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Six Ways to Meditate
Learn about Concentration, Mindfulness, Heartfulness, Inquiry, Awareness, & Embodiment Meditation.
“Program or be programmed.” — Douglas Rushkoff
In the 21st century reality is becoming increasingly programmable. Patterns of information are being discovered in everything, from the atoms that make up the objects around us, to the code embedded within our DNA , this amazing genetic software that writes its own hardware. Our inner experience , our minds, are also programmable. They can be trained! And one of the most effective ways to train the mind is through the practice of meditation. Training the mind to reprogram itself.
Unfortunately, our inner experience is overrun by patterns and habits that we didn’t willingly choose. Before we were born we didn’t get to build out our own character sheet, choosing which attributes we’d like to have and which we’d like to avoid. We are pre-programmed by the genetics of our ancestors, by the socioeconomics of our current situation, and by the relationships that we’re born into. We didn’t choose this life, but it’s what we have to work with now.
Fortunately, we aren’t the first group of people to attempt to train our minds. For thousands of years people with an interest in understanding the mind, we’ll call them contemplatives, have been exploring this same inner landscape. The traditions of wisdom they’ve left behind are some of the most powerful repositories of code we have for upgrading our inner operating systems. They’re also the basis of this open source lineage.
These Six Ways to Meditate were reverse-engineered from the Buddhist meditative traditions and from secular mindfulness techniques. On the Buddhist side of the street these styles are heavily influenced by the Theravada, Zen, and Tibetan practice lineages. And on the secular mindfulness side of the street they are influenced by the pioneering work of Jon Kabat-Zinn and the mindfulness-based practices that have sprung up around his work. They are informed by the emerging science of meditation as well as by Buddhist psychology. As such they represent some of the most time-tested and verifiably effective approaches that exist to train the mind. With these different styles we are, as one of our friends & teachers Kenneth Folk put it, “performing neurosurgery on ourselves.”
First and foremost these six ways are practices. They are things we do, that when done well, lead to certain results. Each of these ways complements the others, but are also complete in themselves. They can each be taken to extraordinary depths, and they all have the power to re-construct our sense of reality. They are also modules in a larger practice system. They can be practiced separately or they can be combined in extraordinary ways. Here are our six ways to meditate, along with the corresponding practices and results they’re designed to lead to.
Concentration is in many ways the most foundational way to meditate. And not just in terms of being able to train the mind, but in terms of everything we do. Without concentration we can’t act.
With the practice of concentration meditation we work with a very simple recurring experience, called a ‘meditation object.’ Standard objects of meditation include things like the breath, sound, the body, a simple phrase, or even a visualization. Regardless of which object we select, the practice of concentration involves a very simple feedback loop. In the first step of this feedback loop we direct our attention to the meditation object and connect with the direct sensory experience of it. We then sustain our attention there for as long as we’re able. At some point, often quite quickly, our attention will wander off to something else. This ‘mind wandering’ is not a problem, but rather prompts the next point in the loop, which is to notice that we’ve wandered and then re-direct our attention back to the object. From there the loop continues, direct, sustain, wander, notice, and re-direct. It’s an extremely simple practice, but can be quite difficult to master. This is why it’s called a practice.
In much the same way that strength training enhances physical strength, concentration strengthens the muscle of attention. As our attentional strength grows we become less distractible. Outside stimuli have less control over us because we have trained ourselves to be present. As a result our emotional baseline becomes more calm and settled. A natural joy and clarity start to emerge as our concentration improves and we find we enjoy even the most mundane and simple activities more.
The concentrated mind is also a more effective mind. As your attention becomes stronger and more settled you can apply it to whatever you’re doing, whether working in the backyard, managing a complex project, or listening to your family tell you about their day. Concentration is a super power.
There are many ways to practice Mindfulness, but what each has in common is a focus on the direct investigation of sensory experience. With mindfulness you learn how to notice what you're sensing in real-time. With mindfulness practice you learn to tune into and recognize the patterns of experience that make up your moment-to-moment reality, including the ebb and flow of body sensations, emotions, and thoughts. Mindfulness practice is like pointing the telescope of concentration toward the direct observation of your subjective universe.
As you train in mindfulness it enables you to experience, sometimes for the very first time, a gap between the stimulus of experience and our response to it. As World War II camp survivor Viktor Frankl discovered, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” Like Neo, who slowed down time in the Matrix to dodge bullets, we can slow down time using the power of mindfulness. Instead of dodging bullets we’re dodging the tendency to get caught in reactive emotions & thoughts, the nightmare stories that we sometimes have trouble waking up from.
Even as mindfulness frees us from the prison of our own untrained mind, it also presents new challenges and opens up new vistas. The better we get at seeing patterns of experience the less likely we are to confuse those patterns with who and what we are. We start to see that all of these body sensations, emotions, and thoughts are objects in our experience, therefore they can not be the subject who is aware of them.
As a result of an increase in the subtlety of mindful attention, our normal identity, who we take ourselves to be, begins to dissolve. This experience of dissolving can be quite disorienting and difficult. But if we’re ready for it, and have the knowledge and support we need to make the transition , it can be one of the most significant transformations of our lives. As our old sense of self dissolves an expanded sense of identity emerges. We discover we are not who we thought we were. We also find out it’s totally ok, because we are incomprehensibly vast.
