Mindfulness of the Mind
Transcribed and Lightly Edited from a Talk by Gil Fronsdal 10/29/08
Good evening everyone. Welcome back to our fifth week of our six-week series. I used to not teach this topic as part of the intro class, but I was inspired about a year and a half ago that this is a very important, significant aspect of mindfulness practice that I thought would benefit those taking this introductory class.
The topic for today is “mindfulness of the mind”. As an introduction to the topic, I’d like to tell you a Buddhist story, a fable from the time of the Buddha. From the traditional Indian and Buddhist world view, cosmology or mythology, there’s a god named Brahma, one of the great gods from the heavenly realm, who rules over his heavenly realm.
One day, there was a yakksha, which is kind of like a mischievous tree spirit, an ugly runt of a yakksha, like an ugly little runt of a troll. It came and sat on Brahma’s throne. This is a great god, in the Indian pantheon there is no greater god, he’s a pretty big figure up there. And he went and sat on Brahma’s throne one day when he was away on his travels.
Now all the other gods who were around about the heavenly court, thought this is wrong, this ugly little runt of ayakksha shouldn’t be sitting on the great Brahma’s throne, so they got kind of angry. And they said “You have to get off that throne.” As they said that, he started growing bigger and bigger. And they got even more angry and he wouldn’t budge. And they yelled louder and told him to get down. Who are you to sit up there? And as they continued with their ranting and raving and fury at him sitting where he shouldn’t be, he kept getting bigger and bigger and more and more beautiful until he was a beautiful great yakksha. So these court gods were confused and went to Brahma and asked what they should do.
They told Brahma that this little runt of a yakksha climbed up and was sitting on his throne and he won’t get down. He won’t get off and not only that, but he keeps getting bigger and more beautiful.
And Brahma said, “Oh…. I know what to do.” And he went back and stood in front of his own throne and he bowed deeply to the yakksha, and said “it’s so nice to see you, I hope you’re comfortable up there and you should come visit more often, my dear friend,” and as he said that, the yakksha got smaller and smaller until finally he went poof, and disappeared. At that, Brahma went up and sat on his own throne.
And he said to his court, that yakksha, that tree spirit, is an anger eating yakksha. The more angry you get the bigger it gets, so what you have to do is bring your kindness to it and then it goes away. It feeds on your anger, what you have to do is bring kindness to it and it dissolves away.
So do you have your own anger-eating yakksha? What do you feed, and what gets bigger and more beautiful as you get angry?
This fable points to the idea of our relationship to our experience, how we relate to our experience has a big impact on ourselves. So if you get angry with someone, if you get angry enough, you don’t become beautiful. You might get big in your fury. But generally, it’s understood that when people get really angry, they get ugly. Anger isn’t a beauty treatment.
To feed something inside of us, doesn’t just feed our physicality, it conditions our mind and our heart, and how we relate to the world. If you get angry a lot, it can color everyone you see and everything you touch. You can be angry with one person, but it fills you with a mood of anger and then when you go walking down the street, everyone irritates you, “How could they walk that way! They’re stepping on too many cracks!” [laughs] It gets ridiculous sometimes, because we are so irritated.
So, we’re feeding not only how we are in the moment, but sometimes we’re feeding a habit and that habit develops over time. There are other habits (or states) to feed. So, if you’re kind, if that’s your disposition, your default, if you’re feeling relaxed and generous, then, as you go down the street, that attitude affects how you see people and how you see yourself. So, not only can you be kind or loving in the moment to a particular person, but it also affects your mood and how you are. And how you are affects how you see the world around you. And it also affects the habits that get formed; how you condition your mind.
In Buddhism, there is the emphasis on taking responsibility not only for your choices in the moment, but also for how those choices shape your overall state of being. Your state of mind, your mood, your overall attitude that you have about your life as you go through it. Not only the overall mood for the day, or the hour, but also the predisposition you have to fall back into certain states or attitudes of mind.
So, if you develop a habit of going around being angry, then you’re more likely to fall into that groove at some other time. If you’re always being afraid or anxious, you may not only be anxious about a particular thing, but it could affect your overall attitude towards everything, not just in that moment or hour.
