Week 3 Teacher Notes: How to Meditate

7:00pm – Weekly Review

Spend  about five minutes checking in with class participants about how they went during the week. Specifically: did they find ways to apply the concept of shifting from thinking to sensing?

7:05pm – Course Summary

In Week 1 we answered the question What Is Meditation? (namely relaxing the body and calming the mind) and in Week 2 we discovered how to do this (by shifting the mind from a thinking to sensing mode). This week we’ll fine tune our meditation instructions by looking more precisely at how we use our minds when we meditate. We’re going to do this experientially, so we’ll do a meditation on the breath in a moment, and we’ll spend a few minutes at the conclusion of the meditation reflecting on how we used our attention while meditating. First though, let’s get up and do a few physical ‘meditations’ to loosen up.

7:07 – Mindfulness of the Body Exercises

Spend  5 to 10 minutes running through the Z-Health Neural Warmup or some alternative such as these 10 Office Exercises You Can Do Secretly.

7.15 – Meditation 1: Exploring the Breath

A Taste of Meditation – Stress Buster (Track 3) or your variation on that theme. This should be a meditation close to 20 minutes long, in which students are invited to explore a range of facets of the breath.
The primary intent with this meditation is not to stay with the breath, but to encourage students to adopt a sense of playfulness and delight. Ideas or questions to introduce during the meditation include:

  1. How do you know you’re breathing? What informs you?
  2. Remember a time when you were deeply relaxed. Can you recall how you were breathing at that time? What other memories or images come to mind?
  3. What are the qualities of the breath? Is it long / short, rough / smooth, deep / shallow, does it flow freely through the body or does it feel constricted.
  4. What do you experience when you tune into the breath? relief, boredom, a letting go, a profusion of thoughts.
  5. Acknowledge what you experience, knowing that the breath and body will relax of their own accord, in their own time.
  6. Perhaps you notice the breath in: abdomen, shoulders, lower back, ribs, lungs, chest.
  7. Focus deeply on breath deep in the belly. Introduce the metaphor of the breath flowing like a gentle ocean swell. Utilise imagery if desired.
  8. Shift attention to nostrils and sharpen attention. Catch the beginning and end (and middle of the breath).
  9. Give students a choice on where to focus on the breath. Invite them to notice pleasurable sensations.
  10. Periodically include directions to notice the changing quality of their focus.

7:40pm – What Happens When You Meditate / How to Meditate?

Invite students to describe, as simply as possible how they use their attention when they meditate. Indicate that we’re not asking what they do in preparation for meditation (e.g. find a comfortable position), nor what their intentions are; but rather, how they direct their attention whilst meditating. Suggest that to make this process as clear as possible we’re going to assume that meditation is a simple three step process. Then write the numbers 1, 2 and 3 up on the whiteboard in preparation for responses from the class.Students will probably struggle to know and articulate, or even to come up with answers at all. Eventually though, with a bit of prompting, someone will land upon focus, as the first step in meditation.At this point, elaborate  by explaining that in meditation we exercise a greater degree of control over what we focus upon as well as how we focus. Outside of meditation our attention is usually drawn to whatever is most pertinent or stimulating. For example, as you speak, students will be focused on your voice / words — because you’re talking. However, if there was a loud noise outside, or they suddenly felt some discomfort, their attention would be drawn to that. In this way, our attention usually operates subconsciously. In meditation however, we choose more deliberately, or consciously, what to focus upon. Note that what we focus upon could be anything: breath, body, sounds, thoughts, emotions, or even the movement of your mind from one place to another.Following this explanation, ask what they think step two might be. Common answers usually include: relax or become aware. I will agree that these are likely results; but that they are the side effects of focusing, rather than a subsequent step in the meditative process. At this point I may suggest that I’m not looking for a description of what’s meant to happen in meditation, or what would be ideal, but what actually happens, in reality. Even then, students rarely suggest that step two might be a loss of focus. To prompt this realisation, I often then ask: “So let me put it this way: For how long do you typically stay focused?” Everyone will generally agree that they might only remain focused for a few seconds.

You can elaborate on this point by describing the typical meditation; in which we are instructed to focus on the breath (for example), but soon find ourselves thinking about what to cook for dinner or what to wear to work tomorrow, or planning a holiday, or how we’ll respond to an email or argument that we had earlier in the day. Note that it’s often some minutes before we even become aware that our mind has taken a detour and that the breath is no longer anywhere to be found.

From there, it’s easy going, and someone will usually come up with Re-focus, for step three.

At this point, I have written their ‘correct’ answers up on the whiteboard, as below, and I suggest that this is the essential meditative process, irrespective of who you are, how long you’ve been meditating, or what meditation technique or practice you are doing.

  1. Focus
  2. Lose Focus (or get distracted)
  3. Re-focus
Whatever technique or type of meditation you do, that’s basically what will be going on in your mind. Whatever you choose to focus on, or even if you choose not to focus at all, you’ll still be repeating this three step process over and over and over and over and over and over, again.

Note: The following explanatory material is particularly important.

Most people assume that what’s important is Step 1; focus.

When we’re focused we tend to assume that we are meditating ‘correctly’; we give ourselves a tick of approval, a metaphoric pat on the back.

Conversely, when we lose focus we may think we’ve failed, berate ourselves for our short attention spans, and assume that we’d better renew our Ritalin prescription. We might assume that we’re incapable of meditating, or that meditation itself is a fools errand.

