Tonight we’ll continue our discussion of Tara Brach’s book True Refuge and focus on the theme of Chapter Three: “Meditation: The Path to Presence.”
The chapter begins with Rumi’s question, Do you make regular visits to yourself? In my experience, daily meditation practice keeps me in touch with the inner world that underlies outer activities.
Tara mentions the relevance of recent research about the brain’s neuroplasticity to mindfulness meditation. Knowing that throughout our lives we can create and strengthen new neural pathways motivates us to cultivate positive thought patterns. Neurologists are now confirming the Buddha’s insight that mindfulness practice helps to develop peaceful, clear, untroubled thinking.
Mindfulness is the intentional process of paying attention nonjudgmentally to moment-by-moment experiences. When we are mindful, we recognize habitual thoughts, worries and fantasies that take us away from the present moment, and we allow them to pass away. By returning over and over again to what is happening here and now, we stop following unhealthy mental ruts and create fresh neural pathways.
The style of meditation that we are practicing is called Insight or Vipassana, which means “to see clearly.” We use the sensation of the breath as an anchor to cultivate concentration.
I like psychiatrist Daniel Siegel’s metaphor of awareness as a great wheel with presence at its hub. Because our attention is conditioned to move along myriad spokes outward to the rim, we use the anchor of the breath to notice when we’re not present and to return to the center. By repeatedly practicing coming back to the hub, the mind becomes calm and quiet. As we grow accustomed to “being here” at the center of the wheel, we can be mindful of whatever is arising and passing away on the rim, while noticing the hub softening and opening. With enough steady attention, eventually the hub, spokes, and rim all float in open awareness.
The challenge for most of us is to pause in our busy lives so that we can practice coming back to presence. To motivate us to be dedicated meditators, Tara suggests reflecting upon our aspirations or intentions for practicing mindfulness. When I settle down to meditate, I repeat silently to myself, “May I trust that the universe is unfolding as it should. May I receive gratefully the miracle of breath and life. May I love and accept myself and the dharma more and more fully.” By inclining my mind towards an attitude of trust, gratitude and acceptance, I’m more apt to practice wholeheartedly, and I’m less judgmental about the process. If I observe whatever arises with interested, relaxed and friendly attention, I don’t reject the wandering mind or difficult emotions as “bad” or “wrong.”
The Dalai Lama’s message that we can “trust our hearts and awareness to awaken in the midst of all circumstances” helps us overcome doubts about our capacity to meditate. It is challenging to train our attention. We’re swimming against the current of losing ourselves in distracting thoughts and following unconscious desires and fears.
As Tara says, “Meditation is a setup for feeling deficient unless we respectfully acknowledge the strength of our conditioning to race away from presence. These tendencies towards false refuges are strongly grooved neuropathways: It’s not our fault!”
She reminds us that we aren’t meditating to better ourselves nor to attain spiritual achievements. Instead, meditation allows us to “undo” our controlling behavior, our limiting beliefs, our habitual body tension, our defensive armoring, and our identification with a small, fearful self. When we undo all our doing, we uncover the underlying true refuge of loving awareness.
In my book A Silent Cure, I reminisce about encountering moments of true refuge during a month-long retreat at Spirit Rock Meditation Center: While I was pacing slowly back and forth on a wooden platform in the forest, “A whole world opened up to me. I felt content and joyous, sensing my bare feet on the rough boards, watching squirrels leap from tree to tree, and perceiving rainbow glints of sunlight on countless cobwebs in the long, dewy grass. I delighted in observing ants parade in single file across my path and listening to wild turkeys ‘laugh’ hysterically in the distance…It felt good to let myself be touched by each fleeting sensory impression. I was learning how to fall into the unknown of the present moment…”
To foster falling into presence, I’ll lead you in a guided meditation that combines elements of Tara’s “Coming Back” and “Being Here” meditations at the end of Chapter Three. The goals of this practice are to return to the center of the wheel of awareness whenever you become distracted and to cultivate an alert stillness at the hub of presence.
Close your eyes and sit comfortably with an erect spine, letting the rest of your skeleton and muscles hang freely. Breathe deeply, and with each exhale, consciously let go, relaxing the face, shoulders, hands and abdominal muscles. Sense the natural rhythm of breathing in the place that feels most obvious in your body. Bring a full, relaxed, intimate attention to the anchor of your breathing.
Sense how your anchor connects you with the wakefulness and “hereness” at the hub of the wheel. Note when your mind is distracted, leaving the hub and circling around in thought. These distractions are totally natural—just as the body secretes enzymes, the mind generates thoughts! There is no need to judge the thoughts or to make them the enemy; rather, whenever you notice a thought, honor that moment of recognition as a moment of awakening. This respectful attitude is key to coming home and reconnecting with presence. After noting “thinking, thinking,” pause, relax, and gently invite your attention back to the anchor of the breath as a way of sustaining presence at the hub of the wheel.
As you practice, you might notice that there are larger gaps between thoughts and more moments of resting with the breath at the hub. Continue
with a steady but light attention on the anchor of the breath, yet also include in awareness whatever you notice in the background of your sensory experience. While inhaling and exhaling, you might also be aware of sounds in the room, changes in body temperature, or passing emotions. These experiences may come and go without drawing your attention away from the anchor of the breath.
But if an experience has a compelling quality—if it calls your attention—then allow it to replace your anchor in occupying the foreground of your attention. Let yourself investigate sensations and thoughts associated with experiences such as sleepiness or restlessness. Notice how the sensations move and change in intensity, and let them be just as they are. When they no longer call your attention, return to the anchor of the breath. Whatever arises—thoughts, emotions, sensations—is included in the hub of the wheel, received with a nonjudgmental presence. Your practice is simply to recognize and allow what is here.
As a support for being present, you might make a soft, gentle mental note when strong experiences arise, naming sensations (“burning, burning”) emotions (“fear, fear”), and types of thoughts (“worrying, worrying”).
The purpose of noting is to help you connect with your actual experience without judgment or resistance. There is no need to find the right label or to try to name everything that is happening. If the noting seems distracting or clumsy, or if it interferes with the flow of presence, let it go.
Allow your meditation to flow naturally between “coming back” and “being here.” If you find that the mind becomes fairly settled, you might explore letting go of the anchor of breathing. Without any effort to direct your attention, rest in the still alertness at the hub of the wheel and receive whatever arises in awareness. Let your only intention be to recognize and allow what is happening, moment to moment. Let go of control, and relax with the changing flow of experience. Rest in wakeful, open awareness, allowing all life to live through you.