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We will begin by relaxing and opening the body and breath. This is a very effective practice for de-stressing, and unwinding tension in body, heart and mind. Usually someone teaching meditation would just suggest for a practitioner to pay attention to the breath. This is a very effective practice. But rather than just give an instruction like that I want to explore the theory behind the practice. So before we go very far let’s consider what this is affecting and why.
Knowing a little more about what works and why will help with later improvisations we will need to perform ourselves. I won’t go too deep into why improvisation is a necessary skill and attitude for us to apply. Basically the goal of meditation is not to be totally relaxed, but to be appropriately attentive. Which is to say rather than being passive we need to be sensitive and adaptive; we need to listen and respond; we need to improvise. Meditation, we could say, is an inner art form performed for an audience of one.
Changing the shape of the body is applied dependent origination, for the nature and feeling of body and the nature and feeling of mind dependently arise. Not only is body dependently originated by external phenomena; like the food we consume and the environment we live in, but the way it is experienced is specifically shaped by the state of mind. The way the body feels is not separable from the mind that reveals it. Interestingly, and soon to be put to use, this works both ways; the mind reflects the body and the body represents the mind.
Calmness in the mind doesn’t easily come in a stressed out body. Have you ever seen someone walking by with a little spring in their step and their body loose and moving freely? Did you think “What’s bothering them?” Probably not. If another person is rushing by, shoulders hunched, brow furrowed, jaw and belly tight, would you think “They are free as a bird”? We can’t say for sure whether their body started the tension or if their mind provoked it. But we can certainly change the shape and our sense of our body in this next moment, and as mind and body are dependent on each other both will begin to change.
So in meditation we cultivate calmness in the mind by relaxing the body, and this can be emphasised by opening and lengthening the breath. When you feel you have 10 or 20 minutes to set aside, try the following practice.
Before we start make a commitment to yourself to try this fully; really make sure you don’t need to stop early. Take a moment to assure yourself that you have the time. Without doing this you're less prepared for the inevitable allure of doing something else. The mind will habitually suggest stopping midway through a meditation. It is so easy to forget your intention to see it through. If we embed our initial enthusiasm for a few seconds, we stand more of a chance against a seemingly convincing suggestion to do something else when it suddenly arises.
The mind is habituated to movement, and seems to love it and live for it. Yet there are amazing experiences to be had in stillness. Being still builds on being still; generally speaking the longer you go the deeper the experience. For now start with something doable, and build up to longer durations as the enthusiasm grows. But no matter how long you commit to, try to see it all the way through without moving too much.
You're going to get better at anything you practice doing. So I would suggest it is better to do a smaller timeframe in which you can actually practice being present, rather than attempting a longer practice but spend a lot of it passing the minutes escaping from reality and daydreaming. Quality (presence and spaciousness) is much more important than quantity (duration and frequency) for meditation. Yet doing this often and for longer is going to be really helpful in the long run for developing beneficial traits.
Sit comfortably on a chair, have your feet well placed on the floor. For extra comfort and stability, have your hips higher than your knees. You may need a cushion under you to achieve this. To help open the chest and belly, which really feels nice compared to being hunched over, add a bit more height to the back of the chair. Maybe a rolled shawl, throw, or pullover just under the buttocks will help the hips roll forward, which opens the belly and pushes out the chest a little. To counter-balance this movement bring the chin in and the head up and away from the body; feel the erect strength in the spine. Having the alignment right, means we can now relax all the muscles in the body; and ease all the obvious and subtle tensions we are holding.
If you’re guiding yourself through this meditation you can have your eyes closed or open. If you enjoy the extra quiet of having them closed, then obviously you’ll need to open your eyes sometimes to read. Either way my suggestion is read a whole paragraph then practice that for some minutes. Then read the next paragraph, I’ve divided the meditation into sections in this way. Try to enact the suggestions as you read them, then keep applying them in the time until you read the next paragraph.
If it feels supportive set a timer, then put it aside, you can have it in sight if you like. Breathe deeply and calmly. While keeping the posture upright relax the shoulders; let them hang down. Soften the jaw and forehead. Let the belly expand and feel free to take up as much space as it needs. Relax the eyes and around the eyes.
Feel how the inner environment is changing. The sense of the body is not a fixed independent thing. There are no fixed independent things; that’s the whole point of dependent origination. Within the body’s physical shape some can perceive an energetic quality. This might be felt as light or vibration, or some other modality of energy. This can be used in mediation as an accurate indicator of deeper tensions. If you don’t resonate with this don’t worry it isn’t essential, opening the physicality is enough at this point.
The mind too is relaxing. Maybe there is a subtle sense of less tension. Perhaps the gaps between thoughts is increasing. Or the intensity of the thoughts demands are lessening. Enjoy this, feel it fully but keep mindful of breathing long, don’t get swallowed up in the habit of thinking about experience.
Return to the breath, in a vey relaxed way see if you can allow the breath to come more fully into the body. Filling the chest. Expanding the belly. Keep relaxing the forehead, jaw, shoulders and belly. Habitually they will tighten again and again, our goal for this session is just to return to the breath, and relax the body.
Each time you notice a sticky thought has lodged in the mind, simply notice it, don’t reject it or grasp onto it, but return to a long breath, and relax and open the body. If the thought remains that is fine, if it goes that is fine. As long as the breath is long and body is relaxed you’re doing the meditation beautifully.
The mind likes movement. You may notice that the mind stays quite focussed on the moving in breath or out breath, but often wanders when the breath is still when its all the way in, or all the way out. Try adjusting the 'volume' or subtle concentration of the attention through a whole breath. Have the attention soft as the breath comes in, but turn up the 'volume' of attention once the breath is all the way in. You can encourage this by really seeing where you feel the breath, or more intimately feeling the subtlest beginnings of the out breath starting. When the breath is clearly moving again, ease off the intensity and be with the out breath in a more relaxed way. Once the breath is out all the way, increase the 'volume' again. Try to increase the attention without increasing any physical or mental tension. It's more about enthusiasm and interest than intensity.
Let go of an anatomical or biological idea of the breath; forget about air waves and lungs. Gently encourage the in breath to come down the arms all the way down to the finger tips, and all the way down to the feet, and to flow out through the top of the head.
How does that feel? There is real value in tasting each change. This is less like a recipe to be repeated, and more like an experiment to be tested. What could be an even more comfortable or fulfilling way of breathing? Whatever comes to mind try it. Give it a few breaths then see how that way is changing things? Keep experimenting, innovating, and improvising.
In your own time come back to the physical space (room or nature) you’re in, and the life you’re living. Open your eyes and look around while trying to keep any openness and softness you’ve cultivated present as you transition into daily life.
We’ve been playing with a specific dependent origination: ‘Dukkha’ - discomfort and stress in the experience is caused by ‘tanha’ - pushing away, or pulling in, the passing phenomena. Both of these are expressed as contraction in the mind and body both physically and energetically as tension and tightness. Breathing long with a relaxed body softens tension and opens tightness, which resolves ‘dukkha’ and eases ‘tanha’. We are immediately and effectively removing the requisite conditions for stress, and cultivating the requisite conditions for ease, contentment, and wellbeing. Over time practicing in this way can be life changing.
Written by Nathan Glyde