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.
When we sit down to meditate, we assume, implicitly, that everything around us will take note and stay quiet. When it doesn’t we may find ourselves irritated or agitated. “How can that dog be barking now?” we might ask ourselves. “How is it that a neighbor is cutting down that tree with a noisy chain saw right now? Doesn’t he know I am meditating?”
The dog is just following his nature. The neighbor is just cutting down the tree because it needs cutting down. It is our mind that is reacting to the dog’s bark and the the noise of the chain saw. We are the ones that are going out and bothering the dog or the neighbor with the chain saw.
Where is our attention? Our attention has wandered off to out there and grasped onto the noise of the barking or the whine of the chain saw. When we are mindful, our attention is even, neutral and friendly. From this space we can relate to what arises no matter whether it is pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral in the same even way. We don’t push it away, grab hold and cling to it, or judge it. We are aware of the dog barking or the chain saw cutting down the tree and we can be with each phenomenon in a friendly neutral way.
So often we react to outside situations by building defensive fortifications as though there is a war going on. This is a creation of our own mind. Suddenly, the noise of the dog’s bark sparks a reaction. Perhaps a memory rushes in to assail us. Maybe we have been bitten by a dog, approached by a large dog which scared us when we were a toddler, or confronted by a dog’s snarl. Or, perhaps the neighbor’s chain saw jettisons us off to reacting anew to the neighbor’s past actions that we found hurtful or discourteous. Maybe we feel our shoulders or some other place in the body tense in reaction to the noise. Or, it may be that the noise sets off a pervading vague feeling of irritation that has no noticeable correspondence in the body or in conscious memory.
Mindfulness invites us to release our reactions by bringing our mind to a neutral space. When we do so, we can be with an experience without suffering. We are aware of the dog’s bark or the whirl of the chain saw, but we are not triggered. By being with what arises, we release stuck energy. No longer does the memory of the long ago dog bite carry an emotional charge or a threat to our safety. We remember it as as something that happened but without the suffering attached to it.
Our perspective changes. We understand that it is not the dog’s bark that bothers; it is our mind’s reaction to it that bothers. By changing our perspective, we change our mind and open our mindfulness.
* See Jack Kornfield, ed., The Buddha Is Still Teaching: Contemporary Buddhist Wisdom, Shamble Publications, Inc., 2010, p. 76
And, Epstein, Mark, The Trauma of Everyday Life, Penguin group (USA) LLC, 2013, p. 183