Stilling the mind

‘Breathing in, I calm my body,

Breathing out, I smile.

Dwelling in the present moment,

I know this is a wonderful moment.’

Thich Nhat Hanh

Last week we looked at restlessness, which in Buddhism is considered the fourth of the five hindrances to meditation. While we don’t want to become stiff and rigid, it’s also true that an endlessly restless mind and body can exacerbate our tendency to be anxious and worried. The sitting meditation seems to be particularly beneficial for becoming more centered and grounded, and a certain amount of restless is to be expected when we practise it. If, however, our restlessness becomes a serious obstacle to our meditation practice, there are a number of different ways we can work with this.

The first approach is to accept that restlessness is occurring, and to stay with it, even when the restlessness transforms into impatience, irritation, agitation, perhaps all the way to anger. We can learn a lot about the emotions underlying our restlessness through doing this. The inability to sit calm and still may be a signal of strong emotional undercurrents we are trying to get away from. These could be anger, grief, worry and anxiety, trauma, or shame or jealousy. Of course it’s not easy to sit through the restlessness to begin with, let alone the more challenging emotions we may encounter along the way. Yet over the years, I’ve found I’ve gained many valuable insights into ‘what is really going on in my life’ through the simple practice of sitting still, and noticing what emerges.

Next week we will look at some other strategies for working with a restless mind, but for now let’s return to Thich Nhat Hanh’s quote at the beginning of this reflection, and allow ourselves the time and space to rest in the present moment as it is.

Weekly practice idea:

Find a peaceful place to sit, and silently recite Thich Nhat Hanh’s gatha. You may like to focus on the first two lines, or the poem as a whole. Allow yourself to feel the peace, and the smile.

Anja Tanhane

Restlessness

A few years ago I offered a workshop in mindfulness for a group of people with a disability. We first went out into the courtyard and did some gentle Tai Chi together, which was enjoyed by the participants. Afterwards, we gathered in a room, where we sat in a circle for some guided meditation. One of the carers had to leave the room for a few minutes, and when he returned during the meditation he thought at first that everyone had died, because the whole room was sitting completely still. I wasn’t sure how the participants would find the sitting meditation, but they all responded really well, and communicated later that they felt relaxed after the workshop.

The ability to sit still for extended periods of time is one of the hallmarks of sitting meditation, and, over time, can help to settle our restless and anxious mind. However, ‘over time’ is really the key phrase here, as initially, sitting still and not moving might make us more aware of just how much restlessness and anxiety is finding its way into our minds.

Restlessness and worry are the forth of the five hindrances to meditation in the Buddhist tradition, and it’s one that probably most of us can relate to quite well! One of the most basic meditation instructions is to avoid fidgeting and adjusting the posture. Some traditions take this to an extreme, where people are asked to sit in agony rather than move a muscle. To me, taking it to that extent is not only pointless but also potentially dangerous, as there are cases where people have permanently injured their knees because of rigid meditation postures. On the other hand, there is commonly some discomfort and even a little bit of pain involved in learning to sit very still. It is difficult to settle a restless mind when our bodies are constantly in motion.

We can imagine holding a glass of muddy water in our hand. If we constantly shake it about, it will remain muddy water. However, if we put it down on a table and come back half an hour later, the mud will have sunk to the bottom of the glass, leaving the water clear. In a similar way, sitting still for twenty to thirty minutes each day can allow some of the stressors on our mind to settle, so that we can approach our day with greater clarity and presence.

Weekly practice idea:

During the day, take the opportunity to notice the difference between restless fidgeting, and adjusting your posture as needed. If your body is quite restless, how does it feel to consciously reduce some of the fidgeting movements?

Anja Tanhane

Working with sleepy mind

One of the most effective (but definitely under the category of ‘don’t try this at home’!) strategies for combating sleepy mind must be sitting on the edge of a deep well during meditation, as apparently practised by some monks in Thailand. This would certainly sharpen the mind and keep us alert, but fortunately we also have less drastic (and less dangerous) approaches we can use if we find ourselves repeatedly nodding off during meditation.

