Table of Contents
3) Silence, Feeling, and Attention
5) Forms of Attention
6) Essential Practices of Silence - Still Attention
7) Essential Practices of Silence - Active Attention
8) Zen & Primal
Chapter Six: Essential Practices of Silence – Still Attention
The following is a descriptive guide to a limited number of forms. These have been selected from my personal experience and by virtue of their simplicity. They are free from any necessary attachment to religion or myth.
Still AttentionThis is most commonly known as formal meditation. I prefer to use the word "attention" because meditation has so many religious connotations. In many traditions, it even refers to concentrated thinking!
The only essential issue regarding posture is comfort without extended strain to any particular body part. The cross-legged lotus or half lotus position is handy because it allows for a sturdy three-point base and a straight spine. Any unsupported angle or curvature of the spine will cause muscle strain and injury. If you can find a comfortable posture by using a chair, bench, pillows or even lying down, feel free to try - just be watchful of the angle of your spine, neck and head, which should be straight. Comfortable chairs can actually strain the lower back and neck over time. Check it out and feel it. In most mystic traditions, lying down is considered poor posture because it induces daydreaming and sleep. If you try it and always dose off, maybe you need the sleep - which could be a good thing! As far as daydreaming goes, your mind is going to do that in any position. Simply try different postures and find what suits you best. Do keep in mind that, when lying down, it is best to keep the knees elevated with pillows. This straightens the lower back. You may also need some support under your head or neck.
For placement of the hands, consider comfort and feeling. Many meditative hand positions are suggested to benefit "energy flow" or perception, but to blindly follow these suggestions without experience is just more thinking. Let your hands do what feels right. They'll find their own alignment with your feelings and practice.
When allowing your mind to settle, it is generally considered best to decrease overall stimulation. For that reason, physical quiet is the norm. In busy circumstances, one's attention tends to move to various sights and sounds, accompanied by the usual mental commentary. Visual simplicity and quiet allow you to notice just how busy your mind is, all on its own. I should point out, however, that with time, even stimulating circumstances can be fully attended to in silence.
Low lighting is often a help, but darkness can also be as distracting as bright daylight. Blackness is a great "screen" for the movies of the imagination. A certain amount of light keeps us grounded in "this" world. In some traditions, the subtlety of browns and tans are preferred, whereas in others, the brightness of reds, golds and vibrant colours are considered the ideal. In the location where you sit, take note of how your mind reacts to different colours and decor. Choose what suits you best. Some people prefer to face a wall and lower their eyes. Others prefer to face the center of a room and look straight ahead. In essence, it is all a question of detail and stimulation - too much makes the mind race, too little can put it to sleep.
Length of Time
You need to spend enough time in a session to feel the effect of the practice on the rate and intensity of your thinking. Too short and you're paying lip service to silence. Too long and your attention and energy will wear. Try different lengths, starting at a minimum of 15 minutes after preparation. If you don't want to use a clock, just pay close attention to your feelings.
If you wish to try an extended period, it's often helpful to break the session down into smaller segments of 20 to 40 minutes with a period of slow walking practice or stretching in between. Remember - this is a cure for an ailment. Like a medicine, it has to be administered regularly to have the intended effect. Once-a-day is very natural, and fits in with a normal wake/sleep cycle. More than that is fine if it doesn't interfere with your "life." Keep in mind that even practices of silence can become addictions - escapes from real situations, feelings and pain.
It is generally useful to relax before a session, something that can be achieved in a variety of ways. Stretching is a major form of relaxation. I'm not talking about specific muscle stretching - just the intuitive stretching of tired or stiff muscles. We all have our personal stretches, but keep in mind that a muscle can be pulled by over-stretching and react by tensing (going into spasm) to protect itself, especially if you're cold. Don't stretch absentmindedly. I personally like to stretch the way small children do when they awake. They stretch while lying down, which I find ideal, because no muscles are tensed in the act of holding the body upright. Just twist and turn any way that feels good - always mindfully, so as not to kink or pull anything too much. Breath deeply and just enjoy the feeling. It's like body-yawning. Be sure the floor or surface you're lying on is firm but not too hard. Carpeted floors work well for me.
