Monday, March 26, 2012

Basic instructions for walking meditation

Find a level path approximately 20 steps long away from distractions.
Specify a length of time for the meditation.
With a softened gaze, look about six feet ahead of you.
Without looking, put your mental attention on the movement of the feet, the home object.
Note “right, left” or “lifting, pushing, placing.”
If secondary objects arise, note them only as long as necessary, and then return to noting the home object.
Stop if a secondary object becomes too dominant and interferes with your focus on the home object.  Note until it passes away.
At the end of the path, note “stopping” and “turning” and then resume walking and noting the home object.

Stages of meditation

The accompanying diagram shows the stages in meditation that we have outlined from simple awareness of the abdominal movement and progressing to the open awareness of fully developed mindfulness meditation.  
In the first stage, there is a simple focus on the abdominal movement.  Attention is focused on the home object and when wandering occurs, attention is brought back to the home object.  In the next stage, simple noting is introduced, so that “rising” and “falling” are noted along with “wandering” when attention strays.  In the third stage, attention is paid to what the mind is doing when it wanders and that is noted.  If thinking is present, then “thinking” is noted; if anger is present, “anger” or “angry” is noted.  If the mind is attending to sound, then “hearing” is noted.  If a tingling sensation is felt, then “tingling” is noted.  Then attention is redirected to the home object.  In the fourth stage, attention is paid to the predominant object and noted until the object is released, is no longer present, or is displaced by another object.  In the next stage, attention shifts from one predominant object to another, only returning to the home object if no other object is more prominent.  At any stage, attention can be redirected back to the home object if you are overwhelmed, you lose focus, or you simply need a respite.  Choiceless awareness occurs when the shift from one object to another is done effortlessly.
These stages are progressive, but in any given meditation session you may go back and forth between the very first stages and the most advanced stages.  You should observe your meditation and see what stages you go through.

Basic instructions for sitting meditation

Here is a stripped-down set of instructions for meditation in the sitting position:
Find a suitable place and time, and establish how long you will meditate at the outset.
Establish a stable and comfortable sitting position that you can maintain for the entire length of time you have set aside for your meditation.
Close your eyes and focus on the home object, the rising and falling of the abdomen, noting, “rising” and “falling.”
When your attention is drawn to a stronger object, note it until it passes away or another stronger object arises.
Note the most prominent object at the present moment; return to noting the home object if there is no other stronger object present.

The value of a special sitting position

Traditionally sitting meditation involved sitting on the ground with the legs positioned in a special way.  The lotus position, which involves overlapping the legs, was the standard position. However, this position and even its modifications (e.g., the half-lotus) are difficult for most people who are used to sitting in chairs for most of their lives.  Fortunately, there are alternatives that are every bit as effective.
But why meditate in a special position anyway?  Why not just get in a comfortable chair or even lie down?  If you are too comfortable sitting in your favorite easy chair or lying down in your bed, you are likely to fall asleep.  The traditional meditation postures are designed to allow you to be comfortable and yet alert for long periods of time without moving.  Those who sit in these positions generally report that they feel more balanced than they do sitting in a chair.  The very specialness of the posture is itself a benefit.  If you meditate in your favorite chair or in bed, all the habits that go with that position can end up affecting your meditation.  When you sit in a special position, on the other hand, you are likely to associate it with meditation and find that it is conducive to getting more readily into a relaxed and focused state.
Even though it may appear that assuming a special position for sitting meditation is awkward and a lot of extra work, try it (unless, of course, you have physical limitations).  You will probably find that it is a lot easier and more satisfying to meditate in the special position.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Audio instructions

Here is a link to instructions on meditation by the Venerable Mahasi Sayadaw.  It provides precise guidance to insight meditation and, in particular, to the practice of noting.  

