Saturday, February 23, 2019

A Simple Way to Start

For someone starting out or just willing to experiment, this is a series of four simple meditation styles that progressively add structure.  The idea is to experiment with each for maybe 1 to 10 sessions and see what works for you, and to monitor whether increasing amounts of structure help you to be more mindful.

1. Doing Nothing

This is an unstructured practice of continuously "letting go", as I describe in The Easy Way - Do Nothing.  The practice is to just be, letting go of whatever, if anything, is coming up, and if you can't let go of something, let that be okay as well.  And if you lose mindfulness and come back, just go right back into letting go.  The practice is to let go, and continue letting go.  In essence to just stop.  Stop doing and just be.  Just this, nothing to do but just be, and always come back to just being.  No need to grasp at anything or seek something better than this moment, just let everything be as it is.  During formal meditation practice you've set things up so that for a period of time you have nothing to do.  So do that - just be.  Relax.

This has always been at the core of any good meditation practice, but in the past I thought of it as secondary to the need to maintain continuous awareness and I taught the letting go part after some awareness was established, but I'm beginning to think maybe people need to hear this first, so that this is always in the background from the beginning.

I would consider this to be an advanced style in the sense that many people will be spacing out left and right with this technique, and many may not get to what I would consider a full letting go, but I think this is nonetheless a worthwhile experiment - to begin to get it into the core of one's being that this is a valuable direction to lean in.

I wouldn't endlessly practice this as a standalone unless you are maintaining continuous mindfulness.  Typically one or more of the following structured practices would be good to work on with an eye towards mastering the practice, i.e. putting in enough high quality practice until it becomes second nature.

2. Breath Awareness

The standard practice of following the breath.  The main recommendation, the trick if you will, is to follow the sensate experiences of the breath, feeling the breath as opposed to thinking about the breath.  The breath is always present and is used as a kind of anchor - when one loses awareness and returns to mindfulness, then return to simply experiencing the breath.  Within the mindfulness of breath awareness practice, continue to practice letting go, just being.

3. Breath Counting

Same as breath awareness plus now we introduce counting the out-breaths.  Continue to feel the breath, but now we count the out-breaths up to 10, and then start over at 1.  The breath counting gives us a little extra to do, using up a little bit of mental bandwidth that we might otherwise use to wander.  Counting can become relatively automatic, so ratcheting the count back to 1 gives us a way to avoid that automaticity, and provides some feedback if we notice the count is over 10 (or if we lose the count).  Again, within the mindfulness of breath counting practice, continue to practice letting go, just being.

4. Breath Counting with Mantra

Same as breath counting plus now we introduce a mantra on the in-breath.  A mantra can be any word or phrase, but I'm going to suggest "awareness" as a possible mantra.  Although any word could be used, I recommend targeted words that are designed for whatever you feel you need for that particular meditation session.  Words like maybe "peace", "love", "stillness", "relaxation", etc.  However I do recommend that you pick a mantra for a particular session and stick with it.  In other words, don't give yourself the wiggle room to change the mantra in that session as that just tends to add extra thoughts and doubts.  Again, within the mindfulness of breath counting with mantra practice, continue to practice letting go, just being.

In Practice

As you experiment with these 4 simple techniques, notice whether or not they help to keep you mindful.  What percentage of the time are you actually mindful, aware of your awareness in meditation?  (And within that, are you continuously relaxing, letting go?)

Even with a relatively high degree of this kind of structure, there is plenty of room to space out.  A reasonably fit, relaxed person completes a breath about once every six seconds.  Even with a mantra on the in-breath and counting on the out-breath, there are a couple of seconds to spare on each movement of the breath, which is an eternity in terms of the mind's inclination to immediately go off and wander.  Sometimes you can notice that desire to go off and think.  But the point is to commit to these continuous practices, and continually interrupt your mind's tendency to space out, and keep giving the mind experiences of continuous relaxed mindfulness.

Spending some time mastering one or more of the three structured practices might be a good way to develop a strong base before trying the noting practice I recommend in the series How To Meditate.

