Finding Stability in Meditation

by Charles Hastings
This week we just published the first module of Alan Wallace’s new course, Insights Through Mindfulness. These practices of mindfulness of the body, feelings, mind and  phenomena penetrate deep into our fundamental experience. They allow us to go beyond our habitual assumptions and see in a new way. To fully benefit from them you should be grounded in the sense of presence, clarity, and mental agility that you can develop through Alan’s first course, Mindfulness of Breathing, or at least you should have thoroughly gone through it. If you find that your mind is not very relaxed and there is a lot of movement you should be comfortable with the fact that you are still learning and accept your ongoing experience as it is.
Similarly, the exercises in my course Awakening the Heart follow on from the first course Meditation Practice Foundations. It is important to go through each step of the practice in order, as each session assumes that you have been through the previous one.
If you are already an experienced meditator with some stability, you may like to jump into a particular subject that interests you. However in general, and especially if you are new to meditation, it is much better to have a  progressive approach.
In our courses we explain a lot. We try to be very precise about what to do. This leaves a limited time to actually meditate. To really assimilate and fully use these methods will take time and continual training. You may find it useful to listen several times to the same session to make sure you understand and then try to do that practice on your own. This is highly recommended.
Each person is different. See what is helpful for you, and don’t be in a rush!
Here are some additional thoughts about what you may experience in the intimate contact with your own mind that meditation provides.

The diversity of what can arise in the mind

In general, when we meditate we come back to the bare experience of what is happening from moment to moment.
This has a marvelous freshness. It’s an opportunity to take a rest from our obsessive habits and rigid assumptions. At the same time, any change in the way we experience things can be quite challenging.
Experienced meditators have got used to the extraordinary diversity of what can arise in the mind. Thoughts and emotions can arise and dissolve without disturbing the underlying stability. However, when we start meditation the ride can sometimes seem bumpy.
Beginners, and also in fact  many non-beginners, often feel frustrated by the persistence of distraction, rumination, and unwelcome emotions. It is important to realise that these are not produced by the meditation. Meditation creates the clarity to see what is happening in the mind. One becomes aware of phenomena that until then had remained unnoticed.
We can use the techniques of shamatha, ‘calm abiding’,  to stabilise the movements, calming the mind by focusing on the breath.  Gradually even when there is movement we don’t get lost. This takes time and continued regular practice. We need to be persistent and patient, and not pay too much attention to the ups and downs of our moods.
In fact, the expectation and discouragement that we may feel are not only unnecessary but are a hindrance to progress. It’s normal to feel them but we should not give them more importance than any other of the thoughts and emotions that constantly arise. We can be aware of them and let them go.
After a while we may have periods of calm and even deep relaxation. We may have extremely pleasant feelings maybe of bliss, elation or clarity. Extraordinarily brilliant ideas may arise. There may be moments when we are so calm that there are no thoughts at all. It is very important not to take any of these experiences too seriously or complicate them with interpretations. Sometimes inexperienced meditators take this kind of experience as a sign of extraordinary progress or as a sort of trophy to possess, or try to repeat. This is to be avoided.

A common sense approach

When we do any kind of activity that is different from what we usually do, we experience unfamiliar feelings. For instance people who do intense sports have experiences of exhaustion and elation which may come one after the other. It’s just the body adjusting to new circumstances.
One should consider the different experiences in meditation in the same way that one would regard the weather. Sometimes it’s sunny. Sometimes it rains. Sometimes it rains for days and days and then we suddenly have a lovely sunny day. When it gets too hot after a long sunny dry period we are so glad to have some rain! But whether it’s sunny or raining we just get on with our lives without giving too much importance to the weather.
When we practice meditation we should have more common sense, not less. The practice should be ‘grounded’ and be in contact with the rest of our life, in the context of a global training of our mind. What we do when we are not meditating is important. That is to say, watching our mind in everyday situations, being aware of how we relate to others seeing how our thoughts and emotions come and go.  Specially we should constantly try to develop love, tolerance, and compassion. As meditators, we should not be retreating into a bubble, but feel a heartfelt contact with the world.
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