This guide is a follow up on the essay Meditation, What Is It and Why Do It.
Before undertaking a meditation practice, you need to make a firm commitment to fully engage the practice and accept it as a long-term process or change in lifestyle. This is what the philosopher Ken Wilbur calls Stepping Up, which is the first step in a four step-process he recommends (see link below title).
First, you want to sit in a comfortable chair but not one so comfortable that it will lull you to sleep. Put both feet on the floor and find a comfortable position for your hands. Personally, I cup my hands one on top of the other and let them rest between my legs with wrists on the top of my thighs.
Second, you can either meditate with your eyes closed, which is probably best for beginners, or open. However, if you wish to keep your eyes open, I suggest that you pick a point of focus for your vision that is not interesting in any way, such as an area on the floor a few feet in front of you or a blank spot on the wall that you are facing.
Third, you should use diaphragmatic breathing. This means that when you breathe in, you pull the air all the way down into depths of your lungs. This will cause your stomach to expand outwards. This won’t make you look fat, and it will subside when you exhale. This is how you should breathe all the time. If you don’t, you are what is called a shallow breather, and you’re getting about half of the potential oxygen available to you on each breath. If you pay attention to the air flow in and out of your nostrils, you will note that the air is warmer on the exhale than on the inhale. This is due to the warming effect of your lungs on the air inhaled.
Fourth, you should breathe rhythmically. Try to breathe in a slow steady rhythm. The longer you meditate the slower your breath cycle should become. More on this below.
Fifth, you are now ready to begin. You can either simply start and stop when you feel like you’re ready to end the session. On the other hand, you can approach your session in a more systematic way. Pick a specific amount of time that you think would be a comfortable starting point and set a timer. As you become settled into the time frame you’ve started with, expand it by five minutes or so. Continue this process until you’ve reached an optimal length for your sessions. Some teachers suggest twenty minutes, some thirty minutes and some forty-five minutes to an hour. Some recommend once per day and others twice per day. Personally, my sessions are typically not timed, run somewhere in the thirty to forty-five minute range and are usually done once per day except on days when circumstances just won’t permit it. I would advise trying to get to twenty minutes per day sooner rather than later and lengthen your sessions or increase their frequency as you feel the need to do so.
Sixth, your objective when meditating is to avoid focusing your attention on any specific external (physical) or internal (cognitive) stimulus. If you’re meditating with your eyes closed, you have temporarily controlled for one major source of external stimuli. The most likely external stimuli that might arise while your eyes are closed are sounds or odors. However, if your eyes are open this would be the most prominent source of external stimuli. There are two primary controls for attention. One is intentional, that is, you deliberately direct your attention to some stimulus or stimulus complex. This is what you are doing when you do Sensory Field Meditation (SFM). You are intentionally directing your attention to a stimulus field or complex stimulus. The second is reflex, that is, your attention is drawn to a stimulus by the emotional valence the stimulus holds for you. For example, you are meditating and a dog starts barking at something, perhaps a squirrel or a passing car. If your attention to the SF is well developed, your focus on the SF will simply include the barks as an undifferentiated stimulus within the field. If your focus is broken and your attention is drawn instead to the barking, the barking holds a strong emotional valence for you. What you need to do is calmly accept that your focus has been broken and, without self-judgment, intentionally redirect your attention back to the SF and relax. The goal should be to counter, with relaxation, your emotional reactivity to the barking. If this comes easily then no further action is needed other than working on holding your focus and not reacting.
However, this experience may contain a message. You may have just been made aware of an automatic program (AP) that needs to be addressed. While you are meditating is not the time to try to address it. However, it is good material for contemplation. What you know from the experience is 1) you have an AP that was strong enough to take control of your attention; 2) you know that barking is a trigger for activating this AP; 3) you know that the stimulus has a strong emotional valence for you, otherwise it wouldn’t take control of your attention. Upon reflection, following meditation, the reason why the barking elicited reflexive attention from you may be immediately apparent. If not, you are ready to move on to a method for discovering the reason why the barking elicited reflexive attention from you.