Saturday, December 8, 2018

Concentration Practice - Analog Clock

One version of concentration style meditation is staring at a single object.  The practice is simple - place your attention on the object.  If you find that your attention wanders, return to the object.

In this case the object is the tip of the second hand of an analog clock, which provides at least slight novelty and continuity as the hand moves around the clock.

Here is one online clock:

Monday, November 19, 2018

The Easy Way - Do Nothing

For those who are hard on themselves, always pushing and pulling and striving, this may be the most important aspect of the teaching.  Which is, for perhaps the first time in your life,

just stop.

Just be.

Every impulse to go off and do something else, or distract oneself, just stop.  Witness the impulses arising, but don't take the bait.  Let those things be.  Let go.  There will be plenty of time for striving later if you want.  But for now, just relax and hang out right here, right now.  Stay sensate - continuously feel the body.  Just an ordinary blob of flesh with nothing in particular to do, nowhere to go, no one to be.  If boredom arises, then experience that.  Don't push anything away with some need to distract, or to move to something "better".  Feel that need for distraction, that need for things to be some other way than they are, and return to letting everything just be as it is.  Stop fighting, stop pushing and pulling.  And then continually feel the next sensation, and the next.
Strictly speaking, any effort we make is not good for our practice because it creates waves in the mind.  It is impossible, however, to attain absolute calmness of mind without effort.  We must make some effort, but we must forget ourselves in the effort we make.
- Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind

The essence of Zen is non-seeking ... 
"Only practice" is the best, but without any object, without trying to achieve anything.
- Taisen Deshimaru, The Ring of the Way
Both of these Zen master quotes illustrate the paradoxical nature of practice.  A kind of effort must be made to lean in the direction of mindfulness, yet ultimately through practice this leaning becomes the natural default of the mind, at which point we can completely forget ourselves and the mind can relax to an unbelievable degree.  This is like the way a trained musician or athlete works hard over the years to ultimately forget themselves, to lose themselves in the moment when they play at the highest level.

A taste of this forgetting is available in any moment, and for some people this simple understanding may end up being their method.  To let go deeply, maybe for the first time, and simply do nothing but relax and be.

The various structured methods I recommend are useful for keeping oneself aware enough to do this vital practice of letting go.  Some kind of effort in this way is typically necessary to change, to retrain the mind, to unlearn what we have unconsciously learned.  Maintaining awareness is important.  But it is also important to understand the essence of the inward journey that needs to be happening amidst the awareness, that of relaxing and letting go, and letting everything be.

Those structured methods can become a kind of trap for people that are used to striving, if they are pushing themselves too hard and beating themselves up for lapses.  But the structure is often necessary, and it's a kind of balancing act to engage with enough effort to maintain a near-continuous awareness, while simultaneously letting go enough to be deeply relaxed.

Some guidelines on this kind of relaxation from Tibetan Buddhism, Six Words of Advice by Tilopa (McLeod translation).

  • Don’t recall - Let go of what has passed
  • Don’t imagine - Let go of what may come
  • Don’t think - Let go of what is happening now
  • Don’t examine - Don’t try to figure anything out
  • Don’t control - Don’t try to make anything happen
  • Rest - Relax, right now, and rest

Alternate translation by Watts & Wayman:

No thought, no reflection, no analysis,
No cultivation, no intention;
Let it settle itself

just be

Friday, October 26, 2018

Dealing With Difficult Meditation Experiences

Mildly difficult experiences in meditation can be processed much like everything else, i.e. be curious and allow the experience to be what it is without resistance.

But some experiences may be so challenging or overwhelming that at least temporarily they cannot be dealt with by surrender.

The traditional advice is something like this:  switch to single-pointed concentration practice or loving-kindness practice, if you can.  This is often more calming.  If that isn't providing relief, then maybe stop meditating altogether.  Do some things to ground oneself:  maybe get out in some fresh air, walk around, eat some hearty food, watch a movie, etc.  Talk to people, talk to a psychologist.

