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Technique

Meditation

Our mind is constantly trying to make sense of the world (both external and internal) we live in by reducing it to mental models.
Rather than understanding every situation from first principles, our mind optimizes energy and mental bandwidth by reverting to habitual patterns to interact with the world.

Habits are essential for our survival and well-being - automatically wearing your seatbelt before you drive or looking for oncoming vehicles before you cross the road - useful behaviours that have become deeply embedded and automatic for us.

At the same time, we also end up having habitual patterns that are extremely harmful to us, for instance - substance addictions, aversion to a particular person or topic, worrying about one’s future, lamenting one’s circumstances, and so on.

Our mind seems to always wander down these familiar but painful rabbitholes of habitual thinking patterns and behaviours.

The Buddha discovered that attention is at the core of such self-destructive behaviours.

We keep wandering down these rabbitholes and feeling lost, frustrated, annoyed, and miserable (the different flavours of Dukkha) as long as our attention is stuck there.

If we can step out of that rabbithole, and simply see whether or not there is an appropriate action to do, and go ahead and do it - we would be making our lives a lot simpler and happier!

 

To build our attentional skills to be able to do this, we practice Meditation - think of this as an exercise session like a gym workout to strengthen certain muscles! 

Object of Meditation

To understand mental processes and movement of attention, we start with an Object of Meditation - an anchor where we place our attention. This is the very beginning of practicing Meditation.

Throughout the practice of meditation, when our mind wanders away from this Object, we will bring our attention back to it. Every time we do this, we strengthen our mental skills - just like we would strengthen our muscles when we do repetitions of the exercise.

Many things can be used as an object of meditation - the breath, a point in your body, an image in your mind etc. In the Samatha Vipassana practice, we use Metta or Loving-kindness as the Object. Metta is one of the four Brahmaviharas or Sublime States of Mind.

Metta is a powerful object of meditation - naturally taking you to an uplifted state of mind that is easy to maintain and makes learning easy. We find that it significantly accelerates progress.

 

As we keep our attention on the Object, we will soon find that our mind is caught up in a completely unrelated train of thought. It may have to do with a physical sensation - like a noise or an itch; or thoughts of pending tasks; or thoughts of recent conversations and so on.

 

Anything that takes you away from the Object is called a Distraction or a Hindrance.

Our only objective in Meditation - every time our mind wanders from the Object to a Distraction, we bring it back.

 

In our exercise analogy, this is the equivalent of one repetition. As we keep doing these mental reps, we develop critical mental skills, covered below, and generate a deep understanding of how the mind works so we start to fundamentally transform our mind.

Distractions

Why does our mind go looking for other information when we want to do something specific in the moment?

This has to do with our evolutionary history, a time when we lived completely exposed to nature and the creatures within it.

Our attention is attenuated to continuously scan the environment looking for potential threats to our safety (for instance predators) and for potential opportunities for our benefit (for instance food) and taking these personally. The same thing happens when we sit down to meditate.

No sooner have we put our attention on the Object, that our attention goes to one thing or the other, due to this deep-rooted information-seeking behaviour.

The thoughts that take our attention away are called Distractions or Hindrances.

 

Distractions can be thought of as teachers - they teach us where our mind’s attachments lie - something unresolved or on top of our mind that takes away our attention even when we have decided that we'll be doing something else.

Every time we recognize a Distraction and bring our attention back to our Object, we also exercise our mental skills.

In a way, the Distractions can be thought of as a personal trainer, who would motivate you to do one more rep!

 

The awareness that your mind has become involved in the story of your Distraction comes with the development of the first of the three mental skills - Mindfulness. 

The 3 mental skills

1. Mindfulness

Mindfulness is a popular word these days and has been translated in any number of ways including non-judgemental or choice-less awareness of the contents of consciousness. However these definitions do not capture the importance of attention and its movement. This is critical as our experience of life is based completely on the series of attentional movements from one thought to the next, and one moment to the next.

Translated from samma (harmonious/ appropriate) sati (to remember), Mindfulness can be defined as:

'Remembering to observe how your attention moves from one thing to another.'

We all have mindfulness developed to a certain extent. Yet, more often than we may like to admit, we are unaware of how our mind drifted into our favourite rabbithole and started digging deeper.

With the cultivation of mindfulness one achieves a deep awareness of where the mind or our attention is engaged. Every time our mind drifts from the Object to another thought, Mindfulness helps us become aware of this movement.

This acts as a cue to use the second great mental skill - Harmonious practice.

 

2. Harmonious practice

 

The second of the great mental skills taught by the Buddha - Harmonious practice is translated from samma (appropriate/harmonious) vayamo (exercise/application/practice).

Once we realize that our attention has drifted to something that was not important, or was unwholesome, or unrelated to what we are doing, we use Harmonious practice to gently and without violence bring our mind back to the Object.

The Harmonious practice has been broken down into the 6Rs method:

  • Recognize - that attention has wandered away and is engaged with a distraction

  • Release - allow that distraction to be, stop feeding it with attention

  • Relax - the drifting of attention is invariably accompanied by the build up of tightness in your mind or body. In this step, we relax this tension and tightness

  • Re-smile - bring up a smile onto your face (smiling is an integral part of the practice) and uplift your mind state

  • Return - bring your mind back to the Object of meditation

  • Repeat - maintain your attention with the object of meditation and repeat these steps should your mind get distracted again. This step is also a reminder that your mind WILL wander again, and not to be discouraged by that!

We start by doing each step individually as we bring our attention back to the Object, and with repetition - you will be able to do the steps as a continuous flow over the course of the retreat.

 

As we start using Mindfulness to detect Distractions and use the 6Rs to come back to the Object, our mind starts to get calm and clear - allowing us to gain deep insight into mental processes.

 

This leads to the Collectedness of mind - the third great mental skill.

 

3. Collectedness

Translated from samma (harmonious/ appropriate) samadhi (collected state of mind, ripe for wisdom)

This is the healthy opposite of what is commonly known as the ‘monkey mind’.

As we continue to use the 6Rs, our mind learns to stay comfortably with the Object of our meditation instead of chasing every possible other thought. This leads to the cultivation of states of extreme calmness, composure and clarity - known as the Jhanas or the Collected States.

 

In these states, we are able to see more clearly how mental processes take place.

Imagine having to read a book while standing in a noisy bus on a road filled with potholes and the sounds of the city flooding in.

Now imagine your ability to read and understand the book in a well-lit spot, in a quiet room, while seated on a comfortable sofa.

The Jhanas provide this kind of an environment for you to gain deep insights into the working of the mind.

 

The development of Collectedness allows us to stay comfortably with a particular Object, or in daily life - a particular activity, without having the urge to wander looking for other information or stimulation.

 

Collectedness allows for other information events to occur in your awareness without chasing after them - this is in contrast to extreme concentration that is developed in some practices where the mind becomes narrowly focused on an Object to the exclusion of everything else.

 

It is only when there is an awareness of other phenomena happening in your background, that you are able to observe them and start to really learn about the nature of mental processes.

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