Stable attention, rest, inquiry, prayer, body-inclusive practices, and precepts

Although I am not an expert on these things, I thought I would share how I experience a few basic practices that have been helpful for and important to me.

One of these is stable attention, or samatha. It’s a way of training attention to be more stable and pliable, often through focusing on the sensations of the breath (for instance at the nostrils) or an imagined or visual (object in front of you) image. This benefits almost any activity in life, from interactions with family and friends to work, and any of the other forms of meditation or practice.

Another is rest, also called natural rest, natural meditation, or shikantaza in Zen. This is an allowing of everything to be as it is. Or, more precisely, noticing that it’s already this way. Everything that’s here now is already allowed as it is. There is a shift in gravity from being identified with certain viewpoints and identities, to noticing that what we are is what’s here now as it is. This rest can happen within a great deal of activity. It’s a rest that’s not necessarily obvious to an outside observer.

Yet another is insight, inquiry or vipassana. Some insight into the nature and dynamics of the mind comes naturally through any of the other practices mentioned here. And it can also come from a more intentional and dedicated investigation, for instance through exploring the sense fields, The Work, the Living Inquiries, or other forms of inquiry. This insight is into the nature of mind (what we are, that which all happens within and as), the dynamics of the mind (the nature of clarity and delusion), and also everyday insights into our lives, history, and interactions and relationships with others and the world (who we are, as human beings).

Then there is prayer. This may be a noticing or setting of intention. It may be a request for guidance, clarity and support. It may be an opening to what’s larger than and beyond ourselves as a human being. It may be a noticing of what we are.

There is also body-inclusive practices, such as yoga, tai chi, chi gong, and Breema. The body may be a support for training a more stable attention. There may be insights into the body and the subtle energy system, and how these interact with the rest of who we are. And body centered practices may also invite the three soul centers – head, heart and belly – to open, as do natural rest, inquiry, and prayer.

There are practical guidelines for how to be in the world, aka precepts. Following these, to the best of our ability, tends to bring some stability and ease to our lives and relationships with others and the world. They tend to give a preview of how it is to live from clarity. They show me that I am unable to follow all of them all of the time, so it gives me a sense of understanding and empathy when others don’t follow them. And they highlight places in me where there is still confusion. If I notice that I lie, I can investigate this. For instance, I can ask myself what’s the perceived benefit of this particular lie? What are the consequences of this lie? Do I lie from fear? If so, what do I fear would happen if I am honest? If what I fear happens, is it still OK? 

Finally, there is a large number of approaches to healing and health, such as Tension and Trauma Release Exercises which I have found very helpful for myself. Trauma – which here is used in a broad sense – can wreak havoc in any life, regardless of the amount of practice we do, so it’s good to address it and invite it to heal. This also brings insight into the dynamics of the mind, and a sense of empathy and understanding for others who have gone through stressful experiences and may have some amount of trauma in their system – which includes almost all of us.

This is not God, is it true?

The truth is that until we love cancer, we can’t love God. It doesn’t matter what symbols we use—poverty, loneliness, loss—it’s the concepts of good and bad that we attach to them that make us suffer.
– Byron Katie

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.
– Matthew 5:43-44

Anything thoughts tell me is wrong, bad, not God, becomes an enemy for me, in my mind, when those thoughts are taken as true.

It’s uncomfortable, painful, it’s how I create suffering for myself.

So what can I do? Here are a few approaches I find interesting and helpful: Prayer for he/she/it, ho’o, tonglen, The Work, sense field explorations, the Big Mind Process, Headless experiments, and more. And all are supported by inviting in a more stable attention, perhaps by bringing attention to the breath, or through body-centered practices such as yoga, tai chi, chi gong, or Breema.

All of this helps me shift into finding genuine love for he/she/it, and it may even help me notice it’s already love. It never was anything but love.

And I do it for my own sake. It’s a relief. I function from more clarity. I function from more kindness. There is a sense of coming home.

