An Excerpt from From Mindfulness to Insight
Sit on a cushion in a kneeling or cross-legged position, or on a chair with the back self-supporting; lengthen the spine, with a natural curve in the lower back, and relax the shoulders so that the chest opens; open the eyes slightly with a soft downward gaze, or close them; relax the jaw and ensure that the back of the neck is in line with the spine; let the hands rest on the lap or on the knees. Embody an attitude of being alert and at ease.
Intention and Motivation
Form the intention to practice mindfulness—knowing what is happening while it is happening with an attitude of acceptance of whatever arises—and then connect with your motivation: why you—as an individual—want to do this.
For a few minutes, breathe slightly deeper than normal and count as you breathe; regulate your breathing so that if you breathe in to a count of three or four, you breathe out to a similar count. If thoughts arise, that is OK; just notice them and return to the breathing and counting, without becoming involved with them. Toward the end of the settling phase, focus a little more on the out-breath, noticing how the body relaxes a little as you breathe out and seeing if the mind can learn from the body: the body releases breath and relaxes, the mind releases involvement with thinking and begins to settle.
Now let your breathing fall back to its normal rhythm and bring your attention more fully into the body. Become aware of the contact and pressure where the body rests, and notice how the ground supports the body. Now gently open up and tune into the sensations in the body, allowing the sensations to reveal themselves. You may become aware of feeling warm or cold; perhaps you are experiencing a slight pain in the right shoulder or a feeling of tension in one or both knees; maybe there is a contraction in the stomach related to an emotion you are feeling. Let the awareness of sensation hold you in the present moment.
Now become aware of the body as a whole: mind resting in the body, body resting on the ground. Then become aware of the space around you, noticing how the body exists in space and is surrounded by it. Keeping your eyes open and in a relaxed, almost casual way, allow yourself to experience whatever comes to you through your senses; but don’t actively look at or listen for anything. You are simply with your experience as it presents itself—sensations, thoughts, emotions, visual impressions, and sounds. When you notice that the mind drifts away and becomes involved with thoughts, which is likely to happen quite soon, move on to the next stage.
Place your attention lightly on the natural rhythm of your breathing and tune into it, wherever you find it most easily in the body: this could be the breath coming and going through the nostrils, the abdomen rising and falling, the sensation of the breath leaving the body, or the feeling of the whole body breathing. It does not matter where you rest your attention, what is important is to have a light touch—not shutting out thoughts and emotions but allowing them to come and go. Breathing in, be aware that you are breathing in; breathing out, know that you are breathing out. The breath is like an anchor holding your attention in the present. When you find that your attention has drifted off into thinking, simply notice this and return it to the breath—no sense of succeeding or failing, just noticing and returning. When you feel confident in using the breath support, you can experiment with letting go of the support and just resting. In this way, you can try alternating between using the breath support and resting, and notice how this feels.
If a difficult issue, emotion, or mind state arises while you are resting on the breath support, then you can use the RAIN method. You recognize what the presenting issue or emotion is and, where possible, name it (step 1). You then actively welcome the issue or emotion and allow it to be present (step 2). Now you return your attention to the breath support but with awareness that the issue or emotion is still present. If you find that it persistently draws your attention, then switch your focus to the issue or emotion and make it the support for your mindfulness practice by paying intimate attention to it in a particular way (step 3). First, bring your attention to where the emotion or difficulty is held within the body; notice what kind of sensations you are experiencing in this part of the body—maybe there is a tightness, contraction, heat, vibration, and so forth. Notice if you are resisting these sensations and what happens if you open up to them with mindfulness and acceptance. Next, bring your attention to the emotions and feelings connected with the experience. Notice what the primary feeling tone is and then observe what layers of feeling make up the experience. You may notice that the presenting emotion is not just one feeling but a constellation of feelings. Try to meet them all with mindfulness and acceptance. Next, notice what kind of thoughts or beliefs emanate from the issue or emotion. Take a step back and look at these thoughts: Are they true or one-sided? Are they permanent or changing moment-by-moment? Then notice how you are relating to your experience. Are you taking the issue or emotion to be solid and real? Are you seeing it as permanent? And, are you identifying with it as who you are? This leads to the last stage of RAIN (step 4) in which you inquire of the issue or emotion—is this really who I am or is this just an experience that is moving through me? This process of questioning encourages nonidentification, helping you see the bigger picture and not take things so personally. Then, bring your awareness back to your experience as a whole: mind resting in the body, body resting on the ground, with a light focus on your breathing.
Once you come to the end of your designated practice session, spend a few moments resting without any focus. And then, as a way of concluding the practice session, reaffirm your intention and motivation by framing something in your own words like this: “I intend to carry the practice of mindfulness into my daily life, with the motivation of sharing this benefit with others and the wider world.” Then you can stretch the body and slowly get up and see if you can carry the awareness of this sitting session into the next moments of your day.
Choden (Sean McGovern) is a monk within the Karma Kagyu tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. He is a director and cofounder of the Mindfulness Association and develops and teaches secular mindfulness, compassion, and insight programs. He cowrote with Paul Gilbert Mindful Compassion (2014), which explores the interface between Buddhist and evolutionary approaches to compassion.
Heather Regan-Addis is a practicing Buddhist within the Karma Kagyu tradition and a director and cofounder of the Mindfulness Association. She teaches mindfulness, compassion, and insight courses and leads the team that developed and delivers the 8-week Mindfulness-Based Living Course (MBLC) and Compassion-Based Living Course (CBLC).