Right now, my impression is that in the last two weeks, there is a lot more anxiety in people. They may say that they are anxious about the economy or work, but it’s spilling out and expressing itself in all kinds of other ways in their life. They may not even be sure what they’re anxious about, it’s just an underlying feeling of anxiety.
So, if you’re anxious about a particular thing, it can affect your whole mood. But it also affects how we get shaped or conditioned for the future; how we tend to be more disposed to the habits that are being formed. So, if you keep reinforcing the fear, and living from there, you’re more likely to fall into those patterns in the future as well.
So, in Buddhist practice, mindfulness has a role in all three of these realms. Mindfulness has a role by putting us in the present moment, and being relaxed enough, calm enough in the present moment to see the impulses that arise in us. To see the motivations. To see what we want to say, what we want to do, what we want to think. To track it enough and to be present enough to say, “wait a minute, I don’t have to act on that, I have a choice here.” If we don’t slow down enough and have strong enough mindfulness, we don’t see that we have any choice.
So, you’re walking down the street, and you walk by an ice cream parlor and the next thing you know you’re holding an ice cream cone in your hand. Where was the choice? “All I knew is that I was just walking down the street, and then I had this ice cream. I didn’t choose that.” Of course, you chose it, but maybe there wasn’t enough mindfulness, but the powers of desire were so strong and they took over, and you were in a kind of trance when that happened.
It can happen much more clearly with anger. People can say things very spontaneously in anger that they would never do if they were in their right mind and thought about it. But, they are so worked up, so triggered that it comes out of their mouths or even sometimes comes out of their hand, as they hit someone.
So, in that kind of situation, you don’t see choice. There is a phenomenal amount of people in society that don’t see their places of choice. If you don’t see where you have choice, then you have no choice. If you see the place of choice, you have choice. Mindfulness practice expands the range of places that you have choice, where you can choose in your life. So it’s not such a mystery why you have the ice cream cone, or why something happens to you.
Mindfulness helps to put you into a place of choice and that helps you with wiser choices in the present moment. As you choose to behave, act and even think in different ways, it can have an effect on your overall mood and attitude with which you approach your life. As you begin exercising that choice, it also can have a profound effect on how you condition yourself; how you predispose yourself as you go forward in your life into the future. So mindfulness has effects on all of these.
For today, the topic is, in Buddhist terminology, called Mindfulness of Mind. Maybe in English, we would say, mindfulness of attitude, or overall mood, or the overall state that we are in.
I’m sorry I’m picking on anger so much today. It may be irritating to you that I’m using it as an example. [laughter] If you’re walking down the street, and you see someone walking towards you that’s really angry, you can almost see the steam coming from them and feel the mood or grumpiness from afar. Or if you see someone who is really carefree, happy and delighted, you can feel that mood or atmosphere of that person. You sense how they are. So, the mindfulness of the mind has to do with the overall mood or attitude with which we go through life.
But, that attitude that we have can also be invisible to us. Because it’s so much a part and parcel of the atmosphere that we’re in. For example, fish can’t see the water that it’s swimming in. It’s like a dirty windshield… you’re so focused on driving and the road that you don’t notice. You not only don’t notice that you can’t see very clearly because it’s so dirty, but you also don’t notice the strain that it has on your eyes and mind to try to see through the dusty windshield. So, the attitude can be that way; you don’t notice the effect it has on you; on how you perceive the world around you.
The last thing I’ll say about this before we meditate is to give an analogy: It’s the nature of being a human being, that human beings have problems. Do any of you not have any problems? Problems come along.
You have one problem, then another problem. Right now I have a car problem, hopefully next week it won’t be there. But then I’m sure I’ll have another problem; something else will come along. Some difficulty, something that I’ll have to take care of.
If we labeled our problems with the letter X [like in mathematics, equations may contain a variable X, which can represent any number], what can fill that space of X can change a lot, but the attitude or relationship that you have towards your problems can be constant.
Some people have common default attitudes every time there’s a problem: “Oh boy, not again, this is impossible” or “I’m not gonna pay attention, I’m going to escape” or “I’m going to lash out and blame someone” or “I’m gonna get depressed” or “This is too much” or “Oh boy, I love problems! I love problem solving, it’s like a puzzle, they’re great!”
