Meditation and mindfulness practice doesn't begin or end on the cushion or chair, it is meant to be practiced in many different situations and locations. One of the best ways to help bridge sitting meditation with daily life meditation is in cultivating skills in awareness. We need to know how to pay attention to what we are doing while we are doing it. Below are a series of exercises to help do just this.
Choose one or two of these exercises and practice them daily for three weeks (21 days). Then, after the three weeks, choose another one or two and practice them for three weeks, and so on. Keeping a journal as you practice these exercises will be very revealing and helpful to your development. Remember to have fun with this! Avoid making it work, but rather let it be a discovery:
Exercise 1: Ask yourself “What is happening right now?” — at least once (preferably twice) a day, practice focusing on the moment, just as it is occurring. Each time we do this practice, it will be entirely different. When we start learning how to pay attention we will notice that every moment offers new sensations and new levels of awareness. You will discover this for yourself as you begin to bring your attention fully to this exercise.
Exercise 2: Stop and ask “What am I doing right now?” — Several times a day (at least three), stop whatever you are doing and ask yourself the question: What am I doing right now? Notice how your mind responds and then separate the observation of WHAT you are doing from any thoughts, feelings, judgements ABOUT what you are doing. Allow yourself to set aside any such thoughts and judgements and focus on describing as concisely as you can on WHAT you are doing right that moment. Choose an activity or signal that you can use to remind you to practice, such as: for a few seconds every hour; every time you eat; every time you move from room to room or location to location, etc. As you practice, you will begin to notice a shift in the patterns of your internal response. Make note of those patterns. Let go of any judgements about how well you are doing the exercise. Just notice.
Exercise 3: Stop and See — Several times a day, stop whatever you are doing and look around you for one minute. Really take in what you are seeing—objects, colors, movements, light, shadow, etc. Then pretend you are describing what you are seeing to someone who has never seen before. Observe for the full minute, and notice the thoughts that arise shortly after you begin. Keep this up for the entire minute! This exercise helps us to strengthen our awareness capacity.
Exercise 4: Stop and Listen — Several times a day, stop whatever you are doing and listen for one full minute. Listen to any far away sounds, nearby sounds, sounds outside, sounds inside, etc. Describe or identify the sounds as though you are communicating to someone who has never heard. Be sure to keep this practice up for the full minute.
Exercise 5: Stop and Feel — Several times a day, stop whatever you are doing and for one minute, pay attention to what your body is feeling. Notice the external feelings, the air movement, the temperature, clothing against your skin, the points of contact your body makes with the floor, ground, chair, or whatever is supporting your body. Notice any internal sensations, discomfort, pain, tension, numbness, pleasant sensations, unpleasant sensations, even areas of no sensation at all. Notice how these sensations move and change even as you pay attention to them. Let the sensations come and go, as well as any thoughts or judgements that might arise in response. Maintain this focus for the full minute.
With the passing of Thanksgiving, we are entering into the busy holiday season. As we add to our already busy schedules preparations for holiday gatherings, we find stress levels going up. As the stress goes up, we tend to let our meditation practice slide, telling ourselves that we will get back to it when it is more convenient. However, letting our practice slip doesn't help us deal with the increasing stress levels.
Often, we turn to an unrestrained desire for stimulation to cope. Our consumer culture is built upon a desire for stimulation. This constant chasing after stimulation increases our stress levels. A regular meditation practice helps bring into awareness our underlying attachments to stimulation, which helps to keep it in check. This holiday season, it is in our best interests to keep up our meditation practice and watch out for our tendency to look toward external stimulation as a way to keep us busy, when we would do better to take some time for quiet and stillness. The stress and pressures of the holidays will make it more difficult for us to sit and find quiet. When we do actually sit to practice, we might find our extra busyness creating more challenge to our regular practice due to all the extra stimulation that comes with the season.
Here are some suggestions for helping to manage our desire for stimulation:
As we begin to enter the holiday season, amid the pressures and stress that come with it, please remember that attention, compassion and gratitude toward yourself and others is the greatest gift you can give above all others.
Wishing Others Well or practicing WOW, is a terrific way to get in touch with gratitude, especially when it seems the furthest from our mind. Wish everything you encounter that it is well and at peace. I say everything! That means giving thans to the rock in your shoe, the person that cuts you off in traffic, the deer that eats your shrubs, the pot hole-filled road you travel on, the clunky car you drive, the ranting boss, as well as, the mail person that delivers your mail, the cashier at the store, the laughter of children, etc.
