Teachers teach what they most need to learn, a saying goes. And so it follows that I like sharing my own learning with interested others and those who come along to my classes. Recently, I have been practising compassion practices such as Metta – Lovingkindness and Tonglen – Giving and Receiving more often and have started integrating these styles into my group classes. In this article I have attempted to present how some meditation techniques can support us but also how they differ in approach and possible benefits.
It is interesting that mindfulness breath-awareness practices have become so popular recently while there are other styles of meditation that are also very much part of long traditions and yet are not taught as regularly. Once we’ve more or less settled the mind or the body through mindfulness practices, what next? In classic mindfulness we stay with breath awareness and while we might be creating some conditions for calm, rest and awareness, at times we could actually be practising aversion by not staying longer or deeper with a thought or feeling that comes up while we follow the breath. There is also much talk in meditation circles about practising ‘letting go’ but what actually helps us to let go? Compassion-focussed meditations and other practices beyond classic mindfulness can provide profound ways for us to integrate, accept, let go and even transform thoughts and feelings. For instance, just through willpower, it can be very hard to let certain things go, but through the softening we derive through concentrating on tenderness and compassion we might indeed open further to letting go and connecting with our common humanity.
Thupta Jinpa was once a monk and translator for the Dalai Lama and is now a leading researcher, writer and teacher of compassion practices. Jinpa explains that mindfulness practices offer a window for greater self-awareness but are generally neutral or values free whereas compassion-focused meditations will start with a definite intention, work to expand or amplify particular states or emotions and impact one’s motivation. Sharon Saltzberg, another leading teacher in this field, calls it changing the default mode. In these specific compassion practices we gain further opportunities to watch some of our resistance, hurts or well-crafted defence mechanisms.
Mindfulness using the breath:
As mentioned above, the trend in the west is for a type of mindfulness practice that is based on following the breath or scanning around the body as you let thoughts and feelings come and go. There are many online recordings, apps and articles that offer mindfulness programs and many of these are inspired by the work of Jon Kabat-Zin’s Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction Program (MBSR) which took off in the early eighties. Around this time Kabat-Zin’s work with participants was clinically tested on participants who engaged in eight-week mindfulness meditation programs and the success of these and similar programs led to mindfulness courses being funded and more widely used elsewhere.
While there are some variations, the basic three instructions for this style of mindfulness are:
- Watch the breath at the nose and watch the inhale and exhale (using different ways to watch the breath at the nose to keep the focus…).
- If there are thoughts, know you’re having them.
- If you are feeling something, know you are feeling it.
And back again… 1. Watch the breath at the nose. 2 … 3 …
This is the cornerstone of mindfulness as presented by modern, secular teachers who now have science on their side ever since neuroscientist and long-time meditator Richard Davidson flew monks from Nepal and Tibet to labs in Madison, Wisconsin in order to scan these advanced meditators’ brains (2001). Mindfulness using the breath is a major technique that is sold as a way of offering some space, peace and calm. And this works, certainly in my experience. The space created while watching the breath provides the practitioner some reprieve from constant thoughts, worry or pain. Thoughts can indeed pass across the screen of the mind like clouds and as they pass we can also notice things with a different quality of awareness because we are in the role of a witness. We can take our thoughts and feelings less seriously, be more curious and accepting of them, let them go and/or perhaps take further action when they really do require more attention.
However, from teacher Jack Kornfield I have learnt that rather than returning to the anchor of the breath so rapidly each time we become distracted, actually staying a few moments and observing whatever thoughts and feelings arise can provide further opportunities for growth and knowledge. For example, if we are watching the breath and sadness comes up, then name it for a few moments… ‘sadness, sadness’ and then go back to the practice of watching the breath. Or if we have replaying thoughts, label or group them where any themes exist. For me it is often, although not singularly, ‘worry, worry’. We can try letting thoughts or feeling go or instead we can stay with them for longer, travel into their depths and quirks and in that way both experience things as they really are and find out more. So much focus is usually given to staying with the breath at all times. Yet intentionally naming the feelings or thoughts as they come and go can be a missed but valuable opportunity. By staying for longer and inquiring more into momentary experiences, we might sit with more friendliness and openness to the many waves of distraction such as ‘itchy’, ‘pain’, ‘tired’, ‘obsessing’, ‘boredom’… In this way, we continue to develop resilience through honest and open observations.