Practical Meditation Instructions ("Mahasi Lecture")

Play below or Download MP3

Sunday, March 11, 2012


One of the most basic instructions for meditating in a sitting position is keeping still, not moving for a period of time.  Ordinarily we sit for long periods of time, and we assume that we are not moving.  Actually, if you sit in a chair at work or at home watching TV, your body is constantly in motion, although the movements are very slight and usually pass without explicit awareness.  Your body is in constant motion to avoid any discomfort.  Being asked to sit still and not move while meditating goes against the grain.  It seems unnatural.  Within a short time, you may feel the urge to move,  you may experience pains in familiar and unfamiliar places, or you may have itches that cry out for a scratch.  If you resist the body’s demands to move, these feelings may increase for a time.  However, if you stay still for long enough, you may notice that these demands subside.  This can be a powerful lesson in impermanence, that things arise and pass away.  

This is an analogue for what happens with the mind too.  If we resist reacting to what happens in our mind, we will see impermanence there too.  Sensations, thoughts, emotions, feelings all come and go, and we don’t have to do anything about them.  This is how real stillness happens.

Of course, if you are really uncomfortable as you sit there, if the pain becomes unbearable, the itch too irritating, then by all means adjust your position or have a good scratch.  But do so slowly and mindfully, observing each movement you make so as to minimize the disruption to your mindfulness (still-fulness).

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Noting and mindfulness

If you have followed the instructions I have given for the meditation on the abdominal movement, you are already using mental labeling or noting.  You silently make a mental note “rising” as you inhale, “falling” as you exhale, and “wandering” when your mind wanders.  As you gain greater concentration, you will likely find that you pick up on the mind’s wandering more quickly and you note the wandering almost as soon as it starts.  In that case, your mind really has not had much room to wander, so it is time to note what the mind is doing in that moment.

This is where the discipline of noting becomes a most powerful tool for cultivating mindfulness.  You can now note the processes that are occurring.  If your attention has turned to a sound, you note “hearing,” or if it is turned to a smell, “smelling,” and so on for tasting, seeing, and touching.  If you are sensing a specific bodily sensation, you can note it more precisely as “tingling,”  “warmth,” “pressure,” and so on.  If you are experiencing an emotion, you can note it as “anger,” “fear,” “sadness,” “joy,” and so on.  If you are thinking a thought, you can note “thinking,” or some more specific version of thinking such as “remembering,” “anticipating,” “planning,” and so on.  The idea is to note the process but not the content, not what you are hearing, but the fact that you are hearing, not what you are thinking, but just that you are thinking.  You don’t have to come up with the perfect label, just slap one on as quickly as you can.  The note should be concurrent with what you note, in other words, you want to be noting what is occurring in that moment or as close as you can get to it.  You need to put your full attention on what is occurring, and you will likely have to note it more than once, so you might say to yourself, “thinking, thinking, thinking,” until you see that the thinking has passed away.  Similarly, with a sound, for instance, you note it repeatedly, until you know it clearly and can let go of it.  It is all about recognition, and you will find that as you get better at noting, you get better at recognizing what your mind is up to and how it works, so that then just a few notes are enough.

There are lots of reasons why noting is effective.  The chief reason is that it takes all that energy that you usually expend in thinking in words and uses it to come up with a single word for what you are experiencing.  Another reason it is effective is that noting keeps you from getting caught up in the mind’s random activity.  Instead of thinking about something or other, you simply observe that thinking is going on.  This is very helpful in quieting the over-thinking that you likely encountered in the “mind watch.”  Also, noting keeps you in the present. You may be thinking about the past, but the thinking is going on in the present, and it is this activity that you are noting.

When you start using noting, you may find it difficult.  Chances are you will often forget to note.  Don’t get discouraged, just keep at it until it becomes second nature.

What is mindfulness?

Mindfulness has become a buzzword that is applied to everything from enjoying the sensual pleasures of eating a desert to the kind of attention deployed when you sit on a cushion on the floor and focus on your breathing.  Being “mindful” has crept into contemporary language so you might hear someone say, “I was mindful of my anger” or “I ate my lunch mindfully.”

Given the wide usage of the term, a more precise definition of mindfulness would be helpful.  One of the most often quoted definitions of mindfulness is that of Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program: “Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.”  This captures much of the meaning of mindfulness but also omits some elements that are critical to understanding what we are cultivating when we meditate.