You have what you need to move into a formal discovery process. You have two of the components for an A-B-C analysis. There is one antecedent (A), the barking. There are two possible consequences (C): a) an emotional consequence (aggravation, anger, fear) and b) a behavioral consequence, which is reflexive attention to the antecedent (distraction, attentional refocus) [see Note below]. What you are missing is the belief (B) about the antecedent (A) that resulted in the two consequences (C). What you want to do is focus on this incomplete sequence with an emphasis on the missing component (B) through contemplation, which is very similar to meditation with one important difference. You get into a meditative state, which includes being very relaxed. Next, place your attention on the A-B-C sequence, while gently holding a question in mind; e.g., what is my subconscious belief about barking that gives it emotional valence? Just sit with it and let whatever arises come into awareness. Make a mental note about anything that arises and seems worth further consideration, especially if it elicits an emotional reaction. This can take multiple sessions to get to the relevant information. When you have one or more thoughts or images that seem relevant, you can shift your contemplation focus to those thoughts or images. Eventually, with patience, you will come to an understanding of what the B is in the sequence and probably its origins.
Hypothetically, let’s say that you discovered that, as a young child, you had a fearful encounter with an aggressive dog whose behavior included a lot of barking directed at you. From this experience you came to believe that all dogs or maybe only all barking dogs are dangerous. This belief may have been subconscious, i.e., outside of normal awareness ever since the encounter that generated it. In any case, you now have a good idea what the belief (B) is about barking (A) that results in your response(s) (C).
Sometimes this information (insight) alone will diminish the response. However, it must diminish it sufficiently that the A (antecedent) no longer results in C (consequence) while you are meditating with intentional focus on the SF. If this is not the case, you will need to do counter-conditioning exercises. This is simple enough to do with the example used above. Counter-conditioning requires that two incompatible responses are paired. The most common neutralizing response used for negative emotions is relaxation. It is nearly impossible to be both relaxed and fearful, frightened, anxious, angry, frustrated, and so on at the same time. Fortunately, you are learning a process (meditation) that can, with practice, bring about a deep state of relaxation. So, find or make a recording of one or more dogs barking. Get into a highly relaxed meditative state and activate the recording. If the recording elicits reflexive attention and you can’t easily resume your intentional attention to the SF, turn it off, get relaxed and activate the recording again. Continue until your attention can be easily redirected to the SF or reflexive attention isn’t being elicited. If you can return your attention to the SF, continue to maintain your focus on the SF, continue to relax and if possible deepen your state of relaxation all while the recording continues. Do this until you no longer have any difficulty maintaining your focus on the SF. This process can be adapted to any number of automatic programs that meditation may bring into your awareness. This process is, at least in part, what the philosopher Ken Wilbur means by Cleaning Up, which is the second step in a four-step process.
Note: Of the two types of consequences (emotional and behavioral), you may often get an emotional response without a behavioral response. Both emotional and behavioral responses can be either physical or cognitive and often exhibit both aspects. The emotional response is the motivation for a behavioral response. Sometimes the emotional response isn’t sufficient to produce a behavioral response. At other times you suppress a behavioral response because you have stronger conditioning against responding and your response to the emotional response (now an A) results in suppression (C), which may have an emotional component such as frustration. This is an overlap and potentially is information suggesting the need for an extended analysis.
You may get two types of internal or cognitive stimuli: 1) random thoughts or images that subside or fade away on their own or 2) potent thoughts or images that seduce you into unpacking them. The second type may be alerting you to an AP that needs to become the target of contemplation, using the A-B-C sequence described above.
If you have a lot of type 1 cognitive stimuli and the sheer number of them is interfering with you being able to maintain your focus on the SF (monkey mind syndrome), you need some way to reduce their frequency. I have three suggestions. You can simply begin counting your breaths as a distraction. Count an inhale as one and an exhale as two and so on. Continue until you reach ten and then start over. You can also label them. I have sometimes just labeled whatever was arising in awareness as “chatter” (a.k.a. self-talk). You can also label them as to source, such as “memory,” “my story,” “imagination,” “other story” or “commentary.” The idea is to label the event and then move back into silence to the best of your ability. If you can simply observe stimuli arise and subside, while maintaining your focus on the SF, then you don’t need to take any special measures. The stimuli will diminish in number with patience. The key thing in following this SFM practice is not getting caught up in what is arising and turning it into an object of consciousness. A silent mind isn’t easy to find and will be your greatest challenge in meditation. Do not judge yourself. Do not think of yourself as failing. Do not chastise yourself. All this does is inflate the importance of what you’re trying to diminish.
