Meditation trains your mind to bring calm and clarity in all of life. This article draws from the teachings of Culadasa and his book, The Mind Illuminated (TMI).
Meditation is the training of your mind to direct its attention onto any chosen object, for any chosen duration. Simultaneously, meditation is also the training of your mind’s ability to be vividly aware of what is happening, while it is happening, no matter what it is.
Being aware of “what is happening, while it is happening, no matter what it is” necessarily means that you engage in meditation only in the present. What you did in the past, be it years, hours, minutes or even seconds ago, is not relevant to the process of meditation. Similarly, what you plan to do in the future is irrelevant during this training. One of the first things you want to learn to do when starting off in meditation is to notice when you are thinking of the past or planning for the future.
Whenever you are aware of any thinking or planning, you are actually engaging in mindfulness meditation. When you are caught up in the contents of your thoughts and plans, you are thinking and planning. Remember that meditation is the training of your mind in awareness of what is happening, while it is happening, no matter what it is. So, to state it in a slightly different way, thinking or planning is doing what you normally do, and knowing that you are thinking or planning is starting to engage in the process of meditation.
The purpose of learning the art of meditation is to free your mind of its habitual tendencies and conditionings that cause you to suffer. We all operate through unconscious habits throughout the day. These habits are necessary, because if we didn’t have these unconscious processes, we would simply not be able to function in life. For example, if we had to think each step of the way every time we wanted to make a cup of coffee or tea, we would probably die of dehydration within a week. Imagine noticing being thirsty, thinking of drinking, consciously having to remember where the kitchen is (let alone that the kitchen is the place we need to go to make a drink), figuring out each of the muscles in our bodies needed to stand up, walk to the kitchen, deviate from a straight course to avoid furniture, reach out for a kettle to fill it up, remember to press the button to put the kettle to boil, reaching out for the button, etc etc. I will spare you the details, but suffice to say, a lot of unconscious processing occurs in the mind and body simply to hydrate us each day, and this unconscious processing is necessary for our survival.
While our unconscious habits play an important role in our functioning, they are not always beneficial to us, nor to the people around us. Part of learning to meditate is to notice habitual tendencies that are not useful to us. In so doing, we are Freeing Our Mind of unbeneficial tendencies such that instead of simply reacting habitually, we learn to respond more appropriately.
Meditation leads to much more, though. In developing this skill, you also start to notice how the mind works; rather than being consumed by the contents of your mind constantly, you start being more interested in the processes of your mind. When this happens, you start realising that the premises you base your understanding of the world on do not necessarily always hold true; you start to see the world for the way it is, rather than the way you imagine it to be.
So, the training of awareness (or mindfulness) is essential to meditation. Concurrently, in meditation, you train your mind’s ability to attend to any chosen object, for the duration of your choosing. This simultaneous training of attention and awareness is essential in the process of meditation.
Let me try to clarify the difference between attention and awareness a bit more. Right now, your attention is, I hope, on reading and understanding the meaning of what I am saying. You have chosen to read this, which presumably means you are interested in reading this to the end. You are directing your attention to what is on the page. Simultaneously, though, you may also be aware of your posture in terms of whether you are sitting or standing, whether it is dark or light in your current location, whether you are feeling generally relaxed or tense.
You can be vaguely aware of what else is happening for you, or vividly aware. Meditation trains your awareness to more clearly comprehend what is occurring for you in this moment, in addition to training your ability to keep your attention on whatever you choose.
An object of meditation we often use is the sensations related to our breath. Whether or not you are aware you are breathing at any given time, and whether or not you put your attention to the sensations of your body that indicate to you that you are breathing, your breath is always with you. This makes it a very useful object of meditation.
Now, assuming you are choosing your breath as your object of meditation, what does the distinction between attention and awareness feel like? If you put your attention to bodily sensations related to your breath, you want to keep it there for as long as you can. As anyone who has tried to meditate has undoubtedly discovered, though, your attention often moves from where you initially chose to put it.
How do you know it has moved? Initially, you may not notice for a long time that you have become distracted and forgotten that you had planned to place your attention on your breath. But, out of the blue, you suddenly realise you are now thinking of something else, or tending to some sound in your surroundings. You realise this because of your natural faculty of awareness.
Now this is an important part. Remember that you are simultaneously training your awareness and attention. If attention has faltered but awareness has picked this up, you want to be able to strengthen the ability of your awareness to continue to notice whenever your attention weakens. The best way to do this is to form a positive feedback loop in your brain. So, how do you do this? You learn to appreciate that each time you notice that you have been distracted, you are actually doing exactly what you are meant to do in meditation. In this case, you are training your awareness.
What most people do at this point is get a bit frustrated or annoyed that they have faltered in their attention, when they should really be happy that their awareness was strong enough to have picked up on this. When awareness does its job, you need to reinforce this such that it continues in the future. Rather than getting annoyed or frustrated, you need to congratulate yourself for noticing. Only after appreciating your success in awareness should you let go of the thought or distraction, gently bring your attention back to the sensations in your body related to your breath, and continue to train your attention.
Positive feedback is the best way our brains work to learn a new task. For example, if we were to train a puppy to sit, irrespective of how frustrated or annoyed we are with the puppy who clearly doesn’t understand English, the puppy will initially not be able to comprehend the command ‘sit’. However, if whenever the puppy does sit upon the command, we praise it enthusiastically, pat it or reward it in some way, it will happily listen out for which of the dozens of stimuli and actions that occurred prior to the praise is likely to get it the reward again. In this way, the puppy happily learns to sit upon hearing the command in no time.
You need to train your mind in a similar manner. If you punish yourself for not being able to sustain your attention on a chosen object, you are missing the opportunity to train your mind by rewarding the awareness aspect of this training. If you don’t do this, you don’t give your mind the most optimal way of learning; that is, through positive reinforcement. So, every time you notice your mind has wandered off, be happy that you have noticed. We call this spontaneous introspective awareness, and this ‘aha!’ moment is a key aspect of this training. This is what allows for new discoveries. So, rejoice in these moments of awareness at every opportunity. This is the best way to train your mind.
One thing that I have not mentioned yet is the attitude of your mind while meditating. A mind that is meditating comes from a space of openness, clarity, interest and acceptance. From this vantage, whatever you notice that is in touch with reality, is allowed. This includes times when you notice that you are distracted, like I just discussed. It is good that you have noticed, and you should reinforce this ability to be aware. Sometimes, you will also notice frustration in your practice. This is also good. Remember, you are training your mind to be more aware. Not being frustrated at your frustration is a key way to decrease its existence. This is the first step. The next step is to learn to let go of it.
Letting go is an essential part of this training that is sometimes difficult to do. When you start meditating, many things will distract you. Not only will they distract you, but they will also appear more enticing. Even if you are aware that these distractions are present and that you are no longer meditating, you still are seduced into continuing to direct your attention to them instead of the less interesting sensations related to your breath. This is a normal part of this process.
If you consider letting go as simply shifting your attention from one object to another, this provides a practical way in which you can start this part of the practice. So, you start with a decision to diligently move your attention back to your object of meditation every time we notice it has wavered. Whenever you next notice that your attention has been inadvertently pulled to a thought, for example, be happy and congratulate yourself for having recognized this, then gently shift your attention back to sensations of your body related to your breath. If you have to do this a dozen, or even a hundred, times in the next few minutes, you will have that many opportunities to train your mind in awareness and in letting go. Simply having this attitude of mind will allow you to naturally, and happily, train your mind in attention.
True meditation is when you have an optimal balance between attention and awareness. Until that time, these foundations of practice are essential. Once you develop your abilities in attention and awareness, everything else falls into place.