Vipassana or Insight Meditation – using Body Scanning:
We can also use the body as a focus. During ten-day silent Vipassana retreats the first three days are spent watching the breath at the nose, and then the next seven days are spent scanning up and down body parts. The same principle as the mindfulness-on-breath principle above applies: 1. scan up and down the body 2. know when thoughts arrive and then return to the body and continue the body scanning 3. know when feelings arrive and still return to the body and continue scanning.
Before describing other practices below, I would like to emphasise that I believe the mindfulness techniques above are the cornerstones of meditation. Journalist and once meditation-skeptic but now practitioner and advocate Dan Harris reports that mindfulness meditation has made him 10% happier. I am sure it has made me 10% less crazy. We can indeed tame, channel, express and even transform our thoughts and feelings in ways that continue to provide benefits for ourselves and others. The practices described below are also well worth exploring because they seem to provide a road map of what to do with some of those thoughts and feelings that we find arise in mindfulness practices and in our daily lives.
Metta – Loving-kindness Meditation:
While not as established as scientific trials conducted into mindfulness courses, research is also now being conducted into the effects of compassion-style practices where practitioners sit and repeat mantras of goodwill such as “may you be happy, may you live with ease…” The words chosen for repetition can vary and be chosen for personal meaning and resonance by the meditator but the formal purpose and structure is to sit with these intentions in stages for yourself, for a loved one, for acquaintances, for someone you might find challenging and for all people and living beings. I still have my training wheels on in this practice and my guiding in class is probably clunky at times, but there are great recordings available by Sharon Salzberg, Jack Kornfield and Joseph Goldstein and many others. Some words I recently heard Jack Kornfield use in guiding the practice are “may I be held in compassion, may my pain and sorrow be eased, may I be at peace”. Who wouldn’t want more of this in their lives? One major principle in this technique is that it might be hard to wish ourselves well and therefore we can start by first holding the wishes for happiness, ease and peace for a loved one. After feeling the natural expansion of these intentions for a loved one, we can then do it with more confidence or openness for ourselves. We also extend our wishes for peace and happiness to people and relationships we might find challenging. This is the opposite of shadenfreude or pleasure derived from someone’s misfortune because when we notice that we can’t easily extend good wishes to someone we find challenging then, as Sharon Salzberg explains, we are clearly the ones who are suffering in those moments. While we repeat certain phrases or intentions, we can be aware and watch the distraction of our reactions and just as we would do in other focused practices we keep returning to the phrases of goodwill while making a note of any ambivalences or resistance.
Tonglen – Giving (happiness) and Receiving (suffering):
Tonglen meditation comes from a Tibetan tradition where practitioners choose to sit with another’s pain and their own pain. Pema Chodron is the leading exponent in this area. There is little doubt that some of our own suffering comes from a reluctance or refusal to be with pain and suffering. Our inner compasses are often set to draw away and numb ourselves from pain and this seems reasonable – who wants more pain? And yet through sitting in the eye of the storm and weathering pain, we can soften, have less fear and grow in compassion. Pema Chodron writes beautifully about how we can handle pain and sit with it in transformative ways that create compassion and healing. Central to this practice is the work of sitting with others’ pain and feeling the universality of suffering in order to develop the strength of compassion. In preparation for this practice, we breathe in a sense of heaviness, heat and thickness and then breathe out lightness and coolness and continue doing this for a while. Once this breathing pattern is established we then breathe in and take in the heaviness of another’s or our own suffering and breathe out into lightness and coolness while sending out love and good wishes to others and by extension ourselves. When I have guided Tonglen sessions I have often had people talk to me about the powerful effect of the practice. For myself, I can’t get enough of Pema Chodron’s work and how she translates and guides this practice for modern contexts. Pema has written many books including When Pain is the Doorway, When Things Fall Apart and Start Where You Are. Her writing is as beautiful as these titles suggest and she has also recorded many talks on the subject of Tonglen and other practices.