The term mindfulness has it roots in Buddhism and has a very specific meaning in that context.  Mindfulness is an English translation of sati, a word in the Pali language in which the Buddhist scriptures were written.

The word’s original meaning had to do with memory or recollection.  This is puzzling since the concept of mindfulness as it is currently used implies being in the present moment.  So what does it have to do with memory?  One answer is that mindfulness has to do with being aware of something in the sense of making a mental note of it and, in that sense, remembering it.  In a future post, I will go into greater detail on this concept of noting.  

In Buddhist psychology, consciousness is not a continuous process but occurs in discrete mind-moments that are extremely brief, on the order of millions a second.  Within each of these mind-moments, consciousness arises and passes away like a wave.  Because of the speed with which this occurs and the impact of one instance of consciousness on the succeeding instance of consciousness, there is an illusion of a “stream of consciousness.”

Any given instance of consciousness is accompanied by mental factors that impart to it certain qualities.  There are mental factors that occur with all instances of consciousness (universal mental factors) and others that only occur with certain instances of consciousness (occasional mental factors).  A further division can be made with respect to the remaining factors according to whether they contribute or detract from well-being.  These additional factors are either wholesome or unwholesome factors.  (Sometimes the words “skillful” and “unskillful” are substituted for “wholesome” and “unwholesome” in an apparent attempt to soften the ethical dimension of these factors.)  Wholesome and unwholesome mental factors cannot coexist in the same mind moment; they are mutually exclusive.  

Mindfulness is one of the wholesome mental factors and arises in every wholesome mind-moment along with several other universal wholesome mental factors and, sometimes, with other higher level mental factors.  Mindfulness is not an ordinary kind of attention.  As a wholesome kind of attention, it cannot arise at the same time as unwholesome mental factors are present.  For instance, if you were paying very close attention to what you were doing as you stole something, you could not be said to be mindful.  Likewise, you could not be mindfully greedy, but you could, in one moment, be mindful of greed in a moment.

Mindfulness itself is a quality of attention characterized by present focus, non-forgetfulness, and stability of focus.  It is built on mental factors such as energetic, focused, and sustained attention.  When mindfulness arises, other wholesome mental factors arise that have to do with being even-minded (i.e., equanimous) and not caught up in (i.e., non-greed) or repelled by (i.e., non-hatred) the objects that arise and pass away.  This lends to mindfulness the non-reactive and non-judgmental quality to which Jon Kabat-Zinn refers.

If you meditate to be mindful, you try to create the conditions for mindfulness to arise.  You cannot force it.  If you are doing sitting meditation, you relax the body, stay alert and focused, and note the object that is most dominant.  By sustaining these conditions, mindfulness may arise.  Although mindfulness comes and goes, by cultivating it one can establish it from moment to moment.  As you become more proficient in this type of meditation, you learn how to cultivate mindfulness as you would a treasured plant, feeding it, watering it, and weeding it.  

Khippapanno, B., (in print), Experiencing the Dhamma. Riverside, CA:  Sakyamuni Meditation Center.

revised May 7, 2012

Focused attention on the abdominal movement

Maintaining attention to the abdominal movement as you breathe develops your powers of concentration.  It is also inherently calming.  You breathe without thinking about it at all, and in this practice, you do not make any effort to control your breathing.  You breathe naturally, in other words.

The first step is to become acquainted with the abdominal movement if you are not already.  Lie down and put a hand on your chest and the other hand on your abdomen.  See which hand moves more as you breathe.  If your chest moves more than your abdomen, don't worry.  The abdominal movement will become more prominent as you relax.

It is best to do the meditation sitting up in a comfortable position, either on the floor on a cushion, or on a comfortable chair.  You should sit in an erect fashion.  However, if you have pain issues and can't sit comfortably, it is fine to lie down provided you don't fall asleep.

