Wonderful post from Craig Metcalf… Thank you Craig! Part 2 coming next Monday.
What is the purpose of meditation? Many people ask me this question and I usually answer by asking them, “What is your intention?” Meditation is often thought of as a strictly spiritual practice whereby we put forth effort to “attain” a spiritual awakening. But meditation techniques can be applied in many different ways and for many different purposes, such as improving one’s memory, decreasing stress and anxiety, cultivating effective communication skills in relationships, etc. So to begin a practice, we must first create an intention for doing so. What do we want to see happen? What are our goals? Are our goals practical? Do our goals in meditation fall in line with what we really need at this juncture in life? These are all things to consider carefully when developing a meditation practice. However, regardless of our intention, from the most lofty attainments to the most down-to-earth, practical benefits, meditation has one common theme: How to live with what is in a peaceful manner.
This central theme to all meditation practice is concerned with cultivating sati- sampajanna, or mindful (sati) awareness (sampajanna). Mindful awareness is simply another term for present-moment awareness. In such a state, we are fully aware of the mind and its contents. Such awareness will neither judge nor label the contents. There is no exaggeration nor is there a denial of what the mind holds. There is only peaceful awareness and acceptance of how and what those contents are. The contents are simply the current flow of thoughts, feelings, emotions and the body’s reaction to those. The contents are not fixed and they are in constant flux.
When we practice being present with what is, gently letting go of past and future even for a short time, the mind moves towards stillness. Stillness of mind is where our intention for practicing comes into play. As such, it is very important to let go of judgment and labeling of the mind’s contents and simply cultivate inner awareness of them. If we are caught up in judgment and labeling, the mind will not fully settle, allowing stillness to arise. When the mind moves towards stillness it is allowed to calm down from the churning which usually keeps the mind in movement, wavering back and forth from thoughts about the past or future. As a result of this mental settling, our intention for practicing begins to flow from the theoretical into the experiential realm of awareness. In other words, it takes present-moment awareness for the true practice to begin. Once stillness arises, we can get to the work at hand.
Without mindful awareness we cannot move past the desires of the ego; the desire for things to be “this way” as opposed to “that way”. Let’s say we’re cultivating our sati- sampajanna and an angry thought arises. If mindful awareness is in place, we will be able to experience that anger peacefully and know it from top to bottom and from the inside out. We will simply be with it and learn from it. We will see clearly the effects on both body and mind. We will be keenly aware of how this mental state causes the muscles of the body to contract and tense, how the breath changes, how the heart feels bound and the chest tightens, etc. We also see clearly how the anger arises from a desire for things to be other than they are. In this way, we know anger. We know what it is, how it functions, from where it arises, and what its effects are. The act of knowing empowers us to gently let the anger go. When we’ve taken time to really know it, that bit of anger will be gone forever, never to arise in the mind again. Slowly, over time, we train to let go of a little more and a little more.
This mindful process is in stark contrast to experiencing such a thought and placing judgment on it such as, “I’m a meditator. I’m supposed to be peaceful. I’m not supposed to be angry. I need to get rid of this.” In meditation, labeling the contents of the mind as “right” or “wrong”, “good” or “bad”, etc only causes the mind to churn more and takes us away from what is and leads us to how we wish they were. If we only want to see and know what isn’t we will never be able to let go of what is. Mindful awareness obviously requires a certain amount of courage because in order to thoroughly know what is we have to be willing to look and see everything, from the uplifting, pleasant and cheerful to the depressing, unpleasant and dreary. The payoff, so to speak, for cultivating this investigative courage manifests in our everyday life experiences. We begin to notice that we’re able to celebrate our pleasant experiences without becoming overly attached and we’re able to brave the storms of life without trying to push them away or run from them. We’re simply on a more even keel because we have come to know the contents of our mind and are no longer confused as to how they function and from where they arise.