Updated: Dec 1, 2020
How we approach our meditation practice matters and is a practice in itself. Preliminaries are to meditation what stretches are to exercise. Just as stretching improves flexibility and mobility, preliminaries help us maintain a strong practice.
Regardless of how focused attention may be or how calm and stable the mind is during meditation, by simply sitting and following the steps of any technique, we cultivate 1. conative, 2. attentional, 3. cognitive, and 4. emotional balance.
Conative balance refers to volition. If I set the intention to meditate 20 minutes a day and keep that regimen, I strengthen this quality. To do this daily takes discipline, determination, stick-to-itiveness, patience, self-regulation, executive functioning, and right desire. We approach meditation with a growth mindset, a term coined by researcher Carol Dweck. It refers to the belief that any ability or skill can be developed through dedication and hard work. The fixed mindset, by contrast, is a limiting belief which asserts that qualities are inherent, or fixed. For example, after several attempts at meditation, a beginner asserts, "I tried to meditate, but am just not good at it." This suggests a fixed mindset. A growth mindset asserts, "I tried to meditate, but am just not good at it... yet!" If it takes years to learn a language, thousands of hours to master an instrument, or decades to perfect a complex skill, how much more patience would it require to train that which enables the learning of languages or the mastery of skills?
2. Attentional Balance
If the mind wanders a hundred times during a 10 minute meditation sit, so long as I approach mind-wandering with an attitude of indifferent matter of factness and keep reorienting attention, I cultivate attentional balance. Concentration may be weak or strong, but there is awareness that concentration is weak or strong. Both of these faculties- concentration and awareness- are being exercised and trained. With awareness, I can correct for dullness or mind-wandering. I can, for example, define the scope of attention more narrowly (e.g. focusing on the sensation of the out breath at the tip of the nose if these were my instructions). With awareness, I can assess the quality of concentration. I might ease up or intensify my effort. With awareness, I can monitor the inner dialogue. When I am aware that the mind has wandered, for example, do I criticize myself? Am I matter-of-fact? Is the tone harsh or judgmental? Am I too tolerant of mind wandering? In the acquisition of any new skill (be it meditation, an instrument, a language), neuroplasticity occurs when we focus, but consolidation occurs during periods of sleep and rest. Meditation, as a skill, self-reinforces. Over time, as the mind settles and rests, the holds becomes longer, concentration improves, attention stabilizes.
3. Cognitive Balance
With awareness, I am aware that I am aware. This quality of mind is called metacognition. The ability to cut and ignore mental elaborations, to redirect or reorient the mind and fix it on an object of focus cultivates cognitive flexibility. Contrast this to the default mode of mind most experience. You have a thought and are lost in rumination. Even if the thought is obsessive, irrational, negative, stressful, harmful (even suicidal), you cannot let go. You feel stuck. The thoughts seem oppressive, dense, overwhelming. The mind is restless, even when the body is exhausted and desperate for sleep. The thoughts spin out of control. So, we practice meditation. The mind, yet untrained, continues its habitual patterns of thinking-rumination-wandering ad infinitum. You sit; the mind balks. You focus on the breath for a few seconds; the mind is distracted. You follow the breath in and out; boredom arises. The mind wanders; frustration festers. With skill, however, we can recognize thoughts as thoughts, cut mental elaborations with ruthless detachment, let go, and choose to reorient attention over and over again. The more we do this, the better we get at cutting, letting go, redirecting- not only on the meditation cushion, but as life unfolds. Confidence builds.
4. Emotional Balance
With practice, we cultivate emotional balance. We learn to accept whatever arises as it arises. A worry thought comes, we remain aware. We do not react to it. Like this, we cultivate non-reactivity. We do not judge the worry thought. We allow it to be. We reorient our attention. Anxiety may arise. We remain aware that we are experiencing anxiety. We relax into it even if it grows in intensity. We observe with open curiosity. We may notice changes in breath, changes in the mind weather, changes in heart rate, changes in concentration, changes in physical sensations. We do not censor or try to fix or resist. Anxiety is accepted and integrated. It is not exiled or suppressed. It is part of the experience at that moment. Anxiety is there, but so is self-compassion, acceptance, non-judgmental awareness, self-love, self-respect, courage, patience, curiosity, tolerance. Aren't these wonderful qualities to cultivate? The more we practice like this, the less intense and the more instructive these seemingly unpleasant emotions become. By them, we learn to resolve these dissonant chords. We offer no resistance. We allow emotions to flow, remaining present, equanimous. We create new neuroimprints as our relationship with our selves slowly changes. We learn to respond skillfully and compassionately to our emotions more like creative artists than helpless victims. Contrast this approach to the self-criticism, harshness, shame, or self-hatred many feel toward those parts of themselves that remain in the shadows.
