We all want to feel good, to be happy, to be free, to live in peace, clarity, and love, but we live with uncertainty and without complete control over our world, so we often find ourselves in negative thought patterns and emotional states, and we try different strategies to cope and to feel better. Some of these strategies are not wholesome—competitive, judgmental, people pleasing—these strategies take us away from ourselves and may become habitual reactive response patterns that keep us stuck. But we don’t want to stay stuck! The biggest regret most people express when they are dying is that they did not live true to themselves.
How can we live true to ourselves? Jack and Tara teach that we can train our hearts and minds to experience well being. They offer a systematic and supportive way to work with breath and body to learn the skills of mindfulness, compassion, and lovingkindness which will shift us into wise relationship to the 10,000 joys and sorrows of our humanity. They say, “We’re here to begin to wake up with daily practice of meditation. The basic training is a training in presence, a training in cultivating clear, kind, attention, relaxed attentiveness to what’s right here.” “We learn to pause and to remember what matters to us. We pause to listen to our hearts. We pause to inquire: What do I care about?”
Central to the training is mindfulness which is defined as “paying attention to the present moment without judgment and is characterized by interest, friendliness, and clear seeing.”
So where do we start? We embark on this training by starting where we are! Jack: “There is a blessing to be able to pay attention to yourself, to your own body, to the environment around you, to the states of your heart and mind, and this is just where we begin—exactly where we are!”
The first class teaches an understanding of mindful presence and how to deepen our capacity for presence.
Quality of presence combines two apects:
1) awareness – clear seeing of what is present here and now
2) lovingkindness – loving presence (not judging, evaluating, or manipulating), loving care from which a wise response will be born
We develop the ability to respond wisely in any situation in all aspects of our lives by training in this capacity of presence because this capacity:
1) calms and quiets our minds
2) opens our hearts
3) allows us to see and work with different energies in our lives.
To deepen our capacity for presence, we focus on mindfulness of breath because the breath is always present, and it helps connect body, mind, and spirit. And, as we are practicing focusing on mindfulness of breath, it is very natural for thoughts, feelings, sensations, perceptions to arise and for our attention to wander away from our breath. We cultivate a steadiness and ease by gently and lovingly returning to the breath each time we notice our wandering attention. And this is THE KEY MOMENT: the moment of your attention returning to your breath, coming back to being here where you are—present! In general, our attention span is pretty short, so we get to have a lot of these key moments 🙂 Streams of thoughts and feelings are not mistakes. They’re reflected in the practice of breathing because we’re becoming more fully present. So we are encouraged to stay interested and curious without judgment.
How do we sense the breath? First, notice how your breath moves your body. Then find the place in your body where you most easily feel your breath, feel your body breathing. It could be your nostrils, throat, chest, belly, or maybe you feel it in your whole body equally. If you can’t really feel it, place your hand on your belly and feel your hand move with your breathing. After you notice how your breath moves your body, then also notice how your breath changes (short/long, spaces or gaps between breaths, warm/cool).
We can relax and steady ourselves with our breath. Even a few breaths with our full attention can be calming. And by attending to breath, we begin to notice what is present all around us becoming more alive just where we are. Jack says mindfulness “allows us to be present for the whole of our lives. Anything beautiful and worthwhile takes tending and in this case, [we’re] tending the heart, and it also takes a bit of humor.”
So be relaxed about it. Remember we’re not controlling our breath; we are noticing it, just as it is. We are being with our breath just as it is.
The second class focuses on becoming more awake in our bodies by learning to be present and to stay with whatever arises. Tara asserts that the quality of presence is the common denominator in the moments when we feel most alive. She describes the two dimensions of Awareness as two wings saying we need both wings to fly, that is, to find freedom, healing, and happiness. These two wings are: 1) mindfulness – recognizing and understanding what’s happening in the moment, and 2) love – holding a tender space for what is happening.
