mindful of the breath as in "I am aware of the breath right now", we will develop one-pointed concentration, but we will not develop any understanding of the mind and its relationship towards the world. If wisdom is our goal rather than just concentration, than we will benefit more by using mindfulness of the experience of the breath as a reference point from which to observe our minds relationship towards what is being experienced.
You said: "My meditation practice is currently in the doldrums, very sporadic and I feel as though I am spinning my wheels."
Stephen Procter: From the viewpoint of developing concentration this is a hindrance, from the viewpoint of cultivating wisdom in regards to habits within your heart and mind, this is the content of your meditation practice. When this or any other relationship arises during your meditation, particularly aversion based, it is your task as a meditator to make that relationship the object of investigation and soften into your relationship towards it. This creates the path of deconditioning.
So when practicing mindfulness of breathing to cultivate wisdom we can change the way we are meditating to no. 5 in this way:
1. We remember to remember.
2. We remember to remember the breath right now.
3. We remember to remember our experience of the breath right now.
4. We remember to remember our relationship towards our experience of the breath right now.
5. We remember to remember to soften into our relationship towards our experience of the breath right now.
Your Question: A thought stream that presented in today's sit is "what is up with this mind of mine? I have the most inane and banal thoughts. I can't focus on anything for more than a few seconds before my mind goes off on some stupid tangent. I have been meditating fairly consistently for over three years I can't believe I'm not further along" and on and on. I even did 7/52 twice today. I guess if there is progress it is the knowledge that my mind is doing what it does. I don't have to identify with the narrative but still my mind really wants me to believe that I am it and it makes a pretty convincing case. I feel very "beat up" right now.
Stephen Procter: There is a difference between meditating for tranquility and meditating for Insight. When meditating for tranquility the mind will gradually become structured and orderly because of the structuring of attention. When meditating for Insight however we observe our mind in its natural state as it interacts with our six senses. The mind in its natural state, not controlled by the structure of attention is messy.
Actually, it is really messy, drifting here, floating there, discussing this, judging that. It habitually moves between our six senses as it seeks to make sense of the world around it which it fears because it knows at heart, it is out of its control. This natural messiness of the mind is also fearsome to the mind; it does not like to see its own nature, to see that it can not control itself. This is what you are experiencing in your meditation, it is a sign of development of your Satipatthana Vipassana meditation practice, not that you are going backwards.
What Should You Do?
What you are experiencing is not important, what is important during mindfulness meditation is clear comprehension; how clearly you can be aware of what you are experiencing now. Your focus should be on increasing the clarity of your awareness, not to settle your mind.
This is what it is all about, not what is happening within your mind but rather cultivating the continuity of mindfulness of it.
As you cultivate clear comprehension of what you are experiencing 'now' you will start to see three characteristics of what you are experiencing. You will start to notice that all experience is impermanent, that if you try to control or fight against it suffering will arise and that you do not own any experience.
The Buddha called this Anicca, Dukkha and Anatta; impermanence, suffering and not-self, he said that this is the characteristic of all experience within the realm of the six senses.
Was he correct?
Your Question: I don't understand the connection between the training in the Satipatthana Sutta in regards to the breath length and this MIDL Training. In the Satipatthana Sutta it says to be mindful if the breath is long or short but it doesn't say anything about the beginning, middle and end of each breath.
From the Satipatthana Sutta
1. "Always mindful they breathe in; mindful they breathe out".
2. "Breathing in long, they know 'I am breathing in long' or breathing out long, they know 'I am breathing out long'. Breathing in short, they know 'I am breathing in short' or .............etc."
The transition towards knowing the length of the breath is the second stage in developing fixed concentration in order to temporarily suppress the grip of the five hindrances within the mind. This has two functions to it:
a) The length of the breath reflects the state of the mind. If the mind is stressed the breathing will be 'short' and shallow. If the mind is relaxed the breathing will be 'long' and deep. The length of the breath will change as the state of mind changes. The meditator in this way can be aware of what calming is needed within the mind by observing the breaths length.
b. To observe the length of the breath we also need to be able to observe it over a perceived period of time. We move from observing one in-breath and one out-breath as in MIDL Mindfulness Training 7/52 to observing the full length of the in-breath and the full length of the out-breath in MIDL Mindfulness Training 8/52. This refers to no. 1 and no. 2 in the above section from the Satipatthana Sutta.
To make this transition in our attention we move awareness from observing the middle of each breath as it draws in and out to observing the beginning of each breath as it arises. When we are aware of the beginning of each breath we then naturally become aware of its middle and its end; we become aware of the full length of each breath. In this way we move from having one ‘noticing’ per breath to many ‘noticings’ along the length of each breath. Literally we now rub awareness along the length of each breath. This is necessary to develop the accuracy and depth of one-pointed concentration.
Your Question: Could you please explain this meditation training and how it connects to the previous one. Also does this relate to the breathing section in the Satipatthana Sutta? My mind also tends to wander during this meditation.
Stephen Procter: During MIDL Mindfulness Training 8/52 we develop the skill of moving from basic mindfulness of in & out breathing in MIDL Mindfulness Training 7/52 to more detailed mindfulness of the beginning, middle and end of each breath. This training is the intentional applying of awareness to the full length of each breath in order to develop initial one-pointed concentration and sensitivity to the elemental quality of breathing.
