Mindfulness and meditation: self-awareness, inquiry, connection

23 February 2020, at yogacampus Finsbury Park

Our ability to self-reflect is the basis for a committed practice and a sustainable teaching journey. This one day experiential meditation and self-inquiry workshop weaves together ancient Yogic and Buddhist philosophy with modern psychology and neuroscience.

What is meditation

Meditation brings together mindful attention with a willingness to be quiet and tune in. We’re cultivating an attitude of openness and curiosity to take in all of our experience without judgement. We simply give attention to the present, – actively – right here and now, What’s there? What’s part of my experience? How am I feeling?

What meditation isn’t

  • Relaxation
  • A state of bliss, complete calm or thoughtlessness
  • A shutting off from the outside world, ignoring what we need to face or running away from reality
  • An immediate problem solver
  • Reflecting or thinking about what we do

The fabric of life – why should we meditate?

Ancient teachings remain so relevant today because they address central concerns of human existence: We practice to liberate ourselves – from being caught in our old habit patterns and behaviours that fuel reactivity, and create stress and suffering. We practice to remove or ease that stress, and get rid of a deep sense of dissatisfaction that comes with it.

The 3 characteristics of life according to the Buddha’s teachings

Why do we feel this dissatisfaction in the first place? It is part of life. It’s intrinsically woven into the texture of what it means to be alive as a human – it is an inherent characteristic of life:

Life is inherently stressful. It starts with birth and continues from there (dukha). There’s stuff that happens that’s not in line with our preferences. That’s just life.

Everything – all thoughts, sensations, the circumstances we find ourselves in – is conditioned, and subject to cause and effect – which means it’s constantly changing (anitya / anicca).

This is not something that we like particularly. Our inherent tendency is to want to control and identify with our experience, to take it on as mine – I feel, I think, constantly feeding our sense of self. But experiences are essentially empty of ‘self’, impersonal (anatta) – they’re not actually ours. The self is something that is simply created by the mind and filled with content.

So, what do we do to deal with all this stuff? First of all we have to become aware of it. The first step towards that is to be present with our experience: an openness, a willingness to self-reflect, to turn attention inwards
If we want to step away from being restless, stressed and anxious and become more observant, more open to see the special moments of our life as they happen, and lead happier and more balanced lives, this can only happen here and now.

The secret of health for both mind and body is not to mourn for the past, worry about the future, or anticipate troubles, but to live in the present moment wisely and earnestly.

The Buddha

Benefits of meditation

Regular meditation deepens self-awareness and develops mental clarity and stability.

It stimulates the PNS and has an effect on many physical and mental conditions including anxiety and depression, asthma, cardiovascular disease, type II diabetes, PMS, chronic pain, insomnia, phobias, eating disorders.

It strengthens the immune system, improves sleep and supports creativity, productivity and learning.

It improves focus, helps with distractibility, memory loss, and it slows down the ageing of the brain, which might help reduce the risk of conditions like dementia.

It helps us to develop a sense of empathy and connectedness which supports our relationships.

An aging master grew tired of his apprentice’s complaints. One morning, he sent him to get some salt. When the apprentice returned, the master told him to mix a handful of salt in a glass of water and then drink it.
“How does it taste?” the master asked.
“Bitter,” said the apprentice.
The master chuckled and then asked the young man to take the same handful of salt and put it in the lake. The two walked in silence to the nearby lake and once the apprentice swirled his handful of salt in the water, the old man said, “Now drink from the lake.”
As the water dripped down the young man’s chin, the master asked, “How does it taste?”
“Fresh,” remarked the apprentice.
“Do you taste the salt?” asked the master.
“No,” said the young man. At this the master sat beside this serious young man, and explained softly:
“The pain of life is pure salt; no more, no less. The amount of pain in life remains exactly the same. However, the amount of bitterness we taste depends on the container we put the pain in. So when you are in pain, the only thing you can do is to enlarge your sense of things. Stop being a glass. Become a lake.”

Become a Lake - Buddhist story

The causes for dissatisfaction

The Buddha was a great psychologist, with a very deep understanding of the mind and the patterns of thinking and behaviour we usually assume.