All of our emotions, thoughts, and behaviors have a substrata of physical sensation, pleasant or unpleasant, so we cultivate the quality of presence when we take note of what’s happening in our bodies and recognize how we are reactive and unskillful as we either grasp and chase after the pleasant or push away and avoid the unpleasant. Tara says that “We’re always on our way to somewhere else. We leave the experience of aliveness….[we] leave our heart and our spirit; we disconnect.” The great news is that we can reconnect with our aliveness; we can move back into presence by bringing attention to the sensations that move through our bodies. This reinhabiting of our bodies including different sensations both pleasant and unpleasant is like a great homecoming, being at home not just in our bodies but also in the universe, knowing that we are a part of everything.
Tara’s Guided Meditation:
Exploring Path of Homecoming—Connecting With Our Body
Find yourself a way of sitting in a posture that supports you being alert and that within that alertness, you can relax some. Take your hand and put it in front of you. Take a look at your hand, turn it around, notice it visually, notice any thoughts and feelings about your hand, history about your hand. Maybe mentally whisper the word “hand.” Then close your eyes and begin to gently move your hand back and forth in front of you moving slowly enough that you can really feel the sensations of moving through space, feel sensations within the sensations and just be aware of the aliveness that’s here. Pause movement feeling from the inside out, sensing is there any shape or boundary to the aliveness, sensing the difference between any idea of hand and these direct sensations, the immediacy of the experience that’s right here. Allow yourself to gently lower your hand and just rest. You can bring this same quality of inside out attention to your whole body.
Feeling our body sensations is not without challenge. Sometimes we can practice in earnest trying to feel something, and we’re just numb or not feeling much at all. The lesson here is patience. Relax into it with friendliness and curiosity accepting that it will happen in its own time. Some of us will find it useful to identify the part of our body where we can most easily feel sensations—hands and feet are common—we can practice contracting and releasing muscles and trying to notice what this feels like. Try to notice sensations from the inside out.
Another challenge to mindfulness of sensation is that sometimes the sensation is not pleasant. Tara offers this insight: Rather than asking, “Why would I want to learn to stay with unpleasantness?” it’s more valuable to ask, “What happens when I’m continually pulling back from or resisting unpleasantness? What is possible by learning to stay?”
Common outcomes to resisting are: 1) fatigue from effort of resistance, zaps our life energy, 2) more unpleasantness 3) chronic apprehension because we know we aren’t addressing something 4) identification with resisting/controlling/fearing self, disconnection from those two wings of mindfulness and love.
So what is possible by learning to stay? Tara offers this beautiful metaphor in response:
The power of mindful awareness without resisting is that the more mindful and heartful we are, the more … we become ocean waves and can move on the surface while we sense resting in depths and stillness; we really can touch peace in the midst.
Pain x Resistance = Suffering
Unpleasantness x Mindfulness = Ground of Freedom
An important part of the practice is to allow and tenderly include strong sensations. At times, however, we can be too overwhelmed by trying to stay with unpleasantness. When this happens, the wise and compassionate practice is to shift our attention to a neutral or pleasant anchor like our breath or a different place in our body, and then when we feel steady again, we can go back to the unpleasant place and then back to the anchor, going back and forth. Practicing in this way develops a greater ability to hold a tender space for even great pain which is healing and liberating!
Tara emphasizes the role of compassion in healing and says the “gift of training in awareness is that it changes our relationship with experience so it’s not what’s happening, it’s how we’re relating to it….The heart of this training is two basic questions: What is happening inside me right now? Can I be with this….or let this be? Letting this life live through you.”
In conclusion, in these first lessons of the Power of Awareness course, the focus is on bringing mindfulness and love to our breath and our body sensations. Through our meditation practice, we cultivate the ability to steady and calm our minds as we experience the waves of all that arises so that we can shift out of our unskillful reactive patterns into more skillful responses that allow us to live more true to ourselves.