Your Questions Answered
Did you know that you can get your meditation questions answered by Andy? (see the Andy's Answers section of our community forum)
Here is Andy's response to a question received this week around awareness during practice, and specifically how this translates into the wider benefits that mindfulness is associated with.
I've started becoming mindful and practicing meditation recently and love it.
When describing to a friend my underlying assumption was that being more in the moment is good, while lack of control of our mind (thinking of past & future repeatedly) is 'bad'- non judgmentally of course ;). But when she asked why is better awareness 'good' I wasn't entirely sure and would love your input.
Technically, we practice being aware by better noticing sensations. Then using this approach we can be in the moment, notice our feelings better, etc.
But how this process translates to being more compassionate, calm, etc. is not exactly clear to me. I'm trying to connect the technique and tactics to the long term benefits usually associated with mindfulness.
What do you think?
Hi, thanks for getting in touch. It’s a great question and one which is very helpful to reflect upon, quite regularly when we are learning to meditate...and we are always learning to meditate, no matter how long we have been practising.
Although each part of the question is very much inter-related, it might be easier to break it down. So, when we focus on the breath we are training the mind. We are providing the mind with an anchor, an object of focus, so that each time we get distracted, we have a place to come back to. When we do this on a regular basis, over time, this becomes a little easier and perhaps the mind even starts to slow down a little, producing a few less thoughts.
The impact of this is considerable. It is like the pond analogy in the animation. When the ripples on the surface begin to subside, we are able to see more clearly what lies beneath. If the first aspect might be described as calming, this second aspect could be described as gaining clarity. And without clarity, we will always be subject to thoughts and feelings which confuse or overwhelm us. More than that, we will continue to follow the same habitual patterns of thought we have always followed, even if they lead us down the path of being unhappy or feeling unfulfilled or dissatisfied in some way. So this clarity is vital.
So awareness is the opposite of ignorance. I don’t mean ignorance in the negative sense of the word, but more the reality of simply being unaware. The obvious implication of being lost in thought or unaware is that we are not present to experience life, we are not present to see the mind clearly, we are not present to let go of all the baggage we carry around with us, we are not present to listen to others, to be with others, the list is endless. So awareness ensures we are present in everyday life and the simple task of focusing on the breath in meditation is our vehicle to that awareness.
This last point, the idea of creating space in the mind for others, is equally vital to the process of meditation and mindfulness. When we sit to meditate, we begin to understand the crazy and often neurotic nature of the mind. This is not unique to each of us, but rather part of a broader human condition. Whilst it is surprising at first, maybe even shocking, it is the only way we can begin to understand what the experience of others might be like.
Usually in everyday life we do everything we can to distract ourselves from these thoughts and emotions which trouble us, but in the spotlight of awareness they have nowhere to hide. So we have no choice but to sit with them, to see them, to get to know them, to understand them, to change our relationship to them, until ultimately we find a place of acceptance. Another way of describing this process might be ‘letting go’. But whilst we may let go of it ourselves, there is something equally valuable to be found in the process for those around us.
We begin to see that although we are all different, we are also the same. We start to understand that although we all have our unique traits and personalities, the general condition which causes us to be unhappy or stressed is ultimately the same. In short, we start to move closer to others. The barriers we have created over time, separating ourselves from others begin to soften, maybe even dissolve. This new space is what’s known as compassion.
Of course, we may have experienced it many times in our life before when, for whatever reason, those walls have come down, but for most people the walls tend to go back up again, quite quickly. Whilst it’s an understandable response, this prevents us from experiencing what another person is actually feeling in the moment. Instead, we tend to 'think' about how the person might be feeling, or imagine what it might be like. Although useful and definitely beneficial, this conceptual thinking is very different from the direct experience of meeting someone exactly where they are emotionally - and understanding that emotion because we have sat with it ourselves so many times before.
But without awareness, without stepping out of habitual thought, it is very difficult to experience any kind of stability in this compassion or empathy. So this is the relationship between the two and, although we can speak about them as separate qualities of mind, ultimately, awareness and compassion are quite inseparable.
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