Offer everyone and everything well wishes and really let go of anything else you might be holding onto. If you do, you might just find that not only do you give a gift to others but you yourself may experience the gift of gratitude emerging from your very own heart.
by Marshall B. Rosenberg, PhD
Over the last thirty years I’ve had a wealth of experience speaking NVC [nonviolent communication] with people who harbor strong beliefs about specific races and ethnic groups. Early one morning I was picked up by a cab at an airport to take me into town. A message from the dispatcher came over the loud speaker for the cabbie: “Pick up Mr. Fishman at the synagogue on Main Street.” The man next to me in the cab muttered, “These kikes get up early in the morning so they can screw everybody out of their money.”
For twenty seconds, there was smoke coming out of my ears. In earlier years, my first reaction would have been to want to physically hurt such a person. Now I took a few deep breaths and then gave myself some empathy for the hurt, fear, and rage that were stirring inside me. I attended to my feelings. I stayed conscious that my anger wasn’t coming from my fellow passenger nor the statement he had just made. His comment triggered off a volcano inside of me, but I knew that my anger and profound fear came from a far deeper source than those words he had just uttered. I sat back and simply allowed the violent thoughts to play themselves out. I even enjoyed the image of actually grabbing his head and smashing it.
Giving myself this empathy enabled me to then focus my attention on the humanness behind his message, after which the first words out of my mouth were, “Are you feeling…?” I tried to empathize with him, to hear his pain. Why? Because I wanted to see the beauty in him and for him to fully apprehend what I had experienced when he made his remark. I knew I wouldn’t receive that kind of understanding if there were a storm brewing inside of him. My intention was to connect with him and to show a respectful empathy for the life energy in him that was behind the comment. My experience told me that if I were able to empathize, then he would be able to hear me in return. It would not be easy, but he would be able to.
“Are you feeling frustrated?” I asked. “It appears that you might have had some bad experiences with Jewish people.”
He eyed me for a moment, “Yeah! These people are disgusting, they’ll do anything for money.”
“You feel distrust and the need to protect yourself when you’re involved in financial affairs with them?”
“That’s right! he exclaimed, continuing to release more judgments, as I listened for the feeling and need behind each one. When we settle our attention on other people’s feelings and needs, we experience our common humanity. When I hear that he’s scared and wants to protect himself, I recognize how I also have a need to protect myself and I to know what it’s like to be scared. When my consciousness is focused on another human being’s feelings and needs, I see the universality of our experience. I had a major conflict with what went on in his head, but I’ve learned that I enjoy human beings more if I don’t hear what they think. Especially with folks who have his kind of thoughts, I’ve learned to savor life much more by only hearing what’s going on in their hearts and not getting caught up with the stuff in their heads.
This man kept on pouring out his sadness and frustration. Before I knew it, he’d finished with Jews and moved on to Blacks. He was charged with pain around a number of subjects. After nearly ten minutes of my just listening, he stopped: he had felt understood.
Then I let him know what was going on in me:
MBR [Marshall B. Rosenberg]: “You know, when you first started to talk, I felt a lot of anger, a lot of frustration, sadness and discouragement, because I’ve had very different experiences with Jews than you’ve had, and I was wanting you to have much more the kind of experiences I’ve had. Can you tell me what you heard me say?”
Man: “Oh, I’m not saying they’re all…”
MBR: “Excuse me, hold on, hold it. Can you tell me what you heard me say?”
Man: “What are you talking about?”
MBR: “Let me repeat what I’m trying to say. I really want you to just hear the pain I felt when I heard your words. It’s really important to me that you hear that. I was saying I felt a real sense of sadness because my experiences with Jewish people have been very different. I was just wishing that you had had some experiences that were different from the ones you were describing. Can you tell me what you heard me say?”
Man: “You’re saying I have no right to talk the way I did.”
MBR: “No, I would like to you to hear me differently.I really don’t want to blame you. I have no desire to blame you.”
I intended to slow down the conversation, because in my experience, to whatever degree people hear blame, they have failed to hear our pain. If this man said, “Those were terrible things for me to say; those were racist remarks I made,” he would not have heard my pain. As soon as people think that they have done something wrong, they will not be fully apprehending our pain.
I didn’t want him to hear blame, because I wanted him to know what had gone on in my heart when he uttered his remark. Blaming is easy. People are used to hearing blame; sometimes they agree with it and hate themselves—which doesn’t stop them from behaving the same way—and sometimes they hate us for calling them racists or whatever—which also doesn’t stop their behavior. If we sense blame entering their mind, as I did in the cab, we may need to slow down, go back and hear their pain for a while more.
Nonviolent Communication: a language of life
Marshall B. Rosenberg, PhD
Puddle Dancer Press
Encinitas, CA © 2003
I am Do'an Prajna, a bhikṣu (fully ordained Zen Buddhist monk) and zen teacher. Here I share my thoughts and observations about living a life of compassion, attention and gratitude.