Although the ideas are similar, Lost in Oblivion – An Exploration of Adverse Meditation Experiences goes into more depth, exploring many suggestions such as the following:
  • Significantly reduce your practice time
  • See a professional
  • Focus on life goals and values
  • Reduce self-focus
  • Try some different meditative approaches
  • Rotate between meditation and thinking
  • Working with a blank mind
  • Working with relaxation induced anxiety
  • Movement can be incredibly powerful
  • Practice Gratitude and other more ‘cognitive’ practices
  • Reading novels and enjoyable literature, and engagement in enjoyable hobbies
  • Join your community, and find connection
  • Be kind to yourself, don’t just sit through emotional adversity
  • Exposure and response prevention can be useful

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Bilateral Breath Meditation

If you're having trouble staying aware with your breath meditation, there are simple options like counting the breaths, or using a mantra or noting practice that is synchronized with the breath.

But it's nice to have a nonverbal technique.  Part of what we're pointing at in meditation is our fundamental experience prior to language, concepts, or narrative.  Like maybe a dog might look at the world.  A nonverbal technique can help with that.

My recommendation is to do something along the lines of lightly pressing a left finger into your left thigh as you inhale, and then release that pressure and lightly press your right finger into your right thigh as you exhale.  And continue, in an alternating, bilateral, pressing and releasing that is synced up with the breath.

That's the suggestion.  You can use your fingers, thumbs, whatever.  You can press on your body, the couch, your clasped hands, whatever.  Just a continuous pressure with the finger/thumb of one hand for the inhale, and the opposite side for the exhale.  While walking I noticed an effective way to do it was to press the first and second fingers together while alternating hands as usual.  While driving pressing thumbs on the steering wheel.  Etc.

You can also stack techniques if you need to.  Sometimes we need more to do to keep ourselves focused on the present.  So you could do this practice, paying attention to the breath with the alternating pressure, and you could add a mantra or noting practice on top of that.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Dealing With Rumination
Rumination is when we obsess with a particular problem or anxiety, running it over and over in our minds.  Theoretically, a meditation purist might say we need to be present with that and continually notice the rumination.  That's fine if you can do it.  But sometimes the rumination may be so strong that it is neither possible nor practical to deal with it that way.  In a sense, the rumination has become pathological.

If one is constantly getting lost in the rumination despite ordinary attempts at meditation, my recommendation is to use a technique to substantially interfere with the rumination and maybe get it down to a more manageable level so that one could eventually practice with it.  In some ways we need to interrupt the rumination and get some distance from it.

This is not tremendously different from what I recommend in general, that is, to start with a technique that forces one to be aware and present, and later on (maybe much later on) laddering up into open awareness practices.

One practice for rumination, and this is an example of a fairly hard core technique, is to use noting (see elsewhere on this site) along with breath counting.  This is admittedly a lot to do, but then again we may need a lot to do to interfere with rumination.  For the breath counting I count the out-breaths to 12, and then start over at 1.

Why twelve?  On the one hand it doesn't really matter.  But there is a lot to keep track of in this practice.  We're counting, but we then go off and do a note or two, then we go back to the count.  It can be hard to stay continuous on the count at times.  So, a bit technical and insane, but to make the counting a little bit easier to keep track of, I visualize the 12 points of a clock, and I use that continually rotating directional sense to keep additional track of the number.  I do noting on the in-breath, noticing and labeling whatever arises in experience.  Typically I will make 1 to 3 notes during that time, just whatever comes up in the moment.

So noting on the in-breath, and counting on the out breath.  We combine the mindfulness of noting with maybe the stability of breath counting.  By practicing this way one can seriously interrupt the rumination process and get back to a more calm mindful mind.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

The Forbidden Topics

The intention here is to warn people away, although realistically the title will likely draw even more views than normal.  So be it.  But be warned.  Basically, if you are comfortable with your meditation practice and don't want to trip yourself up with expectations and so forth, bail out now.

The epitome of not talking about phenomena is perhaps Soto Zen practice where in theory they tell you absolutely nothing about practice or experiences, states, whatever.  They only teach you the position to sit in, and you sit.  No instruction about what needs to go on in your mind, or anything about various stages, meditative experiences, nothing.  And that is good in a way, because an indoctrinated mind can contract around these ideas and concepts, and that can trip some people up.

