I felt relaxed after guided meditation. Reminded me how I feel after exercising.
I do yoga. I don’t need mindfulness.
I meditate everyday so I must be mindful.
I feel calm when I meditate and wish I would have the same quality of inner calm when I am at work.
I am aware of my emotions but don’t know what to do with them.
Mindfulness is not for me. It’s for people who are calm and into that kind of stuff.
If any of the above statements resonates with how you feel or think about mindfulness, this blog post is for you. Whether you are new to mindfulness or have taken a secular program like Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, it is easy to mistake mindfulness to focus solely on meditation or simple awareness or being present. In this post I break down mindfulness trainings into three trainings. In addition to meditation, you are also developing insight and skillful habits. Following an explanation of the trainings, you can read examples to understand how each of these trainings are essential.
Beyond The Breath: Three Mindfulness Trainings & Essential Skills
Most secular mindfulness programs include development of insight and skillful actions implicitly. You have probably heard the phrase in your meditation or yoga class, what is most important is how you carry forward the teachings beyond the proverbial meditation cushion or yoga mat. And indeed many benefits of mindfulness meditation do naturally carry forward into other aspects of your life. However, in the absence of explicit training and reminders to cultivate insight and skillful actions, it is easy to experience mindfulness benefits during meditation and when you go into work or a family crisis, you revert back to your default settings in the mind.
With the three mindfulness trainings you actively reap the benefits of the three trainings, which are briefly described here:
This is training of the mind to direct attention to a single object or broader awareness with the purpose of stabilizing the mind. This training of the mind is performed with the attitude of non-reactivity. So you are observing the object of attention without clinging or resisting. This creates the right conditions in the mind to gain insight and take skillful actions.
When you sustain this quality of non-reactive awareness, you create the space to see things with clarity. In this stage of training you broaden your understanding of the situation or yourself by unhooking from your assumptions and beliefs to see things with a fresh perspective. Insight is different from observation because the new perspective changes how you think or experience the situation and influences your actions. Insight gives us a deeper and broader understanding of how things are so you are not acting on your old patterns of reactivity. Instead skillful actions naturally arise from this new understanding of the situation that includes a clearer understanding of your intentions and long term consequences on all involved. If you feel stuck with awareness and not knowing what to do, asking questions, broadening your view of the situation, and checking in with your intentions can actively cultivate insight.
Generally insight will lead to skillful actions. By skillful I mean actions that don’t cause harm and promote well-being of you and all involved in the long run. However, sometimes it takes cultivation of skillful actions to create the conditions to practice meditation and cultivate insight. Skillful actions include consideration and alignment of your thoughts, speech and actions with your personal goals to thrive.
Developing Inner Calm Is Not Enough
People often experience relaxation during meditation but relaxation alone is not enough to grow in mindfulness. Many people stop at the experience of calm because it feels so good to experience calm when life outside of the meditation is chaotic and stressful. The experience of calm can lead to a feeling of zoning out or deep rest. Deep rest has many therapeutic benefits. However, when you escape into a pleasant bubble and lose touch with your moment-to-moment experience you are not practicing mindfulness. Once you come out of this place of inner calm and get back to life, some of the benefits of a calm mind and body will certainly steep into your life. However, it is not changing your understanding of situations nor your usual ways of thinking about things. As such your actions remain the same, which means you are reliving the same results over and over.
Observation Is Not Enough, You Need Insight To Break Old Habit Loops
It is essential to continue to observe your inner workings with the calm mind developed in meditation. So lets say your mind is settled enough to observe your thoughts and feelings. You notice there is restlessness. The direction in concentration meditations is to notice and return back to the object of attention such as the breath or body. In open awareness you stay with your experience of noticing what ever is arising and drawing your attention without getting carried away by it. And every time your thinking carries you away, once you become aware you return back to observing. This observation alone is also not enough. You are stuck in the same loop of mind wandering and bringing it back over and over again, with kindness to yourself. Aren’t those the instructions, you may ask.
