Following the Breath - Letting Go, Meditation, Mindfulness
(An Interview with Genko Rainwater, Part 3)
Meditation How: I feel that I am getting a stronger sense of your meditation practice here, and am enjoying the details. Thank you for sharing all of this. I particularly enjoyed you drawing attention to that "quality that abides underneath everything else" as a testament to your perseverance. Your response has brought up many questions, which is exciting. I want to hear about "body-scan" and "breath-counting" but would like to ask these questions first.
You mentioned moving towards an alternative to just sitting when you feel "stuck or lost"— so I wonder how you are able to tell when you are stuck or lost. In addition, you go on to speak about the mind doing its thing. I am curious as to whether you have suceeded in stilling the mind (slowing the parade of thoughts) in your practice over these years. And in reference to your barking dog example— I feel that I understand this approach of progressively letting go of story, name, etc. What is fascinating to me is that paradoxically mindfulness practice implies being very appreciative and embracing of these same details. Can you share your take on this?
Genko: Body-scan is, as I understand it, a Vipassana technique, where you basically start from the crown of the head (or alternatively from the toes) and simply scan the body. You can look for places of tension, check posture, thank the various parts of the body for their service to you, etc. (various practices associated with it)— a variety of approaches. Helps to ground one in the body— helps with mindfulness of the body.
At its best, following the breath does the same thing. Another technique is labeling— just stopping and saying "thinking" when you notice the mind doing that. I sometimes use words like "opinion," "preference," or "judgment" as ways of refining the technique, especially when I'm working on acceptance, for example. What's helpful for me, again, is to use only one word, not getting into a whole commentary about what's going on in the mind.
Following the breath while counting (breath-counting) is simply counting 1 to 10, which can be exhalations (most typically), inhalations, or even both (1 on inhalation, 2 on exhalation, 3 on inhalation, etc.). The idea is to keep returning to 1, and notice where you mind was. If you get to where you can't remember whether it was 5 or 6, return to 1. If you get to 35 or 47 (the mind having gone off on its own parallel track)—return to 1. Again, that noticing is the point of perfect awareness.
Identifying my own emotions and mind states has been a major part of my practice. I was pretty much removed from them in any real way most of my life. I wasn't allowed to express my emotions, especially pain and anger, when I was a child, and learned not to cry, not to get angry, etc. As a consequence, I've been unable even to know what I was feeling much of the time. Instead, I used standards (shoulds and judgment). So at first what I felt was confusion. Also fear, an undifferentiated, nonspecific fear. That became my gateway. The fact that my teacher, and then gradually I, could sit calmly in the face of it allowed me to accept what was in my mind without judgment (at least most of the time).
Stuck and lost look a lot like confusion. When the fear gets overwhelming, I can go to what I call Shut-Down, which takes me to a place of numbness. Learning to observe the process with compassion and letting go of judgment has been the work of several years. Noticing the differences among these mind states so I can recognize them when they arise again is a huge step toward working with them compassionately.
Embracing details— yes, there's a difference between appreciating details and getting lost in them. In the barking dog example, the difference has to do with the fact that we focus on the sensation of sound, maybe the qualities, pitch, volume, noticing things like how far away, how do we know? (air currents, etc.). Maybe empathy for the dog, though I think that can be tricky (if we get started on stories, blaming, etc.). At some point knowing we are the same as the dog, or at the very least we are in the same world as the dog, we are sharing an experience together—all of that with compassion, non-judgment, and nonattachment. It can sound confusing at first, but over time, we get to notice the difference.
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