Personally, I'd say the Soto Zen approach is a bit extreme.  I think there is something to be gleaned from a bit of talk about progress, markers along the path and so forth.  These things can help keep a person going, see where you are and that progress has been made.  A form of useful feedback along the way as opposed to groping in the dark.  But some people seem to manage to beat themselves up about not having attainments, or being jealous of other's attainments, etc., so be careful.

The fact that there are Buddhist topics that are traditionally not talked about, such as actual experiences or attainments, this head-in-the-sand policy has both some dogmatism to it, and some skillfulness.  The good part is that not talking about attainment avoids problems with one-upping and overclaiming and people feeling poorly about lack of attainments.  The dogmatic part derives from the fact that the old Buddhist texts prohibit a monk from talking about such things to laypeople, and that has been incorporated into even very mainstream meditation groups, to the point that many teachers aren't even aware of this material.  This dogma leads to a lack of basic awareness of what is happening, and a lack of reasonable feedback that could otherwise be conducive to progress.

Some of these things that aren't talked about would be:
  • micro-stages that one tends to experience while doing contemplative practice
  • stable, trance-like states of meditative absorption
  • macro-stages, analogous to something like years of college
  • non-experiences, gaps, or emptiness

Basic Progress

Nothing forbidden here.  You may have experienced some markers of fairly mundane meditative progress in your everyday life.  Perhaps while experiencing some kind of task or game or even while having a glass of wine, you notice that in your current experience compared to how you were in the past, you are a little bit more aware, and a little bit more relaxed.  For many, this will be the standard result from traditional meditation practices.


The micro-stages (Buddhist jargon: Progress of Insight) are a series of experiential phenomena that seem to happen to in a somewhat repeatable order to people that do contemplative practices.  Tradition breaks this down more finely, but a 4 stage version captures the essence.  I will emphasize that not everyone is going to experience all this stuff exactly this way, so don't worry if you don't.

These stages appear with varying depths and over various timeframes.  A person may notice a series of phenomena that arise during the course of a single sit, and eventually may notice that something very similar is happening to the background of their overall experience over many weeks and months as the underlying neurology catches up to the cutting edge in practice, and reflects that in daily life.

First Stage - Sustained

At the first stage, in my opinion not a lot is going on.  This area was not even conceived of in this micro framework until quite late in the game (i.e. the last century) by the monk Mahasi who seemed to be using it as a way of introducing some basic conceptual understandings, but I'm not sure there is much there in terms of actual phenomena.  What is there might be thought of as correlating with a kind of sustained effort, and there are some related physical phenomena that may occur particularly to newer meditators.  Namely, at this stage there can be persistent (i.e. sustained) physical sensations such as itching, or a constant pain or tension or cramping.

Second Stage - Pleasant

The second stage we might call the Pleasant stage.  You might notice various pleasant sensations, joy, brightness in the visual field.  At its best, everything can seem really good, very sixties, people with flowers in their hair, togetherness, everything can be really wonderful.  You might notice some pulsing in the forehead as the demands on your prefrontal cortex are increased.  Sometimes there may be a bit of flashing in the visual field as this happens.

It is often during this stage that people might stumble into a big spiritual experience, an opening or awakening, a glimpse.  I refer to this as the "Big Experience", and it will be covered separately.

Third Stage - Unsatisfactory

The third stage is the Unsatisfactory stage.  At the beginning of this stage, in the wake of the Pleasant stage, everything might be very okay, but the relaxed okayness becomes a kind of relaxed but sinking sensation.  After this transition, a series of unsatisfactory sensations might come up like fear, misery, or disgust.  For example sometimes a pang of fear can come out of nowhere.  Or a feeling like you need to get up off the cushion or you will die.  Things seem generally unpleasant or out of phase.  At the end of this stage there can be an angsty depressive feeling that many people find to be the most difficult of all the phenomena in this stage.