So, there’s X that changes all the time, and what changes less often is how you might relate to various problems. It’s easy to be blinded by the problems, and not notice the relationship we have with the problems; the attitude we have towards these things. Some people will have underlying pervasive attitudes that they carry with them that affect everything that they touch.
So, this is the analogy: If a fly lands on an ant, it’s probably a big deal for the ant. The fly is heavy, bigger than the ant. The ant can’t move around easily and can’t get into his hole because this big thing is stuck on it, and it’s a big deal. If the same fly lands on an elephant, the elephant could not care less. When you have problems, are you more like the ant, or more like the elephant?
There are times when we are fragile, tense, vulnerable or upset, etc. And the smallest little thing can push us over or do us in. We’re like the ant. And other times when you’re happy, contented, energetic, present, full, etc. If the same kind of things happen you hardly notice. “Problem? Fly on my back? I guess there’s a fly there, but maybe I don’t have to do anything about it.” So the attitude that we hold ourselves with, or how we feel about ourselves, or the mood or state that we’re in can have a big impact on how we relate to our world; how we relate to our problems, our blessings (the fortunate things that happen to us). It’s a variable that can be adjusted and changed. The mood, state or attitude, how we relate to things, how we are in relationship to all things is not fixed.
One of the things that mindfulness can do is help us become mindful, not only of the overall state that we’re in, but also, the choices that influence the state, mood and situation we’re in.
Last week, we talked of mindfulness of thinking. One of the effects of being really preoccupied in thoughts and caught up in your thinking… if you notice the next time that you’re really preoccupied, you’ll probably feel something like a constricting of awareness, a tightening up of awareness, a narrowing of awareness, maybe even a darkening. If you feel the mind, it may feel as if it’s darkening down. If you let go of your preoccupation, there can be a lightening, opening up feeling, an expansive feeling that goes on there. So the state of awareness can be contracted or expansive. You can be aware of whether it’s contracted or expansive.
The state of the mind can have a big impact on the overall state of our mood. A very expansive sense of mind can give us an expansive sense of being. A contracted mind can give us a very contracted sense of being. If you have an expansive sense of being, you can be the elephant. If you have a contracted sense of being, caught up in something, then you can be like the ant.
So let’s meditate.
Take a comfortable, alert posture, gently closing your eyes. It’s helpful in the beginning of a sitting to spend a little bit of time getting into your posture. Maybe swaying back and forth; sideways; wiggling the spine. Perhaps feeling how the weight your body might move through the spine. And especially for those not using a backrest, maybe you can find a way to feel the way the weight of the body travel down the center of your spine. Because, in that case, the spine can support the weight instead of the muscles holding you up.
In the beginning of a sitting, it can be helpful to take a few long, slow deep breaths. As you breathe in deeply, feel the stretching of your ribcage, shoulders and belly almost like a massage from the inside. As you exhale, just relax, let go, and settle in.
Deep breath in… Long breath out…
And then letting your breath, return to normal. Take a few moments to scan through your body to see if there are any obvious places of holding or tension that you can either relax or if you can’t relax and let go of the holding, perhaps there could be a softening around it. A lightening up around it.
Then, within your body, as part of your body, become aware of the body’s experience of breathing. Feeling how the body might expand and contract. Parts of the body lift, and fall as you breathe, or the sensations of the air coming in and out through the nostrils.
Letting go, the best you can, of your thoughts and concerns from the day in order to settle into the experience of breathing. As if the breathing is your home base.
When you notice that you’re drifting off in thought, just notice that. Be relaxed about it, just notice that’s happened, and be mindful of that. Then without commentary or judgment, begin again with your breathing. Begin again being aware, breathing in and breathing out.
As you’re sitting here, what’s your overall mood or state? What’s the overall, general state of being? There are many things you might notice like that. Are you tired or alert? Do you feel contracted, or expanded? Calm or agitated? Fuzzy or clear, crisp?
Anxious or relaxed? Interested or bored? Patient or impatient?
