Constancy is the outcome of approaching activities wth the quality of faithfulness and dependability; it is also enduring and unchanging. How then do we reconcile the advice to choose constancy in our mindfulness practice when everything is ever changing? When our inner world feels confused or emotional? When our outer world feels chaotic and unsteady?
It’s a kind of paradox. Constancy is what results when we bring a consistent attitude to our every day situations and activities. When we bring our presence in the same steadfast way to every living moment, whether it is eating a daily meal, dealing with a sudden and unexpected event such as an illness or a natural disaster, facing relationship issues such as indifference and betrayal, or living through political turmoil and policies that create war, refugees, and intolerance, we build constancy. Think about it this way. Everything is always changing and yet our approach is always dependable. We bring our attention to and acknowledge in an even, non-judging way what is here, right now. Constancy results not from habitual reaction to what is happening but from the consistently of approach to what is happening in the moment.
A Zen teacher reminds us that constancy requires no particular effort. It does require training, however. Just as in dance or sports we train the body with exercises and practice to build something we call muscle memory, so too, we train the mind to pay attention and to acknowledge what is here in front of us without judging through our meditation practice. This builds constancy. Being aware of and acknowledging the worry, fear, and anxiety that we feel in our daily lives is our starting place. Our formal practice—taking time, giving space, sitting in stillness—is our practice room. We learn to sense and observe the changing mind within from a place of non-reactivity, openness, and truth. As within, without. As we build our constancy with respect to our inner world, we also build it with respect to our outer world.
Bringing the intention to build constancy in our practice just as a ballerina brings the intention to perform the arabesque in its true form and beauty and the baseball pitcher brings the intention to throw each ball with exquisite form and accuracy is a beautiful place to start. Start here. Same place. Same time. Bring intention. Be still. Be aware. Acknowledge. Observe. No judgement.
From there our steadfastness, our constancy, provides us the freedom to respond in an appropriate way that feels right to us.
This post is part of my Start Where You Are series. In our mindfulness practice we typically bring our awareness to our breath. For many of us this is something that feels natural and we can do easily or with a little practice. But for some of us this is really tough and may stop us in our tracks and keep us from building a regular, every day practice.
If you find that it is difficult to bring your awareness to your breath start where you are. Instead bring your awareness to you feet. But first, sit in a chair so that your feet can be flat on the ground or floor. This helps you to really feel your feet. If your feet are in the air, it is much harder to feel them. Trust me, I know. Now, remove your shoes and socks if that feels right. If it doesn’t, keep them on and after some practice try removing them.
Close your eyes or lower your gaze. Let your face be soft. Sense the space around you. Sense the seat you are sitting on and how it supports you. Now bring your awareness down into your feet. Let your attention sink down—yes, let it sink—all the way down to the bottoms of your feet and sense what they are touching. If you are wearing socks or shoes sense the quality of your feet touching them. If your bare feet are on the floor or on the ground sense their contact with whatever they are touching.
Keep your awareness there. You may be surprised to sense some energy flowing up through your feet. This is grounding energy. It flows up the body and is calming. If it feels right follow its flow. Stay with it sensing the energy rising up through your feet and legs. Or, just sense it in your feet.
Don’t worry if you don’t sense this grounding energy. Just keep your awareness in your feet. Notice the bottoms of your feet. Notice the tops and sides of your feet. Wiggle your toes. Experience what that feels like. Feel both feet resting on what they are touching. Notice the quality of that. Is it hot or cold? Rough or smooth? Hard or soft? Stiff or flexible. Bring your awareness inside your feet to bone, ligament, tendon, and muscle. Just notice how it is. It may change. Just keep your attention there and go with the changes.
Do this for a few minutes and notice how you are. You may sense a change—a kind of calm or flowing energy may settle in. If not, that’s just fine, too. Notice how it is for you now. Just notice and bring your awareness back to your feet. This is your practice. Stay with your feet. Five minutes is fine. Two minutes is fine. One minute is fine, too.
At some point, you may feel ready to try bringing your awareness to your breath. If you do, then begin as before by sitting in a chair with your feet flat on the floor or ground. By grounding in this way, it helps you to bring your awareness to the breath. So first, take some time and just sense your grounded feet. Now bring your awareness to your breath just as it is. Don’t do anything! Don’t try to change it. Just notice it like an interested bystander. If it feels ok, stay with the breath—the breath in, the breath out, the slight pause. As you stay with the breath notice how it changes. Nothing is the same, everything changes, even the breath.