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Breath, feel, turn it over

I sometimes “forget” even the simplest pointers, and was reminded of this one today.

When there is a sense of discomfort or overwhelm, I find it helpful to….

Bring attention to the breath, for instance the sensations of the breath at the nostrils, or even the movement of the chest and/or belly. This helps bring attention out of thoughts and to something simple such as sensation. It can also be helpful to bring attention to the heart area, and the sensations there.

Feel what’s here, allow it it’s life, it’s peace. I sometimes ask myself, can I be with this experience? Is it true, it’s overwhelming? Is it true, it’s too much? If I notice a thought behind the fear, I can ask myself is it true? Do I know for certain it’s true? 

Turn it over to the divine, to God.


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Being present

It’s popular in certain circles to talk about being present. What does it mean?

I don’t really know, but imagine two things:

One is in the meaning of intentionally being aware of what’s here and now. The simplest way of practicing this  may be through training a stable attention, for instance bringing attention to physical sensations, whether it’s the sensations at the nostrils of the in- and out-breath, the sensations within any other imagined boundary on or in the body, the sensations of movement or weight, and so on. This also makes it easier to intentionally bring attention to what’s here in everyday life – sensations, sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and images and thoughts. I assume this is what’s sometimes referred to as mindfulness.

As any other practice, this is also inquiry. What happens when attention is brought to sensations? (It goes out of thoughts, which may be experienced as liberating.) Can I notice when attention is absorbed on the “inside” of thoughts, and bring it back to sensations? What thoughts did attention go to? (What do I find when I take these to inquiry?) Do I have thoughts about wandering attention? (It’s not good, I am not doing a good job.) What do I find when I take these to inquiry?

Another is to notice that whatever is here in the field of awareness, or whatever attention goes to, is already here and now. Sensations, sights, sounds, smells, tastes, thoughts are all here and now.

I sometimes ask myself a simple question: Is it true this – including images of past, future and present – is not already here and now? 

To explore this further, I sometimes explore the sense fields to see how the mental field creates images of time (as a continuum) and future, present and past (discrete times), and places other images (memories, scenarios) on these images. Sometimes, it’s taken as real, solid and really “out there” in the past, future or present. Other times, it’s all recognized as happening within the mental field in immediacy. Any sense of time then “collapses” into what’s here in immediacy. Whatever is here – my field of experience – is all happening within and as awareness, including images of time, and images overlaid on the other sense fields such as images of space, images of a me and I, images of an inner and outer world, and so on.

This helps me see – and feel – that time (as a continuum) and the three times (past, future, present) cannot be found outside of my images. Images placed on these images of time (memories, scenarios) lose a sense of really being “out there” in time, in past, future or present. And it’s all – images of time, of space, of a me and I – more easily noticed as happening within and as awareness.

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Staying with sensations

What do I mean when I tell myself I stay with the fear behind discomfort, unease, tension and so on?

I am really just staying with the sensations of fear, the sensations my images and thoughts tend to label fear.

And how can I more easily do that?

I find that inquiry is very helpful, for instance inquiring into the thoughts creating the fear (I won’t have enough money, she won’t like me), thoughts about the fear itself (it’s overwhelming, it means something terrible will happen), and the label fear itself (it’s fear).

Training a more stable attention is also very helpful, for this as for so much else, and the simplest way to do this may be to bring attention to the sensations of air as it flows in and out of the nostrils. Allow the breath to be as it is (or notice it’s already allowed), and bring attention to the sensations at the nostrils. As attention goes somewhere else, usually into thoughts taken as true, notice and bring it back to the sensations again. (This is also an inquiry practice, noticing the tendency of attention to go into thoughts taken as true, and then bring attention back to the sensations, and notice any beliefs about this and perhaps later take these to inquiry.)