After you breath deeply and stretch you may feel like taking a nap. Don't necessarily fight it. It may be what you need.
Various Forms - Focused to UnfocusedThere are literally thousands of forms of this type of attention. Feel free to search through the various traditions, but keep in mind that they are often full of dogmatic mythic content. Look for those aspects that will help develop silence, and leave the rest behind. If you can't tell the difference, experiment and let your experience tell you what's necessary and what's not. Beware of anything that requires a belief or commitment before you've witnessed anything. For example, some people pay money to join spiritual groups in order to be given a "magical" phrase to meditate upon. Basically, these groups are asking for blind faith (and money) before you even get a chance to see if it works better than say, repeating "This is stupid" over and over again (which, by the way, I guarantee will work as well, if not better). Remember to strip all practices down to their bare bones - how they affect your perception and attention.
Rather than give you pages full of meditations and practices, like a cosmic shopping list, I've decided to present a few tried-and-true, non-sectarian options that have not only worked for me, but for millions of people since time immemorial.
Counting the Breath
This may require you to unlearn unnatural tense breathing patterns. When a body breathes, the essential muscular movement is low - from the diaphragm, not from high in the chest. In fact, with this type of breathing, the stomach moves in and out. Lie on your back and check yourself out. If you're chest-breathing, just relax and let your body find its way.
This form involves attending to the breath, but not at the location of the nostrils or mouth. Focus your attention on an area just below your navel, where your stomach moves in and out. Count 1 on the first exhale, 2 on the second exhale, 3 on the third, etc. Up to 4 or 10, whatever you prefer. When you reach the top number, return to 1 and repeat. At first you may speak the numbers gently, or if you prefer, repeat them silently in your mind. If you lose track or run past the top number, just start over at 1. Feel the numbers in your belly, not your head. Place your vision where you wish, but relax and unfocus your eyes.
That's it. All you have to do is feel your breath and count it. Between numbers, there is nothing to do but sit and feel. Tell yourself, before you start, that there is nothing you have to think about or do. Your world is unlikely to collapse if you leave it alone for fifteen minutes. No need to think about dinner, bills or work - you can do that when you get up.
Remember - this is about just being - not doing. You're not trying to meditate or trying to become silent. Silence is a natural state, just like breathing. You're not making yourself breathe, you're letting breathing just happen.
In this practice you don't have to fight your thinking. If you look closely, fighting thinking is just another form of thinking! Consider that your thoughts are like logs floating down a river as you sit on the bank. Let them come and go. You don't have to hop on them and ride. If you do, and you forget to count, just hop off and start over. If you get angry with yourself, that's just more thinking, stirring up a feeling with it. Check out the feeling - without having to think about it.
The mind is a weird, wonderful and exasperating landscape. Let yourself get to know it. And remember - if you want the medicine to work, take it regularly.
Watching the Breath
This is exactly the same as the previous form, but without numerical counting. Here the focus is on the inhale and exhale. At first you may want to silently say a word like "out" as you exhale. Eventually, just feel the inhale; feel the exhale; inhale; exhale; inhale; exhale etc. Give your full attention to it, starting on the area just below the navel, and if you can, let your focus of attention broaden outward from there - without losing the breath as the centre. As usual, when you find yourself in a daydream, return to your breath.
This is a form that involves an external focus, and is also good for times when you have body discomforts. "In-body" attention can magnify uncomfortable feelings or ailments, making it hard to practice. Not that it isn't good to feel pain; at times we need to focus on it in order to diagnose, treat, relieve or release. But we all need a respite at times, or a chance to settle the mind and be silent.
Choose anything you like - usually a physical object or a sound, providing that it isn't complex, like a picture or a piece of music. The more complex it is, the harder it will be to tell if you’re just looking, or thinking about what you're looking at. A candle, a rock, a leaf, flowing water, a slow drumbeat - these are the types of things that seem to work well.
