Step 0. Set the conditions in your life for meditation to become possible.
Step 1. Watch the breath come in. Watch the breath go out. Repeat.
The first step in any meditation practice is to sit down and still the body. We all know what it means to do this physical thing, even if it doesn't come easily. But few of us have learned what it means to still the mind. In Buddhist meditation the first step once we have made our way onto the meditation cushion is to engage in a shamata practice. Shamata means single-pointed focus and it can be obtained by any any exercise where we choose a single object, put our awareness there and maintain that connection as best we can over an allotted period of time. It could be any object, but here we will choose a classic one, the sensation of breath at the tip of the nose.
When the attention is being dragged here and there by one thought after another, it gets stretched out, stressed out, dissipated and depleted. In the short term this can cause us to feel distracted, agitated, exhausted and powerless. In the long term it leads to chronic issues that can manifest in all sorts of ways on all levels of our life--mental, emotional, physical. This shamata exercise begins to concentrate our awareness creating a sharp sense of focus which is inevitably accompanied by its partner, a soft sense of ease. Here's how it goes.
Focus your awareness at the tip of the nose, at the place where the air first enters your body the inhale and exits your body on each exhale. Inevitably the mind will wander away from your experience of that tiny body part. When you notice that has happened, bring it back to the breath with kindness.
That's it. It's quite simple and straightforward yet challenging for the average person. The kindness bit might sound like an afterthought but it is especially important that one remains relaxed and trusting that the exercise is working. Again, the immediate qualities that we are developing are mental clarity and relaxation. A harsh, overly-critical attitude will certainly prevent those qualities from coming about. A classic image for the meditative mind is a still body of water. Frustration and doubt are two of the most effective ways of creating more distraction and strife, of stirring up ripples, waves and whirlpools.
In the short term I found that doing this exercise in the morning greatly improved my ability to focus on tasks throughout the day and generally elevated and stabilized my mood. And it made me feel empowered, creative and resourceful. All wonderful benefits. But it is what I gained in the long term that really wowed me. By sitting on my cushion and saying "no" to distractions I was training myself to say "no" to what is not working, not truthful, not real in my life. And by saying "yes" to breath I was learning how to say "yes" to everything that is. This is the "no" of wisdom and the "yes" of love--two intertwining parts of one whole.
Wisdom and love. No and yes. Inhale and exhale. North pole and south pole, yin and yang, feminine and masculine, left and right, moon and sun, dark and light, up and down, in and out, stillness and action, ease and effort. I began to feed each pole of my existence, bringing more steady ease and more vital action into my life, bringing an illuminated universe more into balance, one breath at a time.
When I first started meditating daily I was a privileged, healthy, well-educated, bright woman in her twenties. I had a supportive family, tons of friends, many useful skills and talents, a job and a roof over my head. And I was pretty much miserable. I knew that I had the potential to do any number of things, that almost anything was possible, but I had no tools for eliminating the noise of that everything and hearing the signal of a single something to guide me. My days were both utterly overwhelming and totally boring at the same time, marked by little breaks of base pleasure or short-lived excitement, sure, but void of substantial happiness. Once I finally broke out of this phase it struck me that there had been a constant ache all throughout it. My essential center was shrouded during these years, as if my soul were in mourning for the person I should have become but had not.
At that time “no” was not a word that I said very often and it was definitely not a word that I ever wanted to hear. I didn’t have a clear destination in mind, let alone a map of how to get there, and it put me at the whim of whatever other people wanted, whatever emotions happened to be careening through my system, whatever thoughts happened to be bouncing through my mind. I never wanted to tell someone “no” because I wanted everyone to like me. I thought that denying a person or a thing was a cruelty that would do damage to my world by chopping pieces of it away. I never wanted to hear “no” because of the same reason--I assumed that denial was equal to condemnation. A "no" delivered in my direction could make me feel damaged, cut up, rejected. At that time I believed that someone else could sever me from my own self-worth with a negative remark. This worldview had me living in fear of losing the option for any one of a thousand potential choices or missing out on the praise of one of a thousand voices.
Of course there is an irony here. It was the entertaining of so many options and the courting of so many other people’s opinions that had in fact been distracting me and dissipating my resources for so long. What about the “no” that we tell a child who just doesn’t know any better? When we move, say, a knife or a glass of wine from a baby’s grasp, it is not a deprivation for the baby but a boon. Practicing breath meditation reminded me that the most positive response can sometimes be a negative one. The “no” of meditation was not harsh or severing, but a "no" of relief and even healing. Delivered with wisdom, the "no" didn't take away life, but encouraged it, by stripping away the options that damage and the clutter that suffocates. This is the “no” that clears out invasive weeds so the vegetables and herbs and flowers--the things that nourish our bodies and hearts--can thrive.