This MIDL training refers to the transition between two trainings in the Satipatthana Sutta:
1. "Always mindful, they breathe in; mindful they breathe out"
2. "Breathing in long, they know, 'I am breathing in long'; or breathing out long, they know, 'I am breathing out long.' Or breathing in short, they know, 'I am breathing in short'; or breathing out short, they know, 'I am breathing out short'”
When practicing Satipatthana training no. 1 (MIDL 7/52), we first establish and ground awareness within the sensate quality of our body; this becomes our viewing platform for Mindfulness of Breathing. We then relax our chest and belly and allow the breathing to flow naturally within our body, holding a relaxed awareness of the experience of the movement of the breath within it. At this stage we do not place the breath anywhere or try to look at it closely, it is enough to keep the movement of sensations of the breath within the centre of our body in mind and observe any wandering of attention away from them.
When we transition to Satipatthana training no. 2 (MIDL 8/52), we change the way that we perceive breathing by turning our awareness to the beginning of each breath. Observing the beginning of each breath naturally makes us aware of the full length of each breath. We then keep awareness of the experience of breath in mind along its full length. From the viewing platform of awareness immersed within our body we observe the breaths beginning, middle and end just by increasing the continuity of our awareness with no need to follow the breath.
In regards to wandering:
The wanderings of your attention away from the grounding within your body are normal; this is what the mind does. As a survival response its task is to move between your six senses to make sense of the world. Your training in MIDL is not to stop your mind from wandering but to develop the skill of observing when it wanders; learn to stay on the wild horses back. Within this training of continuous awareness of the length of each breath and observing when your attention wanders, you are strengthening the three mental factors of Investigation, Mindfulness and Concentration in preparation for Mindfulness in Daily Life. With practice your ability to notice the wandering of your mind will sharpen and the amount of time you become lost within it will become less.
Your Question: Should we anchor our attention in the heaviness & touch of our body and watch the breath loosely during this meditation at the nose>chest>belly, or should the breathing be our main focus as it moves nose > chest > belly with no attention given to the heaviness and touch of our body?
Stephen Procter: During this meditation training there is no need to place your breathing in any particular location. Even though the experience of the breathing may appear to be moving from your nose > chest > belly do not intentionally make your awareness follow the breath.
Instead create a foundation of awareness of your body as it sits. From this foundation of awareness of your body you will become aware of the flow of sensations of breathing within it. There is no need to look closely at these sensations, wherever the experience of breathing is most clear to you at this time is correct. How the breathing appears may change from day to day – from meditation to meditation, this is just as it should be. Sometimes your mind will focus in on the breath at your nose or belly and other times breathing will be a column of sensations within your body.
How the experience of breathing appears is not important, this experience is just being used to train your attention and to observe your mind. What is important is the continuity of the awareness of this experience and the continued mindfulness that remembers this awareness. This is what is being cultivated.
Your Question: Is this correct? Natural breath: However your breathing is now. Controlled breath: Breathing that changes every time we bring our attention towards it. How do I know how my breathing is "now" without bringing my attention to it?
Stephen Procter: Breathing that is controlled by the mind has a very specific experience to it verses breathing that is happening naturally free from control. Becoming sensitive to the difference will happen naturally as your meditation practice deepens through developing of your mindfulness and concentration. We are practicing different mindfulness exercises in MIDL that will encourage this to happen, you do not need bee too concerned with this at this time but rather just focus on developing the continuity of your mindfulness and relaxation of your mind and body. You do not need at this stage to be over-attentive to your breathing, however it appears to you is perfectly ok.
When practicing mindfulness meditation we are not cultivating our breathing to be a certain way but rather cultivating the clarity and stability of our awareness of it. Breathing is just being used as a tool so that we can become more clearly aware of what we are experiencing. Just be aware of your body sitting there, the flow of breath within your body and any time your attention moves away from it. This is all. Everything will become clear to you as a natural progression of the meditation practice, there is nothing you need to do other then put your effort into remembering to remember what you are experiencing now.
Your Question: When you talk about the breath (length, beginning, end, awareness in the body etc) I have to bring my attention to it to notice it. So then, to me. going by your definition, it becomes controlled, this doesn't make sense.
Stephen Procter: By paying attention to certain aspects of the breath we are not controlling it, what we are controlling is our attention.
A teacher once gave an example:
You are sitting in a hotel room looking out a window at cars passing by on a one way road. Looking straight out you see a car, then another car, then another car. If you change where you are looking to the left you will see a car appear, another appear and then another appear. If you change where you are looking to the right you will see a car disappear, then a car disappear, then another disappear.
What you see and how you see it depends of where your attention sits.
We turn our attention from the middle of each breath to its beginning because it make us more aware of the full length of the breath, the experience of it from the moment it begins to when it ends.
Your Question:I often feel like a fake meditator because my mind frequently wanders, even after establishing a day practice for over a year. I notice the wandering and go back to my intended focus, but I don't acknowledge the thinking "gently". I just change the channel back so to speak back to the breath. Is this right?
There are two ways of practicing:
1. You can focus on one meditation object and ignore all distractions in order to develop one-pointed concentration. In this way distraction is your enemy and is suppressed through developing one-pointedness of attention.
2. Or you can focus on one meditation object and when your attention moves you acknowledge the distraction and use it to develop the skill of observing your attention move to cultivate wisdom. In this way distraction is your friend as it provides the content of your meditation practice.
MIDL mindfulness meditation takes the second approach since it is concerned within cultivating wisdom. When practicing mindfulness meditation it is helpful to understand that your task is not to stop your mind from moving but rather to develop the skill of observing it move. This is why you are giving different meditation objects, so that you can develop your skill in observing any movements of your attention.
The first thing to accept:
The mind does move, it does wander; this is the way it is. The heart beats and the mind thinks, wandering of your mind is an autonomous function, what you are experiencing in meditation is normal. It is the judgement that it shouldn't be this way that is stopping your meditation from deepening, it is this judgement and idea of what meditation should be that makes you feel like a fake meditator. The thought that "my meditation should be peaceful", "my mind should be quiet in meditation", it is these thoughts that cause the restlessness and pain, not what is actually happening. Whatever you are experiencing during meditation is correct, it is all as it should be, how could it be any other way?
