by Michael LaValle
As we hone our practice to become more aware, more often, and more consistently, a powerful influence taking us away from being “fully present” in each moment is our automatic tendency to critique our experience as being not quite right in some way. We tell ourselves that the experience is not what should be happening, not good enough, or not what we expected. These judgments can lead to sequences of thought about blame, what needs to be changed, or how things could or should be different. Often, these thoughts will take us, quite automatically, down some fairly well-worn paths in our minds. In this way, we may lose awareness of the moment, and also the freedom to choose what, if any, action needs to be taken.
We can regain this freedom if, as a first step, we simply acknowledge the actuality of our situation, without immediately being hooked into automatic tendencies to judge, fix, or want things to be other than they are. The body scan practice provides an opportunity to simply bring an interested, open and friendly awareness to the way things are in each moment, without having to do anything to effect or force a change. The only goal is to bring awareness to bear, as the instructions suggest. Achieving some special state of relaxation is not a goal of the exercise. Awareness is the goal.
Overcoming barriers to meditation practice
Here are some tips copied or adapted from Full Catastrophe Living, by Jon Kabat-Zinn and Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy for Depression by Segal, Williams, & Teasdale
1. Make a commitment to practice for at least 5-6 days per week. Your practice will be as strong as your commitment.
2. Choose a place that is comfortable and away from interruptions. Practice away from your phone or place it on “Airplane Mode.”
3. Make your surroundings comfortable and nurturing. Add something beautiful and calming to your meditation space (e.g. a candle, your favorite blanket, plants, objects that are meaningful to you.) If possible, sit in a place you don’t use for other activities.
4. Ask you family or loved ones for support in your effort. They can help by providing an interruption- free time.
5. Make sure you are warm or cool enough.
6. Commit to a certain time of day to meditate and stick to it.
7. You already have the discipline to do all of this. You have discipline to do other things.
8. Come to terms with taking time for yourself.
9. Be awake when you meditate. If you meditate the first thing in the morning, do something to feel awake . . . brush your teeth, splash you face with water. The point of meditation is to “fall awake” not fall asleep.
Tips for the Body Scan
Regardless of what happens (e.g., If you fall asleep, lose concentration, keep thinking of other things, were focusing on the wrong bit of body, were not feeling anything), just do it! These are your experiences in the moment. Just be aware of them.
If your mind is wandering, simply note the thoughts (as passing events) and then bring the mind gently back to the body scan.
Let go of ideas of “success,” “failure,” “doing it really well,” or “trying to purify the body.” This is not a competition. The only discipline involved is regular and frequent practice. Just do it – with an attitude of openness, curiosity, and kindness.
Let go of any expectations about what the body scan will do for you: imagine it as a seed you have planted. The more you poke around and interfere, the less it will be able to develop. So, with the body scan, just provide the right conditions — peace and quiet, regular and frequent practice. That is all. The more you try to influence what it will do for you, the less it will do.
Try approaching your experience in each moment with the attitude: “Okay, that’s just the way things are right now.” If you try to fight off unpleasant thoughts, feelings, or body sensations, the upsetting feelings will only distract you from doing anything else. Be aware, be in the moment, accept things as they are.
Tips for Sitting Meditation
Sit in a comfortable, but erect and dignified position. If you are using a chair, sit in one with a straight back with your feet flat on the floor or a bolster if your feet don’t reach the floor. If you sit on the floor, you may want to sit Indian style with a thick cushion to raise your posterior. Either way, the point is to be aligned and comfortable in the vertical position, relax the shoulders and do something comfortable with your hands.
Allow your back to adopt an erect, dignified, and comfortable posture.
Once you are comfortable, close your eyes and bring your awareness to the level of physical sensations by focusing your attention on the sense of touch and pressure in your body where it makes contact with the floor and whatever you are sitting on. Spend a minute or two exploring the sensations, just as in the body scan. Next, simply begin noticing the breath.
It may be helpful to place your hand on your lower abdomen and become aware of the changing pattern of sensations where your hand makes contact with your abdomen. Having “tuned in” to the physical sensations in this area in this way, you can remove your hand and continue to focus on the sensations in the abdominal wall. Focus your awareness on the sensations of slight stretching as the abdominal wall rises with each in-breath and the gentle deflation as it falls with each out-breath.
As best you can, follow with your awareness the changing physical sensations in the lower abdomen all the way through as the breath enters the body on your in-breath and all the way through as the breath leaves your body on the out-breath, perhaps noticing the slight pauses between one in-breath and the following out-breath, and between one out-breath and the following in-breath.
There is no need to try to control the breathing in any way–simply let the breath breathe itself. As best you can, also bring this attitude of allowing to the rest of your experience. There’s nothing to be fixed, no particular state to be achieved. As best you can, simply allow your experience to be your experience, without needing it to be other than it is.
Sooner or later (usually sooner), your mind will wander away from the focus on the breath to plans, memories, thoughts, daydreams, sounds in and beyond the room–whatever. This is perfectly okay — it’s simply what all minds do. It is not a mistake or a failure. When you notice that your awareness is no longer on the breath, gently congratulate yourself for that recognition–you have come back and are once more aware of your experience! You may want to acknowledge briefly where the mind has been (“I was thinking about work” / “I wish that sound would go away”). Then, gently escort the awareness back to focus on the changing pattern of physical sensations of the breath and the lower abdomen, renewing the intention to pay attention to the ongoing in-breath or out-breath, wherever you are in the breath cycle.
Note that activity of the mind is not considered a distraction, but part of the practice. However often you notice that the mind has wandered (and this will happen over and over and over again), reconnect with your experience in the moment, gently escorting your attention back to the breath, and simply resume following with awareness the changing pattern of physical sensations that come with each in breath and out breath.
As best you can, bring the quality of kindness to your awareness, perhaps seeing the repeated wanderings of the mind as opportunities to bring patients and gentle curiosity to your experience.
If you have the urge to react to physical sensations, such as an itch, notice the urge and stay with the focus of your meditation. If you do need to move, do so mindfully.
Are you interested in developing a meditation practice? If so, check out our range of classes and courses that we have available and dig further into the subject through our other blog articles.