The practice of Heartfulness involves inclining the mind toward opening the heart. One way this is done is by using intentional anchoring phrases (ex. “May you be happy” or “May you be safe”) to set the GPS coordinates of the heart toward states like love, kindness, joy, compassion, and resilience. As we incline the mind toward opening the heart we start by offering these well wishes to people that are easy for us to love. We also learn to send it to ourselves, to those people we typically overlook, to those that are difficult or challenging for us, and eventually to all beings everywhere. As we become more proficient at opening the heart we can also practice heartfulness by calling to mind the state of heart we wish to rest in and simply abiding there.
The result of this practice is the gradual opening of the heart. We become better at forgiving ourselves and others. We feel a more natural and effortless kindness toward others, even those people we normally feel nothing toward. It becomes easier to resonate, with compassion, to the suffering we encounter. We begin to befriend ourselves at a much deeper level. If we’ve struggled with self-hatred or criticism, we begin to notice the unclenching of these patterns in the face of a continued and steady openness of heart.
Now, this may sound totally awesome, an open heart, where do I sign up!? But the road to these results is littered with obstacles. The most common obstacles of an open heart are fear, anger, doubt, and judgement. These obstacles (seem to) protect us from hurt and pain. They are also conditioned by some of our earliest and most difficult struggles as people. With this practice we learn to work skillfully and compassionately with our own deepest fears and hurts. As the waves of difficulty arise, and are met with a steady and compassionate heart, they transform into their opposite. In doing this we gradually learn to traverse what Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield calls, “a path with heart.”
The practice of Inquiry involves repeatedly working with a meditative question, such as “Who am I?” or “What is life?” The first stage of the practice involves discovering the questions that drive us. To do this we start with the question: What is the most important thing? Only when we’re in touch with the most important thing can we begin to formulate and work with our own question. From there we practice continually dropping the question into awareness and sticking with the inquiry process. As we do so we learn to neither fixate on any particular answer, no matter how profound, nor give up on the process of asking. Sometimes we hold the question gently and sometimes we drive every bit of our attention into it, as if our lives depended on reaching the bottom. When we notice that the inquiry has trailed off, we return to the question, as if for the very first time, and ask again.
One of the primary results of meditative inquiry practice is that we become deeply familiar with the state of not knowing. We become ok not having answers and not having all of life figured out. How often do we really know everything that’s going on? As we learn to rest in the ‘don’t know mind’ we begin to trust in the wisdom of uncertainty. When we aren’t completely certain we stay in touch with what Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki called “beginner’s mind.” Being in touch with beginner’s mind allows us to hold paradox and tension in our attention.
A common tension in practice has to do with effort and trust. Should I put forth more effort, or should I trust and let go more? This tension, and others like it, eventually resolve themselves as we practice a middle way, holding both extremes in attention at once. This middle way allows us to venture to a place that is between and beyond the tensions we’re wrestling with. When we don’t have the answers, and are open to whatever comes, the most interesting insights can arise. But we don’t stop there. We keep plunging deeper and deeper into the heart of not knowing. We allow ourselves to become like a question, open ended, curious, fluid, and penetrating.
The practice of Awareness isn’t a practice in the normal sense. With awareness we’re learning to simply rest in experience without attempting to change or manipulate it. This includes resting in the experience of trying to change or manipulate what’s happening! In very simple terms awareness is the practice of simply being with what is. Even more simply, awareness is being what is. Awareness is being.
Practically speaking, we can ease our way into the totality of awareness by focusing on a couple of things. One is on the simple experience of being embodied. The body is already perfectly good at being with what is, it doesn’t really have any other choice. It’s the thinking mind that conceptualizes in terms of past, present, and future. It’s only the thinking mind that can be somewhere else. The body can’t do that. So resting in embodied awareness involves learning this capacity from our physical form. The other thing we can focus on is the recognition of when we start trying to do something. When we notice we are starting to try and do something, even meditation, we allow that doing to dissolve. As meditation teacher Shinzen Young suggests, “Every time you notice the intention to control your attention, drop the intention.” It’s as simple as that, notice the intention to do something, let the attention drop, and rest in awareness. This doesn’t mean doing goes away, as there’s a profound paradox at the heart of awareness. Doing continues to spontaneously arise, even as the sense of a separate doer, apart from experience, dissolves.
The result of awareness practice is the increased ability to relax into the understanding that there is nothing that we need to do, or know, or become for things to be completely ok as they are. Whatever is happening is what’s happening. And because it’s happening, it’s already too late to change it. If we try to change it, then that’s what’s happening! As we learn to trust in awareness we start to understand that much of our existential struggle comes from not accepting the way our experience already is.
Embodiment is the practice of inhabiting the direct and non-conceptual experience of the body. Whereas mindfulness practice is focused mainly on the contents of experience, embodiment invites us into an even less less mediated experience of ourselves. In this practice one drops all preconceptions of “what” it is we’re paying attention to, and instead allows attention to return to what somatic meditation teacher Reggie Ray calls “the darkness of the body.”
The result of embodiment practice is an increasingly grounded way of being and knowing. One knows with the body, as if it’s an infinitely connected sensor. This intuitive and somatic way of knowing presents all kinds of new information that was was being filtered out or simply ignored. It literally opens up a new dimension of experience, one that constantly defies imagination.