Your task during mindfulness meditation is not to stop your mind from thinking, judging, liking, disliking etc, it is to develop the ability to observe these flows of events within your mind, its changing nature. The first step in this is to take one meditation object and place effort into noticing every time your attention shifts away from it to strengthen initial mindfulness. MIDL Mindfulness Training 1/52 is focused on this. When developing your skill in observing your attention move take care to also observe any background resistance towards the wanderings of your attention; softening your relationship towards this resistance.
Your Question: Why is it that some days, ie today, I just cannot settle the mind.... all over the shop?
Stephen Procter: Because this is the nature of the mind, it is a flow of changing events just like the weather. It is trying to teach you "I am a flow of nature and follow my own patterns", "you cannot control me and do not own me", "if you try to control me or think that you own me you will suffer".
Your mind is trying to tell you this all the time. Will you listen?
Your Question: I am confused about why we develop concentration on our breathing then start looking at different parts of our breath. Doesn't this disturb the development of concentration in meditation? I was feeling really tranquil and now it feels like my concentration is going away. Why don't we continue to concentrate on our breathing?
Stephen Procter: The transition you have observed is a necessary one if we wish to practice pure mindfulness meditation. The purpose of mindfulness of breathing in MIDL 7 - 8/52 is to develop enough concentration to settle the Five Hindrances and to bring steadiness and clarity to our awareness. This is done by keeping one object gently in mind, in this case the in and out-breath, to develop one-pointed concentration (unification of awareness). This unification, commonly known as concentration, is necessary if we wish to develop understanding about ourself because of the unification of the mental factors it develops. It is important to understand however, if we wish to practice pure mindfulness meditation, that this unification has a tipping point.
As one-pointed concentration develops and awareness unifies then awareness of our six senses also starts to fade until our focus is only on our meditation object and nothing else, in this case the experience of breathing. This can be likened to absorbing into a movie in a picture theatre and not being aware of people around you until a sound draws you back out. The movie becomes your only reality for this time. This unification of awareness is very pleasurable because of the seclusion of mind from the Five Hindrances and sensory experience, but it does not however develop understanding of the habitual tendencies embedded within our heart/mind.
How Much Concentration?
The question now arises for the practitioner of mindfulness meditation: "How much concentration is necessary to cultivate Wisdom?" This then gives rise to the question: "Where is Wisdom cultivated?"
Wisdom in MIDL is cultivated through developing understanding of ourselves by observing the deeply ingrained habitual patterns within our mind as it interacts with experiences that arise within the field of our six senses. Since the development of one-pointed concentration fades our experience of the six senses, then the level of this fading tells us how much concentration is needed to self-observe habitual patterns of heart and mind.
In this way we can observe this 'tipping point' that defines two distinct paths: The path of tranquillity and the path of Insight. If we continue to develop one-pointed concentration we will enter the path of tranquility as sensitivity to the six senses shuts down. If we wish to follow the path of Insight it is necessary to increase, not lower, our awareness of our six senses. This is why in MIDL when we observe the fading of the six senses we change the way that we perceive breathing from 'in and out-breaths' (MIDL 7 - 8/52), to the experience of our whole body as it breathes (MIDL 9 - 11/52).
About This Training
This MIDL Mindfulness Training 9/52: Deepening the Whole Breath moves from the concept of breathing moving 'in' on the in-breath and 'out' on the out-breath to experiencing how our body 'responds to breathing'. We do this by becoming aware of all the phases of breathing from the tip of our nose, to the expansion of our ribs and deep down into our belly until this transfers to the experience of our body expanding and contracting with each breath.
This is the actual experience of breathing which is the sensations that appear in our body as it expands out-ward on the in-breath and in-ward on the out-breath. Swapping our perception of the experience of breathing at this stage, from mindfully breathing in and out in MIDL Mindfulness Training 7 & 8/52, to the expansion and contraction of our whole body as it breathes, MIDL 9 - 10/52, grounds awareness within the sensations of the body and dissolves all identification and boundaries. This then leads into the next stage in MIDL 11/52 of opening to all experience that arises within the field of the six senses on the expanding in-breath and Softening into all our relationship towards that experience with the contracting out-breath. In this way it can be considered the path of pure mindfulness meditation.
Your Question: I have been meditating for Jhana for many years and was recommended to follow with your MIDL group on Insight Timer this year as a way of enhancing my investigation skills. It has been interesting so far but some questions have come up. Does it matter that I practice a different type of meditation?
In MIDL do you meditate for jhana at all? I have seen you giving different meditation instructions to different people, this seems to be a bit confusing to me, could you explain? I also want to thank you for softening, it has been helpful for my meditation practice.
Your Question: "...Does it matter that I practice a different type of meditation?.."
My Reply: The first thing to understand is that it is not necessary to change from your original meditation technique to practice MIDL. While MIDL contains its own structure that can be used it is not limited to one base technique. MIDL is a way of self observation based on three pillars of attention, softening and stillness, these in themselves have no shape or form and can together be absorbed into any technique. MIDL is formless and smoothly integrates with and enhances any Wisdom based method of meditation.
Your Question: "...I have seen you giving different meditation instructions to different people, this seems to be a bit confusing to me, could you explain?..."
My Reply: MIDL is based on the Satipatthana Sutta and in its essence is formless in its structure. Because MIDL is concerned with meditating within daily life it contains different paths of entry based on the natural tendencies and life situation of each individual meditator.
