accelerating research on meditation

This is a nice piece to read if you are interested in the current state of neurological research on meditation. It’s a well-written, two part piece and Shinzen Young is featured prominently, which is enough to make me smile.


Enlightenment: Is Science Ready to Take it Seriously?

Jeff Warren | November 2012 – Issue 3 of Psychology Tomorrow Magazine

How Understanding the Process of Enlightenment Could Change Science

Jeff Warren | January 2013 – Issue 4 of Psychology Tomorrow Magazine
Special thanks to @mindfulchimes and @MindDeep for bringing these articles to my attention.

Impermanence and the blues

I’ve written before about the how concentration and feeling connected can come and go, day by day or week by week or even minute by minute. Having a long established practice seems to be a foundation, so that when the ‘off’ times come and the mind seems fuzzy or distracted – just a little bit of practice can bring us back into the state of feeling centered.

Just last week, I was feeling pretty blah.  I was doing my best to stay with the feelings.  Some of the feelings were body feelings and there’s been a lot of sickness going around, so coughing and congestion and general tiredness was a part of it.  But there was also a sense that my mind was not focused (and staying aware of the state of being unfocused is pretty tricky business). Noting that “I’m really not focused today” is possible, however, and while that’s not exactly deeply concentrated tracking, it still counts as bringing some awareness to the situation.  I thought about writing a blog post about staying with mindfulness no matter what arises – even the yucky feelings, the distractions, the sadness, the ‘what is meditation good for anyway’ feelings.

This week has been very different. I’ve been sitting and reading great material and feeling very connected. I’ve been focusing on concentration practices — mostly those having to do with mindfulness of breathing plus awareness of mental activity in real time. Concentration feels great. I’ve also found a number of great resources on the web for reading. (One thing that has come up is the supposed split between concentration practice and wisdom practice. Concentration practice leading to the jhanas and wisdom practice leading to insight. I’m not certain there is a clear distinction, but I can see that there can be a different emphasis to one’s practice and that can lead to different states temporarily.  All this to say.. I wanted to have some balance in my practice, so I went looking for the wisdom, which is developed by incorporating the ideas of impermanence, no-self, and emptiness into practice.)

In listening to this dharma talk by Joseph Goldstein on Impermanence. I came to realize *one* reason why bringing awareness to the gunky parts of life is so important… it’s because it gives you a marker so you can see when it changes. Impermanence functions on so many levels.. all levels.. but seeing that moods and broad patterns of thinking and feeling come and go like everything else is very liberating.

Joseph Goldstein – Liberation Through Non-Clinging
IMS – November 19, 2008, 61 minutes, 28.2 MB (DownloadStream)

Peace to everyone!

3 Dharma talks for this week

Here is a little Dharma Opportunity – see if you can find the time in the next week or so to listen to these 3 guided meditations on Emptiness.  Please leave any comments if you are moved to do so.

Teacher: Gil Fronsdal

From the retreat:
Spirit Rock Meditation Center
:  Emptiness: a Meditation and Study Retreat

2012-12-02 Guided Meditation on Emptiness 41:28
2010-11-15 Emptying the Mind 40:25
2010-11-12 Guided Morning Instructions 42:55

Special Thanks: Dharmaseed for posting so much amazing material for practitioners!  



Finding concentration on the cushion

When beginning meditation practice, the meditator is faced with a series of things that arise.

Early on, the body sitting in posture is unfamiliar and often uncomfortable. We have to come to some equanimity with the sensations that arise – essentially, we get familiar and comfortable by taking the posture again and again (and finding a good, working posture and cushions of the right height, etc.). Eventually, the aches and pains of longer sits become less of a distraction and more like fuel for concentrating the mind, a great opportunity to develop equanimity and a chance to explore sensation in the body in a variety of ways.