At first, count or concentrate on the breath to settle yourself down. Then, while keeping your breath as a grounding feeling, look at, or listen to, the "object." Just look. Just listen. You'll want to tell yourself that it's red or soft, or loud, or bright, but don't bother. Remember, those are words for the indescribable thing in front of you. Just look at it. As you attend to it totally, follow your attention right over to the object itself, as if you are on it, or are it. When you find yourself thinking or day dreaming, just return to your breath and the object. Let it fill you. You have nothing else to do.
This is a totally unfocused form. It is not easy for many people. Some people say they're "doing" it, when they are actually hovering in areas of subtle thought - thinking they're silent. It's a tricky maneuver.
Start by focusing on the breath and letting your attention expand outward and inward at the same time. In essence, attention goes to everything at once. It may seem like a monumental effort, but in fact it's the opposite. It takes effort to focus, and no effort to just be, because that's what you are. Your whole personal landscape opens up and everything belongs, even thinking - just like the birds that fly past singing. Watch them come and go - and if you follow them and get lost in a daydream, just come on back.
You may think that this is no different then just sitting as you always have, but it is. The old way is full of thinking and feelings of trying to become something, do something, get something, criticize something. It's full of worry and conquest and unacceptance. Just being requires very little planning, critique or effort. Try it. You may like it.
The MoodMost meditation is washed in the mood of getting something - of hard work and effort. I used to finish a session frustrated and exhausted. It felt like a struggle against thought - a discipline - a denial of enjoyable things. The practices of silence are not intended to be like that at all. In fact, they are holidays. A holiday is a time to relax, kick off your shoes, take off the mask of your social persona and just be you. Enjoy yourself. Embrace your world.
The practices of silence are not only little holidays away from the crazy crunch of modern life, but actual perceptual "snack breaks" - opportunities to enjoy the tastiness of life - the richness of just breathing, hearing sounds, seeing colours. We pay money to see beautiful pictures on the big screen when we are smack-dab in the middle of the most vibrant 3-D movie of all time - life itself! Look at the variety of these colours. Smell all the nuances of that food. Taste the strange little tingles in that glass of juice. Hear the textures and swells of all these sounds. And the feelings! We're full of a universe of feelings in every part of our body, and beyond. Movie screens, TV tubes and computer monitors are laughably limited in comparison, and will always be. The entire universe cannot be recreated with electronics and machinery. And why bother trying? Why give up your paycheck for a mechanized replica of an apple, when your back yard is full of them - real and free for the picking.
Be watchful that the practice doesn't turn into work, although it isn't easy to stop thinking. Maybe you still need to think a lot. The best way to stop the waves in a pool is to let them subside on their own. If you get in the water and try to smooth them out, you just make more waves. That's the way we usually start to "practice" silence. The trick is to get out of the pool and let it be. Remember - enjoy it. Taste it.
Many people searching for "truth" are enamored by the idea of "out-of-body" experience. The fact is, we're out of our bodies most of the time, in worlds of thinking and daydreaming. Silence, on the other hand, is the quintessential "in-body" experience. It is you, with you, being you.
Fear - To Release or Not To ReleaseTo strip away thought is to take away your biggest defense against "inner" pain. Thought also makes you feel familiar to yourself - makes you feel comfortable and normal. If you start to feel ungrounded, unhinged, or panicky - consider stopping. If you push the practice too quickly, or have a lack of energy, you'll start to feel like you're falling apart - which can be scary and even dangerous. You don't get medals for dissolving the Self. This isn't a competition, and if you mess with your stability you could end up getting seriously ill - both emotionally and physically.
If you start feeling frightened and don't have access to a therapist or guide, stop your practice and immerse yourself in as many familiar old habits (defenses) as you can. I'm not suggesting you eat 10 gallons of ice cream. Talking to people, doing housework - any regular, social activities will do. Tend to stay out of the dark. Sleep with a light, radio or TV on. Blackness often increases the feeling of strangeness because it is the ideal backdrop for dreams and other-worldly realities. When feeling unstable, place your full attention in your ordinary world until you feel "normal" again.