Yes, those are the instructions, only for the purpose of setting the stage for the next step. Once your mind is settled and you observe your inner workings, without reacting, you create the space for insight. By insight I mean a deeper and clearer understanding of your experience such that it changes how you think about that situation and often leads to a change in behavior or what you choose. Insight cultivates equanimity. This is what I sometimes call becoming “unfuckwithable.” The true understanding of human nature and our world makes us compassionate and at the same time unshakeable in our balance of mind, which makes us impervious to usual human drama.
Example of Restless Mind
For example, let’s say you observe that your mind is restless. In meditation without insight training, you notice that and with kindness return back to open awareness or witnessing your moment to moment experience. In the three mindfulness trainings, after settling the mind and observing, you are invited to bring curiosity to your experience. You bring attention to the cause of restlessness, not in an analytical way but by bringing a gentle and open awareness to your restlessness. What are you restless for, what is it you desire that is causing the agitation in your mind and body? For example, you might discover that the restlessness is associated with a task you have been postponing and needs your immediate attention or due to a difficult conversation you need to have. By knowing what is causing the discomfort you can take action to deal with the root causes and thereby eliminate the cause of discomfort.
Let’s say you notice underlying your restlessness is an anticipation of the next moment or what is going to happen in the future. Once you see this you may expand your awareness to future moments and ask yourself what happens once the next moment arrives or that event in the future happens? In asking that you may discover that once the next moment comes you are anticipating the next moment and event. In observing this you may see that each moment or event is inherently incapable of giving lasting happiness or fulfillment. Instead when you settle into this moment there is an ease and comfort in simply being here. When you discover this for yourself – each moment is inherently dissatisfactory and returning to this moment fully is more restful – it may shift your desire to chase the future and make it easier to settle into the present moment.
This insight doesn’t need to end with the meditation. You can carry forward this knowing of the inherently dissatisfactory nature of living in the future and remind yourself when you feel restless with what ever you are doing. This will help you naturally choose being fully with whatever you are doing instead of rushing to a future time or outcome. In being fully present you may discover there is more ease and clarity. You are also teaching yourself how to expand your perspective beyond your default settings of the mind so when you are triggered outside of meditation, you are able to expand your perspective and look at the situation with compassionate curiosity.
Example Differentiating Observation & Insight From Teachers’ Workshop
Another example from a workshop I did with teachers involved a teacher’s observation of his inability to stay with my instructions in the guided meditation. This observation made him understand the challenge his students must have in paying attention to him. A clear seeing of his own mind made him more aware and understanding of his students’ predicament in class. He is less likely to be judgmental and more compassionate towards his students. With this clear seeing and compassion he can also come up with ways to empower his students to understand their own minds and create classroom experiences that take into account this knowing. Maybe he and his students can explore ways together to override the basic tendencies of the mind to be distracted. In this case the observation was to see his own restless mind and insight was carrying forward that observation into a different context – his students’ experience – which changed how he sees and potentially interacts with them.
Insight Alone Is Not Enough, You Need To Act On It
The main purpose of mindfulness is to observe the default tendencies of the mind, gain a clearer perspective beyond usual ways of observing and experiencing the world, and to inform our choices so we naturally make more skillful choices.
You may not always gain insight right away in which case we also have to put in place skillful habits of thinking, speech, and actions in alignment with our goals to create the right conditions for meditation and insight. For example, when I was trying to reduce my social media use, just seeing that filling my mind with continuous streams of information via social media is causing anxiety was not always enough to stop me from habitually reaching out for my phone when ever I had a free moment. I had to put in place, what I like to call rituals, around the use of my social media use. For example, one ritual was to not check phone till I had meditated. Another was to limit use to four times a day. And when I wanted to use the phone, I made it a habit to check in what is it I need right now – spaciousness or connection in person or do I need to check my phone? This stopping and asking helped me make better choices.
You may also like the article on why is change so hard and the three mindfulness trainings to overcome the challenges described in the neurobiology of change.
My upcoming book will be describing this process in more detail. Meanwhile, if you are interested in developing these skills for yourself or your organization, please email me.
And if you live in the Western Mass region, check out the Mindfulness 2.0 program that is based on the three mindfulness trainings and development of skills beyond awareness.