Staying with sensations seems helpful at any time. It helps me see that what I label warm, cold, pain, hunger, unease, agitation, joy, excitement are all sensations with an overlay of images and thoughts labeling it in these ways. Is it really true? Is the label true? Does it have an as clearly defined boundary as these images suggest? What does my thoughts tell me are the implications of these labels (it’s pain and that means….)? What do I find when I take these to inquiry?

It also helps attention stay with something quite simple – sensations – instead of getting lost in labels, interpretations and stories about these sensations or other aspects of life.

It’s all an experiment. What happens if attention stays with sensations here and now? What happens if there is that intention? What are my thoughts about it? What do I find if I take these to inquiry?

Stability practice and inquiry

I have noticed that my attention has been a bit scattered during inquiry recently, so it may be time to strengthen those stability muscles again.

Stability practice and inquiry traditionally go hand-in-hand in Buddhism, and for good reasons.

Training a more stable attention seems almost universally helpful for whatever activity I engage in, whether I talk with a friend, cook food, study, work, or pray or engage in inquiry.

And inquiry can support stability practice. I can find and inquire into beliefs about stability practice, such as it takes effort, it takes too much time, there is resistance to it, there is an I doing it. 

It’s also interesting to explore how stability practice appears in the sense fields. (For me, right now, noticing an image guiding size and location of attention, an image of a me, an image of an observer or doer, and noticing the shifts between identification and softening/release of identification with the images of a me and I.)

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How is it possible to believe a stressful thought?

How is it possible to believe any particular thought? (Which then becomes stressful.) What are the mechanics behind it?

What happens in images and thoughts? What happens in the body to support this? (Tension, numb?)

So far, I have found explorations of the sense fields to be very helpful, and also The Work, with support from practices to invite a more stable attention (samatha) and body-inclusive explorations such as TRE and Breema. I am not going into details here since there is enough materials there for a book (or a library), it’s more helpful to discover it for oneself, and also because some other posts have more on that topic.

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Article: Your Brain on Computers

“Throughout evolutionary history, a big surprise would get everyone’s brain thinking,” said Clifford Nass, a communications professor at Stanford. “But we’ve got a large and growing group of people who think the slightest hint that something interesting might be going on is like catnip. They can’t ignore it.”
– from NY Times, Your Brain on Computers: Attached to Technology and Paying a Price

I notice this for myself. In periods when I am more on the internet, I find that my attention becomes restless.

Fortunately, as with most other human skills, attention can be trained.

We already train attention, as we notice when we use digital information devices. Here, we train our attention to function over shorter time spans and be more easily distracted.

And we can also train attention to be more stable, and a tool we can use with more awareness and skill.

The simplest form of training attention this way is probably breath practice. Bring attention to your breath, either through the movements of the belly, or the sensations in the nose or at the nostrils. If the attention need extra support, count the breath in cycles of ten. This makes it easier to notice when attention is drawn into stories. If attention is already quite stable, then just bring it to the sensations without counting. And whenever you notice attention goes into stories, gently bring it back to the breath. Even short periods of this practice, for instance just five minutes once or a few times during the day, can have a big effect.

So this may be an additional advantage of our digital information age. We notice its impact on our attention habits, and seek out ways to train attention.

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Stable attention and pointers

A friend of mine with a great deal of experience with Buddhist practice, uses the word “concentration” practice for what I tend to think of as stable attention.

As usual with these things, it is an opportunity for inquiry, for trying it out.

What I know for myself, is that several of the usual tools work quite well for me with the stability practice.

I can bring attention to the sensations at the tip of the nostrils, or something the belly, or the whole-body experience of the in-breath and out-breath. (There is a quite noticeable change throughout the whole body from the ordinary in- and out-breath.)

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Stable attention

Inviting attention to stabilize is a potato among practices. It can be used for almost anything.

A more stable attention helps with other practices such as prayer, shikantaza/choiceless awareness, inquiry, self-inquiry, yoga, and service in the world.

And a more stable attention helps us with just about anything in daily life.

Already now, there is research on some of the effects of a more stable attention.

