This is the latest installation of a 27-part series, featuring my book, Chasing Unicorns. To read the previous installation, CLICK THIS LINK. For the next post in this series, CLICK THIS LINK. To start at the beginning, CLICK THIS LINK. To read the entire book at once, tap the book cover. Thanks for reading!
RECAP: Yesterday I introduced mindfulness to you. Mindfulness is the way to go straight to the mind. But it can’t be explained adequately with mere words. You have to practice it, to truly understand it.
On the Path of Unicorns, Part 3
Or should this subheading say, “The Practices” (plural)? I believe there are as many different ways to practice mindfulness as there are meditation books and gurus. No, there are more. Much more.
But I won’t get into all that, or I’d have to write a library filled with very dull tomes, frequented by bespectacled wonks whose job would be to write more books to fill additional libraries. So I’ll just narrow it down to two basic practices, to keep this short and simple. This will be all you’ll need to know, anyway. Just stick with the basics and you’ll be alright.
I identify two basic practices of mindfulness, which I label “formal,” and “informal.”
Formal mindfulness has been bastardized and co-opted by those who practice purity, for thousands of years. It’s for spiritual athletes. It’s for those who want to storm the gates of heaven. And it’s a powerful virtue signal that can win exaltation to positions of high status and authority within many religious organizations.
Formal mindfulness can make you rich and famous, and help you to acquire many millions of followers, worldwide. But it also has its uses.
Formal mindfulness is useful for introducing you to the basic essentials of informal mindfulness. And it can help you to develop and maintain concentration, making informal mindfulness an easier practice.
It isn’t necessary, though. Informal mindfulness is absolutely essential, but formal mindfulness isn’t. It can augment informal mindfulness, but it can never replace it.
Formal mindfulness is sort of like cummerbunds, tuxedos, and evening gowns. It’s like the partaking in solemn rituals, or sitting upright and keeping your elbows off the table, while dining. In short, it’s the trappings of snobs. Religious snobs.
It’s nothing very practical, and something informal hillbillies like me have fun scoffing at. But even so, I’m willing to grudgingly admit, it does have its uses.
Formal mindfulness is also commonly known as meditation. It’s the kind of meditation where all you are doing is meditating. It’s a singular task. There’s no multitasking involved.
The most basic form of meditation, in my opinion, is to sit or lie still, and watch your thoughts rise and fall. This is debatable, and I’m sure some zealot would love to lop off my head for teaching such heresy, but I’m going to stand my ground and call this the most basic form of formal meditation.
So now my body is over here, standing its ground. Meanwhile, my head is over there, thinking about all of this.
Some people prefer to sit, as they practice formal mindfulness. That’s fine. Go ahead, find a comfortable chair, and sit and meditate.
But when some people sit, they prefer it to be atop a zafu, with legs crossed in the lotus position, before an altar of incense and Buddha statues.
Okay, that’s fine, too. But be warned that over the years, the lotus position, and even the half-lotus, can wear out your knees terribly. There are many seasoned meditators that walk with a limp, due to all the damage done to the ligaments of their patellas. So approach the lotus with fear and caution.
Some like to chant a short mantra before meditating. Sure, go ahead. That’s beautiful, baby! Let’s hear your, “Om Mani Padme Hum!” or your “Nam Myoho Renge Kyo,” or your “Buddham Saranam Gacchami, etc.”
Such chants can be pleasing to the ear and soothing to the soul, putting you in a receptive spirit for meditation. But they’re not necessary, and neither are all the other trappings of formal mindfulness.
To keep things as simple as possible, here are the bare essentials for how to meditate, without the trappings. In my opinion. Please, put down that machete, this is just my opinion!
Sit in a chair. Or, as I prefer, lie flat on your back in bed, for beditation. Get it? Beditation. Okay, let’s move on.
But first, let me warn you that if you lie in bed while meditating, there’s a good chance you’ll fall asleep. But this can also happen while you’re sitting. It’s just less likely, which is why many meditation masters insist that you sit. Who the hell wants their students to fall asleep on them?
