Learning to Observe

When you sit in meditation, what does your practice look like? When we sit in meditation practice, we practice observing what is occurring in our present-time experience. One of our tendencies is to pick each experience apart intellectually or to try to fix an experience or response. The Thai Forest monk Ajahn Chah stressed the importance of letting go in our practice. Letting go may look different from moment to moment, but in this case we can practice letting go of the mind that tries to solve or fix things.

observeMindfulness and Recognizing

As we have talked about in numerous blog posts recently, mindfulness is not just being present. We talked about this in our post on Seven Misconceptions about Meditation. A piece of true mindfulness practice is recognizing if the mind is creating the causes for liberation or the causing suffering. When we are sitting in open awareness practice, we may notice the mind responding to pain with aversion or perhaps clinging to a pleasant experience. The mind falls into one (or some) of the five hindrances, falls into a wandering state, or does something we can see is leading to suffering. Part of mindfulness practice, other than just being present with it, is to recognize these moments in which we are creating dukkha. It may seem counter-intuitive because we often are told to just “stay in the present,” but mindfulness means we must use our experience to recognize where we are headed in the near future.

The Fix-it Mind

One way that the mind may respond to a moment in which we are causing suffering is to try to fix it. In my own experience, this is a manifestation of the hindrance of doubt. If I find that the mind is restless during meditation, I find the mind analyzing what is happening and trying to figure out. I am completely drawn from the present time experience and mindfulness practice into an abstract and aversive thinking pattern. The mind falls into the “fix-it” state rather than resting with what is happening.  Just like anything else in our practice, we can simply bring awareness to this occurring and how it feels. We don’t need to push it down, or try to fix the “fix-it” mind. Rather, we observe it and see how it is compounding our suffering and taking us out of the present experience. We don’t need to try to force the mind to do something other than what it is doing. More on this in a bit.

On the other hand, there are times in which we can volitionally respond with more wisdom. For example, we may feel a moment of pain in the body and react with aversion. When we notice this, we can bring up some compassion and choose to respond in a way that will lead to more freedom. However, we must do so with concentration and wisdom. Instead of turning toward compassion out of aversion to how we feel, we turn toward compassion with the intention of simply being with what we are experiencing. You can investigate your experience yourself, and you will likely find that it feels different to fall into fix-it mode than it does to choose to respond with wisdom to something.

Simply Observing

Whether you are falling into a hindrance and trying to solve your suffering in the mind or choosing to respond more wisely, you can actually maintain awareness. In my own practice and working with students, I notice that people often “turn off” the awareness when they notice they are creating suffering. We may strain to bring the mind back to practice, back to the breath, or to do what we think it should be doing. Instead, you can just watch what is happening. When the mind falls into states of trying to solve problems or fix things, notice it! See how it feels, where it goes, and if your problems are actually solved. Is there even a problem in the first place, or is the mind just doing what it naturally does? As we practice this with continuity, we are able to see the processes of the mind with more ease. We can stick with the thinking mind and see where it leads us.

Learn to Meditate

Trusting Wisdom

James Baraz told me years ago that I should practice “trusting wisdom.” I was sitting a long retreat and the mind was consistently falling into the fix-it state, and it was one of the first times I had an acute awareness of this mental state. I had a hard time with this when he told me, as I like rational, logical, and intellectual instructions and explanations for my experience. What he said to me was extremely helpful and has served as a great reminder repeatedly in my practice.

Within each of us is the seed of wisdom. All we need to do is bring awareness to what is happening so that wisdom may attend to it. In the Satipatthana Sutta (the Buddha’s words on establishing mindfulness), the Buddha recommends simply being aware of the hindrances of the mind. Why does this work? The truth is that I have absolutely no idea, and that’s why it is unsettling to me! However, trying to figure it out doesn’t really serve me well. Rather, I have seen this practice helping me greatly. When we bring awareness to what is happening and trust wisdom, the wisdom naturally abandons the unwholesome states and recognizes how to cultivate the wholesome ones.

For me, trusting wisdom means trusting the dharma. Faith, or trust, can take dedicated cultivation. I began bowing after each sit, and to the chair after teaching. I recite the refuges and read the metta sutta. In meditation, I notice when the mind is trying to fix something or figure it out. When I notice this happening, I remind myself to trust wisdom and simply rest with the experience. Trust the wisdom that is within you, and just return to observing over and over again.


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