The first one, which I already touched on in last week’s reflection, is to simply accept that we’re tired. Sometimes during meditation we encounter busy mind, or anxious mind, or planning mind. At other times it might be sleepy mind. Just going with the flow of this state, rather than fighting it, can be helpful at times.

Another approach, which I use a lot and find very effective, is to lift our gaze to straight ahead and open our eyes wide, while still meditating. Doing this for a few minutes, and then returning to our traditional posture of eyes closed or half open with a soft gaze downward, can really bring renewed energy to our meditation and can lift it from ‘sloth and torpor’ to a more awake, present sense of being. Sometimes doing this once is enough, at other times I might repeat it several times.

Practising some mindful movement before sitting meditation can also be very helpful. It stretches and revitalises our body, allowing the energy to flow more freely, and this can help us feel more alert when we then sit down to meditate. This could be yoga, Tai Chi, slow walking meditation, or even a brisk walk around the block.

We can also alternate between sitting and standing meditation. There is nothing wrong, if we’re feeling really sleepy, with standing up for a while, and then returning to the sitting posture when we feel ready. This is perhaps a safer variation of sitting on the edge of a well – we’re less likely to fall asleep standing up, and don’t want to fall over, so standing meditation can also be very useful.

Finally, if sleepy mind is an ongoing problem in our meditation, we can ask ourselves – is this perhaps my way of avoiding being present with life? Do I generally have a tendency to switch off when things become unpleasant, and am I using this same strategy during meditation? If this is the case, we might ask ourselves – ‘why am I meditating? Is this important to me?’ Sometimes recognising some of our behavioural patterns can help us to become more resolved in not giving in to sleepy mind when it arises.

Weekly practice idea:

If you meditate regularly, experiment this week with some movement practices beforehand, standing meditation, or meditating with the eyes wide open. Do they change your meditation in any way?

Anja Tanhane

Sleepy mind

Most people who meditate would be very familiar with ‘sleepy mind’ – this feeling that you’re drifting in and out of meditation, perhaps even asleep for significant chunks of it. Or you might be ambling along in a dreamy haze which has little to do with mindful awareness of the present moment. In Buddhism this is known as the third hindrance to meditation, often described with the wonderfully evocative words ‘sloth and torpor’. These old-fashioned words really seem to sum up what meditation can be at times, when I feel more like a sloth draped almost comatose across a branch than a bright little meditator. And as for torpor – that is the perfect description of the state of my mind on the first afternoon of an extended meditation retreat. The mind feels sticky and heavy, like a steamy jungle just before a downpour, and there are all kinds of noises and movements in the undergrowth but you can barely rouse yourself to notice them, you’re so sleepy, just really really sleepy… The meditation becomes a desperate battle to stay awake, to not fall asleep and keel over on your meditation cushion onto someone else’s lap. And you’re probably not the only one in the meditation room who is struggling – sleepy mind is a very common phenomena.

Sometimes, the reason why we feel so sleepy is simply because we are just really tired. We might have been stressed, run off our feet, rushing from one commitment to the next for so long, the moment we stop, all we notice is exhaustion. While we don’t want to fall asleep during meditation if we can help it, we may just need to accept ‘sleepy mind’ for a while, and not struggle too hard against it. We may also be used to associating relaxation with sleepiness, and it might take us a while to learn how to relax, but also be alert and present at the same time. This is very common when people first begin to meditate, and is part of the normal process.

However, sleepy mind can also be a way of avoiding ‘life as it is’, in the sense of zoning out rather than tuning in. Next week, we will look at some tips and strategies for working with this sleepy mind of ours.

Weekly practice idea:

Notice your patterns of sleepiness and alertness during the day. How does it feel to be sleepy during the day, and how do you usually respond?

Anja Tanhane