Moving up on the spiral
You will reach a point where you’ve settled into the above basic process and are comfortable with it. This does not mean that you’ve completely mastered it and achieved perfection. Just that you have reached a point where you can handle more steps. This could take as little as a few days to many weeks. If after reading steps seven and eight, you think you can do this in a single operation, go ahead and give it a try. If you find you are having problems integrating the SF into a gestalt, come back and work through steps seven and eight in a gradual and systematic way.
Seventh, in this step you begin enlarging your sensory field (SF). The SF is what is occupying your awareness. When I say “occupy your awareness,” think of cutting your fingernails. When you are doing this task, the focus of your attention is on the clippers in one hand and one of your nails on the other hand. This is what is occupying your awareness. You may be incidentally aware of other stimuli but the focus in your SF is the nail-cutting task.
Currently you have your breathing in much the same state of awareness as your clippers and nails in the example above. This may also include what your passive vision is registering, if you started out doing eyes-open meditation. It will also include cognitive stimuli arising into awareness and then subsiding. What you want to do now is include in your SF all internal bodily sensations and sensations arising from the body’s contact with objects such as the floor where your feet are resting and the chair that you are sitting in and contacting with various parts of your body. One method of scanning in these sensations is to begin with putting your attention on your feet. Hold awareness of your breathing in your SF and then bring the feet and floor into the SF. Next, slowly scan into the SF the lower legs and knees. When you have your breathing and your feet, floor, lower legs and knees together in the SF, move on up your body, slowly scanning in your upper legs, buttocks, abdomen and lower back, chest and upper back, shoulders, your left arm and hand, your right arm and hand, your neck, and last, your head and face. You should now just hold the expanded SF in awareness as a gestalt, with no focused attention to anything else, though you may be incidentally aware of other stimuli..
Work with the expanded SF for a while and try to keep your mind as quiet as possible. Total silence is a worthy goal but one difficult to achieve. Just try not to let your attention be seduced by mental stimuli that arise in awareness and turning them into objects of consciousness. If you don’t focus on them they will pass. To the extent that you are focused on the SF, as if it were a holistic or single stimulus instead of stray mental stimuli, you are Present. Work with this for a while until you feel like you’re doing a good but not perfect job of being Present with the SF.
Eighth, You are now ready to include the last few stimuli, other than visual, in the SF. Hold the SF in awareness and expand the SF to include all auditory stimuli, olfactory stimuli and any tastes that might be present. The SF should now have pretty much all of your sensory stimuli coalesced into a single stimulus – a gestalt. Your awareness should be as completely filled with this gestalt as possible. Think of sitting in a relaxed state and looking at a scene in nature, a painting or photo of a complex scene. You are not looking at items within the scene but at the scene itself, the gestalt of stimuli that comprise the scene. As long as you don’t allow your attention to be drawn to some individual stimulus in the gestalt, you are Present with the scene. Once you have your SF expanded as described, you may want to stay with this for weeks or months.
Ninth, when you feel like you are ready take up the ninth turn of the spiral, what you want to do is get your breathing to as slow a pace as you are comfortable with. Some experienced meditators can get down to one or two breaths per minute. Personally, I have managed two breaths per minute but feel more comfortable with three or four. However, I’m probably handicapped by all the years that I smoked. I find the best way to handle this is to first slow the pace of your breathing as much as is comfortable. You can then extend this by pausing your breathing at the end of the inhale and at the end of the exhale. If it works better for you, just pause on either the inhale or the exhale. Personally, I find it more comfortable to do this at the end of an exhale, but you may be different. Reducing the amount of oxygen entering your lungs and thereby your brain will dampen the default mode network (DMN).
Tenth, in this phase the goal will be to further reduce the random mental stimuli, e.g., memories, associated emotions, rehearsal of your story, anticipations about the future and commentary on other stories. These are a problem if they haven’t been controlled by the methods described earlier in the Sixth topic. Further, they do not include things that appear to be related to APs and need to be addressed through contemplation, as described earlier in the Sixth topic. If both these criteria are met, you might apply one or both of the following approaches to reducing them.