Being aware of this overall state, how does it affect you? How does it affect how you see what’s going on and how you relate to it? How are you influenced by the state that you’re in?
As you’re mindful of all this, can you shift your identity; shift what you identify yourself with from your mood or your attitude to the mindfulness, the awareness that knows and recognizes the state you’re in?
Then, shifting gears a little bit, with whatever you’re noticing now, with whatever is happening now, what is your attitude towards that? How are you relating; what is your relationship to what is happening with meditation for you or the situation you’re in now, the thoughts you have, the feelings you have?
What’s the relationship or the attitude? Are you for it, or against it? Are you liking it, or not liking it?… Are you enjoying it or are you resisting? … Is there a wanting or not wanting? … What’s your attitude towards what’s happening? … It might even be your attitude to me giving you this question.
Then, can you shift your identity; shift yourself from kind of “being the attitude”, believing the attitude, to being mindful of it? Can you step out away from it and watch it?
Then, taking a deep breath or two, return more fully to your breathing. For the last two minutes of the sitting, just stay with your breathing as best you can. Not letting yourself be swept away through your attitude, your mood, your state. Stay with your breathing.
RETURN TO TALK:
I have here in front of me, this meditation bell that I just rang. It’s possible to just focus on that, but also, it’s possible to notice the environment that this bell is in. And our experience of paying attention to the bell could be influenced by the environment that we’re in. If this room was phenomenally dirty, messy and the trash was never picked up… you could hardly see the bell because of the trash everywhere. That atmosphere of the messy, dirty room would affect how we experience the bell in some ways.
If you come here to the meditation hall some day and nobody is here, I think it’s quite a beautiful, peaceful, quiet, expansive room to be in… you see the bell and it is part of this exquisite thing. Like a single Japanese flower in a Japanese flower arrangement in this quiet, empty room, it can be quite exquisite. As opposed to the same, single flower arrangement, that you stick on one of the shelves in the 7-11 grocery store. It has a different feeling for what it looks like.
The atmosphere or the environment in which something exists can affect how we relate to something. So the same thing applies to ourselves. We can focus on the details of our lives, the details of our thoughts, our feelings, our body sensations, what’s going on in our body. We can focus on our breathing itself. We can focus on the details, but the mindfulness of the mind is including within that an awareness of what the environment is in which these details are occurring.
It’s very easy for some people to get blinded by the details and not notice the overall atmosphere, the environment in which it occurs. So, mindfulness of the mind has to do with this overall state that we are in.
It can be very helpful to notice that, because it has such a big influence in how we are, the choices we make and how we think. If we can step out of it, and we can notice, “Oh, look at that! I am really feeling shaky today, I’m really vulnerable.” Maybe something dramatic happened, and I feel really vulnerable. “Oh, I better take that into account.” As opposed to not noticing the environment of vulnerability, and then stumbling through and wondering why things are so hard. So ask, “What’s going on here?”
Do we feel expansive, like an elephant, or do we feel tiny, small and insignificant? I’ve known people who have been quite petite and in their petiteness, they were really big. Their persona, their sense of being was huge. I know people who were quite small or short as adults, and I actually didn’t notice that they were short, because somehow their presence was so big.
Then I’ve known adults who are really tall and big, and they felt really small. They felt timid or something. There was a very small sense of self there. Again, it has to do with the environment that’s there. It’s a different feeling about what it’s like to be alive and be ourselves.
I want to say more about this, but I’d like to hear from you a little bit. So, in the meditation now, were you able to step back and get a sense of your overall mood, attitude or state of being that you had? If so, what did you discover, and what happened to you when you took that into account; when you could see that and be aware of it. It would be nice if someone could break the ice.
Student 1: I found that it was difficult and one of the things I found difficult was precision. I found it very easy to identify my attitude as “positive” or “negative”. You offered a number of options, I noticed whichever one the bad one was. And then I realized I don’t really feel those bad things. I can sort of identify a [dissatisfied sound].
Gil: There is a resistance or something?
Student 1: I didn’t have a precise differentiation; it was more like [a general negative feeling].