Meditators with Natural Samadhi
For MIDL meditators with little disturbance within their life, the ability to meditate for long periods and natural tendency towards samadhi (concentration) the path of developing jhana first, insight second is available.
Follow MIDL Mindfulness Training to MIDL 7 & 8/52. At MIDL 8/52 when observing the length of each breath turn awareness away from the ending of the breath and join the in-breath and out-breath as one. If you observe the arising and ceasing of each breath, as in mindfulness meditation, the mind will become disturbed as its perception of impermanence develops. Instead your task is to perceive the characteristic of permanence, steadiness, continuity; pleasure within the breath itself. By joining the breaths as one and perceiving them as one breath, pleasure will arise and with gentle awareness and continuity of mindfulness, Samadhi (concentration) will develop to the level of access concentration.
From this point when the Nimitta arises you can develop it and enter Jhana, mastering your skill up to the fourth Jhana. Once mastered as you emerge from the forth Jhana, use the equanimity within the mind to observe the dissolution of the Jhana factors and the arising of the interaction of the mind with the six sense fields. From this basis, after emerging from Jhana, you can use MIDL Mindfulness Trainings 13 - 50/52 to cultivate Wisdom.
Meditators with Busy Lives
When meditating in daily life it is more difficult for the meditator to separate themselves from the disturbance of the Five Hindrances to Meditation: attraction, aversion, mental sluggishness, restlessness and doubt. These are the normal characteristics of living a non-monastic life. This being so the initial develop of Jhana is difficult for someone raising children, working to earn money and involved in normal day to day social interactions. For this lifestyle all Five Hindrances are rampant and will disturb a meditators ability to develop Jhana within daily life.
Since the Five Hindrances to Meditation are part of daily life, the meditator wishing to follow the practice of Satipatthana Vipassana (mindfulness meditation) has little choice if they wish to deepen their practice then to take the Five Hindrances to Meditation as their meditation object in a way that will weaken them within their mind. This is the path of pure MIDL, turning the Five Hindrances to Meditation into their meditation object so that they become the Five Characteristics of Distraction. MIDL Mindfulness Trainings 1 - 52/52 provide a gradual training that develops the ability to mindfully observe and decondition the Five Hindrances from the mind. This is a gradual yet very effective approach that develops a mind that can, if the meditator wishes, cultivate Jhana within daily life without the disturbance of the Five Hindrances and from a basis of equanimity.
To do this the MIDL meditator at MIDL 8/52 only develops enough concentration to temporarily settle the Five Hindrances within the mind, they then turn towards development of the perception of the whole body as it responds to breathing. As it expands on the in-breath and deflates on the out-breath. This swaps the development of concentration to momentary concentration, increasing awareness of the minds interaction with the six sense fields: sight, sound, smell, taste, touch and mind; developing the skill of softening into any participation of the mind with them.
The meditator then cycles through the 52 trainings, using these trainings as a way of developing meditation skill but also to challenge the mind, to cause the Five Hindrances to arise in the disguise of deeply embedded habitual tendencies. Softening into attraction towards these habitual patterns and deconditioning them through mindful non-participation until they are feint memories within the mind.
Meditators with Anxiety
Anxiety is often considered a hindrance to meditation because of the strong aversion within the meditators mind it is difficult for the meditator to develop concentration and find the motivation to practice. In MIDL anxiety is not seen as a hindrance but rather another doorway through which to begin Satipatthana practice.
To use anxiety as a meditation object the meditator needs to enter through the Softening door in order to disarm the defensive aspects of the anxious mind. The first step is to recondition habitual stress breathing patterns to diaphragmatic breathing for three reasons:
1. To lower the dominance of the Five Hindrances through turning off the habitual stress response.
2. To develop sensitivity to changes of breathing patterns that give rise to anxiety.
3. To create gaps in habitual anxiety cycles through mindful non-participation.
Mindfully working with habitual anxious patterns in this way not only leads to a lowering of the experience of anxiety but it also fulfills the Four Satipatthana's: Mindfulness of body. feeling tone, mind and conditioned processes. Once habitual anxious patterns have been deconditioned the meditator can then naturally transfer to mindfulness of breathing with the mental qualities of investigation, mindfulness and momentary concentration already developed within their mind.
Your Question: "...In MIDL do you meditate for jhana at all?..."
My Reply: As mentioned above, meditation for Jhana is an optional path in the mindfulness of breathing section in MIDL depending on the natural tendencies of the meditator. For most people meditating in daily life, meditating for Jhana is not practical while the Five Hindrances to Meditation remain a dominant part of their life.
This being the case most MIDL meditators benefit from doing pure Satipatthana Vipassana first in order to decondition the tendencies within their mind towards the Five Hindrances. Through developing the Three MIDL Pillars: Flexible Attention, Softening Into and Allowing Stillness the meditator has the ability to mindfully observe habitual tendencies as they arise, to soften into participation with these tendencies, to abandon participation so that the mind sinks into Stillness.
This appears as a natural 'fading' of the intensity, duration and attraction of habitual patterns gradually leading to their non-arising. Once the meditators defensive patterns have faded then they move onto cultivating wholesome qualities of mind such as Metta or Samatha Bhavana for Jhana.
This pattern of development was given by the Buddha in the Noble Eightfold Path as:
Samatha Jhana sits in the cultivating and establishing section within MIDL for the practical reason that to cultivate and establish wholesome qualities before abandoning and guarding to decondition the hindrances, leads to a covering up of the hindrances and difficulty in uprooting deeply embedded habitual patterns.
Your Question: As you guide us to breathe into the body, this is really interesting because my body seems to have blurred into the surroundings at this point. Should I be trying to find and stay within the edges of my body with the breath?