With compassion and respect, we learn to integrate all of the parts that make up the self. Richard Schwartz developed a model called Internal Family Systems (IFS) that is somewhat similar to the Buddhist insight of no self. The self is a mosaic of discrete parts. In the IFS model, each part is sincere in its intent to promote the well-being of the whole. There are no bad parts, just as in music, there are no bad notes. Jazz icon Miles Davis said, "There are no wrong notes in jazz, only notes in the wrong places... It's not the note you play that's the wrong note- it's the note you play afterwards that makes it right or wrong." A skillful musician like Miles Davis or Jacob Collier can get away with a statement like this. Their knowledge of music theory is such that any note in relation to other notes can be made "right" depending on what follows. Similarly, a skilled meditator can take any discordant emotion and resolve it back to the root.
We can appreciate this experientially. Suppose, for example, stress is chronic. You feel overwhelmed, depressed, hopeless. The intensity of these seemingly negative emotions motion us to change. You would not have examined yourself or changed direction otherwise. These seemingly negative emotions, therefore, serve as benefactors. Like a strict teacher or demanding coach, they may seem harsh and unrelenting, but beneath the severity is compassion. You needed a push. So, you decided to commit to meditating 20 minutes first thing in the morning. Who decided this? The IFS model proposes subpersonalities called parts. Parts may be experienced as thoughts, intuitions, sensations, "gut" or visceral feelings, etc. "Parts develop a complex system of interactions among themselves. Polarizations develop as parts try to gain influence within the system."* Managers, parts that run the day to day life of the individual, may have decided to commit to this new discipline. You begin sitting. After a few days, while you may have experienced some benefits, other members of senior management may begin to question the practicality of this new regimen. 20 minutes of just sitting seems unproductive. These parts, wanting the best for the self as well, would rather allocate those 20 minutes to attending to the more "productive," actionable items on your to-do-list. Other parts, which Schwartz calls exiles, may also take sides. Exiles are "young parts that have experienced trauma and often become isolated from the rest of the system in an effort to protect the individual from feeling pain, terror, or fear." During meditation, as the mind settles, unpleasant emotions or painful, forgotten memories may surface. For experienced meditators, we frame this as catharsis, as a loosening, a purging, a purification by fire, a release of those obstructions which hobbled us. In their extreme and sometimes desperate attempt to be cared for and tell their story, the exiles can leave the individual feeling fragile and vulnerable. Parts called firefighters may react forcefully to this "purification by fire" in an effort to extinguish these feelings.
In meditation, we sit and observe. The parts arise, they voice their concerns, they protest, they bicker. We watch the internal conflict; we sit with the dissonance and discordance. The Watcher or Witness observes. It welcomes all the parts and holds them in its compassionate embrace, so they can be and express without censor. Because the practice centers me in Self, I can, from this seat of quiet stillness, flow- integrating all the seemingly discrete parts of the self. I can acknowledge the managers' need to be productive. Those parts understand that I am more productive when I am centered and calm. The exiles are seen, embraced, loved, and allowed to express. The firefighters can recognize that sitting is a more effective strategy for dealing with pain than self-mutilation, bingeing, inebriation, promiscuity, drug consumption, or other maladaptive strategy. They can enter the fire with courage. Sitting and doing nothing can, paradoxically, be decisive; non-action is action.
With reason, we can appreciate the value of sitting. Results are less important than process. Each meditation technique has its own peculiarities and instructions. Most call for letting go with gentleness and reorienting attention to a mantra, the breath, a sound, a word, a sensation, etc. Regardless of how good my form is, I cultivate conative, attentional, cognitive and emotional balance, and approach the meditation cushion with this confidence.
Next, I give attention to posture: sitting (lotus, or half lotus, in a chair, laying down, etc.); back is straight; shoulders are relaxed; hands may be folded, on the knees, in a mudra (fingertips touching); neck is aligned with the skull and spine (assuming a dignified posture); eyes may be closed or opened with a soft gaze on nothing in particular; jaw is loose, tongue relaxed, resting on the hard palette or touching the teeth. In Japan, sitting is the practice. Posture is the technique. A practitioner practices "just sitting," mindful of posture.
Present moment awareness is our orientation. Regardless of the technique, we sit in the NOW, recognizing that this is all the time there is. Illusions of past and future dissolve into the reality of this present moment. The past is a memory unfolding NOW; the future is imagination expressing NOW. There is only ever this moment. This is our entryway to peace. We surrender to reality as it is- not as we would like it to be. The present moment is a choice point. Every moment is pregnant with new possibilities. The possibility for peace, for happiness, for liberation abides in NOW.
Dedications are another preliminary. We approach the cushion with confidence, we assume an alert posture, we settle into the present moment, and dedicate our practice to others. My children are the primary recipients of my efforts. By meditating, I train the mind to be more present, more attentive, more calm, more compassionate, more understanding, more accepting, more loving.
Next, we often take a few deep breaths to signal the start of the practice. Over time, these signal breaths condition the mind to settle quickly in to the meditative state. The mind is receptive. Once stretching is over, we begin our exercises.