new Meditation menu added to introduction page
new Meditation menu added to introduction page
1/52: Retrain Breathing
2/52: Learn How to Soften
3/52: Skill of Softening Into
4/52: Ground Your Awareness
5/52: Focus Your Awareness
MENU QUESTIONS 6 - 12
Your Question: When I started doing the "Retrain Your Breathing", in daily life I became aware of tension in my chest throughout the day. I never had this sensation before. Does that mean I am reconditioning the breath wrong?
Stephen Procter: The purpose of this training in MIDL 1 is twofold:
The tension could be occurring in your chest for a number of reasons that you should investigate. I will list them in order of most common:
You asked: One possibility could also be that I have just become aware of it, but I'm not sure if that is the case as I previously had what I think is continuous awareness, though it may be possible that breath sensations were excluded from that awareness. Though I also think I would have been aware of this tension before I started MIDL, if I had it.
My Reply: Yes you are correct. Though having continuous mindfulness of your breathing is different to what you are currently training in MIDL. In mindfulness of breathing you were developing a basis of samatha, this means that your sensitivity to the sensate quality of your whole body will have been calmed, due to the development of samadhi. In MIDL 1, you are developing no samadhi, just mindfulness and deep relaxation. In this case as you relax tension that you were holding in your body will become more clear. Like how you don’t realise how tense you are until you go on a holiday and start to slow down a bit.
You Asked: My other question is about the full breath. When we let go of directing our breathing to go "belly->ribs->chest", should our body automatically be breathing a full breath, or does it not matter how the body is breathing automatically at this point.
My Reply: In the final stage when you let go of the breathing you should allow your body to find its own rhythm and pace. At first the breathing may be erratic and quite big, but you just focus on letting go of effort and control, and the breath will naturally slow down. At the deepest level it becomes a very small movement in the abdomen bellow the belly button, like your hardly breathing. The key here is to create what I call autonomous breathing, that is breathing controlled by the brain, instead of by the mind. So it becomes a physical, rather mental breathing.
You Asked: The follow up to that is in daily life, should we set our intentions to breath a full breath, or to just let go and let breathing happen naturally (my natural breathing right now is breathing into the belly but not bringing it up into the ribs / chest). Should we always be breathing with a full breath cycle?
My Reply: This is a good question. The natural autonomous breathing when we are not stressed should be a slow gentle breath in the lower abdomen. Like a baby breathes. The only time the breath should move higher then the lower abdomen is when you increase the physical demand on your body. When you are resting it will be in your belly. When you are walking fast it may go from your belly to your lower ribs. When you are running in will go from your belly to your upper chest. When you rest it will go back to your lower abdomen. Just like an engine in a care changes its revs depending on how fats it is going.
You Asked: “...my natural breathing right now is breathing into the belly but not bringing it up into the ribs / chest...”
This is the correct sign that diaphragmatic breathing is autonomous for you. You are good to move onto MIDL 2-3 and learn the softening skill. You will find that because of your training in TMI that you will move through some of these trainings quickly, just be sensitive to your own strengths and weaknesses as they appear. I recommend learning the softening skill for dissolving resistance and deconditioning the mind. If you find that what you are experiencing does not resolve itself we can meet on zoom and work our way through it.
Your Question: I’m always trying to escape situations that cause me any physical/mental discomfort that results from anxiety, including meditation, is this normal?
Stephen Procter: Yes, this is what anxiety is designed to do. Anxiety is part of the fight / flight response and motivates behaviour through producing unpleasant feeling. This ‘running away’ that you are experiencing is a normal part of this cycle.
You Asked: The solution will be to make a commitment to persevere with meditation with the same teacher and to stop jumping around and searching for the ‘right path’.
My Reply: Yes, this is what my meditation teacher called “taking one seat”. This means to give yourself the space to be with whatever you are experiencing, without running away from it. This takes courage and I can help you with this.
You Asked: Does your form of meditation involve acceptance and learning to let go of any attempts to control emotions?