With your eyes closed, sense the movement as you breathe.  Remember, try to avoid interfering with the natural breath.  Try to sense the movement in all its phases, from the beginning to the end.  Notice the feelings of expansion and contraction and the pauses in between the movements.  It helps to label the movement, silently to yourself, "rising" as the abdomen expands and "falling" as the abdomen contracts.

Now, in short order, your mind will probably wander.  You notice that you are no longer focused on the abdominal movement, but you are paying attention to a sound, thinking about what you have to do, or feeling an unpleasant sensation in your body.  As soon as you realize that your mind has wandered, acknowledge it, label it "wandering," and, when you have regained control of your attention, gently lead it back to the abdominal movement.

You may find yourself wandering a great deal.  Not to worry.  What is important is that you notice the wandering.  By doing so you are developing greater skills in monitoring your attention.  There is no need to beat yourself up over all the wandering.  What is important is that you notice it.  Congratulate yourself on being mindful!

As you practice this simple form of meditation, you will gain in concentration, become more tranquil, and develop your attention monitoring skills.  When you are able to pick up the wandering almost as soon as it starts, you no longer are really wandering.  At that point, you are ready to move on to open monitoring meditation, which I will discuss in a future post.

Mind Watch

Whether you have ever meditated or not, you should try the “mind watch.”  It is very simple.  You don’t really have to do anything.  Actually, that is the hard part. 

The idea is to get comfortable, either sitting or lying down, close your eyes, and observe what happens.  The tendency may be to try out all those things you’ve heard about meditating like trying to empty the mind or focusing on the breath.  But that is not the idea--way too much interference!  You would be trying to control what happens and, as a consequence, working at it much too hard.  You really are to do nothing except observe.

First time out, you should set aside about 10 minutes for the exercise.  When you are finished, write out what you observed.  Feel free to enter your observations as a post or a comment.  

Overview of meditation

In India cave drawings of people in meditation postures were found.  Long before written records were kept and long before the advent of religions as we know them today, people meditated.

There are many types of meditation that have been practiced over the years.  A very basic classification of meditation is into two types:  focused attention and open monitoring. 

Focused attention meditation or concentration meditation involves focusing on one object, such as the breath, a name of a sacred figure (e.g., Buddha, Christ), or a mantra.  Open monitoring meditation, sometimes called mindfulness or insight meditation, involves being open to whatever comes into awareness and monitoring it in a non-reactive way.  These forms of meditation have different purposes and different ends, but often they are combined.  In practices that emphasize open awareness, focused attention meditaiton is often used as preliminary to open monitoring.

In the way I teach meditation, focusing on the breath or the abdominal movement is used to build concentration, and there is a progression towards open meditation.  However, I ask beginners to try a “mind watch” exericse as a preliminary exercise.  This is a kind of open meditation, but the difference is that it is done prior to the development of concentration through focused attention, and is usually experienced as chaotic mind wandering.  Once beginners have become acquainted with this state, they are presumably motivated to work on concentration.  After a period of practice with focused attention, they are ready to develop a more inclusive form of awareness, and this is when I introduce open monitoring meditation in steps.

In future posts, I will describe the teaching sequence in greater detail. 

Introduction to the blog

My book, The Attentive Mind Workbook:  Self-healing through Meditation, provides a complete introduction to meditation in the vipassana or insight tradition with a focus on dealing with mental suffering.  The book can be obtained from my website:,, or from major online booksellers (,, etc.).

A bit about me:  I am a psychologist in rural Ontario.  I am semi-retired and live with my wife in a forest setting.  I have practiced meditation in the Zen and Theravada traditions.  The teacher whom I currently follow is Bhante Khippapanno, a Vietnamese teacher.  He teaches within the Mahasi Sayadaw tradition, but he places emphasis on meditation on the mind (cittanupassana).  Much of the content of this blog is based on my interpretation of his teachings.

This blog covers much the same ground as the workbook, but it is free and interactive.   Comments on the instructions and your experiences with the practices are most welcome.   I sometimes revise what I have posted based on the comments I receive and further reflection so please revisit the blog and reread the posts that have been revised. 

Feel free to email me with any questions or comments:

revised July 15, 2012