Gil: Great! It’s significant just to know that. I don’t know exactly what it was, some kind of generalized resistance or some kind of grumpiness about everything. So, when you’re aware of that, how is it different for you to be aware of it, vs. not being aware of it?
Student 1: The awareness of it was very pleasant.
Gil: [The feeling] was unpleasant, but the awareness of it was pleasant. Fantastic! So where would you rather be?
Student 1: Definitely in the awareness ! [laughs]
Gil: Great, thank you! Someone else?
Student 2: I was having a hard time with this meditation because I can’t distinguish between mindfulness of the mind vs. emotion or thought.
Gil: I’ll answer that question first, then maybe make a comment about the meditation.
There is a big overlap between them, but the difference is that there can be an emotional response that is a particular detail within the bigger environment. It doesn’t have to color how we are. So the grumpy person walking down the street might see someone in distress, and in that moment seeing the person in distress might actually be kind and helpful, but their overall grumpiness is still intact.
Or someone might be quite happy and carefree, and feeling expansive walking down the street, and then they see someone spits a big wad of spit right onto the crosswalk button that they were about to push [laughing]. They still stay pretty expansive, but for a moment there’s an irritation or annoyance that bubbles up, but that annoyance is just a little piece of who they are instead of defining who they are. So an emotion can be a subset or small part, whereas a state or mood is the overall gestalt. Make sense?
Student 2: A little bit.
Gil: So, it’s possible to have anger as a particular factor or function of the mind. And then it’s possible to have anger as the overall atmosphere for our mind as well. But, the anger doesn’t have to affect the attitude or atmosphere. So, that’s the difference, but there is overlap there.
Now a comment about your meditation. You say that you found this hard. So the attitude that you were supposed to pay attention to is: “This is hard. I’m having a difficult time here. I’m struggling with this.” Did you notice that?
Student 2: Actually, I think ‘hard’ was a label I was putting on it after the fact. During the experience itself I was aware that I had been in a problem-solving pattern of thought all day, and I was still in that problem-solving pattern of thought. So, that’s what I became aware of, and becoming aware of it was pleasant. But, I couldn’t connect this experience with what you said before, and what you were trying to teach.
Gil: Ok, it’s not that easy to understand, not that easy for me to explain.
Still, you noticed not so much the overall mood, but that the overall momentum of the thinking mind was problem solving. And noticing that was pleasant, like [student 1] said. What was it like in and of itself to be involved in that problem solving? Was that pleasant itself?
Student 2: No, it wasn’t pleasant or unpleasant, but it was singular or narrow minded.
Gil: So you could feel that your mood or attitude or overall way of being was kind of narrowed, and it was more pleasant to be aware. And in the state of awareness were you a little more expansive?
Student 2: Yes.
Gil: So you noticed that difference. Noticing differences is very helpful for the inner life of the mind. Because as we notice differences, almost naturally we can choose to go in directions that are healthy and helpful for us. So if you notice a difference between being narrowed down and expansive. A difference between caught up in something that’s unpleasant, and a way of being aware that is pleasant, then I think it’s a natural thing to go towards that which is more helpful.
So, the more distinctions we can make, the more we can move towards health and freedom.
Student 3: One thing that was very powerful for me was when you mentioned that we have choices. I found the mood or attitude that was coming up for me, which is not new for me, is a kind of general tiredness. It’s not perpetual, but there are certain times of certain days where I can just tell, “alright, I’m in that mode”. In fact, I’m not a morning person so it’s often in the morning. But sometimes it’s the evening, like tonight. It’s something that I’ve been aware of, but when I’m in that mode, it seems to take over. Just reminding myself that I’m in that mode, and I realize it, but I still have choices about actions that I take when I’m that space. That was very powerful for me. I’ll have to see how to apply that in day to day living when I leave here tonight.
Gil: Great! If you have choice, you have more freedom.
Student 4: Does one have a choice, for example, to be angry or not?
Gil: Sometimes, you have a choice and sometimes it doesn’t seem like you have a choice, but if you can be more mindful you would see there actually is a choice. Sometimes, who knows why we’re angry? Or, maybe we had a choice at the first moment, but we didn’t see it, and now it’s so powerful that it has to just play itself out, the momentum has to unwind. Now that I’m angry, it’s just “there”.