My Reply: I teach midl mindfulness meditation. You will learn mindfulness skills in how to observe how you are relating to different experiences within your life and how to soften / relax relationship towards these experiences in order to dissolve resistance. This type of meditation is very good for anxiety and these skills are what I feel you need to learn. I will explain some options after answering your questions.
You Asked: I find the harder I try to get rid of or distract myself from unwanted sensations and thoughts, the more they persist.
My Reply: Yes, this is fight or flight.
The very act of trying to escape from or fight against what you are experiencing strengthens it as a habit, by making the anxious cycle turn into a feedback loop that gradually becomes stronger. Literally you become anxious about being anxious. This does not come to an end by trying to change or avoid what you are experiencing. It only comes to an end by teaching your mind that right now is safe.
This is done by neither fighting or running.
You Asked: I figure I can’t control my feelings but I can control my behaviours so I would like to make a commitment to attend your classes on an ongoing basis.
My Reply: Yes, your feelings are being produced by the survival part of your mind as it is trying to protect you from ‘danger’. These feelings cannot be controlled or avoided (fight or flight) because the very act of control or avoidance is fight or flight and so strengthens the pattern.
You Asked: "...but I can control my behaviours...”
My Reply: Your patterns of behaviour also cannot be controlled, because this again is fight or flight. They can however be changed. Your patterns of avoidance will be habitual so it will not be a matter of making a commitment to attend regular classes, though this will be very helpful, it is more matter of creating a targeted strategy to teach the survival part of your mind that it is safe.
You are welcome to come to my meditation classes, they will be helpful for you. Classes within themselves however are generic. Although you will learn techniques to lower your experience of anxiety through practicing weekly meditation, I feel that you would benefit from a more targeted approach.
Other then teaching classes I work professionally with people experiencing anxiety and trauma. Many of my clients are referred to me from doctors and psychologists. I help clients lower their experience of anxiety through these three steps:
Week 1: Retrain stress breathing patterns
It is the habitual chest hyperventilation that causes the experience of anxiety. By retraining your breathing patterns from stress breathing to diaphragmatic breathing many of the symptoms will go away. This requires very specific meditation exercises that I can teach you.
Week 2: Interrupt the habitual stress patterns throughout the day
Our stress response over time becomes habitual. This means that you will have become hypersensitive and hyper-vigilant within your life. Your stress response will be easily triggered thereby re-enforcing itself. I will teach you mindfulness skills to interrupt this habitual stress cycle throughout the day so that it will gradually weaken and come to an end.
Week 3: Remove painful emotional charge from past memories.
Once you have learnt correct diaphragm breathing and the ability to soften / relax we can quite quickly remove the emotional charge from your painful past memories by turning off the stress response against the memory in a safe environment. This will remove the past behavioural triggers that keep embedding the anxiety cycle.
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 Dhamma-nupassana: 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? 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. Should ribs/chest be engaged in daily life or only when Softening into something?
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?
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? 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.
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: 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
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.
Development in MIDL
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 Meditation Skill 1/52 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 Meditation Skill 2/52 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 Meditation Skill 3/52 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 1 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 Meditation Skills 01. 02 and 03 are similar in that they both have a third stage of letting go of control over breathing. It is just that Meditation Skill 01 is focused more on engaging the diaphragm and 3/52 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 Meditation Skill 01 and transition it into Meditation Skill 03 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 Meditation Skill 01 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 Meditation Skill 02 we borrow that natural relaxation through abandoning in our body with each out-breath. In Meditation Skill 03 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: How will this exercise help me? Could you explain the purpose and thinking of this meditation?
Stephen Procter: Mindfulness meditation is a mental training. To deepen our meditation practice we need to train certain aspects of mind. The first three mental factors that we are training are a sense of Investigation, Mindfulness and Concentration.
During this first MIDL exercise Mindfulness is strengthened by being aware of the sensate quality within our body. This may be the heaviness, the experience of touch or any other sensation within your body. By holding these sensations in mind gently and observing every time your attention moves away from them, you are cultivating Mindfulness. Mindfulness is a translation of the Pali word Sati which literally memory or to remember.
