I always assure people that I don’t care how they practice Step Eleven, either by prayer or by meditation. The technique will probably vary over the years, but the key elements are discipline and passion for the practice. I have been meditating on a regular basis since 1966 and have been initiated into many different forms of practice.
For the past twenty years I have been practicing mindfulness; I’m drawn to the school of Theravada Buddhism, from where the now-popular Vipassana, or insight meditation originated. You will find the word mindfulness is used throughout this article. It is the technique of following the breath to remain present.
Mindfulness comes from the Sanskrit words sati, which translates to “basic awareness,” and smirti, which means “to come back” to awareness when the mind starts to stray. Simply put it means “Pay attention to what is.” Mindfulness is an intentional, nonjudgmental awareness of remaining in the present moment. Acceptance of what life offers in each moment becomes a prayer. We sit with awareness and observe what arises. We don’t try to fix or change our experience; instead we let life become both the student and the teacher and allow each moment to become our lesson plan.
The common way to practice mindfulness (Vipassana) is to begin by finding a comfortable position that will keep the spine straight. Some people will cross their legs or sit in a lotus position; others find a meditation bench beneficial. Regardless of the technique or seated position, you want to be careful to not cut off or inhibit circulation. If you sit in a chair, be sure your feet are flat on the floor, or if outside, flat on the ground. I use a meditation bench. It’s as though I’m kneeling, but I’m sitting on a low bench with my legs tucked under me. In this position, the pressure is not on my legs.
Breathe normally and follow the breath as it enters through the nostrils. It might be a cool or warm sensation, or you might sense a rising and falling of the chest or belly. Just follow the sensation of the moment as you breathe in and breathe out. The practice is to consciously breathe. You might notice that you are thinking. Just note, I am thinking, and gently return to the breath. We do this again and again. The goal is not to stop intruding thoughts but to observe them and not get attached.
Everyone who meditates, from the beginner to the devotee of twenty or more years, has thoughts. It is what we do with each thought that counts. Our purpose for meditating is to stay present, so even when noises or other distractions occur, we can use them to remind us that we are present. When we hear noises, they remind us to gently return to the breath. As we notice the activity of the mind, we embrace the effortlessness of our breath as it gradually guides us back to the present. Vipassana also teaches us to scan the sensations of the body from the head to the feet, focusing our attention on each area, noting which sensory phenomena are rising and falling. If there is pain or some other sensation in one particular area of the body, we embrace the feeling rather than try to resist or change it. If for some reason we have to move, we do it gently and remain aware of our adjusted position.
The practice of meditation invites us to participate in nondoing. Meditation isn’t about doing nothing; it’s about doing nothing else. The purpose isn’t to stop the thoughts and feelings that appear or to manipulate them to bring about joy or bliss. We are requested to sit and observe and not attach to the mind’s (ego’s) splendid array of distractions, determined to kidnap us from the moment. When we are assaulted by thousands of thoughts, the exit strategy is to gently return to the breath. This conscious act is done again and again. This is the practice. When practicing moment-to-moment awareness, we may be surprised to see how short-lived each thought actually is.
Distractions are a part of everyone’s meditation, not just the beginner’s. It’s normal for our first thoughts to seem like a nuisance, but we soon realize that these distractions are what it’s all about. Our lesson is to learn to deal with these distractions without dwelling on them. Learning to deal with a simple thought and watching it disappear is our training for those times when life hurls another challenge our way. Like watching a thought, our practice is to detach; soon it will pass away. We soon see that this becomes the ebb and flow of life. Thoughts come and thoughts go; challenges come and go as well. The rhythm of life becomes the same dance: Life comes together, and life falls apart. Our lesson is always to observe and not to become preoccupied by following the never-ending story line.
Being mindful of our life force is our introduction to enlightenment. We summon mindfulness to follow us throughout our busy day. We move away from nondoing to doing, recommitting to our intention of paying attention from deep within and purposely observing even the most mundane movements. By witnessing life, rather than attaching to each event, each thought, we gracefully respond to each challenge in lieu of “reacting.” Showing up each day to our area of practice, sitting and paying attention to our breath, even for ten minutes, reinforces our discipline to start our day with mindfulness. When breathing in, we know we are breathing in; when breathing out, we know we are breathing out. This simple task, repeated again and again, can change our lives.
Our practice becomes one of remaining open to the ongoing challenges and obstacles that seem to throw themselves at us. This open-mindedness becomes the path to the divine and to our inner joy; the divine plan was in place before our arrival. Difficulties can now guide our spirit to finally awaken. We find peace when we embrace and accept the gifts and demands of life, now that we are equipped with our practice, returning to the moment again and again—always coming back to the breath. When thoughts slow down, the eyes of the spirit open, and we see the world through the eyes of an alert, yet humble, sage.