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Meditation Lab III

In this video Prof Chris Goto Jones discusses some issues you might experience during the experiential learning sessions.
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So welcome back to our meditation lab now here in Module Three. Hopefully you’ve completed another week of practice working on the four stage awareness meditations, the three step breathing spaces, and perhaps a mindful walking. Now it’s quite a lot to have dealt with, especially in just a week, so well done. Given that you’ve experienced quite a range of practices already, it might be worth pausing to reflect on the kind of quality of experiences that you’ve been having in each case. For instance, perhaps it’s already the case that you’ve developed a particular favorite for some reason. Perhaps you’re really enjoying the sitting meditations and feel that they’re supporting you in important ways.
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Or perhaps you feel like you’re really struggling with sitting and you much prefer the practices that involve, say, movement or practices that are more smoothly integrated into your daily life in some way. Whatever the case, it’s worth taking a moment to reflect on what these emerging preferences mean to you, or perhaps better, what they feel like to you. When you say that you prefer to sit in formal meditation, what is the quality of the feeling that you experience, either before, during or after the practice, that you interpret as signifying this preference? In other words, how do you know from your own direct experience of these practices which ones you prefer?
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Now just as we saw in the lab from module two where we considered the possibility of making use of our wandering mind as a resource for our practice, rather than as a source of frustration and annoyance about our practicE. We might here consider the possibility of making use of our feelings of preference and taste and comfort with particular practices as a resource in the same way. So if you realize that you’ve decided that you prefer to sit, next time you sit, why not give a little space to sitting with the feeling that you’re content to be sitting? Where does that contentment reside? Is it perhaps a form of lightness, or a feeling of rising in your chest. What is it?
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And likewise, if you’ve decided that you dislike sitting, next time you sit why not give a little space to sitting with the feeling that you’re not content with sitting. Where does that discontent reside? And in what kinds of sensations does it arise? Is it perhaps in the form of tension or restlessness? Are your shoulders hunched and uncomfortable? Do your knees hurt? Where is this feeling that causes you to feel that you would prefer to do something else? Looking at some of the reactions to the practices in this module and the last one. I’d like to go back to one of the issues that I promised to address in the last lab session.
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Now you may recall that we discussed what happens when our own minds seem to thwart our practice, and that I promised to return to the question of what happens when the rest of the world seems to conspire against our practice instead or as well. So we’re going to take a few moments today to talk about the kinds of frustrations we sometimes feel when the world around us seems to support our intention and our ability for practice. This issue is especially pertinent this week as our awareness and informal practices about our place in the world comes most startling into focus. Many of you have been in touch already to ask about this, so let’s talk about it for a little while.
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The sense of frustration about our practice can be triggered by all kinds of different things. For instance, it could be that the place in which we’ve chosen to practice turns out to be colder than we anticipated. Perhaps there’s a draft that disturbs us. It could be that the time that we decided to practice is also the time that the neighbors let their dogs out into the garden, or just happens to be the precise moment that the telephone rang. It could be that despite our best intentions to practice every day, this particular week turned out to be so incredibly busy that we only managed to practice once.
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And even then, we were so tired and distracted that we fell asleep almost immediately. It could be that sitting in to meditation for 20 minutes revealed to us that we have a problem with our knees, that our cushion isn’t sufficiently well-supported, that the pain forced us to stop. Or it could be that you discovered that my voice is so irritating in the recordings that you just couldn’t force yourself to listen to me for any longer and you gave up. Now, all of these issues are real possible and quite likely. And all of them represent or present us with various challenges and possibilities.
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One of the most pressing features of these issues is the way that they might be seen as presenting us with a choice. Do we act to change the conditions in the world that disturb us or do we change the way we respond to those conditions? In simple concrete terms, if our knees hurt when we sit in a particular way or place, should we simply move our legs, so that our knees don’t hurt any more, or should we attempt to develop a more curious and gentle awareness of the pain in our knees?
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In fact, this question, which is common to nearly everyone who attempts any of these practices, really cuts to the core of a fundamental issue about mindfulness and action in the world. Does being mindful mean not changing the things in the world that we dislike and instead accommodating ourselves to them? Is mindfulness a form of passivity in this way? Now we’ve seen in a more theoretical parts of these course, that the answer to this question is really complicated. And here I would like to suggest you make use of your practice to reflect on how you want to make such decisions for yourself.
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The key here is to make use of your cultivation of mindfulness as a way to help you to make skillful choices about your actions. So just as we’ve seen with the wandering mind, or our preference for one practice rather than another, I’d encourage you to explore what it feels like to be disturbed by a draft from a window, an uncomfortable cushion, or my droning voice. Next time you encounter these difficulties, see what it might be like to give them, and you, a little more space, so that you can experience them more fully. We sometimes call this sitting with difficulty. And sometimes giving these difficulties some space and treating them with a form of gentle curiosity will be enough.
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You can effectively fold these discomforts back into your practice and use them as resources for your practice, in which case you may find that you neither want nor need to do anything about them in a practical sense. They’re just more sensations for you to experience as you sit. On the other hand, you may find that sitting with these difficulties does not resolve them at all. The draft is making your muscles tense unpleasantly, your knee is in danger of being injured, and my voice just cannot be accommodated.
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Perhaps you’ll discover that you’re forcing yourself to endure these things because you mistakenly think that deprivation and pain are part of what mindfulness is about, in which case you’ve realized that you need to take practical action. Take a blanket, move your legs, find alternative guidance. The key here is to try to ensure that this choice emerges from your practice, and that it’s not mindlessness, it’s not autopilot. It’s a skillful choice that’s good for you, and if you can, try to fold these practical actions back into your practice. Move mindfully so you can really experience whether your actions address the problem that you felt.
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In the end, experimenting with mindful action in this way is also about experimenting with how to live mindfully in society. Learning to give yourself some space to make these choices in the moment, even when you’re not conducting a formal practice, is one of the most challenging and amazing things we can do. It’s good to remember, too, that the practice of mindfulness does not require specific external conditions. You don’t have to sit on a magic cushion or have a dazzling view of a perfectly smooth lake or be poised on top of a mystic mountain. Likewise the neighbor’s dogs don’t have to be silent, your knee doesn’t have to be comfortable and you don’t have to like my voice.
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These kinds of pleasures and displeasures are themselves ripe experiences and resources for your practice. You’re never going to be able to manufacture perfect, flawless, external environments for your practice. So the question becomes much simpler. What are you going to make of the conditions that your practice takes place in? In this module’s lab, we’re going to experiment a little more with practices that encourage us to sit with aversion or difficulty, and we’re also going to experiment a bit with the experience of silence.

In this video, I discuss some issues that you might be experiencing during this week’s Meditation Lab exercises.

If you have developed a preference for one exercise over another, what is the quality of the feeling that you experience, either before, during or after the practice, that you interpret as signifying this preference? In other words, how do you know from your own direct experience of these practices which ones you prefer?

Perhaps you are experiencing the opposite, where you would prefer to avoid a particular exercise. Where does that discontent reside and in what kinds of sensations does it arise? Where is this feeling that causes you to feel that you would prefer to do something else?

And a simple question, perhaps with a complicated answer: What are you going to make of the conditions that your practice takes place in?

Leiden University

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Demystifying Mindfulness

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