If it becomes difficult to follow the breath or you feel you need to change or control it then bring your awareness down into your feet. Really feel your feet just as before. At any point you can ground yourself by bringing your awareness down into the feet.
If you sense anxiety or panic when you invite your awareness to pay attention to your breath, then please seek the help and support of a health professional. Working with them, you will be able to find ease with awareness of the breath.
Remember you are not alone. We have support. Hello! Here we are. The key is to start where we are.
When we are curious, we are open to asking questions, to new perspectives, and to mysteries. We welcome rather than shun ‘not knowing.’ When we are curious, the mind is enthusiastic, adventurous, and tolerates stress well.
Curiosity is a wonderful attitude to bring to meditation. Why? When we are curious we are not closed and judging, we are open and welcoming. Being open and welcoming to what arises is a cornerstone of being mindful throughout the day and nourishes our formal meditation practice. Instead of fighting against what arises, curiosity allows us to go with what comes. Going with what is arising for us in the moment is freeing. This doesn’t mean we allow ourselves to get hijacked by thoughts and emotions. Rather, we watch them with an interested focused attention allowing them to unfold without entangling ourselves in them.
A curious thing about curiosity. When we are curious we are not afraid. I have noticed in my own practice when fear arises and I am with it in a curious and non-judging way, the fear passes. I will say inwardly, “ I am curious about this fear arising.” This makes it OK to be with the unfolding fear.
Curiosity fosters a sense of comfort–a kind of ease that allows unattached sensing. And, this ease allows us to be open to wondering. Wondering is open-ended. It doesn’t presume an answer. It appreciates gaps and fuzziness. It acknowledges the unfamiliar and inexplicable. Beginning a question with a sense of wonder helps us let the question drop into space without chasing a cognitive answer.
You might ask, “How do I invite curiosity into my practice?” Setting the intention at the beginning of each formal meditation is a wonderful way to begin as is setting it at the beginning of each day. Like anything, the more we cultivate a sense of curiosity the more it grows becoming natural to us. You might simply say, “May I be curious.” Then just let it go. Don’t think about it. Let the intention drop away like a leaf falling from a tree. And, be open to all possibilities.
May you be curious. May I be curious. May we be curious!
I can’t begin to tell you how many times when I am meditating something arises that feels like “No,” or that says “No” or that creates a feeling of friction, rasping, constriction, or denial that feels like “No.” When I first began meditating I would become flustered and then frustrated when this would happen. I didn’t know how to work with this kind of phenomena.
Without intending to, at first, I would notice and then push a “No” thought or sensation away by immediately returning my attention to the breath. This didn’t work. I was forgetting to acknowledge the presence of “No.”
Once aware of this forgetting, I would notice and acknowledge. I would say inwardly, “thought” or “sensation” or “inner voice” depending on how the “No” was manifesting and return my attention to the breath. This seemed to help for a few moments. Then the same phenomenon would revisit me and sometimes it was even stronger than before.
This is when I would sense frustration rising. Sometimes, I would open my eyes or shift my seat hoping for a reset, but the frustration only felt more present. I would try again. The trying didn’t help either. The trying was just striving. I have a lot of compassion for my striving mind. Somehow it learned that striving is helpful. It was helpful in getting me out of childhood situations and trajectories that didn’t feel right to me. Striving led me to new places and people who understood my need for wholeness. In this instance, though, striving was anything but helpful. Striving just increased my suffering.
After some time, it came to me to ask these “No” phenomena what each was wanting. This helped. I didn’t try to answer the question. No trying (striving)! I just let the question drop into space. And, something interesting happened. What was being wanted was for me to pay attention and to say “Yes,” not by merely gliding over their presence with a perfunctory acknowledgment, but by really pausing and allowing their fulness and saying inwardly with my full awareness, “Yes, this, too, is here.” Spending time and giving space was what was needed.
What a difference this made. I realized that oh, so subtly, I had been saying “No.” It seemed that either in an undercover sort of conscious way or unconsciously I had been pushing these “Nos” away. Even as I would acknowledge and name the particular sensation or thought, underneath I was not wanting it there. I had been saying “No” to the “No.”
It was when my mind could be curious and interested but not attached (not striving) that it could pause fully, acknowledge fully, and enquire without judging or expecting any answer at all. This was my “Yes” to the “No.” My mind’s perspective had changed. By slowing down, allowing, and being with the “No” completely and fully, the energy of “no” had a chance to unwind.