Antar Mouna – Inner Silence:
Antar Mouna is a practice I first came across during my Satyananda yoga training and it was THE technique I resonated with the most. In Antar Mouna time is first spent settling the body into sitting with some stillness and then the focus moves to watching thoughts in stages. Stages can range from watching spontaneous thoughts, to choosing starting points such as thinking about a minor challenge and then moving to a more challenging situation. Once we choose a challenge to hold in awareness, we then watch what thoughts and feelings flow from that and how these might be inter-connected. We watch and observe those thoughts with gentleness and curiosity without having to believe them or act on them. In this way, we watch the virtual reality of our thoughts, rather than hoping they will pass like clouds or expecting to let go easily on request. At intervals, we can provide ourselves opportunities to drop the practice completely and return to another focus such as the breath. I love this practice as it allows us to practice some stillness while still fully observing our thoughts. For a large part of the practice, we don’t use any other focus such as the breath or the body since our thoughts are our total focus. As we sit, we can notice the web our thoughts often create. One instruction is to notice as soon as a new thought arises. In this way, we are not freed by finding an empty mind space, but rather by fully noticing the virtual reality and inter-connected weaving of our thoughts, particularly as happens when we chose a thought, theme or experience to focus on as a starting point. While predominantly a mental practice, we can follow the same steps when observing feelings. For example, if you are someone grappling with a lot of anger, you can choose that as a focus and see what arises in the form of any thoughts or feelings. Often enough, if we sit long and deep enough with anger we are presented with fear as a major underlying cause.
Gratitude practices and the ‘Inner Resource’:
The Positive Psychology movement has popularised ideas and practices that perhaps some monks, spiritual practitioners, poets and many others have known and benefitted from for many centuries. Researcher, teacher and educator Rick Hanson has recently written a book called Resilient and another is Hardwiring Happiness. Hanson explains that while in meditation we of course sit with and allow whatever is inside us to come up but that we also need to ‘cultivate’ and consolidate things inside us or amplify aspects of our experience that will help us build resilience. This is not really a new concept. Both compassion and gratitude meditations do this. In a gratitude meditation we sit and list or recall things we are thankful for. We know that as humans we are at risk of our own negative biases, remembering and recalling the negative things that happen to us with much more skill and therefore consequence than recalling and valuing all the positives things that happen to us and around us. What is new and exciting is not that we can have or find resilience, but how we can actively develop it through specific practices of focus and concentration in meditation and how our brains change along with practices.
This resilience is also developed in a style of meditation/deep relaxation currently finding favour called iRest. In iRest practices the teacher first guides participants to find their ‘inner resource’ or place of safety and calm, often created visually. This is then a place or space the meditator can return to or call upon at any time in the practice, such as when recalling challenging things. iRest has its origins in ancient yoga nidra traditions and was developed by Richard Miller for use with military veterans in the USA. While of course it can at times be essential to suppress some things for personal safety, it is also deeply therapeutic when experiences can be processed and this work is trauma-sensitive because if offers a way to slowly and safely hold aspects of challenge and trauma alongside an ‘inner resource’ or place of deep safety. While not all of us have experienced trauma, we all possess bad habits or ways of thinking that we’d prefer not to persist with and this is where taming the negative bias and integrating the negative with the positive by building inner resources or resilience free us.
Most of us need to let go of things but how can we do that, asks Rick Hanson. And this is spot on – we might know what we need to do in order to live better lives but how can we do it. At times, we all need to feel more loving, forgiving and calm. Clinical definitions of mindfulness direct us to watch our thoughts and our feelings. This is not always easy but the ‘simple’ act of watching thoughts and feelings can allow us to understand them and maybe act with more wisdom. However, in some cases observing our thoughts and experiences in meditation might not lead to changes in our everyday actions. We might need more than witnessing, observation and non-reaction. Equipping ourselves with further inner resources and intentionally focusing on compassion, gratitude, safety and other states might encourage the growth, positivity and freedom we desire and innately know possible.
There is no one perfect prescription of meditation techniques but we are learning more about how the brain works all the time. When we practice meditation, we can feel it working. How wonderful that these days scientists are on the job of showing us the how and why! Ten percent less crazy sounds good to me and these compassion practices can feel pretty good too. So onwards!
Artwork: Imperfect Spaces by Suzanne Frydman
© Suzanne Frydman / Relax Communications