We might also call this something like absorption or stability practice, but at any rate we're talking about some kind of continuous single-pointed focus on / absorption into / stability with - a specific meditation object, such as the breath. Ideally, one would practice and partially master some form of concentration prior to practicing mindfulness, or perhaps do some concentration practice for the first few minutes of a mindfulness session. This kind of practice seems to help a bit with keeping continuous, and people who have learned to practice in this way tend to make faster progress when they switch to mindfulness.
Styles of Concentration Practice:
- Following (Feeling) the Breath, at the tip of the nose or the diaphragm
- Following the Breath with Breath Counting
- Staring at an object (like a ball)
Mindfulness is about awareness of awareness, about being "present". In a certain way, we could say that we are always aware, in everyday life. While daydreaming, for example, we are at least aware of the daydream. But we are generally otherwise lost while daydreaming. To the extent that we are lost or embedded in our imagination, attached to the daydream, unaware of the sensate world, as we typically are when the mind is wandering, we are not really free.
On the other hand, if we do have awareness of awareness, if we know what we are aware of while we are aware of it and can for example stand back and name it, we have some metaphorical distance, we have some freedom. This distance, this non-attachment, is an important component of mindfulness, and practicing with this aspect in mind is ultimately what leads to what we might call liberation.
So non-attachment, ultimately letting go of craving and resistance, and letting everything be as it is, is the ultimate goal. But, at least at first, it cannot happen without awareness of awareness. Getting this kind of mindfulness happening a very high percentage of the time, and very continuously is a prerequisite for the practice of letting go.
Some rare individuals may be able to to practice without technique, just sitting, simply intending very earnestly to remain mindful. But realistically, most people will require some kind of technique, often something very structured, to maintain this kind of awareness. Regardless of technique, one's intention and earnestness is a key component of success (the current catch-phrase is "deliberate practice").
Styles of Mindfulness Practice:
Note that here some practices categorized above as concentration are being presented as mindfulness. There is some overlap, the difference here would be that these practices might be thought of as anchors within a larger context of being mindful of all experience.
- The prototypical form of meditation. Focus on feeling the breath.
- Following and feeling the breath, but using the structure of counting to help keep oneself on track. A typical method would be to count the out-breaths up to 10, and then start over with 1.
Breath counting with mantra
- Something I devised for myself. On the in-breath try a mantra such as "feeling" and on the out-breath do counting.
- The attention is on the body, scanning and feeling one's way from the crown of the head down to the toes and then back from toe to head, sweeping the attention slowly and continuously. Typically scanning takes several minutes to complete a full head-toe-head cycle.
Mantra, a repeated word or phrase
- There are ancient mantras such as "om", but I recommend that mantras be customized to your specific situation. For example, a beginner might benefit from a mantra such as "aware", or "awareness". My overall recommendation would be "feeling", in order to point back to sensate experience. Mantras can be used in an almost koan-like sense, with the intention of pointing to, or creating curiosity about, something wordless like "stillness", "tranquility", or "love", or "thank you".
- A short version of noting I have described is notice what is roughly predominate in awareness and label it, about once per second, as either seeing, hearing, feeling, or thinking, or "don't know". A more detailed version of this style ended up working well for me, your mileage may vary. More instruction is available at How To Meditate, and for good measure, even more instructions for thoroughly mastering the noting style.
- Noting can also be performed out loud, as well as back and forth with a partner (ping-pong or dyadic noting)
Inquiry or Direct Awareness
Inquiry is generally about trying to get a direct sense of "beingness" with questions such as:
- Who am I?
- What am I?
- What is this?
Similar to Zen koan practice, these are not to be literally answered, but rather the idea is to sit with the curiosity and awareness and the sense of "I am" or "being".
Metta (loving friendliness)
The focus is on the positive, generating loving friendliness and compassion, typically performed with several phrases such as the following, starting with the "I" form and working out to all beings.
- May I/you/all beings be happy
- May I/you/all beings be healthy
- May I/you/all beings live in peace
Some Alternative Forms/Techniques/Approaches that may be Helpful
- Sitting with the question, "how am I experiencing this moment of being alive?" (a useful version of inquiry practice, called Actualism, from the obtuse website Actual Freedom)
- Viewing the totality as it actually appears from your perspective, with no head. (The Headless Way)
- Viewing the totality with a sense of that totality (Sperry Andrews)
- Focusing, a technique similar to mindfulness and releasing techniques.
- MBSR, Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, is a well studied secular version of meditation practice. Their seven attitudinal factors are non-judging, patience, beginner's mind, trust, non-striving, acceptance, and letting go. Comprehensive free MBSR course.
- Mindful Prayer (including non-religious prayer to, say, your true nature)
- Forgiveness work
- Guided meditation recordings
- Mindfully listening to ambient music
Sitting with feelings and asking oneself the following series of questions (Sedona Method - similar to any number of "release" methods):
- (1) "could I let this go", or "could I allow this feeling to be here" or "could I welcome this feeling", then
- (2) "would I let this go", and finally,
- (3) "when?"
- Ideally nothing needs to be done here. This would be an advanced style where the meditator has already trained the mind to be aware and relaxed.
- Just sitting can become an absorption. It is difficult to describe the object here, it would be something like the background of all experience.
Getting It Done
It should go without saying, but these kinds of things need to be actually practiced and mastered. It's not a matter of reading a technique and understanding the concept, it's a matter of sitting down and continually practicing a given technique until it becomes second nature, until it becomes automatic, until the body/mind acquires a new default.
Deliberately learning a few diverse techniques will give you a better idea of the overall direction that is being pointed at, and will give you a better idea of what works for you and what you should focus on. And that may change over time, as beginners often tend to need more concrete and structured techniques, while experts will probably lean towards less structure and more just being or absorption.
A Whole Post on Getting It Done
This collection was in part inspired by the Finders Course*. In that course, based on some independent, non peer-reviewed research, participants engage in a "greatest hits" variety of meditation and positive psychology techniques, finding what works for them, and commit to a minimum of around one hour of practice a day for over 4 months. People meet and share regularly in online video chats. Goals are made for practice and are evaluated weekly. That's the kind of behavior that indeed gets it done.
* Finders Course Techniques and Protocol post on Reddit