The general advice for this stage is to accept the phenomena, let go of your resistance, and keep meditating.  This is not a place to linger or get stuck.  Many chronic seekers spend vast amounts of time in this stage.

Fourth Stage - Equanimity

And then this breaks open into the fourth stage, traditionally called Equanimity.  Here we come to an aware, relaxed, open, and sometimes stable state where everything is okay.  It becomes easy to meditate, and some people may even quit meditating since things seem to be going just fine.  At some points during equanimity the mind may become a little spacier and it may require some persistence to stay aware.

I don't like to look at these stages as written in stone, but similar to the meditative absorptions, it may help one to become more aware of your experience.

A Straightforward, Common Sense Measure of Progress

If you are getting to that last stage during your sits, the state of Equanimity, you might have some idea of how long it takes to get to that point.  Initially, a beginner might not even get there at all.  But as you continue to practice, you might notice that if you practice 45 minutes, sometimes you get there.  With continued good practice that number should come down.  As the time to reach equanimity falls to 30 minutes, 20 minutes, 10 minutes, 5 minutes, 1 minute, you will know you are making progress, regardless of anything else.  Your brain is making changes, it is adapting to the demands that you are placing on it.  As you continue to practice well, you are laying down neurology that will become more and more permanent.  You are changing your mind's default from monkey mind to mindful.

You might also notice, as mentioned before, that over longer periods of time something like this same progress of 4 stages is happening in the background experience of your life, but playing out over longer periods of perhaps weeks or months, even years, instead of minutes.

For some, the stages may not be as clear or specific as outlined here.  During meditation you might just notice a sense of "shifting gears" as the brain covers this apparent territory and slowly settles into mindfulness.  All of these repeatable phenomena are markers that you are getting somewhere, that you are covering some terrain, the brain is changing.

The Big Experience

Relatively early on, often at the level of the Pleasant stage, some may have a "big experience".  A big, often dramatic release into a substantially more aware, relaxed, open mind, maybe with a lot of joy, the joy of relief, the joy of completely laying down the massive burdens of life, if only for a few minutes.  The big experience is not a certainty, but also not uncommon, and although the territory can be experienced again, often the first experience will be the biggest or most dramatic event in the life of a meditator.  It is also possible to pass through this kind of area more slowly and quietly without much fanfare.  The classic big experience is probably most likely for a beginner in a setting of massed practice such as a retreat situation.

In the big experience the mind catches a glimpse of just how much baggage can be dropped, and it can be such a stark contrast to the person's normal everyday grasping mind that it is indeed perceived as a very big and dramatic experience.  It is sometimes mistaken for enlightenment, but it is indeed a taste or glimpse of that direction.

In terms of progress, if we liken the meditative path to a four year college degree, the Big Experience (or merely passing through the Pleasant stage) would be the equivalent of passing the first semester midterms.

The bigness of this experience, the drama or ecstasy, is dependent on having a "normal" attached, grasping mind.  It's big because dropping "down" into pure consciousness, letting go of so much baggage, is incredible to the normal mind.  The relief can be unimaginable.

The big experience is more likely to happen earlier in a meditator's career because as someone continues to practice the mind gets closer and closer to being completely relaxed and let go (the background of the big experience), and so there is less to let go of, less relief to be had.  At some point way down the road, this kind of massive relief is simply no longer possible - nothing can be that big of a relief anymore because the mind is already permanently relaxed to that degree.  There is no longer a big dramatic difference.

The big experience may also come about by way of psychedelics.  Some may be lucky and stumble into an experience like this, but for many, psychedelic experiences will be merely interesting and strange rather than life changing.  Meditation does make it more likely that one might access this territory under psychedelics.  Makes you luckier, you might say.  Just like the big spiritual experience, as one progresses down the meditative path, even these big psychedelic experiences will become less and less important, less dramatic.  Nothing to see - move along.