Thoughts and the thinking mind, most often referred to as “monkey mind” is another aspect of experience that we need to sit with for a long time in order to get to know it. When we take the time to become familiar with the mind, we notice many many things. We can see that not all of our thoughts are to be taken so seriously. We see that some of them are downright ridiculous, and don’t reflect our core beliefs at all. Seeing this over and over, we begin to de-identify with the content of the thoughts. Just because a thought goes through your mind, doesn’t mean it’s “what you think” or what you believe to be true. In sitting with our thoughts over a long time, we start being more interested in the process of thinking and less with the content. Focusing on where thoughts arise from (in the body, from the depths of the mind, fabricated or floating through?) Focusing on verbal thought vs. imagery. After much practice, we do become more familiar with the mind in many of it’s aspects. Sometimes during periods of intense practice, the talking/picture mind, given enough room and space, without any “push” or “pull”, no resistance and no pursuit — eventually looses some energy and quiets down. The watching and observing mind is still perfectly active, but the thinking mind is settling down. This is concentration.

Concentration comes on retreats (speaking personally, of course). Concentration has also started to come when my daily practice is strong. Today’s sit was a good one. It was a little like a retreat in terms of the momentum in that I sat last night with Mission Dharma (so about an hour before the talk, then sitting during the talk) and I came home and sat for half an hour after the group sit. This morning.. I was concentrated for my morning sit.

Focusing on the breath; on subtler and subtler aspects of it. Seeing the faint sensations at the nostrils. Choosing to focus on the smallest sensation I can find breathing in; feeling the vibration of sensation; feeling the on/off, wavelike vibrations. Staying with them. At this point, all else is absent. The focus is strong, but there is still some effort or some sense of effort. After some time with this, sensations in the face appear. Contraction sensations are felt in the awareness and the body. I remembered the Mindfulness of Breathing instructions — and that awareness of the breath was accompanied by other things. This comes to mind: He trains himself, ‘I will breathe in sensitive to the entire body.’ So I allowed for the expansion of awareness to include my entire body, while keeping the awareness of the breath. The body felt empty and spacious. With this expanded awareness, the same sensations of breath were available from this spacious perspective — but now, without the contracted feelings.

The church bells in the distance began to ring. I felt the sounds. The beautiful sound of the tibetan bowl joined in, along with the sounds of traffic, the thinking mind, the sensations of a deep bow, eyes opening and deep breath and a smile..

Sitting in an urban environment

Today I sat twice. I found myself unable to do my normal sitting on my usual cushion with my beloved timer, but rather, I made two openings in the day among the moments of my urban existence.

I sat on the Muni train. And I sat on a low marble wall in a city courtyard. Both sits were fairly formal, in terms of the mindfulness practice I was using. Both were fairly successful in the sense that I had time to settle, became focused primarily on the breath and present moment body sensations and thoughts.

On the wall, I was in a fairly noisy environment. I could sense others around me, but didn’t feel I was disturbing them, and they gave me the courtesy of not disturbing me. But still, it was unsurprising that self-referential thoughts would arise about others seeing me sitting there upright, with eyes closed, not moving for a period of time. I have a light green rain shell that I wear – it’s a modern sort of windbreaker, and common enough. I had my hands folded completely within the sleeves, so that my mudhra was not in sight, so as not to draw too fine a point on the fact that I was sitting. So I sat with a busy sort of mind, in a noisy sort of place and came to eventually settle down a little and get present. Then the timer I was keeping in the upper coat pocket went off and I stood up and went to get my salad lunch.

On the Muni, I was able to get a seat. Sitting there with eyes closed is much more common and typical. People often sleep or close eyes on the train. I have only 13 or 14 minutes before my stop. My focus was quite good already, so my attention didn’t waiver much. I played primarily with seeing if I could focus intently on the breath’s more subtle aspects, and then open up some and be more broad in my awareness, relaxing a little, but seeing if I could still keep a constant awareness of breathing. I was completely conscious of each stop as it was called out and as I got to mine, I stood up and walked off the train, with a momentary glance behind me at the empty red seat to see if I’d left anything behind. Nope.