When we (finally) re-focus, we might consider ourselves back on track.

The truth, however, is that all three steps are part of the meditative process, and we can’t avoid any part of this process. Our minds are wired, afterall, to continually scan our environment (within and without) for change, novelty and threat. We are neurologically designed for distraction.

Of course, in those moments when we find ourselves deeply focused, the associated sense of mental stillness and calm can be very enjoyable. It’s not surprising that we want more of this. But good focus is not sustainable. Our attention inevitably drifts.

So instead of prioritising step one (focus), I would suggest that each step is of equal importance and deserves equal weight. In fact, I would consider step two the most crucial, because it’s here that you learn how to skillfully navigate your way through the inevitable challenges that arise as you meditate.

As you engage in this simple three-step process, you’ll probably find something like the following unfolds:

  1. Repeat steps 1 – 3, ad nauseum.
  2. Relax
  3. Sleep
Getting to this point is good. It means that you’ve successfully relaxed yourself to the point of sleep (and sometimes beyond!) However, it’s worth recognizing that it’s possible to access other meditative states — in which the body continues to relax whilst the mind remains comparatively alert. To do this many people assume that you need to go back to step 1, ensuring that you remain well focused. In my experience, however, applying effort and will to the task of staying alert and ‘on-track’ is counter-productive. To focus well, you need to be interested in your experience. My recommendation then, is not to try harder, but to adopt one (or all) of the following three attitudes: what I call our ‘allies’ in meditation.
  1. Permission
  2. Interest / Curiosity
  3. Gentle / Kindness (instead of self-criticism, striving, perfectionism, obedience or other harsh or demanding attitudes.

7.55pm – How to Replicate a Guided Meditation Experience

Some students may have mentioned that they find it difficult to replicate the experiences they have in class (during a guided meditation) during the week.
Introduce the Six Spot Sequence as a means of establishing a clear “learners template” for helping in the process of guiding oneself.The Six Spot Sequence is a series of  half a dozen spot meditations. Each of them can be done in the space of one or two minutes, if that’s all the time you have spare. However, if you’re looking to relax deeply, and have a little more time, you can string these meditations together. In that way, they provide a simple framework for guiding yourself using just a few key words and ideas.A  creative student came up with a mnemonic with which to remember the Six Spot Sequence: Please Release Stress Before Something Breaks!
  1. Posture
  2. Rocking
  3. Sinking
  4. Blue Light
  5. Sounds
  6. Bodyscan

8:25pm — Homework Exercise

Suggest that students try out each of the six meditations from the Six Spot Sequence — perhaps one for each day of the week. And then to put them all together (it doesn’t matter in what order) on at least one day as well.
t’s unlikely that you’ll have time remaining this week for an additional meditation. However, if you do find you have time on your hands I would suggest that you simply lengthen the six spot sequence. Because there is such variety in this meditation it should be possible to extend it somewhat, even if that’s just by including longer pauses. At this point in the course however, I would not recommend going beyond about 25 minutes.

Teacher Contemplations

Lesson 3 of the Online Course is a good place to get a more in-depth understanding of this weeks material. You can login using the following username and password: teacher@mmc.com.au / OnlineCourseMT

Focus

Focus is the act of applying attention to something. It derives from the latin tendere — to stretch toward. In meditation, focus is best thought of as letting the mind rest (upon something) as opposed to forced concentration — which leads to unneccessary effort and tension.

In  meditation, what we focus upon is often referred to as the meditation object, or “anchor.” It doesn’t need to be a literal “anchor” though in most meditations it is (e.g. breath, sounds, body, mantra, candle flame). Instead, it could just be an intention to stay with, accept, and be open and receptive to your experience throughout the meditation. Or the intention to be curious about where the mind goes, or when it stays focused on the breath and when it doesn’t.

Such a focus, whether literal or figurative, allows us to exercise a little more discernment over the use of our attention. We can assess our mind-states and choose whether to continue with repetitive, unhelpful thinking, for example, or to bring our attention, however briefly, back to some simple sensory experience. Note that we always have the choice to continue thinking too, if we feel that thinking might be the useful thing to do. Meditation may be a place for processing, analysing and thinking through the issues and events of your day.

Watching (Awareness)

Awareness is that experience we may have in meditation when we notice that our mind is busy, full, flowing with thought — but the thoughts no longer bother us. Rather than flies buzzing around our head, crawling over our lips and up our nostrils, the thoughts seem as light and fluffy as cirrus clouds drifting quietly through the stratosphere.

Awareness will occur naturally and spontaneously during meditation. There will be times, for example, when, after thinking about something for some time, you will become less embedded in the thought process. The thoughts may just fade away; they’re done with, and your attention may drift towards the breath, sensations, sound.

Awareness can also be ‘artificially’ produced, by imagining that you are just watching thoughts pass by, using various metaphors. You could get a sense of your thoughts as traffic. Is the traffic busy, snarling, peak hour traffic? Or a Sunday afternoon drive? Or you could get a sense of your thoughts as music – is it a military marching band or an ambient soundscape? A common metaphor is to watch your thoughts as leaves floating down a stream, or as bubbles drifting away.

You’ll oscillate between focus and awareness in any meditation. Both are equally important and can lead to states of relaxation and clarity. They do, however, have quite different qualities.

On to Week 4.