In our busy lives in this complex and often confusing world, what practical steps can we take to train our minds?
The first step is to establish a regular, daily meditation practice. This takes discipline. It’s not always easy to set aside time each day for meditation; so many other things call to us. But as with any training, if we practice regularly we begin to enjoy the fruits. Of course, not every sitting will be concentrated. Sometimes we’ll be feeling bored or restless. These are the inevitable ups and downs of practice. It’s the commitment and regularity of practice that is important, not how any one sitting feels.
This training will only happen through your own effort. No one can do it for you. There are many meditation techniques and traditions, and you can find the one most suitable for you. But regularity of practice is what effects a transformation. If we do it, it begins to happen; if we don’t do it, we continue acting out the various patterns of our conditioning.
The second step is to train ourselves in staying mindful and aware of the body throughout the day. As we go through our daily activities, we frequently get lost in thoughts of past and future, not staying grounded in the awareness of our bodies.
For simple, useful feedback when we’re lost in thought, we can use the very common feeling of rushing. Rushing is a feeling of toppling forward. Our minds run ahead of us, focusing on where we want to go, instead of settling into our bodies where we are.
Learn to pay attention to this feeling of rushing-which does not particularly have to do with how fast we are going. We can feel rushed while moving slowly, and we can be moving quickly and still be settled in our bodies.
The feeling of rushing simply reminds us that we’re not present. If you can, notice what thought or emotion has captured the attention. Then, just for a moment, stop and settle back into the body: feel the foot on the ground, feel the next step.
The Buddha made a very powerful statement about this practice: “Mindfulness of the body leads to nirvana.” This is not a superficial practice. Mindfulness of body keeps us present-and therefore, we know what’s going on. The practice is difficult to remember, but not difficult to do. It’s all in the training: sitting regularly and being mindful of the body during the day.
To develop deeper concentration and mindfulness, to be more present in our bodies, and to have a skillful relationship with thoughts and emotions, we need not only daily training, but also time for retreat. It’s very helpful, at times, to disengage from the busyness of our lives, for intensive spiritual practice.
Retreat time is not a luxury. If we are genuinely and deeply committed to awakening, to freedom-to whatever words express the highest value you hold-a retreat is an essential part of the path.
We need to create a rhythm in our lives, establishing a balance between times when we are engaged, active, and relating in the world and times when we turn inward. Pascal, the French philosopher and mathematician, very aptly noted, “Most of the problems in the world would be solved if people spent time sitting quietly in their room.”
At first this “going inside” could be for a day, a weekend, or for ten days. At our meditation center we offer a three-month retreat every year; and at the new Forest Refuge, people have come for as long as a year. In the Tibetan tradition, there are three-year retreats. We can do whatever feels appropriate and possible to find some balanced rhythm between our lives in the world and the inner silence of a retreat. In this way we develop concentration and mindfulness on deeper and deeper levels, which then makes it possible to be in the world in a more loving and compassionate way.
Excerpted from “A Heart Full of Peace,” by Joseph Goldstein