But it is not remembering the past, its remembering the present. To train Mindfulness, to make it become strong, we need a meditation object that can be only experienced – right now. Sensations within our body, such as heaviness and touch, fulfill that purpose. The sensations within your body can only be experienced – now. Hardness, softness, heaviness, can’t be experienced in the past, and they can’t be experienced in the future. To experience them you have to pay attention to them right now.
The habitual mind has a tendency to move between the past, present and future. When it moves towards the past or future, it loses touch with reality, loses touch with the body, and loses touch with right now. So through using the sensate quality of your body, the sensations within your body as a reference point – a grounding point, you can start to train your attention. This is done by remembering those sensations. Remembering the heaviness, remembering the touch, and putting your effort into noticing every time your attention moves away from them. In particular noticing every time your attention moves off to a thought, to a fantasy, to a daydream.
Placing your effort into observing these points of change, in noticing literally, when you forget your meditation object, cultivates and strengthens Investigation and Mindfulness. And the very act of continuously remembering and coming back to your meditation object, cultivates and strengthens concentration.
Your Question: Hi Steven. Thank you and is the object to “lock on” to the various physical states to see how long we can keep the attention trained thereby or is it a more casual attention with just noticing the amount of times the attention wonders?
Stephen Procter: This practice has two stages to it.
1. Ground your awareness within bodily sensations.
To ground awareness within your body you need to apply two things during meditation:
a) Gentle effort towards continuously remembering the sensations (mindfulness), and noticing anytime that you forget to do it. During this stage you will encounter two things: forgetting what you are doing, and various thoughts and fantasies. Your main task here is to overcome the forgetting, by developing continuity in the remembering. Various thoughts arising are not a problem as long as they don't engulf your attention.
b) Gentle softening/relaxing of effort, allowing awareness to sink into and ground in these sensations. This is a matter of monitoring your effort, are you straining to hard and therefore feeding thinking and restlessness? Are you relaxing too much and loosing the clarity of your bodily sensations?
2. Relax your mental grip on your grounding point.
Once your awareness rests within your body by itself, you then intentionally relax the effort to be aware of your body sensations. This is a releasing of the grip of concentration to your bodily sensations. When this grip is released your mind will return back to its habitual attention structure, and wander. You now develop the skill of staying with the wandering of your attention, not by stopping it, but by learning to notice it. At first you will keep becoming lost within this wandering, and even forgetting that you are meditating. But as mindfulness grows you will be able to stay with the wandering itself. In this way you use habitual wandering to develop insight, in particular into anatta: its not-self, autonomous nature.
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 5/52 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: Meditation Skill 05 is the fifth mindfulness training concerned with the 'grounding of awareness. While Meditation Skill 04 grounds awareness within the sensate quality of our body, Meditation Skill 05 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 Meditation Skill 05/52 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 can't stop my mind from wandering, how can I make it stop?
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.
6/52: Overcome Forgetting
7/52: Overcome Wandering
8/52: Overcome Control
9/52: Remember Each Breath
10/52: Experience Each Breath
MENU QUESTIONS 11 - 15
Your Question: Stephen, I do have a question about forgetting. If I was successful in never forgetting, wouldn't that mean that I have uprooted all the hindrances?
Stephen Procter: Forgetting is the habitual tendency of the mind to drop objects from short term memory.
Continuous remembering (not forgetting) therefore refers to continuous mindfulness. And since mindfulness is passive, all the other patterns/hindrances in your mind still have the potential to arise as objects within your mind. And if mindfulness collapses, you still have the potential to identify with and become lost within them.
An example of this would be, thinking will still arise, and you will notice that there is thinking about the future present in your mind, but instead of becoming lost within it, you will just know it as "the mind is thinking". When mindfulness is continuous, all the hindrances will still be there (unless they have been deconditioned or uprooted), it will just mean that you will be able to observe them more clearly because you will not slip into the not-knowing, of habitual delusion.