And he basically says we suffer because:

  • Of our circumstances (dukha dukha). Some unpleasant stuff is unavoidable, it’s simply outside of our control: we get old, we get sick, and eventually we die.
  • Things don’t change according to our preferences (anitya dukkha / anicca dukkha). This is mental suffering. It’s created by ourselves. It can be avoided.
  • We don’t feel inherently connected (avidya dukkha)
    Patanjali says: the causes for our suffering arise through ignorance (avidya) – an unwillingness or inability to see things as they are, not being able to be with our experience. A state of confusion…

How to step away from suffering – the neuroscience of happiness

Extensive scientific research has now shown that following on from those qualities we can do a few things to support our own happiness. We can over time, and with practice create lasting changes in the brain. We can practice:

  1. Mindfulness
  2. Self-compassion – relating to ourselves with more kindness and care, less judgement and criticism
  3. A positive outlook – actively noticing the things that are positive around us

Despite our built in negativity bias, probably most events in our life are positive or neutral. When we savour positive experiences they start to collect in implicit (long lasting) memory in our brain and they’ll be wiring up positive neural structures.

Effects of meditation on the brain

Brain studies have shown that with regular meditation practice parts of the brain, that are responsible for a positive outlook on life are stimulated. The prefrontal cortex (right behind the forehead) is strengthened, which increases grey matter in the brain. This area of the brain is associated with sensory perception, decision making and self control (etc.). So we make better decisions – which then means that quite often we feel more fulfilled and content with what we’re doing, more inspired and able to take on challenges.

Meditation also increases alpha waves in the brain – associated with creativity, relaxation, peace of mind and an alleviation of depression, anxiety and chronic pain.

And equally stimulation of those parts that are responsible for producing a stress response in the body are reduced: the amygdala (active when we feel stressed or fearful) isn’t as active. And when the amygdala is less active we can also handle pain better.

And it has been shown that when we add compassion and kindness to our mindfulness practice, brain changes happen much more quickly.

The basic root of happiness lies in our minds; outer circumstances are nothing more than adverse or favourable.

Mattieu Ricard

Approaching practice

Patanjali describes what we need to practice: Kriya-yoga, the path of action, consists of discipline, self-study, and unshakable faith.

The Buddha’s own word for ‘meditation’ was bhavana, ‘mental development’ or ‘mental cultivation,’ which involves 3 things: concentration, mindfulness (non-judgemental attention to the present moment) and right effort (tapas). We need all of these to develop insight and wisdom.

Samatha and vipassana

We need concentration (samadhi) and mindfulness (smriti/sati) to bring about 2 qualities:
Stillness or tranquillity – a gathering of attention inwards, to help the mind to settle. The Pali word is samatha = calm abiding. We reach a certain calm and tranquillity of the mind by focusing on an object of meditation (like the body). This then becomes a gateway to vipassana = deeper seeing.

Vipassana means we’re developing clear understanding and insight into all phenomena – physical or mental – as they come and go with an emphasis on:

  • clearly seeing them all as being subject to change – nothing in our life is certain and nothing stays as it is. Things are impermanent (anicca).
  • This causes stress and suffering (dukha).
  • There’s nothing personal about this, and there is no central and permanent self affected by that (no self anatta).

Satipatthana

The Buddhist teachings mention 4 foundations for mindfulness (satipatthana) – the satipatthana. These often form the basis for techniques or methods we use for meditation practice.
Sati = mindfulness, remembering with introspection (sati / smriti)
Upatthana = placing near, being present, attending

1st foundation: Mindfulness of the body

Awareness of the body – we often use mindfulness of breathing in our practice.

2nd foundation: Mindfulness of feeling tone

Noticing what feels pleasant, unpleasant or neutral without judging or wanting to change anything.

3rd foundation: Mindfulness of the mind

Knowing general mental states or moods.

4th foundation: Mindfulness of mental qualities and life principles

They include input through the senses, an understanding of why we experience stress, and obstacles that take us away from feeling fulfilled.

Metta

With all of these approaches the teaching also always emphasize the importance of adding an attitude of kindness towards ourselves – maitri (sanskrit) / metta (pali) = loving kindness.

Grant yourself a moment of peace and you will understand how foolishly you have scurried about.
Learn to be silent and you will notice that you have talked too much.
Be kind and you’ll realize your judgment of others (and probably of yourself) was too severe.

Chinese proverb