Meditation is not only very excellent to get in touch with one’s mind, feelings and sensations but it is very helpful when it comes to the challenge of our relationships, whether it’s with a tyrannical boss, difficult employee, spouse or stranger. There are many kinds of meditation and many various types of techniques, from guided visualizations to counting numbers to repeating mantras and so on. What follows is a brief description of one type of meditation called vipassana or insight meditation.
To begin, sit comfortably with your back in a straight position. Sitting in a chair is fine. The point is having the back straight yet comfortable so the meditation is not totally focused on struggling or pain. There will be enough struggling with mental distractions let alone adding indiscriminately physical distractions. The sole focus is on the breath — the incoming and outgoing breath. There is no need to exaggerate the breath but simply to pay attention to it. Whether it’s deep, long, short, gasping or whatever, the point is not to alter it but simply to be aware of it. Preferably, one breathes through the nose. And preferably the eyes are closed; even though in some traditions the eyes are left open a bit.
With these simple suggestions firmly grounded into a practice, the fun part begins. The mind will wander. Five, ten minutes later you will forget that you were breathing. The heated conversation you had with Frank or Alice will arise in your attempted silence. That’s okay. Don’t judge it. Simply acknowledge that you left your breath awareness and gracefully come back to it. Some practitioners will note what type of mental wandering just happened before they resume their attention on their breath. For example, if you find yourself plotting out the next day’s events, you simply note “planning, planning” and return to the breath. If you discover, after 20 minutes or so that you’ve been wallowing in judging all the participants in your meditation class, you simply note “judging, judging” and return to the breath.
As you can see, this type of sitting meditation gives you plenty of opportunities to investigate what interests your mind at the time. Whether it’s a bout of jealousy, futurizing, feelings of anxiety, insecurity, despair or remembering past abuses, the intention is not to judge the thoughts or feelings that arise but to simply note them for what they are… thoughts or feelings… and compassionately and non-judgmentally return to the breath.
Of course, this doesn’t cover the entire spectrum of vipassana (which includes body scanning in minute details among other levels of practice) but only illustrates the basic beginning practice, which is quite a challenge in itself.
Also, with this type of meditation, one can practice it anywhere. If you are driving a car, taking a bus, waiting in line for the bank teller or waiting for an elevator you can simply focus your attention on the breath and begin again that process of witnessing the thoughts and feelings that arise and then returning again and again to the breath.
The advantage of noting thoughts is that we begin to see them as what they are — simply thoughts. However, most of us are continually identifying with those thoughts which gets us into much trouble. If we create some distance between the thoughts and our immediate and automatic tendency to identify with them, it may benefit us wisely. For example, thoughts that had persisted while I was in grade school, high school and college were those of comparing myself with others. I excelled at it. Paul had a better physique. George had great hair. Tom was more brilliant. Bernie made more money and lived in a better house. Theodore wrote more articles than I. Sally travelled more than I and had read more than I…. and on and on…. Not only was I comparing myself to people in my life, but I obsessed in comparing myself with people who existed in TV, in the ads, in the movies… all making me more insecure than I already was. After a certain period of time, the thoughts, the obsessive comparing became embodied into feelings, sensations and then into defendable belief systems (as in “I need that better house, or better TV, or better job, or better woman, or better car since my self-esteem and my self-identity are all wrapped up into it.”).
It wasn’t until 5 years ago when I came upon this simple meditative technique. Because of the practice I started to distance myself from those obsessive thoughts of comparing. What a dynamic discovery! And it wasn’t just the thoughts of comparing that I began to get some distance from, but the plethora of other thoughts that preoccupied my mind — judgments, doubts, frustration, anxiety, insecurity, jealousy, panic, fear, anger and all the other ones that I won’t bore you with. I would simply note them. Oh, there’s comparing 237! Oh, there’s judgment number 4,746. After awhile of observing one’s mental outpourings day in and day out one could either sink into total despair (and then eventually work on noting “despair” with all its various sensations, emotions and feelings surrounding the thoughts) or feel quite jubilant that one now has a handle on what has been controlling him or her all these years. For me, those thoughts don’t simply disappear but they no longer have the power over me as they once did. I like what writer and meditation teacher Sylvia Boorstein says about this: “Pain is inevitable but suffering is optional.”
A teacher once told me that it would be wise for us to cultivate curiosity about who we are — what thoughts arise, what sensations emerge, what emotions suddenly sprout. We gain a spaciousness that is lighter than rigidly attaching ourselves to any whimsical thought or feeling that happens to arise. This evolving groundedness in both sitting meditation practice and cultivating a sense of curiosity of where we are at in the moment not only can help us heal as individuals but can aid us in being more enjoyable people. When we are more enjoyable to ourselves then relationships seem to be somewhat smoother.
– Bob Banner, Publisher of HopeDance.org