Meditative Absorptions

Some may experience states that are often referred to as states of concentration, but could also be described as states of absorption or stability.  These can be relatively strong sometimes, there is the sense of an altered state, and the stability and absorption can seem like a trance but with more clarity.  These are what Buddhists refer to as jhanas and Hindus refer to as samadhi.  Experiencing these would be a marker of progress, and there are a number of them that tend to come up, often in order.  These states are usually thought of as being connected to single pointed concentration practice, but mild versions can be reached with mindfulness when the awareness of each object in succession is both good and continuous.

The first 4 meditative absorptions are roughly related to the 4 micro-stages mentioned previously.  The absorptions are absorbed versions of the micro-stages, more or less.  The traditional descriptions are a passable guide to this kind of territory, this is a brief outline of the predominate aspects:
  • 1st - sustained attention
  • 2nd - joy
  • 3rd - contentment
  • 4th - equanimity
The second 4 meditative absorptions are traditionally called formless or immaterial, because if the absorption is incredibly strong, experience of various senses and the body can fall away.  But even without extreme concentration these aspects can be noticed.  Because of the formless, faded out quality, my overall description of these are as "dark and delicate".  In a sense, these can be thought of as extensions to the 4th absorption.  The traditional descriptions are:
  • 5th - infinite space
  • 6th - "self" or consciousness
  • 7th - no-thing-ness
  • 8th - absorption without description
The formless states are extremely tranquil.  If you get to the point where you can experience these, it can be good to "steep" in these states on a regular basis.  Becoming familiar with the formless and training the neurology in this direction begins to bring an aspect of deep tranquility to your entire life.

Again, this is merely a passable guide to the territory.  There are many concepts that one can become absorbed into.  To me not all of these absorptions are quite so linearly defined, but nonetheless knowledge of these characteristics may help one to be more aware of what is being experienced.


If you keep up the good practice, get the dose high enough and long enough and get relaxed enough, at the stage of Equanimity you might eventually experience a weird little blip, a little discontinuity, a little "what was that?" moment often immediately followed by something like a flash of light and perhaps a pleasant sensation coming up through the body.  That would be a cessation, a gap, a moment when perhaps some part of the mind lets go in a more substantial way, and an important marker when it happens the first time.  You might also experience a kind of general shift towards more mindfulness, you might have an exceptional few days or a couple of weeks, you might notice meditative absorptions for the first time, and you might notice more of those specific little blips.  Somewhere in that type of phenomena we have the evidence for the next major marker after the big experience.

A cessation is generally brief, just a moment.  It is a discontinuity, but there is enough information from the before and after of the non-experience to model it as just a moment.  But there is also the possibility of a cessation lasting for longer than a moment, say minutes.  This is more rare, but in this case one more or less "loses time".

Coming back to the typically momentary cessation, at the first occurrence, in particular referring to the overall shift towards mindfulness that might happen, this tends to mark a kind of tipping point.  In the four year college model of the path, this would be the equivalent of finishing up freshman year, and in many ways this would put you on a kind of final trajectory.  This would be the most important bridge to cross and marks the tipping point as you have essentially hit escape velocity.  Again, it is vaguely plausible that some people could cross this territory without noticing, as the mind is very biased to model things as continuous.

And if you kept going, you might notice that these blips appear for a while, maybe for weeks or a couple of months, and then they don't come up for a while, again maybe weeks or months.  You might then notice going through the stages for the second time, eventually hitting Equanimity and finally a second round of cessations.

At this point, two cycles in, you would be at the equivalent of finishing up sophomore year, although it becomes increasingly difficult to map beyond this point.  The first two or three cycles can be pretty solid, but additional cycles don't really map so well to linear progress anymore.  The remaining years are a continual process of opening up into new territory, polishing one's "empty mirror" and getting used to a more mindful, less attached perspective.

This cycle will continue to repeat, and if you pay attention to it, like other phenomena the cycle may speed up to a degree, and may get irregular.  If you're noticing this kind of thing, you're pretty far along.  You should have fewer and fewer questions about this stuff.  Over time, your meditation, your mind itself, will become more polished, mindfulness-wise.  Meditation will become easier, smoother, faster, more constant.  The mind becomes more open and flexible.  Mindfulness becomes your new default.