And I wouldn’t be surprised if that is not going to be a growing field of research in the future. Especially since a more stable attention can be invited in through very simple practices that just about anyone can do independent of age, religious background, education and so on. And since it – most likely – can support just about any aspect of our lives, and can be combined with just about any other tools and approaches.

For instance, what are the effects of a more stable attention on well-being, physical and mental health, learning, work life, adhd, athletic performance, addiction prevention and interventions, self-regulation, anger management, sleep problems, anxiety, relationships, experience of physical symptoms, and so on. The list is endless.

Maybe more importantly, what is the effect of a more stable attention on these things when it is combined with other – often more traditional – tools and approaches?

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Approximate stability practice

I know there are lots of guidelines and maps about stability practice out there, based on the cumulative experience of thousands (millions?) of practitioners, and I am neither very familiar with it or very experienced on my own. As with everything else here, this is just a snapshot of what is alive for me right now, and each statement if followed by a question mark even if it doesn’t show up on the screen.

It seems that many practices are, most of the time, approximate. It is approximate shikantaza, approximate allowing experience, and also approximate stability practice, an approximately stable attention on something.

Here are some of the things I notice which makes my stability practice only approximate. In this case, using the sensation of the breath at the nostrils as the object of attention, with or without counting.

  • If I count my breaths, I notice that attention is often split between the sensations of the breath at the nostrils, and the number thoguht. Attention also tends to shift between the two, with one in the foreground, then the other.
  • If I have my eyes partly open, even with a soft gaze, I notice attention being split between the sensations of the breath at the nostrils, and the focus of the visual field. (It may be subtle, but still a noticeable split.) This happens whether I count, in which case attention is split four ways (imagined bulls eye as guide for attention, thought of a number and through of sequence of numbers, focal point of visual field, and sensations at the nostrils), or not.
  • When I bring attention to the sensations of the breath at the nostrils, I use a visual thought – almost an imagined bulls eye – as a guide for attention. So attention is split between these two as well, with one in the foreground then the other. Even without counting, and with eyes closed, attention is split between these two.
  • Sensations themselves flicker inn and out of existence. When they flicker out of existence, the imagined bulls eye remains so attention shifts there. When they flicker into existence, attention shifts back to the sensation. (This rapid flickering happens during inhalation and exhalation, and the sensations also fade in and out of existence during the in/outbreath and the pause in between.)
  • Any belief tends to catch attention, in obvious or more subtle ways, either by attention going on the inside of a thought and following it, or by just a flicker of interest when the thought arises. (Belief here means identification with a story, any story.)
  • These flickers of interest also happens with non-discursive thoughts, such as image thoughts overlaid on the sense fields. (Imagining what the sounds are, where the sensation is located in the body, and so on.)

So this is one way stability practice, in itself, invites in insights.

Through stability practice, we gain insight into some of the dynamics around a stable, or in this case not so stable, attention.

We may notice the sense of clarity that often comes as a side effect of a more stable attention.

We may notice the sense of energy that comes with it, and other side effects such as a sense of luminosity (even visually) and so on.

We discover how it is much easier to observe and notice what is going on when we can place attention more stably on something alive here now. A more stable attention helps insight directly.

We may notice how thoughts, as anything else, lives its own life, coming and going on their own schedule.

We may notice the difference between attention seeing a thought as a thought, and getting absorbed on the inside of a story. In the first case, allowing it to come and go as a simple thought. In the second case, fueling and elaborating it into a more complex story, and often getting lost in it.

We may notice how attention is more easily drawn to stories we identify with. Stories that seem true, real, important. Stories that define who we, temporarily, take ourselves to be.

We may notice how the activities of thoughts naturally quiet down when attention rests stably on the breath, or something else.