Repeating "no" in my meditation practice revealed the negative connotations that I had given that word and allowed me to start seeing how the positive can live within the negative. Sitting alone each morning, I had been training myself in letting go of experiences that didn't fit on my intended path. I could say "no" to that last glass of wine so that my morning meditation was more sweet. I could say "no" to the urge to lash out against a loved one. "No" to friends or activities or habits that had been sucking away my life energy.
I had once felt so much fear around the "no" because I thought, maybe, if I failed to take a particular road, or decided to hop off that road for a bit, that entrance to that pathway would be barred forever. But the "no" of the shamata exercise lasts only as long as the meditation session which taught me that I could say "no" without it being permanent. "No, not now." Is not the same thing as "Never!" I learned that I could put something down and pick it up later. No big dramatic door slam necessary. I learned how to say no without guilt toward myself or anger toward another. I gave my world permission to whisper sweet “nos” in my ear. And I gave myself permission to say them back just as sweetly.
Something even more profound then begins to arise. If I can say “No, not right now,” to any of my mind’s contents, it becomes more and more obvious that the contents aren’t me. The contents are always shifting, seemingly coming and going all on their own but I’m still here. Learning to say "no" also taught me what I am not. I am not my thoughts. I am not my emotions. I am not my ideas about who I am. All of that stuff was just passing through. I had heard teachers say that before, but sitting still each day watching the process allowed me to experience this profound truth for myself. I became more fluid with my identity and more at ease and contented about who I am. Things that before I had said "yes" to I began saying "no" to. And things that before had been too "not me," too other, strange or scary, seemed more possible. And what's really cool, things that had once been too energetically expensive, I soon became able to afford.
If I had a whole bunch of dollar bills and scattered them all over Brooklyn, they wouldn’t be of much use to me. Or if I every time I had the chance to spend 50 cents on bubble gum or a fake tattoo I jumped, likewise, I wouldn't have much purchasing power for anything useful. But if I sought out my bills and gathered them together, if I made a conscious choice to say "no" to the bubble gum and fake tattoos, well then I might be able to invest in something great or purchase something worthwhile. That’s what the "no" practice did for my time and energy. It gathered my precious life force back from all the distractions. The “yes” moment is the investment. It’s how we learn to take that gathered awareness and direct it toward something truly satisfying, something that could give back--a nurturing relationship, a fulfilling career, a creative endeavor, a new adventure of body, heart or mind, an act that makes the world a better place. The “yes” is the moment where we start to feel a sense of purpose and place in the world.
We say “Yes, breath. I am listening. I am here with you 100%” directing all of our now powerful life energies to one place. We don’t actually do this with most of our interactions. We are usually only partly tuned-in. When I sit down across the table from my life partner I may be only partly listening to his words. I might be judging him, thinking about how he should really eat better or get a better job or a better attitude. Often I'm not thinking about him but me, wondering if loves me enough or pays enough attention to me. I might be nodding along but actually judging the food we are eating or wishing the server would bring me more wine already or playing out a scenario in my mind that has nothing to do with here or now. That division of the mind--acting as if I am in this place and time, but really following my thoughts somewhere, somewhen else--is accompanied by any number of emotional and physiological counterparts. I might feel bored or annoyed or anxious. I might feel guilty for not being a better listener. If I am not able to find something about my partner and our shared experience to engage with then it won't be such a great dinner date. If we have too many dinners like that, the relationship might not last.
Of course the "person across the table" could be a career or a passion project or a hobby, it could symbolize a task we have to complete or a skill we want to master. Once we choose something that we care about, the "yes" practice teaches us how to direct our resources there and make a powerful investment. We do this by being truly present with our experience, meaning that we drop judgements, daydreams, agendas, strategies, shoulds, coulds and stories of all kinds. Only then are we really with something. The payback from the investment is that through learning about this thing, gaining its trust, entering into union with it, it begins to become a part of us. When we have that moment of totally dropping in with our object of meditation or the person across the table or the big project for work, it is also accompanied by emotional and physiological counterparts: a sense of ease, contentedness and wholeness, a vital surge of energy. We are 100% here and there is no other place we would rather be.
