For beginners, Affirmats recommends a technique called vipassana (Pali, “insight”), which comes from the oldest tradition of Buddhism, the Theravada. The advantage of vipassana is that it can be taught in an entirely secular way. Experts in this practice generally acquire their training in a Buddhist context, of course—and most retreat centers in the U.S. and Europe still teach its associated Buddhist philosophy. Nevertheless, this method of introspection can be brought within any secular or scientific context without embarrassment. The same cannot be said for most other forms of “spiritual” instruction.
The quality of mind cultivated in vipassana is generally referred to as “mindfulness” (the Pali word is sati), and there is a quickly growing literature on its psychological benefits. Mindfulness is simply a state of open, nonjudgmental, and nondiscursive attention to the contents of consciousness, whether pleasant or unpleasant. Cultivating this quality of mind has been shown to modulate pain, mitigate anxiety and depression, improve cognitive function, and even produce changes in gray matter density in regions of the brain related to learning and memory, emotional regulation, and self awareness.
Programs in “mindfulness-based stress reduction” (MBSR), pioneered by Jon Kabat-Zinn, have brought this practice into hospitals and other clinical settings. The practice of mindfulness is extraordinarily simple to describe, but it is in no sense easy. True mastery probably requires special talent and a lifetime of practice. Thus, the simple instructions given below are analogous to instructions on how to walk a tightrope:
- Find a horizontal cable that can support your weight.
- Stand on one end.
- Step forward by placing one foot directly in front of the other.
- Don’t fall.
Clearly, steps 3-5 entail a little practice. Happily, the benefits of training in meditation arrive long before mastery ever does. And falling, from the point of view of vipassana, occurs ceaselessly, every moment that one becomes lost in thought. The problem is not thoughts themselves but the state of thinking without knowing that one is thinking.
As every meditator soon discovers, such distraction is the normal condition of our minds: Most of us fall from the wire every second, toppling headlong—whether gliding happily in reverie, or plunging into fear, anger, self-hatred and other negative states of mind. Meditation is a technique for breaking this spell, if only for a few moments. The goal is to awaken from our trance of discursive thinking—and from the habit of ceaselessly grasping at the pleasant and recoiling from the unpleasant—so that we can enjoy a mind that is undisturbed by worry, merely open like the sky, and effortlessly aware of the flow of experience in the present.
- Sit comfortably, with your spine erect, either in chair or cross-legged on a cushion.
- Close your eyes, take a few deep breaths, and feel the points of contact between your body and the chair or floor. Notice the sensations associated with sitting—feelings of pressure, warmth, tingling, vibration, etc.
- Gradually become aware of the process of breathing. Pay attention to wherever you feel the breath most clearly—either at the nostrils, or in the rising and falling your abdomen.
- Allow your attention to rest in the mere sensation of breathing. (There is no need to control your breath. Just let it come and go naturally.)
- Every time your mind wanders in thought, gently return it to the sensation of breathing.
- As you focus on the breath, you will notice that other perceptions and sensations continue to appear: sounds, feelings in the body, emotions, etc. Simply notice these phenomena as they emerge in the field of awareness, and then return to the sensation of breathing.
- The moment you observe that you have been lost in thought, notice the present thought itself as an object of consciousness. Then return your attention to the breath—or to whatever sounds or sensations arise in the next moment.
- Continue in this way until you can merely witness all objects of consciousness—sights, sounds, sensations, emotions, and even thoughts themselves—as they arise and pass away.
- Don’t fall.
Try doing this meditation on your favorite Affirmats Yoga Mat and discover the Enlightened YOU come to life.