One thing that might help is a finding in a recent research study that found the frontoparietal network (FPN) plays an important role in the ability to purge thoughts or “clear your mind.” One of the things that the FPN is very much involved in is sustained attention. So, as you work to improve your quality of attention, you also improve your ability to clear your mind of thoughts and strengthen the FPN.
To begin, you need to create a definition that you think will encompass all of the mental stimuli that you’ve observed arising. A simple technique for “clearing your mind” that is based on the research mentioned above is to simply apply a self-instruction to the effect that “this thought is unnecessary. Forget it.”
Another technique you can apply using your definition is counting and plotting. This technique has been shown to effectively diminish a wide variety of behaviors – thought is a mental behavior – through the operation of intention and feedback.
To implement this you want to begin counting each stimulus that arises according to your definition. If it appears you haven’t included everything that you observe, then revise your definition. You can keep count using your fingers but this could become a distraction, especially once you pass a count of ten. Personally, I used a handheld counter that would silently add a count to the total each time I depressed a button on the counter. I simply cupped this in one hand during meditation and used my thumb to press the button. All sorts of counters can be bought at sporting goods stores and on sites like Amazon. Further, you should graph your count for each session. This will provide you with visual feedback on how active your DMN is being. You can use a piece of graph paper or do it in a spreadsheet, which was my choice. Do this until you’ve brought the spontaneous arising of mental stimuli down to as low a level as you can. Once you’ve sort of hit “bottom” and the count is staying pretty constant, you can probably stop this practice and only do it occasionally for monitoring purposes.
Eleventh, you are now ready to include visual stimuli in your SF. If you started out doing eyes-open meditation, you can skip this turn of the spiral, if you’ve done all of it already. First, you want to start opening your eyes during your meditation sessions. As I suggested earlier, for those who wanted to begin with their eyes open, pick an area on the floor a few feet in front of you or a blank spot on a wall to gaze at. In either case, you will also be aware of some peripheral visual stimuli, which is fine. Second, you want to bring these visual stimuli into the SF so that they too are a part of the gestalt that fills your awareness. Be careful not to get seduced by any of the stimuli represented in the field or gestalt. However, if you do find yourself drawn into focusing on some element of the field, just bring your focus back to the field or gestalt. Be gentle with yourself about slippage. Don’t concern yourself about it. Just pull yourself back toward full Presence with the field.
By this time or possibly earlier, you should find that, at least some of the time, the SF has subsided into the background and Presence with your awareness (not what you’re aware of) has come to the foreground. Some would describe this as “being aware of being aware;” others might say simply “beingness.” To reach this phase you will have to have significantly reduced or, for all practical purposes, stopped spontaneous arising of mental stimuli into awareness.
Twelfth, you can now start thinking about moving from a passive, sitting practice to a more active, moving practice. Some start doing this through a formal walking meditation. All you do in this practice is to keep your focus on the sensory field but stand up and start walking slowly about while keeping your visual focus on the ground. This is usually done on a fixed path such as a circle, square or a labyrinth. For those who have done the walking meditation for a while and feel ready to expand their practice, you might take up Tai Chi or other form of moving meditation. Remember, during movement practice, you should keep your focus on your SF, which includes your entire body, which is doing the movement.
For those who want to move on and take their practice into the world and don’t feel a need for the more formal step(s), begin doing an active meditation practice whenever an opportunity presents itself in your daily life. You can do this briefly while engaged in any type of mindless activity that doesn’t require that you have to think about what you’re doing. You can do this while washing the dishes, cutting the grass, walking or jogging. Two of my favorites are while standing in a checkout line or driving on a road that doesn’t require active driving. In the end, you want to simply bring a state of Presence into most of your day. When you do have to drop into a narrow object of consciousness mode, try to bring presence to the task just as you bring Presence to the SF that usually fills your awareness.
Upon reaching this phase, you’ve gone about as far as you can go in preparing yourself for a deeper phase. You are in the natural-mind phase. So, relax and just be. If you move into deeper phases, they will come when they come. They arrive by grace. They just take you. Many nondual teachers see three phases beyond the natural mind. They are Void Consciousness, God Consciousness and Unity Consciousness. For a little more about these, see the last question in my essay What Is Meditation and Why Meditate. This question was not covered in the oral presentation done at Mountain Light due to time constraints.