Your Question: Ok this is becoming clearer. I often notice thoughts and other times I notice that I was lost in thought. So you are saying that I have not forgotten in the first case but have forgotten in the second? For some reason, I assumed that even having a thought meant that I was forgetting my meditation object.
Stephen Procter: There is a difference between thinking, and forgetting. Also not all thinking is a distraction.
This can be observed in three levels when practicing mindfulness of breathing:
1. You are aware of your meditation object, and also aware that your mind is thinking.
2. You are aware of your meditation object, and are also thinking about something.
3. You have lost awareness of your meditation object, and have become lost within thinking.
The only time that you have forgotten your meditation object is in scenario number 3. As long as you have your meditation object somewhere in your awareness, then you are not yet distracted and mindfulness is developing, this is because awareness has layers.
When you sit to meditate, your meditation object is brought to the foreground of your attention, your body and sounds etc. are held in the background peripheral awareness. Your mind then produces a though and you are aware of it in the background. At some stage you find the thought interesting, and it becomes thinking, which shifts to the foreground of your attention, and your meditation object shifts to the background. At this stage while attention has shifted, you have not yet forgotten your meditation object. If you do not notice it, at some stage your mind will deem the meditation object in the background, as being of no use, it will therefore discard it. All your attention now absorbs into the thinking and you have forgotten you are even meditating.
Now you are distracted. So overcoming forgetting does not stop thinking from arising, it just stops you from becoming absorbed and lost within it.
Your Question: What is the purpose of using labels in meditation, aren't they just a type of thinking?
Stephen Procter: We all are trained in using labels to clarify our perception and to direct our attention from a young age. This is the way that we communicate with each other. My name, Stephen Procter, for an example, is a label given by my parents, that was created to point attention towards me when it is used. Cup, plate, tree etc. are everyday labels used not only to communicate but also to direct our attention towards something. In this way labels (words) and their use to point our attention in a specific direction, is very natural to us.
This is the purpose of using a label in meditation, to direct and clarify the perception of what we are experiencing. it is important to first clarify that there is a difference between habitual thinking that arises within the mind, and intentional thinking. Habitual thinking tends towards self propagation and feeds on itself. It causes awareness to absorb into it leading to a collapse of mindfulness. Intentional thinking, like a label, caries no momentum and comes to an end within itself. It does not lead to absorption within the thought and therefore mindfulness of that thought can be present.
Labels when used skillfully stimulate applied and sustained attention, the act of bringing awareness to an experience and sustaining attention on it. the two primary movements of attention in meditation. Labels because of their nature, also have the benefit of clarifying perception (recognition) because of how our mind was trained at a young age.
The intentional creation of a label during meditation is different from the normal mental activity of habitual thinking because as soon as the label is used it is replaced by an increased clarity of perception, free from thought. Labels should however be considered as a tool to clarify awareness and perception. As a tool, when your skill is developed they can be abandoned for pure, mindful knowing of an experience.
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 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 skillful 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: What do you mean by labeling and why is the label repeated twice during this meditation?
Mindfulness meditation is concerned with training our attention to increase the clarity of our awareness so that we can observe reality and develop wisdom. One of the first things that the meditator discovers when they sit down to meditate is how habitual their mind is in producing distractions that draw their attention away from their object of meditation. In order to train our attention we need to place effort towards remembering our object of meditation and noticing whenever our attention moves away from it, to do this we need a way of acknowledging the habitual mind. Labeling provides a means through which to do this.
A label is a simple, silent word produced to acknowledge our current experience; where the centre of our awareness currently sits. When we are aware of our body as it sits we may silently say “sitting, sitting". As we become aware of the experience of breathing within our body we may silently say “in, in”, with the in-breath and “out, out”, with the out-breath to help train our attention. The label is a pointer which is saying: ‘This is what I am looking at’.
When our attention is drawn to a sound we may silently say “hearing, hearing”, an itch, “itching, itching” etc. Whenever we notice that we have become lost within a thought for example we may say “thinking, thinking” to withdraw our awareness from it. Using labels separates awareness from becoming habitually immersed and lost within the experience, providing a sense of space around it.