So, it’s an interesting question. I don’t want to say that we always have choice about these things. But mindfulness shows us how we have more and more choice. Most people have a lot more choice than they realize. There is a lot more choice potentially available if we wake up more and see more clearly.
When I was in my 20s, when I felt attracted to some woman, I would fall in love periodically. I got really interested to see where the choice was. Where the decision was to fall in love, and if there was a decision. I had to be very attentive and be careful. The assumption is, “wow, it’s chemistry, it just happened and I’m in love!”. That there’s no choice, that the person is so attractive. But if I really paid a lot of attention I could see that there was a certain degree of pleasure and satisfaction, and a feeling of something beautiful and nice. Then there would be a choice in my mind, “Oh, I want that. I want more of that. I want to be connected to that.” And that choice would then translate into what might be called, “falling in love”. But there was a choice, if I was quiet, still and concentrated enough to see. Falling in love, most people don’t think it’s a choice, they don’t want it to be a choice. Because that’s, “just the way things should be”, until it sours. [laughs] “How did I do that? What was I thinking? I wish someone had showed me where the choice was!”
BRIEF GUIDED MEDITATION:
So, just for a moment if you will, please close your eyes. Just as you are, you don’t have to change your posture… What would you say is your attitude right now? It doesn’t have to be special or precise. What attitude is the one that’s most operating for you right now?
Then, can you shift back and forth a few times, between being the attitude, being in the attitude, believing the attitude on the one hand, and then shifting to stepping out of the attitude and being mindful and knowing it’s there. Being the watcher of it.
If you can do this, notice how different it feels to be in the attitude, believing the attitude vs. stepping back from it and just seeing it there.
Ok, open your eyes. Were some of you able to shift back and forth between those two modes of being? Did that make sense for some of you? Can you tell us what you noticed?
BACK TO QUESTIONS AND COMMENTS
Student 5: I noticed that the mood I was in was receptive. Then if I noticed myself being receptive, I’m detached from it. It felt pleasant to be receptive, I want to get information, knowledge and insight. It felt pleasant to be in it. Then out of it, it was not as pleasant because I was observing it. Then, I thought that you don’t just selectively detach yourself from things depending on whether you like them or not.
Gil: There’s nothing wrong with having pleasure and being in receptive mode. But, when we meditate, what we’re trying to do is not cling or hold on to or indulge any particular thing. We don’t want to indulge or linger in that attitude. It’s good to be receptive, but if you’re leaning into it or holding on to it, it’s difficult to meditate. So with the stepping back, it doesn’t have to go away, you just become aware of it. Oddly enough, you’re in some ways more receptive when you’re in this mindful state, even though in the short term it might seem less pleasant because you were being soothed by it or something.
Student 6: I noticed a very similar sensation. When I stepped back, I felt like there was an energetic color shift. When I was there in the feeling of openness and receptivity there was a clarity to it. When I stepped back and was a watcher, it felt as though I disassociated myself, and in that disassociation, the color changed, and I felt a “blueness”. I don’t know if that makes sense, but that was my experience.
Gil: So, some people are very visual, and some people experience things in color like that. Great! Thank you.
Student 7: I discovered that I was in a slightly depressed mood when I checked in, which was kind of surprising because I didn’t think I was. It felt kind of heavy and kind of unpleasant. Then, when I did the shift, immediately, it was very light and airy. I could kind of look at this blob of depression as if it were on the floor, and I wasn’t part of it. I was much more freed and it was kind of like that expansiveness that you were talking about.
Gil: Great, beautiful. Very nice. I remember once when I was driving back down here from San Francisco at 10 in the evening, and I had a horrible headache. I felt nauseous because it was really bad. I was driving and so miserable, “poor me, maybe I’m not going to make it, maybe I should pull over, it’s so far to drive.” Then after a while I thought, “Oh, Gil, you teach mindfulness, [laughs] maybe you should try it.” So, I started bringing my mindfulness to what was going on, the pain, my self-pity and all these things. And as I did that, the pain didn’t go away, but it was a lot easier to be with. Some of the nausea went away and I felt a lot better very quickly. It was quite dramatic in some ways. Once I started feeling some distance or freedom or spaciousness about it all, I got complacent, and let my mindfulness stop, and then the pain was still there, so it was again, “Oh poor Gil, it hurts so much, I feel so nauseous, Oh I should be mindful!” Then I’d pull up the mindfulness again, and I could manage just fine. It was fun to watch this kind of movement of losing my mindfulness and bringing it back up. It was really consequential in that situation, because I got home fine.