This is how powerful the mind can be. And this is how plastic it is, too. We can train our minds. We can say, “Yes” to “No.”
As experiences happen in us, around us, and between us and our environment the mind quickly judges. This is pleasant; hold on to it. This is unpleasant push it away. This is good. Stay here. That is bad. Go away. This doesn’t touch me. Ignore it. This process of judging and reacting can be so subtle, it goes undetected. And, yet, its affects are present. Feelings of sadness, inadequacy, emptiness, self-criticism, loneliness and fear may arise.
Culturally in the West, we are are conditioned to accumulate as many pleasant feelings as we can. We value sensory experiences that are equivalent to a child in a candy store roaming the aisles and piling up sweets and delicacies that smell, taste, look, feel, and sound wonderful. The smell of chocolate, the taste of sweetness, the look of perfectly iced cakes, the velvety feel of ice cream, the sound of popping corn.
Conversely, we shun unpleasant feelings. We turn away from bitter tastes just as we indulge the sweet. We rush past a homeless person sleeping in a doorway so not to see. We hold our nose to the smell of ripening perspiration on a hot day. We cringe at the sound of alarms, sirens and screams. So afraid of feeling pain, we pop opioid pain killers to get ahead of the pain before it starts.
We go about our days in this constant state of reacting and sorting. This is pleasant; keep this. That is unpleasant; throw it away. Interestingly, the pleasant feelings we accumulate quickly dissipate while the unpleasant ones linger.
And, something more happens. The more pleasant experiences we accumulate, the more we want. We become gluttonous, attaching ourselves physically or virtually to anything and everything that adds to our sense of pleasure. We are delirious with our possessions, our selfies, our games, and our gadgets. And, yet, the more we accumulate, the more unsatisfactory life feels.
Ah, we are suffering with pervasive dissatisfaction.
There is another way. Rather than allow this pushing, pulling or ignoring of experience, we can pause and experience what we are experiencing by bringing our attention to it in a neutral and friendly way. When we attend to our feelings in this way we can bring interest and curiosity to their exploration.
You might be asking but how can I, or anyone, do this?
First, we pay attention to the body by focusing our awareness. We are continuously breathing, so by bringing our intention to pay attention and then our attention to our breathing—the in breath, out breath and pause—and where we sense it—as it enters the body through the nose, as it descends the throat, as it fills the chest and settles in belly— we get used to being with the continuous flow of the reality of our breath and the edges between our inner and outer environments. As we stay with the breath, we become intimate with it a neutral, yet friendly, kind of way. We experience how it changes sometimes softer; then stronger. Sometimes superficial; then deeper. Faster; then slower. We drop our opinions and judgements about how it should be. It is as it is. We watch it with interest and curiosity.
We can be wth our senses in much the same way. As we broaden our focus to our five sense doors, the eyes, ears, nose, mouth, and body we can bring our attention to the continuous flow of sensory perception flowing within and between our inner and outer environments without judging. What we do is to develop our awareness of the flow of experience as we perceive it through the senses. This is why sitting is so important. When we sit we create the conditions in which we can train the mind to pay attention to the flow of sensory experience without grasping or pushing anything. We use our mind in a different way. Instead of judging each perception; we allow it to be present and then pass away.
As we practice this we build our mindfulness. Mindfulness is not something we do; it is rather a condition we develop through practice leading us to it. Gil Fronsdal, a Buddhist teacher, describes it as a state of receptive attentiveness not requiring self-conscious effort*. The more we practice by focusing attention on the breath and our sensory perceptions the less effort we need to apply until we reach the point that it is just the way we are.
Beginners to meditation often lament that just the thought of sitting still is too much for them. “I can’t sit still!” I have often heard new meditators say. “Meditation is not for me.”
When someone says, “I can’t sit still,” it may be that in that moment they can’t and that’s OK. One of the beautiful things about meditation is that you start where you are.
If when you sit down to meditate, you feel jittery, antsy, nervous, scratchy, or fidgety, then that’s the place to start. Often, bringing your awareness to your breath brings a sense of calm with it and the jitters dissipate. But, sometimes the fidgeting lingers or even gets stronger.
Trying to push a nervous jittery feeling away won’t work. What meditation teaches us is that the way to relieve suffering is by going into it and through it. You might say, “Oh, but it is just the jitters. I am not suffering.” Then also notice if you also feel spacious, calm, and open. If you don’t then the jitters is holding tension. Be willing to hold the disquiet. Something is not right. There is suffering under the surface. It may not be ready to show itself fully. But, it is inviting you to notice.