If you have a guide or therapist, or feel comfortable with self-primalling, the "bad dream," "unhinged" or "falling apart" sensations brought on by the practices of silence need not be tucked away. This is the time when the Zen and Primal methods work hand-in-hand. The silence creates a space between your repressive defenses, and the early pain rises from unconscious through the gap. If you release these powerful feelings, profound insights and transformation can occur.
ThoughtsIt's hard to discuss the practices of silence without implying that thoughts are the enemy. Remember that thoughts were your friend as a child - they wove worlds you escaped into. They saved your life. So, as an honorable and successful defense system, they deserve respect. It's just that now to heal, it is time to wean yourself off the crutch. Don't just throw it away, however, as you may re-injure yourself.
We often want to get well immediately, and struggle to push thoughts away. This very intent is a thought! It's fighting thoughts with more thoughts. "Damn thoughts" say the thought! The key is simply to recognize them for what they are. The reason we get "caught up" is that we unknowingly enter thought-worlds as if they were real extensions of our everyday world.
I once started losing hearing in one ear. It started slowly, and gradually everything got more and more muffled. Since I had been playing guitar in a R & B band, I thought it was the inevitable hearing loss from all those years of playing. At first I was in slight shock, then anxious, then angry, then despondent. And it kept getting worse.
Then I remembered that my doctor had tested me for some dizzy spells in case of a brain tumor, a condition from which my mother had died only two years earlier. I went cold. "That's it - I've got a tumor!" I was certain. I got really anxious and started obsessing (thinking constantly) about it. I seemed to notice that even the side of my face was numb. I was desperate. I had an anxiety attack. I didn't want to die yet. I was inconsolable. My family told me to see a doctor, that it might be something simple. Did I believe that possibility? Not on your life! I was convinced I was done for. Not only was I a nervous wreck, the left side of my face really felt numb. I had shivers and weird spasms. I was making plans to quit work and go into spiritual retreat.
I went to the doctor. He checked my ears. Then he got a syringe and squirted a blast of warm water in the left ear. Pop! A huge lump of wax came out and it was as if the whole world had been turned on! My face wasn't numb. I felt great.
I walked home laughing, incredulous at how I had "thought" myself into total anxiety - to the point of actually experiencing physical symptoms. I had started worrying (thinking) and started to believe my thinking - getting lost in the images as if they were really happening. This opened the door to unresolved infant life-and-death fears covered in an unrecognized mass of thoughts. My poor adult body actually became awash in the illusory imagery of illness and impending death.
We do this kind of thing in different degrees, all the time. Nations have gone to war over ideas. The problem isn't the thinking - it's not recognizing that the thinking is what it is - thinking. Thinking is just a form of imagery. A thought of an apple isn't a real apple. It is a real thought, but it isn't a real apple. It will not fill your tummy. Thoughts regularly arise and if we enter them, it's like walking into the scene of a play and losing contact with the world of our bodily sensation. For a while we live in it as if it is the world our body is in. Basically, not being what we are is our illness. So, to heal is to do the obvious - be what we are. For this reason, it is useful not to push thoughts away, but simply recognize them for what they are, or be aware of what we are and what we're doing.
Labeling ThoughtsOne of the most effective tools is to simply label your thoughts. The thought arises about dinner, so you add a little thought label - "thought about dinner." Then, with clarity, you can decide to go with the thought or not. In a typical meditation situation, thoughts and images about dinner might arise, and you'd be lost in a "dinner daydream" until a twinge in your knee 5 minutes later would "wake" you up to the fact that you're sitting on the mat!
Since you have all day to think, meditation is intended to be that bit of time when you don't have to. So in these instances, if you label a thought, you probably won't bother to follow it this time around. And if you do, come back when you can, and just be.
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© January 2000 by Sam Turton.