Stephen Procter: Allow the perceptional borders of your body to fade away, also allow the idea "I am breathing in, I am breathing out" to fade away. Stay with and develop the perception of expansion and contraction without borders. Widen the awareness beyond your body and be aware of all six senses, allowing the sense input to 'come into you'. Seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching, mind (thoughts, memories) to arise and cease as part of the experience of expansion and contraction. Soften your relationship towards what you are experiencing. Be open to everything.
Your Question: I enjoyed the section "softening into the hearts centre" but my logical and reasoning mind prevents me from feeling and experiencing the expanding of breath in the whole of my body(doubt in the teacher arises). What should I do?
Stephen Procter: First, observe the experience of doubt, it is now your meditation object. Notice what it feels like to have doubt within your mind, how unpleasant it is, also notice if you can feel any resistance within your body reflecting this doubt. Gently soften / relax this feeling of doubt, relax the effort behind it.
Breathing can be experienced in two ways:
1. As the conceptual breath moving into the body on the in-breath and moving out of the body on the out-breath. This in and out breathing is has location: nose --> throat --> chest --> belly and back out again. this is called the conceptual breath because it is how we think of breathing occurring. We think of it as coming in and out.
2. As the non-conceptual experience of breathing, this is how breathing is experienced within our body. If we widen our awareness to our whole body as it sits, we may start to notice that as the breath comes in we can experience our body fill and expand outwards. As the breath goes out, we can experience our body deflate and relax inwards. This expansion and deflation of the body is not based on respiration but rather our experience of breathing.
Take a seated posture and gently become aware of the movement of the breath in the centre of your body. The breath flows in and then it flows out. Once relaxed, widen your awareness to your whole body and start to observe how your body 'responds' to breathing. It can be helpful to bring your awareness first to your shoulders, chest and upper back. You can take a big breath in and notice as your chest fills it has an expanding outwards feeling. Notice as your breath goes out your shoulders, chest and upper back drop as your body deflates. then allow it to happen naturally and experience the gentle movement of your body as it breathes.
This expansion and deflation is natural and is happening throughout the day, what changes the way we experience the breathing is the concept that breathing moves in and out, instead of the experienced reality that the body moves out and in.
Your Question: I have some trouble breathing into my extremities, but I have a whole week to work on this.
Stephen Procter: There is no need to breathe into your extremities. During this exercises we are not trying to breathe into all parts of our body but rather developing awareness of the breath as it is naturally experienced throughout our whole body. However breathing appears to you if exactly how it should be, your task is just to cultivate the awareness of it.
Your Question: Another challenging one. I do feel a bit light headed at the end though, but perhaps I just need to keep practicing relaxing into the breathing pattern. Do you have any suggestions?
Stephen Procter: Are you controlling your breathing or allowing it to happen naturally?
During this training there should be no control of your breathing. Just be aware of the complete breath as it comes in and out autonomously - by itself, free from control. Allowing yourself to relax with the out-breath. If you are controlling your breathing than there may be a tendency for you to over-breath and this will cause light-headedness.
Allowing your breathing to happen naturally also has another benefit. The mind and the breathing reflect each other. As the mind calms, the breathing also calms. As the breathing calms the mind also calms. Control over the breathing stops the development of calmness in both the breathing and in the mind. This is in one of the reasons why the ability to be with each breath, free from control, is so important.
Your Question: Really great but there is a little bird or something in the background that is a bit distracting. Maybe you could remove it to help me concentrate.
Stephen Procter: This little bird is your friend.
What can the sound of a little bird in the background of a guided meditation teach you about the nature of your heart and mind? What does being distracted actually mean?
Distraction only exists when we are fighting against reality. If we make the movement of attention towards the 'distraction' our meditation object then it is no longer distraction; it is an object of meditation. We could edit or re-record the guided meditation so that the bird no longer disturbs anyone, but we would be doing this out of aversion and would only enforce habitual running away from anything that we find unpleasant.
Or we could leave the bird sound in the recording and observe our minds relationship to it. Investigating how it is drawn towards the sound, how it becomes attached to peaceful feeling and agitated when something draws its away. We could then use the calming of the breath taught in this training as a vehicle to calm our mind and heart by Softening our relationship to the sound - Softening the "I don't like" "I don't want".
In this way our MIDL Mindfulness practice will deepen and our relationship to things within our daily life that we do not want to experience would also Soften. In this way peace would move from seated meditation into everything else and there would be no distraction, only the experience of life, now.
Your Question: I like the idea of opening and softening in this meditation. Could you please explain more what this means?
Stephen Procter: Your first step in this meditation is to align your awareness with the expansion and deflation of your body as it responds to breathing. This has been developed in the previous MIDL Mindfulness Trainings. Once awareness is fully aligned with the expansion and contraction of your body you can then bring in the MIDL Softening skills that you cultivated earlier and apply them in two ways:
1. Every time the breath comes in, you allow yourself to 'open' with the expansion. You 'open' yourself to whatever you are experiencing 'now'; regardless of what it is. It may be sounds, sensations, pleasant or unpleasant feelings, thoughts, memories, judgement, likes, dislikes and emotions – you open to any experience that arises at the Six Sense Doors. You 'open' your heart to it. You just sit down, align your awareness with the breath within your body, and on the opening in-breath, the expanding in-breath; you experience what there is to experience. You allow everything to just be there.
This 'opening' is a process of opening your ‘heart’. You allow yourself to experience whatever is present to you at this time; fully, without judgement. If judgement is present within your mind you also allow that to be there; you experience it fully.