We may notice how the effects of the different layers of thoughts fall away when identification is released out of them. When identification goes out of discursive thought, drama falls away and there is a sense of quiet presence. When identification is released out of more basic layers of thought, such as those creating a sense of extent and continuity, this falls away, and whatever happens in the different sense fields happens without being mapped onto space or time. When identification goes out of a sense of I with an Other, this field of awakeness and its content is revealed as inherently free of an I with an Other, inside and outside, center and periphery.

(The discursive layer is needed for daily functioning, but only to a limited extent, and when identification goes out of it, drama goes out as well. The layer creating a sense of extent and continuity is obviously needed for daily functioning, but it can be interesting and helpful to explore during sitting practice. And the final layer, of a sense of a separate I, is not needed for the functioning of our human self.)

We notice the ephemeral nature of sensations, rapidly flickering in and out of existence, and the ephemeral nature of any sense field.

We may notice sensations, and any sense field, as awakeness itself.

We may notice how the content of each sense field comes and goes, but something does not come and go. What is it that does not come and go? Am I the content of the fields, or that which does not come and go? Are they really separate?

And this is just scratching the surface. Something as simple as stability practice is fertile ground for exploration, going right back to the core of what we really are.

Mutuality of stability and insight

There are several ways stability and insight work together.

Stability practice itself, such as counting the breath, inevitably gives some insights. The first one is usually how active the mind is, and how easily attention is distracted and lives its own life outside of conscious control. Then other things, such as how distractions has to do with attention getting absorbed into stories, and how beliefs related to these stories makes it more likely for attention to be absorbed into them. (They seem more real, more important, and they are also identified with so not recognized as just thoughts very easily, until maybe afterwards.)

Stability of attention also helps more explicit insight practices, first by allowing attention to stay wherever it is put for longer, and also by generally calming the activity of the mind so there are fewer hooks for distraction.

And insights allow for more stability of attention. We learn to see through how beliefs are created, as it happens, and recognize thoughts more easily as just thoughts. And this lessens the tendency for attention to get absorbed on the inside of thoughts, which in turn allows attention to more easily stay where it is put.

Stability practice

I haven’t done much stability practice for a while, and am now coming back to it. One of the benefits of leaving something and then returning is the rediscovery, seeing it in a more fresh way, being more interested in it and its effects.

Stability practice (shamata) is a basic and ongoing companion practice to almost any other practice, whether it is prayer, allowing, inquiry, yoga, or something else.

It allows for a more stable attention, which is helpful for any other practice. And this stable attention in turn calms the content of the mind, which is also helpful for many practices.

It helps our attention stay with the prayer. It helps us be with whatever we are experiencing, fully allowing it all in a wholehearted way. It helps attention stay with inquiry, whether it is labeling practice, Big Mind Process, The Work or any other form of inquiry. It helps attention stay with the breath and body while we do body-inclusive practices.

And it also helps us in daily life in many ways… stable attention, more clarity, even a greater sense of energy because attention is focused instead of scattered.

There are many ways of doing stability practice, although they all (?) include bringing attention to an object.

Often, this object is the breath, such as the sensations of the breath at the nostrils. It is also helpful to count the breaths in the beginning of each session until there is more stability, and then just stay with the breath without counting. (The counting helps keep the interest there, and is also great feedback for when attention strays into the inside of thoughts.)

It is helpful to stay relaxed, allowing the breath to come and go as it naturally does, and then tune attention just enough to stay with the breath.

Eyes somewhat open helps with alertness, and light does the same. It attention is scattered, it can help to lower the gaze and maybe reduce the light level. If there is sleepiness, it can help to raise the gaze and increase the light level.

It is also helpful to do some form of physical activity before sitting, such as strength or aerobic exercise or a form of yoga. It tends to invite in a more relaxed alertness.

Although any body position is fine, sitting with an erect spine helps with staying awake and alert. I find it interesting to sometimes experiment with different positions, including lying down, and notice the difference.

And it can be done whenever we have time and are not doing anything else, such as when sitting on the train or bus, waiting for an appointment, or while still in bed before falling asleep or after waking up.