During the meditation we use the label twice such as "thinking, thinking" or "itching, itching" or "hearing, hearing" etc because of the two ways that it affects attention:
1. If our mindfulness is sustained and we are present with the experience of our meditation object such as mindfulness of breathing, then labeling is used to enhance what the Buddha called vitakka-vicara: the applying and sustaining of our attention in order to develop mindfulness and concentration. Applied Attention is the continued intentional turning of awareness towards an object of meditation and Sustained Attention it is the rubbing of awareness on the experience of the object of meditation until awareness sustains on it. This is the process used during meditation of reapplying awareness to the experience of the object of meditation in order to develop mindfulness and concentration. The first label therefore applies awareness towards the experience the second label rubs awareness against it such as “sitting, sitting” or “in, in”.
2. If however we become lost within a sense experience, most commonly known as a distraction, we acknowledge this by using silent labels. The first label when we notice that we have become lost within thinking for example may be “thinking”. This will withdraw our awareness from the thought, we then straight away say thinking again like this: “thinking, thinking”, the second label then directs our awareness towards the experience of thinking itself, clarifying perception of it in order to develop understanding.
Your Question: How should we investigate restlessness? I observed and labelled my mind as restless for about 10 minute but nothing changed. Is it a way (like touch point exercise) to reduce restlessness?
Stephen Procter: You asked: "How should we investigate restlessness?"
Reply: By observing the experience of being restless and your relationship towards it.
You asked: "I observed and labelled my mind as restless for about 10 minute but nothing changed."
Reply: Why should the restlessness change, it is just doing what it is supposed to be doing. If you are using labeling to bring restlessness to an end than you will create more restlessness. Your desire for the restlessness to go is the food that the restlessness is feeding on.
You asked: "Is it a way (like touch point exercise) to reduce restlessness?"
Reply: Labeling is not a way of reducing restlessness, it is an attention training method of clarifying where the centre of our awareness is sitting. Literally "I am aware of this ....", the label itself is just a pointer towards the experience. Restlessness does not come to an end by labeling it or by trying to escape from it. It comes to an end when you stop fighting against your experience of now; when you embrace your experience of restlessness.
How to Lower Restlessness
Restlessness is an excess of mental effort, usually arising through over-stimulation or over-effort. Avoid using touch points to settle restlessness because touch points increase, not decrease mental energy. Instead to settle restlessness you should expand your awareness, experience sounds far away. give your restless mind space to run, dilute the energy with wide awareness. open your awareness to the whole world, then do nothing at all. Allow your mind to burn the energy, to settle down. This can be aided with a few softening breaths.
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 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: 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 8/52 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 Meditation Skill 08 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 1 -3/52. 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 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 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.
When you notice habitual interference within the breathing process, simply breathe out slowly through your nose to relax your participation. After this softening out-breath, wait for the breath to come back in naturally, by itself, triggered by your brain. At first some fear may arise that you will not breathe in. This is also ok; it is just fear of giving up control. Relax / soften into the fear by breathing out slowly through your nose, and wait again for the breath to draw back in by itself. This is the game you play when retraining defensive patterns within your mind.
After breathing out, always make sure that you are not trying to control iy 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 desire to control. Relax, relax, relax, this is your current path.
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 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 quite messy.
Actually, it is really messy, drifting here, floating there, discussing this, judging that. 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, not that you are going backwards.
What Should You Do?
What you are experiencing is not important, what is important 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 in 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. Can you help me understand?
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' etc."
The transition towards knowing the length of each breath, from in and out breathing, is the second stage in developing samadhi 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 present 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 changes as the state of mind changes. The meditator in this way, can be aware of what calming is needed by observing the breaths length.
b. To observe the length of each 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 Meditation Skill 09, to observing the full length of the in-breath and the full length of the out-breath in Meditation Skill 10. 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 very 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 ‘noticing's’ 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 samadhi (unification).
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, 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 you will become aware of the flow of breathing within it. There is no need to look closely at it, 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 awareness of this experience, and continued mindfulness that remembers this to do it. This is what is being cultivated.
