I’m listening to Gil Fronsdal’s five Introduction to Mindfulness Meditation podcasts, which were recommended to me as good listening for novice meditators. My last post was about Week 1, which focuses on posture and breath. This post’s about Week 2, focusing on “The Body”.
Unfortunately, most of Fronsdal’s comments on the importance of body-mindfulness didn’t click for me. Maybe they will for you, but for me, it all felt mostly like generic common sense, i.e., being aware of your body is, y’know, a good thing.
That said, the episode is bookended with fat Q&A sessions that follow-up on the first episode and review new topics, and I suspect it'll be interesting to novice meditators. The notes below are the things that most stuck out to me, or that I felt were most useful for me to remember, but there’s a lot more in the episode itself.
Notes and Takeaways
On direct experience vs. commentary:
Fronsdal has an anecdote explaining the “voice in the head” that mindfulness folks often talk about, clarifying both what it is and why it’s important to be mindful of it. It’s worth a listen, but I want to remember it well so I’ll recap it here:
Fronsdal recalls once watching a football game with a bunch of meditation teachers. At some point, someone muted the TV, and Fronsdal noticed how different the game felt watching it without the commentary. With the sound off, he observed the game dispassionately, thinking something like, “isn’t that nice, that man kicked the ball, now he’s running, oh look, he seems happy now, oh no, he got hit,” and so on. When the sound was turned back on, the mood changed. The commentary from the announcers was constant and compelling. Suddenly, tackles were disasters and goals were triumphs. Suddenly, this was emotional, it mattered. That’s the commentary’s job and it’s part of the entertainment: it gets people involved, it winds them up.
“The game and the commentary were two different things,” Fronsdal says, "but in my mind, I tended to conflate them and not see them as separate.” That is, the game itself wasn’t emotional for him but the commentary pulled him in and made it emotional. It made it seem as if the game itself was mattering to him.
The same thing happens with people, he says. We have a commentator inside our head that runs incessantly. “We make lots of commentary about our experience, and we then confuse the experience and the commentary…. And the mood of the commentary affects our experience of what’s happening."
"The idea of meditation is to, as best we can, maybe we can’t stop the commentary, but we want to not be confusing the two... You want to be able to start separating out... the commentary you have from the direct experience you’re having… [because] a good percentage of your commentary is not particularly wise or useful."
“One of the things that helps us to separate [the commentary from the direct experience] is to keep coming back to the immediacy of our physical experience.” That’s what you do in meditation, and it aims to help you do it more in the day-to-day.
On setting expectations, and noting the benefits over time:
A woman in the audience mentions she had a very good early meditation experience after the first class. Fronsdal says that’s great, but warns her not to set up the expectation that this is now what will consistently happen with every meditation. Setting that expectation can lead to disappointment, or the feeling you’re doing it wrong. Rather, he says, "take it as that you were quite fortunate, and that you know of a possibility, and it’s probably easier that you have that as a guiding star, as something you can work towards over time."
“We have a tendency to measure things by what’s visible, like, ‘have I reached calm yet?? I have a lot of things to do, so, y’know, I have five minutes to get calm!’” That’s not how it works. The benefits of mindfulness happen imperceptibly.
Fronsdal suggests one way to notice the change in you is to meditate for six months daily, then stop for a week. I put a reminder in my calendar to try this when I hit month six.
“Nothing is a distraction. It’s just something else to pay attention to.”
Fronsdal says if you’re meditating and you hear a neighbor’s dog barking, don't consider it a distraction, just let the barking be the subject of your focus and do a listening meditation, and hear it as long as it’s compelling. He returns to this idea several times during the class, expanding on it in different ways.
I found this confusing, because I thought the point of a meditation’s extreme focus on one thing (e.g. breathing) is to build up your focus as a habit, whereas jumping from one point of focus to another seems to be the opposite of that. On the other hand, another point of meditation is to train yourself to better be present, and to that end I understand Fronsdal on this.
Not sure at the moment how the two ideas square, but it’s not an impediment to meditating.
On keeping it simple:
“Keep it really simple… don’t get involved, don’t think stories.”
If you listen to this podcast and have your own takeaways, or if you have any comments on or corrections to note about what I've said above, feel free to leave a comment.