Student 8: So how do you know if you’re disassociating or detaching.
Gil: In Buddhist English we don’t used the word detached, we use the word non-attached. I don’t know exactly why, but detached has a negative connotation, where non-attached is not supposed to be negative connotation. I don’t know what you feel [about that wording]. Disassociated means that you’re not connected to what’s going on. It means you’re really separated and aloof, and there is a wall between you and it. You’re shut down, somehow. Probably if you’re disassociated, you’re not connected to your body; you’re not connected to your emotions.
When you’re mindful and not attached, there’s this dual thing that goes on. It’s a little bit hard in language to describe this. It’s like two things are happening at once. One is that there is an increased intimacy and feeling of connection to what’s happening. And, at the same time, there’s a feeling of being independent of what we’re connected to. So, we’re really there, and we’re also free of what’s there.
If you’re too much the observer, too much stepped back, too far away, then we lose that sense of connection. But if we’re too connected and involved, then there’s no wisdom and understanding there. So as we get less attached, less preoccupied, or caught up by things, then the way in which “caught-upness” or attachment or clinging or agitation of the mind which clouds our experience, separates us from the experience, squeezes the experience… all of that falls away, then there’s a clear perception, a clear and cleaner contact with what’s going on. That cleaner contact can feel quite intimate.
But still, that intimacy feels independent of what you’re aware of. So the sense of being an observer gives a sense of independence. So, both are kind of going on. Does that make sense?
Student 8: It begins to make sense; I think I’ll just sit with it.
Gil: When we’re mindful of something, we use the language of being an observer, for example. But you don’t want to be too much in the watching mode. You also want to feel the experience. So, some meditation teachers will avoid any language associated with seeing. Like, “watch your experience, observe your experience”. Because it lends itself to being separated from your experience in a way that sometimes is not so helpful. So instead they’ll use language like “feel your experience, sense your experience, rest in the experience” to bring that close together. But that language sometimes doesn’t allow people to be independent of the experience, to see it in greater clarity and be present.
If you’re going to err, I would err on the side of feeling instead of seeing. We want to be connected to what’s happening.
Student 9: This is only the third time I’ve tried this so I’m really new to it all. What I did notice is one of the first times I’ve ever felt this: I got this sense of pleasant drift. It was like jumping into a great big feather bed on a cold night and getting really comfortable and cozy. But, then I also noticed as the meditation went on, [I started with that pleasant sensation, but as you mentioned the various feelings, like being tired, I seemed to begin to feel each one of them that you mentioned.]
Gil: I should have ended with, “Am I happy?” [laugh]
Student 9: So the question is, what am I really? Or am I being whatever is suggested?
Gil: It might be, especially if you were in a very relaxed floating mode, the power of suggestion can be quite strong, and just saying a word can invoke that state. Or it might be “all of the above” but you’re selecting out of the collection of things as you hear the words. A person can be both tired and excited and happy and eager and all those things can be true. Also, if I say the word “eager”, I trigger the eagerness that wasn’t there before and the suggestion can evoke it. If you’re more relaxed some people are more suggestible in the relaxed state. That’s why in hypnosis, the power of suggestion is so strong.
In mindfulness meditation, we don’t want to use suggestion to evoke anything. This is just an exercise here to give you some sense. It’s really the opposite of evoking or suggesting or making something happen, it’s more the noticing what is happening. As you continue, you’ll just notice what’s happening, and it will clarify and become clearer for you in a sense, who you are and what’s going on. It will give you a kind of ballast, grounding or centering in the midst of all of the changes that go on in your life. The awareness will offer clarity or stability that lets you not be swept away by things. Does that make sense?
Student 9: Yes.