11/52: Experience Sensation
12/52: Stabilise Your Attention
13/52: Unify Your Attention
14/52: Calming the Senses
15/52: Standing Meditation
Your Question: Why is it that some days, ie: today, that I just cannot settle the mind.... it is all over the shop?
Stephen Procter: This is a natural part of meditating in daily life. Samadhi requires very specific conditions to develop. The main one being the meditator must give up all interest in extracting pleasure from the sensory world. While this condition can be met, it is very difficult for people living a household life. This is the purpose of meditation retreats and monasteries, they create the conditions necessary for the development of samadhi (unification). If you have a life with work, children, drama, then these conditions are inappropriate and you will go through periods of samadhi developing, and samadhi collapsing. When meditating in daily life we need to learn to ride these waves.
How to Practice:
When your attention is stable, then focus on developing samatha to access concentration by following the guidance in Meditation Skills 09-13. The samatha path will help to weaken habitual tendencies within your mind, and train your mind to not longer incline towards sensory simulation. When your attention collapses, which it will, use these as opportunities to develop insight. Observe the hindrances as they arise within your mind, observe how they block the development of samadhi, and decondition them by gently softening your relationship towards them.
Because it is the nature of the mind to be disturbed by the stimulation of daily life, it is better to perceive it as being a flow of changing events, just like the weather. The mind responds to present conditions, and it does this through deeply entrenched habitual patterns. It is these habitual patterns that you are working with as a meditator, so when they arise you should rejoice. Understanding this you can change these conditions, by a lowering the stimulation within your life. This means from drama, and being sensitive to the morality of how you live. These are opportunities for you to develop wisdom, and also to decondition these patterns.
As an insight meditator it is important to see these collapses of attention as opportunities. Your mind 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 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. It is part of my role to offer the path that will give most benefit. Below I will explain two different options in regards to meditative paths depending on your life situation.
Meditators with Natural Samadhi and Quiet Life
Samatha first, Insight second
For MIDL meditators with little disturbance within their life, the ability to meditate for long periods (3+ hours per day), and natural tendency towards samadhi, the path of developing Samatha first, Insight second, is available.
Once they have mastered the fourth sukha-vedana jhana: Meditation Skills 01-14, on emerging, they use the equanimity still present to observe the dissolution of the jhana factors, and the rearising of the interaction of the mind with the six sense fields. From this basis, very specific investigations for insight can be used, with instructions found in Meditation Skills 17-27.
Once insight has been developed and habitual tendencies revealed, the meditator should then develop skills to intentionally decondition unwholesome/unskillful tendencies, by developing higher level skill in softening: Meditation Skills 28-38. The meditator then can sit in meditation, and intentionally turn their mind towards these tendencies, such as painful memories or longing, and decondition these patterns from their mind. This includes exposing themselves to situations in daily life that they are uncomfortable with (within the boundaries of morality) to trigger defensive tendencies so that they too can be removed.
The meditator should then bring these defensive tendencies to an end, by cultivating wholesome/skillful tendencies that they have revealed as being weak in them: Meditation Skills 39-43. This also includes embedding wholesome/skillful tendencies, by following intentions towards the wholesome/skillful, within their daily life. This is part of the final unrooting process, and a necessary to instill the harmonising function of sila.
Once the tendencies are weak within them, then they should focus of nirvikalpa samadhi as their main practice, in regards to disentangling awareness from the six sensory fields: Meditation Skills 44-52. Developing higher levels of nirvikalap samadhi, until at will, they can disentangle awareness from itself, to bring cessation to all sensory fields. This whole process is done through gradual relaxing of all sensory engagement, until this tendency for awareness to engage, ceases.