2. As the breath goes out and your body contracts inwards, you 'Soften'. Relaxing along the length of the out-breath; along the length of the deflation. The breath comes in, you 'open', you 'open' to all experience, 'now'. The breath goes out you 'Soften', relaxing deeply - like following the length of a children’s slide. You simply 'Soften', relaxing deeply into your relationship to what you are experiencing 'now'.
The breath comes in, expanding, 'open'.
The breath goes out, deeply 'Soften', relaxing into your experience.
Your Question: Please help me understand what you mean by "your heart's centre". Every time you used this expression, I started ruminating about what this could mean! I don't think this was what I was supposed to do!
Stephen Procter: When you are really sad or feel hurt, that ache in your heart is your hearts centre. The hearts centre is that vulnerable place, the place that aches when we take something personally, the place that feels more like ‘me’. It is that place that we desperately seek approval of others, that we desperately try to protect form pain and that we distract ourselves in life so that we do not have to feel the ache.
This is the hearts centre in which we soften into, it is the one place that the mind does not want to go. Softening into the hearts centre is teaching the mind to live in the hearts centre instead of living within the head.
Your Question: In this session, I’m struggling to identify “the gap” because the distinction between out breath and in breath is almost indiscernible at the transition. I feel like any gap I do notice is one I’m making by consciously pausing between breaths. Suggestions welcomed.
Stephen Procter: It is important at this stage of practice to not be controlling your breathing in any way. Your breathing should be moving autonomously through your body; free from control. It is only with autonomous breathing that you will be able to experience the natural pause between the out-breath and the in-breath.
In the beginning do not try to experience the gap between the breaths but rather learn to align your awareness with the deflation of your body with the out-breath. Be aware of the out-breath all the way to the end and clarify the very moment the out-breath ends. As the end of the out-breath clarifies in this way and your accuracy and mindfulness become more stable then the gap will appear for you naturally.
And if it doesn't it doesn't really matter, what is most important is to learn the skill of softening your relationship towards whatever is happening 'now'and allowing things to be as they are. If this means not seeing the gap clearly at this time then that is ok, it is just as it is meant to be. It is with this relationship to your meditation practice that clarity will slowly open to you.
Your Question: Am I over thinking, Stephen? When you say I should focus just on the end of the breath/gap/beginning, and then just the gap, I find myself wondering where my attention should be when my breathing is on the way to and out of the gap?
Stephen Procter: Yes you are over thinking it. This particular exercise is training accuracy of attention and is dependent of the development of concentration, mindfulness and the skill of 'Softening'.
The basis for observing the 'gap' comes from the training of 'Softening' / deeply relaxing - in alignment with - the deflation of the out-breath. This draws the mind into the (emotional) 'hearts center' and is a basis for learning to 'Soften Into' responses with the breathing throughout the day.
To observe the 'gap' allow your awareness to sit on the deflation of the out-breath in the same way that your bottom would stick to a children's slide (in Australia we call it a Slippery Dip) as you go slide down it. Relax along the length of the whole out-breath and then the ending, gap, and beginning of the in-breath will become clear to you. You do not need to do anything at all just deeply relax and 'Soften' in line with the out-breath.
Your Question: I find it tough to focus just on the ending-gap-beginning and eventually just the gap without being aware of the rest of the breath, especially after developing that of the full breath for several months. Could you provide an advice for this, or am I misunderstanding the instruction for this part?
Stephen Procter: This stage of mindfulness of breathing in MIDL heads into the area where we no longer control the meditation process. The skill taught in MIDL Mindfulness Training 12/52 is not something that we do but rather a result of not doing anything at all. The ending of the out-breath - the gap - and the beginning of the in-breath only appear when all mental processes settle and Stillness begins to arise within the mind; it requires refinement.
The basis is found in two things: accuracy of awareness aligned with the deflation of the out-breath to its very end and refined MIDL Softening skill to calm all mental and physical effort. It is this calming and following the deflation of the out-breath right to the end, with no control over the breathing or expectation as to what you want to achieve that will clarify the ending of the out-breath. Any effort towards experiencing the ending - the gap- and the beginning of the next breath will increase energy levels and create agitation within your mind. The guided meditation is only created as a template, at this stage refinement in particular in the Softening and Stillness skill is needed.
This is all about abandoning effort.
If the whole of the breath remains clear to you it does not matter, just stay with the whole breath but focus on training accuracy on awareness of the complete length of the uncontrolled inflation and deflation and the Softening skill of abandoning all effort.
If this training is getting in your way then abandon it, move onto MIDL 13/52 and use the skill of being with the whole breath as your viewing platform from which you develop your skill in investigation. You do not need to master MIDL 12/52 for your practice to deepen, each of us is different and we dance with our individual skills. Some of my students are skilled in Attention, some in Softening and others in Stillness, we all have different tendencies but regardless the path will open.
Your Question: I can only experience some of the sensations that you mention during this guided meditation. How can I experience more?
Stephen Procter: During the guided meditation I may mention many different things that can be experienced, this is because guided meditations are generic in nature since they are recorded for the possible experience of many different people. If you do not experience certain sensations during your meditation then that is perfectly ok - it will not affect your meditation practice.
In MIDL mindfulness meditation whatever we are experiencing is always correct, our only task is simply to acknowledge whatever presents itself to us and soften / relax any attraction or aversion that arises within that relationship.
Your Question: What about pain or itchiness. Would you see them as the 4 elements, or something else?
Stephen Procter: Pain and itchiness are made up of a number of elemental qualities. Itchiness for example may be experienced as tightness, movement and warmth which relates to earth, air and fire element respectively. Pain may be experienced as hardness, tightness, sharpness, hot, cold, moving, vibrating, throbbing, trickling, heavy, etc and the mind observing it with resistance can be experienced as hard, tight, heavy, hot, restless, sticky etc.