What are your urban sitting stories?

16 steps of breathing meditation from the Majjhima Nikaya

I have been very inspired by reading Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s book, Right Mindfulness, as you can see from my last few posts. I have started using the material for guidance in my sitting practice. As more posts are likely to follow that use this framework, I thought it would be a good idea to pop this section out of the book for easy reference.  This is a set of 16 steps, arranged in four tetrads, or sections of 4 steps called the “first, second, third and fourth establishing of mindfulness”. As TB says, “this procession through the levels of concentration all the way to the cessation of perception and feeling is one of the ways in which awakening is achieved. “

From the Majjhima Nikaya:

The steps developing the first establishing of mindfulness:


“[1] Breathing in long, he discerns, ‘I am breathing in long’; or breathing out long, he discerns, ‘I am breathing out long.’ [2] Or breathing in short, he discerns, ‘I am breathing in short’; or breathing out short, he discerns, ‘I am breathing out short.’ [3] He trains himself, ‘I will breathe in sensitive to the entire body.’ He trains himself, ‘I will breathe out sensitive to the entire body.’ [4] He trains himself, ‘I will breathe in calming bodily fabrication.’ He trains himself, ‘I will breathe out calming bodily fabrication.’


The steps developing the second establishing of mindfulness:


“[5] He trains himself, ‘I will breathe in sensitive to rapture.’ He trains himself, ‘I will breathe out sensitive to rapture.’ [6] He trains himself, ‘I will breathe in sensitive to pleasure.’ He trains himself, ‘I will breathe out sensitive to pleasure.’ [7] He trains himself, ‘I will breathe in sensitive to mental fabrication.’ He trains himself, ‘I will breathe out sensitive to mental fabrication.’ [8] He trains himself, ‘I will breathe in calming mental fabrication.’ He trains himself, ‘I will breathe out calming mental fabrication.’


The steps developing the third establishing of mindfulness:


“[9] He trains himself, ‘I will breathe in sensitive to the mind.’ He trains himself, ‘I will breathe out sensitive to the mind.’ [10] He trains himself, ‘I will breathe in gladdening the mind.’ He trains himself, ‘I will breathe out gladdening the mind.’ [11] He trains himself, ‘I will breathe in steadying the mind.’ He trains himself, ‘I will breathe out steadying the mind. [12] He trains himself, ‘I will breathe in releasing the mind.’ He trains himself, ‘I will breathe out releasing the mind.’


The steps developing the fourth establishing of mindfulness:


“[13] He trains himself, ‘I will breathe in focusing on inconstancy.’ He trains himself, ‘I will breathe out focusing on inconstancy.’ [14] He trains himself, ‘I will breathe in focusing on dispassion [literally, fading].’ He trains himself, ‘I will breathe out focusing on dispassion.’ [15] He trains himself, ‘I will breathe in focusing on cessation.’ He trains himself, ‘I will breathe out focusing on cessation.’ [16] He trains himself, ‘I will breathe in focusing on relinquishment.’ He trains himself, ‘I will breathe out focusing on relinquishment.’” — MN 118

 This text comes directly from:

Right Mindfulness

I will again thank Thanissaro Bhikkhu for providing this text and also point out how beautifully he follows the Buddhist principle of making the dharma available free of charge. His wonderful book is offered with this permission included:

Copyright © Thanissaro Bhikkhu 2012

This book may be copied or reprinted for free distribution without permission from the publisher. Otherwise all rights reserved.

Reflections on the application of Mindfulness of Breathing

The last two posts are about Mindfulness of Breathing as taught by the Buddha and interpreted by Thanissaro Bhikkhu – one in written form and the other as part of a talk. I wanted to write a little about my interpretation of his work.

