Saturday, 12 August 2017

Meditation and the Agitated Mind

An agitated mind can be an unpleasant or even painful thing. There is constant activity, movement, as images, thoughts and feelings race through our awareness uncontrollably. Along with all this activity comes an unsettling feeling. It can be as if we were in the company of a rather unpleasant stranger who just won't leave us alone. The feeling that we are not in control, that we can't just shut off the mental activity can make us feel helpless. This helplessness is a source of stress and anxiety. In desperation we might turn to various distractions, but mostly they make things worse. What to do?

If you have tried meditation you might have had some early 'success'. By which I mean finding some relief from the mental torrents. It is common for this early success to be short lived and followed by a period of frustration. I recently met a woman who described this exact scenario. To be honest it reminded me of my own early experience: Meditations full of ease and clarity, the breath - "delicious", was how this woman put it, but then the difficulties set in.

This pattern can be explained in various ways. It is a complex issue relating to expectations and wanting to repeat past experiences while not wanting to face present experience. It is about integrating those parts of the mind that are easy to integrate and moving on to work on the more reluctant parts. However there is hope, the fruits of practice are there for everyone to experience with the application of a skillful effort. On one level it is simply a matter of time on the cushion. It is also a matter of looking at lifestyle, of judging whether there are too many forces of disintegration in one's life. But it is also a matter of learning meditation skills: being able to set up the conditions for the mind to settle. Principal among these conditions are relaxation, non-wilful effort, self love, acceptance of our present state, a willingness and courage to turn towards the uncomfortable, patience and a trust in the process of the unfolding mind.

There are many practices that help in the calming or soothing of the mind. One that I find particularly good is a very simple practice using the breath. It is simple in the sense that there isn't a great deal of structure or form to the practice. There is no elaborate visualization, no progression through various complex stages. There is just a simple pattern to follow:

Start by settling into your posture, be sure not to be in a hurry to start. Take your time and allow the body to find a comfortable relaxed posture, but one that is also upright and poised. Take note of your surroundings, the sounds, smells etc that locate you in a particular place. Then just sit, with eyes closed, and notice how things are with your mind. Notice the content of the mind. There are thoughts, feelings and emotions. There are images and memories. All the activity of the mind that I mentioned above - just notice it without judgement. Sit with that for a while. You will probably be swept off into day dreams from time to time. Don't worry about that. After a short while you might be able to sense the agitation itself that is producing all this activity. It is a kind of energy or pulse, a restlessness, an agitation. There is this vibration behind the individual dreams, thoughts or feelings. It is there, as it were, in the background permeating our mind and generating all this activity. Let this sense of agitation come into greater clarity and make this the object of the meditation. With a loving awareness we hold this felt sense of agitation in view and we use the breath to soothe it. Imagine the breath flowing into that agitation. On the out breath we can encourage a softening, a calming down.

This process goes on for as long as you like. The longer the better. But it is important to take each breath as it comes and not to think ahead. It is no good either just having an idea of the agitation - we need to settle around the actual felt sense of the agitation in the mind or heart. As we do this it is also helpful to allow self-compassion to inform the experience. As we dwell on the agitation we notice much more directly that it is a form of suffering and compassion for ourselves can arise spontaneously. This is a great help. It motivates us and comforts us.

In such formless practices our intention is crucial. In this case the intention is to sooth the mind, to calm the agitation, and to relax. Having this intention is like giving ourselves permission. Or it is like being invited to live in a different way, to inhabit a different mode of being. And the intention is enough. The intention fuels the practice, gives it direction. All we have to do is allow the intention naturally to inform our effort. This will happen as long as we don't try to force something to happen.

This practice is a direct route to calming the mind by having as its object the very experience of an agitated mind. We don't get bogged down in the particular content of the mind but instead focus on the quality of our awareness itself. We can think of this as like a texture, or flavour or colour. For me an agitated mind has a spiky texture, a jagged texture. It is sharp and pulsing, energetic. Sensing this directly and dwelling on it with love and the soothing, compassionate, flow of the breath, will help you dial down the agitation and experience greater peace. This is a strategy without side effects that can be relied upon.

In the coming term of drop-in classes in Edinburgh I am intending to lead this practice most evenings. In previous terms I have gone for a variety of different techniques to show the breadth of meditation possibilities. But I this coming term I am going instead for consistency and depth. If you return week after week we will practice this meditation and develop some skill with it. Hopefully in that way the fruits of the practice will ripen more readily.