All four elemental qualities can be observed in each experience and also in the mind observing them. It is just that certain qualities will make themselves more known to us due to specific conditions within the mind. Due to these conditions some qualities may appear clearly to us while comparatively some may be more subtle. It just depends where our attention is focused.
Your Question: It would be really great if you named the 4 elements properly (earth, wind, air, fire) and draw on their insight elements. As there are these elements inside the body they are outside the body as well and they are all of the some nature. No difference, no one who owns them.
Stephen Procter: The Buddha used similar names to what you have used but with the addition of water element and the combining of wind and air as one. When referring to the four experiential elemental qualities he used: Earth, Fire, Water and Air. The different elements that I have referred to during this MIDL Mindfulness Training are the way that these four elemental qualities are experienced.
While the concepts 'earth, fire, water, wind' are convenient labels for sorting the elemental qualities within a talk or book, they are not the actual experience during meditation. The experience is the sensate quality that arises through the contact of our senses. We cannot experience any elemental qualities outside the range of our body though we can infer that they exist by thinking about them. All that we can know as meditators is our own experience as the world 'touches us and this experience is dependent on contact with our senses.
In other words we cannot know the world around us we can only know it as it contacts our senses and even the experience of this contact is not the experience of the world but the elemental qualities that arise due to the touch of this contact. This is the difference between book knowledge and actual experience, experience is limited by the range of the senses.
The purpose of breaking experience into its elemental qualities while meditating is to remove the ability of the mind to habitually identify with the present experience. Giving them group names and referring to anything outside of the purity of the present experience just encourages more mental verbalization and therefore hinders the development of investigation, mindfulness and concentration.
Your Question: I cannot feel hardness or softness WITHIN my body. I can feel the hardness of the floor against my knees or the softness of the blanket beneath my hands but I don't feel it within. What is meant by this?
Stephen Procter: While it appears that we can directly experience the blanket or the floor, when we observe directly during meditation we see that it is not possible to experience them other then as sensations that arise within our body as they touch it. The experience of hardness is not the floor; it is just sensations arising within your body due to touch. The experience of softness is not the blanket; it is also just sensations arising within your body due to touch. The idea of the blanket and floor is mind created, the image of them is a perceptional overlay created by your mind to interpret the world around you through this touch.
Your bodies function is to experience the world around you through touch, and touch arises within your body as different sensations, this is one way that you sense the world. Hardness and softness arise at any point where two things contact, the pressure of that contact changes the experience between hardness and softness as they are relative to the solidity of the surfaces. The only place that you can experience this touch is within the sense field of your body.
Observe points of touch within your body during meditation such as your buttocks on the floor or chair. Become aware of the sensations at these points of touch and observe how the imaginary experience of the chair or floor fade and the sensations of pressure, hardness or softness become all that there is.
Your Question: I have been listening for a week but I can't quite understand how I can lose the perceptual boarders. I can sense (say at the hands) the qualities at the meeting point. So that is how I know that there is separateness. I can also feel the air on my skin; is that the borderline of my body and the room?
Stephen Procter: Reply: We cannot make the experience of the borders of our body disappear, it is not something that we do, it is an experience that arises when we stop trying to do. It is our conceptualizing of what we are experiencing that creates the borders of perception.
You asked: "I can also feel the air on my skin; is that the borderline of my body and the room?”
Reply: We do not feel the air on our body; the idea of air touching our skin is a mind created concept. What we feel is sensations of warmth, coolness etc that arise due to touch. Close your eyes gently now and become aware of just sitting in the room, the experience of it.
How can you actually know the room around you other then as a thought or memory? The floor touches you, but can you actually know the floor? Or can you only know pressure, hardness, softness, warmth, coolness etc? These sensations are not a border for anything; they are just sensations, just as they are.
When you can be fully intimate with the actual experience, the elemental quality of touch, as it is, then the borders themselves will no longer exist.
Your Question: Is the aim of this practice to feel the sensate qualities of hardness, softness, pressure and temperature as they occur in the moment? If so, how does this benefit our spiritual practice?
Stephen Procter: We use these elemental qualities because they are the reality from which our mind creates the world that we live within. They are the world before mind creation.
The habitual mind created world is grounded within layers of perception and concepts, based on our relationship towards past experiences, which obscure our ability to know what is reality and what is the conceptual reality created within our mind. The Buddha referred to this as delusion, literally when we are in delusion we can not know it.
We can see this delusive quality quite clearly when during meditation we suddenly realise that we have been lost within thinking for a period of time and that we had completely forgotten what we were doing - that we were meditating. This coming back to reality is the re-establishing of mindfulness. The clarity of awareness through the re-establishing of mindfulness, compared to the clarity of awareness when we were lost within the mind created world of thinking is very clear. This highlights that delusion arises whenever mindfulness collapses.
Learning to clarify our perception of the elemental qualities of experience such as hardness, softness, pressure and warmth etc, starting with our body, creates a grounding point to reality in which to establish mindfulness and from which to observe when we have fallen into habitual patterns within our mind. Increased perception of these elemental qualities also breaks down and depersonalizes experiences such as our body, likes, dislikes, emotions, thoughts and judgement by directing perception towards the experience of their elemental qualities rather than the conceptual content.
Your Question: Elsewhere you indicated thinking and awareness are separate. So in this exercise, when we stop thinking, do we continue to focus our awareness on our hands or do we let everything go blank? Letting it all go blank seems to make it easier for thoughts to arise, and perhaps makes it easier to detect them.