The 16 stage breath meditation starts with a very accessible practice – feeling the breath at the level of the body and noticing whether the breath is long or short. Essentially, a basic exercise to focus the mind on the breathing, akin to practices we have all done, such as counting the breath, watching the abdomen rise and fall, etc. One moves through various stages, focusing on the breath but being aware of the entire body – which reminds me of Goenka’s style of meditation and body scanning – to noticing the feelings of relaxation and joy associated with [watching] the breath, to becoming aware of the mind while watching the breath, and so on.

The process is one of becoming aware of deeper and more subtle levels of experience. We go from noticing the body, in and of itself, to the more subtle feelings in and of themselves and thoughts in and of themselves. Seeing something “in-and-of-itsef” means for example: feeling an actual body sensation (as opposed to worrying about your leg), or recognizing a thought as a thought, instead of focusing on the content matter of that thought. When we get this clear about something, we see its changing nature, we see it as phenomena, come to know it as unreliable in terms of providing an ultimate ground for our happiness, develop dispassion for it through investigation, familiarity, discernment, non-identification and allow it to dissipate within awareness. My own understanding is that this is how one’s body becomes still, how one’s mind quiets down and how one “gets out of one’s own way” through the practice of meditation.

I’ll say this again, in a slightly different way to help it sink in. How do we get to more subtle levels of experience? How do we drop the more gross levels, so we can become aware of and drop into the more subtle ones? The direct experience of the thing-in-itself at each level is held in awareness, with equinimity and an aim to developing a dispassion, calm, and a deep familiarity with it – how it comes into being, sustains, and passes. We come to see what are it’s causes – what fabrications or doings of the body or mind are feeding the experiences. Wherever we find “stress” at any level, we cease feeding it. We infuse it with subtle awareness and a kind attention and let it calm down. We see into the phenomena at each level and by penetrating it with equanimity and we drop it. We release it.

We can apply the same tools of mindfulness, awareness, great persistence and ardency (which is a dedication to following the path and a discrimination that allows one to focus their efforts skillfully) to the subtlest levels. The deeper levels of experience begin to deal less with form, words or even thoughts themselves, but go deeper into a direct experience of the elements that make up the chain of interdependent co-arising, like perception, formation, and consciousness itself. When each of these is seen as conditioned and impermanent, it is penetrated, dropped and abandoned. The bonds of reality fall apart. The last thing to go is the application of the Dharma itself, as all has been surpassed and there is no function for the tools known as Dharma to operate on… the very activity that brought you there must be seen finally as an activity, as conditioned, as not-self and relinquished. This process leads to a total release from the bondage of Samsara.

And there you have it. Just a few easy steps.

Buddha’s Breathing Meditation

This talk is highly instructive with regards to the canonical 16 step method of breath meditation, but it is good to be familiar with some of the terms and the general framework so you can follow along more easily. I found it very useful to first read at least a few chapters of the material from the last post, which is considerably more detailed, but on the exact same material.

I am delighted to have found this. I am so pleased to share it with you. I am profoundly grateful to Thanissaro Bhikkhu for expounding upon this method of practice. It brings to light a much deeper understanding of the Four Noble Truths.

Classic Breathing Meditation

Thanissaro Bhikkhu

I’m going to post a link here, partly for you, and partly so that I can go back to it myself. This whole page is dedicated to the writings of Thanissaro Bhikkhu. I intend to make my way through as much of this as possible.
This is an absolute treasure-trove of material on the practice of meditation. This is the kind of stuff I find inspiring. It can be technical writing, but that isn’t a bug, it’s a feature. I find that it helps to concentrate the mind and is a natural inspiration and invitation to sit.
For a little taste, try this one:

For a huge helping, this one:

Right Mindfulness: Memory & Ardency on the Buddhist Path, by Thanissaro Bhikkhu (2012; 178pp./1.2MB) [PDF icon]

An exploration of the nature of mindfulness and its role in the Buddhist path to Awakening. [Not available in HTML]

Much Gratitude to Thanissaro Bhikkhu for such devoted work. Thank you to those at Access to Insight – what a tremendous resource!