So, in terms of meditation practice, the overall attitude or state of being that you have when you sit down to meditate will also affect your meditation and how it unfolds. It will affect how you relate to the meditation and what’s going on as the meditation proceeds. So, if you don’t pay attention and you sit down to meditation without noticing, “Oh, I’m grumpy”, then somehow that grumpiness can keep affecting you as you go along and derail you from your meditation. But if you notice, “I’m grumpy”, then you take that into account, and you’ll be much more likely to notice when the mind drifts off into grumpy kind of thoughts and catch it and come back. You might notice how much your mood affects what you want, and how you respond to different things that happen as you meditate.
Taking into account the overall state that you have while you meditate might actually make the meditation easier, even if the overall state might be unpleasant. Because then, you can factor that in to help you stay on track.
Student 10: If you have an emotion, you label it, and give it room. Do you do the same thing for an overall mood or state?
Gil: Yes, you can do that, it’s fascinating to do it. Especially if it’s strong. Sometimes there are very strong states of mind, consciousness or being that are so clearly there, that you want to bring mindfulness to it. Even if it’s not that strong, sometimes it’s useful to just explore it a little bit, and hold it in awareness. Especially if you feel like it’s influencing you a lot, then you want to stop and be present for it for a while, feel it, feel how big it is. Does it feel like it’s as big as your body? Sometimes, certain states feel like they’re actually bigger than your body, “Oh, look at that! I didn’t realize it was that big.”
Student 10: [Sometimes a mood] feels huge and dark.
Gil: So, then you can feel the hugeness of it, “how big is it?” and “how dark can it really be?” Just feel it, and be with it. What happens when I feel the hugeness and darkness and be present for that and see what happens. It can be fun.
BACK TO TALK:
What I’m trying to convey today, mindfulness of the mind, attitude, mood that might be there. It’s a little bit hard to convey. So some of you might be confused by this, or it might not make a lot of sense. If that’s the case, don’t worry about it.
To just do the first week’s instructions of coming back to your breath and being with your breath is enough for a year of meditation practice. Just doing that is very significant and helpful. Exploring that first week’s instructions as you go forward for awhile, might actually be better than racing through these six weeks the way we’re doing. Or it might be that the first and second week, just doing that is enough. It’s simple, it’s straightforward… being aware of the breath and being aware of what’s going on in the body, going back and forth that’s enough.
So if you find this is getting too complicated, “boy this Gil guy he says, breath then body then emotions, then thoughts, then this strange thing called overall state, and there’s so much to pay attention to here, I feel like I’m juggling while I’m meditating, how am I ever going to get relaxed? I can’t even remember it all!” So if it’s like that, just forget it all, and go back just to your breathing. The breathing is the default. Stay with your breathing, stay with your breathing, until some of these other realms or experiences become so glaringly obvious that you go, “Oh, I better pay attention to this.” So, if emotion becomes so clear, then you can do what I’m talking about. But you don’t have to be wondering, what am I supposed to be doing now?
Go back to your breath, be with your breath, trust your breath. It might be at some point as you go along, that these instructions about the attitude or overall atmosphere or state of being is helpful because it becomes so glaringly present. One interesting place it becomes very present and is useful and important to notice is when your meditation gets really strong.
Strong states of meditation primarily are characterized by very strong changes in our overall mood, atmosphere, attitude, state of mind or state of being. Very radically different states of being than we normally would be walking down the street, going to work. And we say, “Wow, this is a whole different state of being I’m in. Gil talked about that different state of being. Let me feel this.” Then, bring mindfulness, and be attentive to that. Then it might be obvious and useful.
So, I’m laying out the instructions here, but you don’t have to memorize it all, or second-guess where you’re supposed to be. If it’s not obvious, then be with the breath. Make sense? That way it’s really simple. It’s supposed to be simple.
If it’s not simple it’s not mindfulness.
If you’re saying, “what should I do next, am I supposed to be digging in here, stepping back, and looking at it, am I supposed to be feeling it?” That’s not simple. If you’re making things that complicated, then very simply notice how complicated it’s gotten, and just go back to the breathing and be with the breath.
So, thank you very much for today!