Meditators with Busy Lives that Cannot be Avoided
Insight first, Samatha second
For MIDL meditators with busy lives, such as work, children, and activities, with an inability to sit for long periods of meditation (3hrs+), the development of samadhi is difficult. Generally, for the householder entangled in life, seated meditation periods are short, (1hr or less), which is not enough time to completely settle the hindrances. This in itself creates an erratic development of samadhi, due to the hindrances being pre-stirred up throughout the day. The meditator leading a busy life, therefore will experience periods when samadhi develops progressively, and other periods when there is a complete collapse of their attention for up to 1-2 weeks. For them, the path of Insight first, Samatha second, is available. The structure for this is found in: Meditation Skills 1-13, introducing mindfulness of breathing and the development of samatha to access concentration. The emphasis on this path however, is not mastering access concentration and developing jhana, it is on working with the hindrances as they arise, and deconditioning them from the mind.
How to meditate with the hindrances
On this daily life path, since the hindrances are dominant, and samadhi goes through cycles of progression and collapse, the hindrances and their arising creates a path of meditation for insight. This path is possible because of the predictable nature of the hindrances and their arising, when developing access concentration.
Each time we sit in meditation with the intention to develop access concentration, the potential for all hindrances within our mind that have not yet been uprooted to arise, is always there. If the conditions are right, they will arise. Understanding the path based on the arising of hindrances, to no hindrances, is the key. These hindrances arise, and are calmed/suppressed, dependent on the level of samadhi present.
Since the development of unification of attention suppresses the hindrances, in sequential order from gross to subtle, it can be tracked accurately to reflect the samadhi present. And because each stage of samadhi has its own hindrances, tracking the hindrances present allows accurate tracking of both the level of unification, and the depth of insight. The reason it reflects the depth of insight, is because as insight is developed, these hindrances from gross to subtle, are uprooted from the mind.
Once the hindrances have been weakened, and the meditator can reach access concentration, they then go onto intentionally developing insight in: Meditation Skills 17-27, in the same way as the meditators practicing jhana. Instead, they develop and stabilise attention to the level of access concentration, before turning to developing insight.
Once insight has been developed and habitual tendencies revealed, the meditator should then develop skills to intentionally decondition unwholesome/unskillful tendencies, by developing higher level skill in softening: Meditation Skills 28-38. The meditator then can sit in meditation, and intentionally turn their mind towards these tendencies, such as painful memories or longing, and decondition these patterns from their mind. This includes exposing themselves to situations in daily life that they are uncomfortable with (within the boundaries of morality) to trigger defensive tendencies so that they too can be removed.
At this stage the hindrances are so weak in the meditator, that they can return to developing the four sukha-vedana jhana, as in the first meditative path offered. Once they have mastered the fourth sukha-vedana jhana: Meditation Skill 14, on emerging, they use the equanimity still present to observe the dissolution of the jhana factors, and the rearising of the interaction of the mind with the six sense fields.
The meditator should then bring any remaining defensive tendencies to an end, by cultivating wholesome/skillful tendencies that they have revealed as being weak in them: Meditation Skills 39-43. This also includes embedding wholesome/skillful tendencies, by following intentions towards the wholesome/skillful, within their daily life. This is part of the final unrooting process, and a necessary to instill the harmonising function of sila.
Once the tendencies are weak within them, then they should focus of nirvikalpa samadhi as their main practice, in regards to disentangling awareness from the six sensory fields: Meditation Skills 44-52. Developing higher levels of nirvikalap samadhi, until at will, they can disentangle awareness from itself, to bring cessation to all sensory fields. This whole process is done through gradual relaxing of all sensory engagement, until this tendency for awareness to engage, ceases.
Your Question: I struggled physically with standing for so long and had to bend forward a few times to relieve my back. I think I will try some shorter sessions of standing meditation, because I do agree that there are benefits to practicing mindfulness everywhere.
Stephen Procter: Be gentle with yourself and start with short periods of time at first. The trick is to learn to fold your body so that it becomes like a spring and then to relax into that spring so that gravity does the balancing for you rather then effort.
Your Question: I feel lot of resistance that's coming out doing this exercise being unable to find a relaxing point for my body. I'm totally ok with the top part of my body but my legs are always in a sort of "contracted" place that brings a sort of tremor in my legs...which makes my mind restless most of the time that makes me quite uncomfortable. Lots of stuff coming out from here...I never thought this exercise could become so challenging!