Notice it and acknowledge it. “Fidgeting is here,” you might say to yourself. Don’t judge it or make excuses for it. Be friendly and neutral. Feel what you are feeling (to quote Mark Epstein). Allow it to be there without pushing it away. Just let it be.
Notice where in your body you feel it. Perhaps in the shoulders, arms, or hands. Maybe in the torso or legs. Perhaps in the mind. When you invite yourself to notice where you feel it, gently acknowledge that too, bringing your full attention to it and its bodily place. “Fidgeting is here in the shoulders.”
Sometimes, just by bringing our full attention to it and holding it in this neutral and friendly way, it softens and dissipates. If it does, then return your full attention to the breath. If it doesn’t, then be curious.
Yes, open your curiosity. Be interested in it. Invite it to let you know something about it. You might say to yourself, “What is this fidgeting?” Or “I’m inviting this fidgeting to let me know how it is for it.” And, then just wait. Don’t try to find an answer. Just drop your invitation into your inner space and wait. Something may come or unfold. Whatever comes is OK. If something comes, stay with it in the same neutral and friendly way. If nothing comes, then return your attention to the breath.
When I first began meditating, a sharp pain in my back between my ribs would arise. I remember trying to hold my back straighter and stretching the space between my ribs. I also remember trying to do this in the background like some kind of clandestine operation while settling my attention on the breath. The more I would try to outmaneuver the pain between my ribs, the stronger it would become. I noticed how it made me feel anxious and angry. I was at a loss. I didn’t know what to do.
The teacher had kindly invited us to sit with our backs straight, to sit like a mountain, upright and relaxed. She had instructed us how to bring our awareness to our breath and how to return our attention to the breath when thoughts would arise. I tried over and over again to bring my attention to my breath, but after a breath or two the pain intruded.
I was too shy to ask her for advice, so I struggled with it for a quite a while, for several months actually. Then it came to me. I am at battle with this pain. It is going no where until I acknowledge it without judging it and hold it fully in a neutral way.
This was a big aha and opened up a whole path of enquiry for me. I was so afraid of doing the meditation wrong, of not getting it right, of being inadequate. Memories of childhood incidents sprung to the surface as did their accompanying feelings. I learned to sit with what came in this new neutral way. To allow them their life. And though it seems strange, even as I write this, by allowing them to be with me fully without my interceding in any way, their energy released opening me more and more.
This is important. Allow what is here for you right now to be here. Be with it fully. Start where you are.
There is nothing intrinsically harmful about anger. Anger is a natural emotion that moves us to action. As with all emotions, it rises and falls away. So why do we often feel that we can’t shake anger? Why does it stick to us however hard we try to push it away?
The answers are many. Perhaps this stickiness comes from how our culture teaches us not to show anger or how as children we protected ourselves in difficult and dangerous situations by not showing it. The truth is, though, the cause is not what matters. What matters is how we are with it; how we respond to it.
In my life experience, anger has been a great teacher. A person very close to me had for many years been caught in the throws of addiction hurting herself, her family—all her relationships and endeavors. Her suffering was palpable. At first, when the call would come that she was in a desperate situation, I would run to her side with the belief that I could set everything right. Once the appearance of balance and health emerged I assumed all was right and would leave triumphantly. Of course, this was a delusion. I had accomplished nothing and failed to notice this for the longest time.
Over time my anger grew becoming a constant irritating companion. Then, fortuitously, as my mindfulness practice developed, I noticed and sat down with my anger. This starting where I was, was crucial in my journey of awakening to my anger and my true nature.
At first I sat with it in the same way I might sit by a roaring campfire. Giving it space, I sat a little bit away from its heat while watching intently its flames flicker and dance. I sat with it for a long time in this way noticing, acknowledging, and watching. When it felt right, I invited it to,open to me from its perspective by asking, “What’s the worst part of the situation?” It let me know.
It showed me what lay beneath. First, there was hurt ego desperately playing the savior, believing that it could control and fix everything. There was resentment that this person had spoiled our relationship. There was paralyzing fear that this person would be arrested, thrown into jail, or die. There was recognition that this suffering was arising from my response to the situation. Finally and surprisingly, my anger released.
