I mentioned in the last post that Gil Fronsdal’s five Introduction to Mindfulness Meditation podcasts were recommended to me as good listening for novice meditators. Each podcast is an hour and a half long and a recording of a class taught at the Insight Meditation Center. I don’t know how good a course it is overall, but I’m listening to it and will note my takeaways as I go. This post’s about Week 1, Posture and Breath.
Please note that while this post offers a summary of the class's content, it's not intended to be complete. It focuses more on my personal takeaways, the things that stood out most, or were newest, to me.
The class is split into a lecture, two meditations totaling about 20 minutes, and a Q&A. Fronsdal is soft-spoken, but not appallingly so. A lot of what’s covered was familiar to me from prior introductions, but it didn’t hurt to hear the fundamentals repeated.
Aside from those fundamentals, the focus of the class is on posture and breath because, per Fronsdal, it’s important to be connected to your body: "Knowing how to be mindful of what goes on in your body becomes a foundation for becoming mindful of emotions.” After that comes mindfulness of thinking and, finally, application to the rest of your life.
Notes and Takeaways
On thinking during meditation:
Don't get too interested in your thoughts when you meditate. It's okay to notice them, but don't feed them, don't start planning a novel. Don’t tell yourself, this is the best thought I've had all day, I'm going to go with this. That's not what the meditation is for. You will think, but don’t keep it going or get actively involved with the thoughts. Don't fight them either. Notice them.
If the inclination to stick with your thoughts is strong, Fronsdal suggests you can minimize it by setting aside contemplative time outside of meditation.
"A lot of Americans need more sleep than meditation."
On the origins of mindfulness meditation as a secular practice:
Fronsdal notes many hospitals around the country offer an eight-week course on Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction. This course began about 35 years ago when someone (Jon Kabat-Zinn) repackaged the Buddhist practice of meditation as a secular practice to be taught in a clinical setting. It’s grown in popularity since.
On the word insight:
Mindfulness meditation is sometimes called "insight" meditation. And here I was wondering why so many meditation centers used the word in their names.
This is the focus of the class and he spends maybe 30-40 minutes on it. It’s worth a listen but here’re highlights:
- It is said there are "four dignified postures" for meditation: standing, sitting, lying down, and walking. There’s no right pose, but it’s important to feel stable and rooted, and best to "take a posture that is a little bit intentional, that expresses attention."
- That said, you should probably do it while sitting.
- If you’re sat on the floor, feel free to use a cushion.
- If you prefer a chair to the floor, sit in a chair.
- If you can’t sit up for long periods of time, lie down.
- Unfortunately lying down makes it easier to fall asleep, and it’s not exactly a posture that is intentional or expresses attention, so Fronsdal (very lightly) discourages it. But he also notes there are plenty of reasons for it—one of the instructors at the Insight Center, for example, lies down because of a back injury. (I myself tried lying-down meditation the other day and loved it.)
- If you're on the floor, he recommends sitting on a cushion. Elevating yourself a little points your knees down, which helps give you stability and allows your back to take its natural arch. Leaving your back over or under arched will cause strain over time.
On pinched nerves:
If you experience numbness while meditating, and it doesn't go away quickly, you might be pinching a nerve. (If it goes away quickly you probably just dampened your blood flow.) Pinched nerves are bad. Don’t pinch nerves.
On the benefits of meditation:
- "Some of the many benefits of meditation...come from not stirring ourselves up anymore. ...[Our daily lives] keep the mind stimulated, and the mind can be perpetually stimulated in a way where the stress is not noticed.... When we're spinning our thoughts a lot and we don't notice...it's exhausting."
This probably pretty accurate quote (I was typing quickly, okay?) resonated with me. I’m prone to having many scattered thoughts running concurrently, or at least seeming to, but the meditation has helped. I was pretty skeptical that it would, but it has. (One important caveat to note is that my life’s been pretty easy the past few months, so I’ve not really stress-tested the benefits of this meditative practice. Still, I feel more focused, calmer, etc.)
- One of the benefits of mindfulness meditation is just that you're sitting for a while and doing nothing. Some people come to meditation wanting to Get Shit Done—show me how to do it and I'll master it ASAP. That's not the point. It's not about accomplishing and doing. It's about giving yourself some time to not do.
One thing I’d add to this is you shouldn’t get the impression that meditation is a non-activity. I am surprise how often I notice my brow furrowed, or my face tightened up, while meditating, as if I'm under strain. The point here is more that it’s not the sort of thing you can attack with a checklist or a project plan.
Whatever you do, it has to work with your life. Be content with 15 minutes, if that's all you can do. If that's not doable, try ten, or five. (If you can't do five, you ought to just get into the posture, close your eyes, and then get up again—even just this is a good beginning.)
On time of day:
Consistency is nice but not critical. Whatever works for you.
I can vouch for this—I've not set a consistent time so far, and it's been fine.
It's nice to have a place just for meditation, where you have no associations with anything else.
On off-the-cushion mindfulness:
Fronsdal suggests you try to heighten your attentiveness outside meditation, in daily life. Choose an ordinary activity and try to really be present for it (so, not thinking about what is next, not reviewing what happened in the day, etc.) For example, if you're brushing your teeth, "imagine you paid $1000 for the opportunity to do it and you don't want to miss it," you want to really really savor it, really pay attention.
I've been trying to do this throughout my days, to actively note when my mind wanders and to be present. Results are mixed but I did recently focus very diligently on the cutting of a tomato.