Stephen Procter: The tightening of your legs comes from the protection mechanism of your mind, the fear that if it totally gives up control of the body it we become injured. You can see this habitual protection if you hurt your lower back and all the muscles tighten around the injury.
When finding this balance point within our body where we can internally relax while standing it is helpful to understand that we can balance our body in two ways: through strength and through alignment with gravity. During standing meditation we balance through alignment with gravity. Gravity is predictable, it pulls straight down, this is to our advantage for when we align with gravity we can disengage our muscles allowing them to relax. The key is to align our body like we are folding it, the first fold is at the ankles, the next opposite fold is at the knees and the last at the hips. Our body is now is like folding a sheet in three parts, we align these folds so that the weight goes straight down.
Once you do this you will still have the instinctual protection of tightening, once this relaxes there will be some stretching of muscles and tendons as they adapt to the muscles not being engaged within balancing. There is some body conditioning within this but it is necessary for setting the foundation of mindfulness of body and effortlessness of movement within daily life.
Your Question: I had a similar practice but while keeping feet shoulder width apart. In this practice with my feet together there was a big problem with balance. To be able to relax I did have to put an inch between my feet, though. Perhaps with practice my balance will improve.
Stephen Procter: I am not sure if there is a misunderstanding in the instruction, but for this meditation we do not have our feet together but rather have them parallel, shoulder or hip width apart; whichever is widest. We then relax our hips and knees so that our legs become like springs rather than posts. We can then find our central balance and relax the energy into the springs.
Your Question: Apparently I've forgotten how to stand. Also, breathing was more laboured until I began breathing with the entire torso instead of mainly with the belly. But it seems like this would be a very critical skill to master, allowing me to take my practice out into the world, but I am not sure how to do it properly.
Stephen Procter: Learning to stand in an effortless way means being mindful of how your body is aligned over your feet. If the alignment is out then gravity will pull you forward, back, left or right and all the muscles in your body will tense making this practice difficult. When your body is aligned properly you then use gravity (which appears as the experience of heaviness) to pull you straight down.
In this posture you can relax all muscles throughout your body and will not get tired. This alignment is found by making the feet parallel, shoulder width apart. Then bend at the ankles joint forward, knees joint back and hip joint forward so that you are 'folding' your body. Play with this and 'listen' with full awareness, can you align your body so that you are fully balanced, with no tension?
Your Question: In the standing meditation I get distracted by my hands because I'm not sure how to hold them together without feeling tension or pressure. Sometimes I'm not sure if the mouth should be closed all the time, or open, or both, and if we're meant to breathe in and out through the nose all the time. I feel like I have to open my mouth sometimes to let the breathe out, is that ok?
Stephen Procter: "...In the standing meditation I get distracted by my hands because I'm not sure how to hold them together without feeling tension or pressure..."
Place one hand below your belly button in the middle of your body, then place the other hand on top of it, folding in your fingers to hold it loosely. You can also if you prefer have your arms hanging loosely by your side.
"...Sometimes I'm not sure if the mouth should be closed all the time, or open, or both, and if we're meant to breathe in and out through the nose all the time..."
We are always means to allow the breath to be drawn in and out through the nose. The nose plays a role preparing the air for the lungs: On the in-breath the nose filters the air, adjusts its temperate, and moisturizes it. On the out-breath the air filter is cleaned. back pressure is created with the diaphragm for a slower out-breath and there is a distinct calming affect on the functions of the mind. Breathing through the mouth has none of these benefits. the only reason to breathe through the mouth is if you are under high physical load or stressed.
"...I feel like I have to open my mouth sometimes to let the breathe out, is that ok?..."
This feeling comes because of confusion that happens within the brain due to habituated stress chest / mouth breathing. A focus on retraining of stress breathing patterns in Meditation Skill 01, with the goal of strengthening and slowing down the movement of the diaphragm so that diaphragmatic breathing becomes normal, removes this urge.