It showed me that the way to freedom from my suffering, lay in going through the anger. Not skirting it, not attacking it, not pushing it away. By being fully present with it and immersing my full attention in it in a neutral yet friendly way it both dissolved and led me to appropriate actions.
In my case the appropriate actions were the setting of appropriate boundaries which led to the further action of changing my behavior. I acknowledged that I had no control over the situation but I did have a choice in how I responded to it. In this process, my love and compassion grew stronger.
My experience led me to understand that noticing, acknowledging, and being present with anger are the first steps to allowing anger to do its job, to move me to action. So now when anger arises, I turn to it and invite it to let me know what it is wanting while knowing that its wanting will unwind like the layers of a juicy onion. At first as we cut the onion, it brings tears to our eyes. Then as we slowly cook it, it releases its sweetness. So, too, with anger.
Go ahead. Experience your anger.
Who among us hasn’t had this experience? There is something we really want to do—perhaps in our careers, family, or creative lives. We see it clearly and then the long list of all the ways things might go wrong, all the obstacles that might arise, and all the negative opinions or judgments that others might make arises. We are left feeling that this is not meant to be.
The glass is definitely half empty, if not fully empty, and yet, the wanting to do this particular thing keeps returning to us.
We, humans, are especially good at getting in our own way. Our brains have been wired from the beginning to get us out of the way of danger and threats—real or perceived. Danger arises and we run for cover, fight like crazy, or freeze into frozen statues.
But, this doesn’t mean that we are victims of evolution; it simply means that to do what we want, what is important, and feels true sometimes requires us to do some skillful work inside. By paying full attention and being alert to our own nature—and being present with what arises we come to know what is true for us.
First, we recognize what’s happening in the moment. Perhaps it is self-talk making a list of all the bad and ugly things that might happen if we attempt to do what we are wanting, or it might be a never-ending movie showing us the same. Whatever arises, the first step is to become aware of it. We might say to ourselves something like, “I’m sensing there is a long list of reasons I shouldn’t do this and I’m saying hello to it.”
This kind of acknowledging is very important. It is not a judgement. It is simply a recognition that we are aware it is here and are acknowledging its presence.
Now, invite in an attitude of interest and curiosity. Curiosity is so helpful! When we are curious we are not pushing anything away; and we are not grasping either. Curiosity is a soft, open, and interested attitude. Sometimes it helps to say, “Oh, I’m sensing I’m curious about this.”
And, if something arises letting us know that it doesn’t feel curious and doesn’t like what is arising, we can acknowledge that too, and be curious about that.
And, sometimes when we do this we feel a settling and flow; or we may feel another quality. It could be something like tensing, contracting, or an emotion like fear. Or, perhaps what is here, let’s say the scary list, may grow bigger! Or, something else entirely. Whatever comes next is OK. We acknowledge that, too.
If what has arisen is strong or grows stronger, we might put some space between us and it. Just visualizing space can be helpful. Or sometimes, instead of having direct laser focus on it, allowing our attention to be soft, and fuzzy and a little to the side–as though we are sitting beside it rather than in front of it. This soft attention also creates space.
We might also invite it to let us know how it would like us to be with it. This allows us to be with it in a way that is comfortable to it. This is the beginning of enquiry. Asking questions is a skillful means to bringing ourselves into relationship with what is arising and from there into wholeness.
Yes! We are building a relationship with what is needing our attention. When we think about it, it makes sense to do this. We build relationships all the time, with friends, family, colleagues. This is how strangers become friends.
Now is a good time to sense which other questions might feel appropriate. Perhaps some of these.
Inviting what is here to let you know what is the worst part of it…
Or, inviting it to let you know what it is not wanting to have happened to you…
Or, in a similarly, inviting it to let you know what it is not wanting you to feel…
After asking… just waiting for what comes… and acknowledging by repeating or reflecting back.
And, repeating the sequence for as many times as feels right.
This might go something like this…
Enquiry: I’m inviting it to let me know what it is not wanting to have happen to me…
Deep attention ((what comes will be different for each person): What comes is a sense of failure and an image, quality, or words of being ridiculed
Reflection (Reflecting back): It’s letting me know it doesn’t want me to be ridiculed if I fail…
This sequence of enquiry might repeat several times. Perhaps, then, an openness, flowing, lightness, expansiveness, or calm and ease will arise…
This is the moment to allow this change, this open space, this ease and calm to be here as fully as it wants and an opportunity to give thanks to all that has arisen…
And, then what feels right… the right attitude, the right actions will occur naturally…