The importance of cultivating ease in meditation practice.
“How are you?” “Busy.”
This common greeting of contemporary city life reflects the value we put on being busy. Writing from Bali, with its strolling pace, the immense pressures we metropolis dwellers place on our selves and our lives appears nothing less than crazy. I often wonder when I am in quieter parts of the world, what compels us to live at such a breakneck speed, how have we come to forsake the very essence of life, presence, to live barely touching the ground of the present moment even for a minute? We are so uncomfortable with simply being, we have to be busy.
In the long run, the plague of busy creates chronic tension, we forget how to relax, let go, and how to create space within ourselves and our lives. Most people who come to learn mindfulness are in many ways coming to learn how to become soft again. How to let go of the tightness and tension that has accumulated over years of being “busy”.
Learning how to melt is the ultimate challenge for most city folk, and it is essential to any sustainable meditation practice.
Physical self-awareness is the first step in releasing chronic tension, allow attention to fill the somatic field, rather than being stuck in the domain of thoughts, we can begin to notice the ways we brace and slowly untie the little knots, soften, and perhaps even melt a little bit. This is primarily a practice of non-grasping, one of the fundamental contemplative teachings. It’s important to note that tension is normal, it’s not wrong or bad, in fact, it is somewhat inevitable given the pressures of daily life. Here is some practical advice on how to bring some ease into daily practice.
On the breath:
Breathing is the most natural thing in the world, yet it is common to experience tension while holding the breath in awareness. Creating ease in the body begins by handing over the responsibility of breathing to the body. Trusting that the body knows best how to breath. You can lift the sternum ever so slightly to create space for the diaphragm, and let the belly become soft so that the breath can move freely into and out of the body. Experiment with where you place the attention when breathing, for some attending to a single location will give rise to more tightness, you might try experiencing the breath across the whole body instead, aware of the duration, depth and rhythm.
On the body:
It’s beneficial to spend the first minutes of any practice settling into a state of ease, taking sufficient time to allow yourself to work through the body, and release tightness to the best of your ability. Find a way to sit that is as comfortable as possible; on a chair, the floor or a cushion. Use any props that support sitting with relative ease. In the case of chronic tension, explore the supine position. Regardless of your chosen position, continually release tension, remember this is a practice, you may not be accustomed to relaxing while paying attention, therefore it may help to periodically scan through our body limbering up as needed.
We often correlate focus with contraction. Yet it is possible to learn to pay attention in a light and spacious way, and doing so will be one of the most supportive things you can do for your practice. Allowing attention to rest on your chosen object, like a butterfly rests on a flower, light, yet intentional and precise. You might begin by arousing attention on the inhalation and letting everything soften on the exhalation, modulating between gathering attention and letting go of physical tightness, as well as thoughts and impressions.
On the mind:
When settling the space of the mind, it can be helpful to intentionally set out time to practice. This time is devoted to formal practice, and therefore it is time that we purposely pause from our usual habits of excessive problem-solving. We have to develop the skill of letting be/go, not getting caught up in our own self-referential rhetoric, when we are able to loosen our grip on fears, hopes and regrets, just for the duration of our meditation session, we have a chance to be mindfully present for the vast array of tactile sensations, the breath or whatever else our chosen object is. We may even say to ourselves “I am awake, I am aware, I am practising meditation”. If we are able to create some space around a thought, it will naturally dissolve back into the space of the mind, so our non-grasping comes into play once again.
Learning how to melt is also learning how to see our practice as a luxury rather than a chore, to delight in presence itself and to attend with patience and kindness to ourselves and our experience, whatever it may be. It may not come easily in the beginning, but I assure you that softness can be cultivated and for most of us it is the essential first step toward a long love affair with contemplative practice.