But I don’t care. Fall asleep all you want. Sleep is good for you. And when you wake up, just resume meditating. And in this way your meditation, or beditation, will leave you feeling refreshed and energized.
Now that you’re sitting or lying down, let’s continue this instruction:
Breathe in slowly, and while inhaling, watch your breath. Observe the sensation of your rising abdomen, or the feel of air rushing into your lungs, or the breeze against the nares of your nostrils.
Then slowly exhale, and observe again, the falling of your abdomen, or the feel of air leaving your lungs, or the breeze against the nares of your nostrils.
It matters not where you put the point of your focus, whether it be your abdomen, lungs, or nose. Leave it to the whim of the moment. Or go with that which feels most prominent.
After a few of these breaths, your concentration will strengthen. Now, turn your attention to your mind. Observe your thoughts as they rise and fall.
Some meditators are under the impression that the purpose of meditation is to rid your mind of runaway, distracting thoughts. And so, they try to let go of their thoughts, then keep them pushed away so they never return.
This is awful goddamned hard work, and can give you a big headache. Also, it’s not necessary. Try it if you want, but don’t worry if you decide to give up. It’s exhausting.
A less tiring approach is to simply watch your thoughts as they rise and fall, and keep letting them rise and fall naturally. Now in order to do this, you must pull a piece of your brain out of your skull. Sounds icky, I know, but it’s the only way.
But thankfully, I’m speaking metaphorically. By pulling a piece of your brain out of your skull, I mean you must set aside a part of your mind, and give it the task of observing. And what it observes is what your mind is doing. It observes your thinking.
In other words, you turn your mind upon itself, to make a self-observation. This is what is called, “self awareness,” by meditators, or “metacognition” by those with a more scientific orientation. It’s being in the present moment. It’s seeing things exactly as they are, without comment or opinion.
It is a passionless, detached, objective observation of your own mind, by a piece of your own mind.
However, it isn’t easy to pull off. You’ll find that when you do this, your thoughts start playing hide-and-go-seek and it becomes very difficult to observe them. It’s ironic. Watching your thoughts makes your thoughts disappear.
Thus, when your thoughts arise, you focus your attention on them, and that makes them fall. This is what is often referred to by meditation masters as the rise and fall of thoughts.
This rise and fall happens because your mind can only do one thing at a time. It can think, and it can observe itself think. But the catch is, it can’t do both at the same time. This is an ironic thing about meditation. Just when you remember to observe your thoughts, they disappear like darkness under a spotlight.
That’s because it’s impossible to think, and observe yourself think, at the same time. Yet that’s what meditators are trying to do.
And yet a common complaint from meditators is that they can’t stop their minds from thinking. Well, that’s obviously because they can’t maintain self-awareness for any great length of time.
Self-awareness is the fucking hard part about mindfulness and meditation. It’s hard to sustain it over long periods of time. And so you have to keep reminding yourself to be self-aware. But it’s very hard to remember to remind yourself.
This I believe, is why few people persist at the practice of mindfulness. It’s why so many give up quickly. It’s frustrating. They don’t like the constant failure, and arduous mental toil that is so much a part of mindfulness. So they say, “to hell with unicorns, I quit!”
Also, setting aside the time required for formal mindfulness can be prohibitive. Imagine meditating for an hour in the morning, then arriving to work an hour late. Try telling your boss, “Sorry I’m late, but I was very busy watching thoughts rise and fall in my mind. It was important.”
That’s a good way to become a full-time meditator, while checking the help wanted ads.
I can’t do much about the frustrating and mentally difficult aspect to mindfulness. I can only encourage you to keep at it. Be assured that it gets easier with practice.
But as for the time requirement, there’s a viable solution. And no, it does not require time travel, or making all the clocks on Earth stand still.
No, you can skip formal mindfulness, and just practice informal mindfulness. Informal mindfulness involves multitasking. So it can be practiced at any time, and any place. Even at night in your sleep.
So get up and cook dinner, take a shower, and vacuum the floors. And while you’re at it, I’ll tell you all about informal mindfulness.