It's not so easy to pay attention to the breath. Plus, the benefits of paying attention to something that is already happening all the time unconsciously might not be apparent. The breath is invisible, constant and subtle. Which is why the average, healthy person spends most of his life not paying any attention to it all. But because it's not so easy, we build up some significant qualities in ourselves if we see the exercise through day after day. If we don’t say, "Look, Breath, things were really nice yesterday, but today I realize that I'm just not that into you,” it starts to solidify something in our personalities. We build staying power, discipline, patience, focus and drive. If you can figure out how to commit to the breath, you develop the ability to say “yes” to what you care about, to see through any number of challenges that arise in life. You become that reliable guy, that person of integrity.
On those days when it is hardest to stay present with the breath, I employ techniques to make the breath more engaging. If simply feeling the breath at the tip of the nose isn’t working, I will imagine the breath in beautiful colors, or envision a little sentinel there diligently watching all the air that enters the precious body and all the air being sent back out into the precious world. Or I will use a mantra, attaching simple yet meaningful words to the inhales and exhales so that the breath feels connected to my mind, heart and intentions. One technique is only better than the other insofar as it helps me stay connected to my object: the breath.
Since I am committed to my relationship with the breath, I will do whatever it takes to nourish this relationship and keep it alive. What that requires will shift and grow over time, just as it will in any long-term relationship. So in addition to all the other positive qualities, we also start to develop curiosity and creativity. The imagination is required if we are going to watch something invisible. An awareness of what helps one stay connected is required if the thing you are connecting to rarely calls or knocks on the door demanding a conversation, an explanation. The breath never says, "Where have you been?!" She just does her thing. It's up to us to get to know ourselves well enough so that we can get to know her.
When I started meditating I was a wanna be actress, 30 hours a week bookkeeper, who-knows-how-many hours a week bar fly. I wanted a meaningful career, a nurturing and exciting relationship. I wanted desperately to have a purpose in the world but with my energetic wasting and spending habits, I didn't have the purchasing power for anything so valuable. Three short months later things were totally different. I was studying non-stop, completely driven and exhilarated in my training for what would become an extremely fulfilling yoga teaching career. I was dating a wonderful person, one who "checked all my boxes" for a life partner. One year later I was living that career and living with that partner.
Now it's five years later and that same career and that same relationship are stronger than ever. I continue to deepen my commitment to them and they continue to shift and grow and support me and surprise me. Sometimes it's hard work paying attention to these things I care about most. Sometimes it's stressful or scary or annoying or dull. But I have learned how to stay patiently and listen openly and to continue breathing my life force into what I love. My understanding of my practice, my work, my students, my partner and myself have all deepened over the years that I have been saying "yes" to them all. And I can call on that deep understanding when I get stuck. What interests us, what triggers us, what harms or helps us? All the knowledge I've gained through curiosity and creativity draws the map for reconnecting to the things I've chosen in my life. I can rely on myself now, and the wonderful people about whom I care know that they can rely on me too. And when I begin to waiver, it's ok. I have a purpose and mission that I can come back to on any time that I need to renew my vows to this life I love.
The “no” aspect of the practice taught me what I wasn’t--all those passing thoughts and emotions and whims and energies. The “yes” aspect taught me what I was. Awareness, the ability to connect, the ability to love and nourish something which in turn nourishes me. The ability to see and hear and attend to what is important and true and life-giving and right in front of me. The “yes” of love allowed me to make choices toward my best life and invest more into that life day after day. Before this, I had been saying my "yes"es and "no"s out of laziness, engrained habit, and fear. Once I learned to say them with wisdom and love it turned out that much of what I had said "no" to got a "yes" and much of what I had been drawn to by compulsion was now met with repulsion. And it all happened so simply. I just sat for a few minutes each day and watched the breaths go in and out. Now I no longer am in mourning for an imaginary self. I am living in full celebration of the very real, whole, powerful and purposeful being that I am.
ALL AND NOTHING
"When I look inside and see that I am nothing, that is wisdom. When I look outside and see that I am everything, that is love. Between these two my life turns.” - Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj
The inhale inevitably follows the exhale. Often called opposites, they are not in a state of conflict as that word might imply, but in a state of harmonious union. One makes the other possible. Through the breath practice I learned the “no” of letting go, and its counterpart, the “yes” of intentionality. The freedom of “no” makes way for choosing one thing and declaring a wholehearted “yes!” And, in turn, the commitment of “yes” gives more strength to us when we need to say “no” to whatever takes energy away from our commitment. Through withdrawing into stillness we empower meaningful action in the world. By singing our song forth in the world we learn how important it is to return to the silence. The yes is in the no, the no is in the yes. The yin is in the yang and the yang is in the yin. Inside out and outside in. Everything and nothing, wisdom and love, become two poles between which a meaningful and satisfying human life turns.