Stephen Procter: We keep awareness of the touch of our hands in mind but in a very gentle way. Like holding onto a rock in a flowing river just by the tips of our fingers, trying to notice the moment our fingers let go. It is the gentleness of the grip on our meditation object that is important. If we become too firmly focused on the touch of our hands then the concentration developed will suppress the thinking process and no thoughts will arise.
It is necessary to relax the grip of our awareness and allow the mind to produce thought. This allows us to use the touch of the hands to observe thinking when it occurs. Creating the intention to not think and then relaxing that intention, allowing the mind to go blank, makes it easy to observe thinking as it arises.
Your Question: This week was challenging for me. I find it very difficult to observe my attention moving. It seems as if I am just thinking and evaluating but not really observing. How can I improve this?
Stephen Procter: The difficulty in observing our attention as it moves with clarity arises because one or all of these four factors of attention below, have not been developed to a strong enough level yet. When developed they give us the skill of releasing the mind from the control of fixed concentration, allowing habitual movement to arise and 'staying on the horses back' as it were.
The ability to "stay on the horses back" as it were is based on the cultivation of four things:
Exercise: Sit down without a guided meditation playing, hold your hands gently one in the other resting in your lap. Be aware of all the sensations within your body, also be aware of the touch of your hands. Put effort towards remembering to remember to be aware of the touch of your hands. Observe whenever your attention moves from the experience of that touch.
If judgement or commentary in the form of thinking and evaluating arise use a few softening breaths to relax them and re-establish awareness within your body and touch of your hands. This is the way to strengthen the foundation of your meditation practice, treat observing your attention move like a game - make it fun - it is a game you will only get better at - you can't lose.
Your Question: I believe this is an important meditation in the series but I am not grasping your point about being aware of the movement away from touch of hands (or body sense or contact with the floor). In the meditation, I am aware of my hands touching and then I am off somewhere in a memory. I have no awareness of a transition between the two. This is my 4th time doing it. I will keep trying but the inability to sense a transition is striking to me.
Stephen Procter: You said: " I am aware of my hands touching and then I am off somewhere in a memory. I have no awareness of a transition between the two."
Reply: This is wonderful, this is exactly what you are meant to see, you are given the 'touch' to create a reference point from which you can observe your attention habitually move and most importantly the collapsing of awareness of that transition of attention. Literally you are observing a collapse of mindfulness. When mindfulness is forgotten awareness fades, when awareness fades habit takes over and your mind will habitually absorb into thinking.
Keep placing effort into observing the transition point of your attention from one experience to another. At first you will have periods of unawareness of this movement; this is not important. It is the gentle effort to notice shifts in your attention and also the acknowledging of when you have been lost within habitual thinking that is important. This effort towards noticing that your attention has wandered is what cultivates mindfulness and momentary concentration.
In this way gradually your mindfulness of these habitual shifts of your attention will strengthen and the periods in which you wander off before being aware of it will shorten. With practice you will be able to observe the very arising of thinking itself without being lost within it. Keep up the investigation, treat it like a game. Once you have learnt this skill you can apply it to all the meditation training that you do.
Your Question: Thinking kind of sneaks up on me. I only realize that I am thinking when I am already in the middle of it. To actually stop thinking is an impossible task. I do try very hard, I concentrate on my hands until they feel on fire but nevertheless I catch myself thinking again and again. Is it REALLY possible not to think? I wonder.
Stephen Procter: Yes it is possible to experience the mind free from thinking. The thinking that you are experiencing is habitual thinking. The task of habitual thinking is to verbalize our world and our place in it. It is not that you are ‘doing’ the thinking; habitual thinking is just habit talking to you. Habit try's to reinforce itself. Like everything else it wants to exist and encourages this existence. It does this by commenting on the world around you in a way that herds you in a direction that will reinforce the habitual pattern, it also produces ‘feeling’ to encourage this behaviour.
The way to break the pattern of habitual thinking is not by trying to stop it. It is by putting effort into trying to notice the moment your attention moves away from your meditation object to the thought process. The effort of noticing your attention move is how mindfulness is developed, as mindfulness strengthens your ability to catch the moment your attention moves becomes faster until you will notice the thought arise without being lost within it or forgetting your meditation object.
This is what the meditation object is for during MIDL mindfulness meditation, it is not there for you to remember but to give you a reference point to notice every time you forget it.
Your Question: I'm having difficulty noticing the point when my attention shifts. I seem to notice I'm elsewhere but not when it happened. Also, I have been very aware of my heart beat and blood flow since the first exercise. That is a constant distraction for me. Any advice?
Stephen Procter: Not being able to notice when your attention shifts is normal. I have given you a meditation object so that you will forget it, your meditation object is your reference point so that you can learn to notice when your attention moves away from it. Keep your meditation object in mind but with the intention of noticing whenever your attention shifts away from it. The very effort of trying to notice these shifts in attention and the period of unawareness during that gap, is how mindfulness is cultivated.
Practice this regularly in a soft and gentle way and your mindfulness will strengthen and the period of time of unawareness will shorten. With training, your mindfulness will catch the movement of your attention so quickly that the gap of unawareness will not exist and your continuity of mindfulness will be continuous.
In answer to your second question, the beat of your heart and blood flow is not a distraction - there are no distractions within this practice - they are just more sensations within your body. The thought "my heart beating" "my blood flowing" - that is the distraction and it is this thought process about the experience of "throbbing" "movement" "tension" "warmth" etc. that creates the story about the experience and the obsession that comes with it.
During meditation we have to be careful not to identify with any stories that our mind creates around the experience. Within this story of your heart beating there is aversion: "I should not be experiencing this." "If only this would go away then I could meditate." This is the game that the mind plays during meditation. The general rule is whenever your attention draws towards an experience during meditation practice observe and soften your relationship towards it.