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The Nuts and Bolts of our Meditation Practice

by Fleda BrownNovember 22, 2011

We had 12 people last Sunday night in our local group for our regular meditation and discussion. We spent our time talking about about the nuts and bolts  (yes, sometimes sitting makes us nuts and we want to bolt) of sitting meditation, prompted by a section of the book we’re reading, One Dharma, by Joseph Goldstein. The section is  on “Four Foundations of Mindfulness:” mindfulness of the body, mindfulness of feelings, mindfulness of the mind and mental states, and mindfulness of the Dharma (teachings). The last in Buddhist teachings has many, many subcategories. The early Buddhists loved lists!

So we talked about how, when, and where we do our sitting meditation. We agreed how important it is to have a designated space, one that reminds us that’s what it’s for. Some like to use a bell, a candle and/or incense; some have a little shrine with a statue of the Buddha as a reminder.  Some have nothing but a cushion or a chair. Some sit for 10 minutes a day, some for 30, some for an hour. Some close their eyes; some open them. Some follow their breath; some simply sit and look at whatever comes up. The main thing is discipline, regularity.

Then we turned to the question of intent. What is our intent when we sit? Almost universally, we said “To become more aware.” I thought about that later. I thought yeah, that’s the answer we know we should give, but really, REALLY what is it? Maybe it’s that we want relief from our anxiety, our fear, our anger, our personal problems. Who wants to become more aware? Then we have to be aware of stuff we’d rather not be aware of! It seems that the aspiration to become more aware may come to us slowly, over time, as we begin to see that simply SEEING the truth can change even our need to get free of all those so-called troubles.

Here’s another question from Goldstein’s chapter that we talked over: “What is the difference in your experience between being lost in thought and being aware that you’re thinking?” The answer was of course “awareness”! As soon as we’re aware we’re thinking, the thought usually either dies or is greatly decreased. This is not a goal; it’s just what usually happens. When we realize we’ve been lost, off on a tangent of daydreams, we are at that moment aware. Good.

One way I learned to be aware of my thinking when meditating is to use some mental labels—which I no longer “say” to myself, but have been helpful as a stage in my practice. It goes like this: when you clearly hear words in your head, you label that “clear.” When all you hear is a faint murmur and you can’t make out the words, you label that “subtle” thought; when the mind is quiet, you label that “gone.” As I said, this has been useful for me. After a while, it was necessary to drop all labeling—which is a separation in itself from what is—and just observe. The labels are like training wheels.

Goldstein particularly urges us to practice awareness in our speech—to notice the intention to speak before the words come out—to allow that gap so we can bring to bear the wisdom of skillful speech. We can choose what to say, not just blurt it out.

All instructions, in Goldstein’s words, are to help us “apply the perspective of bare attention to whatever experience arises. ‘Bare’ means simple, direct, noninterfering, and non-judging. ‘Attention’ refers to mindfulness, awareness, not forgetting. . . Alert and relaxed, we’re not looking for any experience in particular; we are simply awake to what presents itself. Observing in this way opens up worlds we may never have noticed.”

Again in his words, what there is to notice is that the empty, open, vividly clear nature of awareness is not altered by what appears. This is huge. When we see this, wow. We’re no longer caught. We’re free. But we have to see it, not just read about it. That takes all our many hours on the cushion.

We’ll finish Chapter 7 next week. It’s great to have those of you who read this following along with our sangha. If you want to get in on our discussion, ask questions we might want to bring up in our local group, please do so. We’re all beginners, no matter how many years we’ve practiced. We can help each other. We’d be happy to hear from you.


Poet and writer Fleda Brown reflects on the gatherings of her weekly meditation group, speaking to you as one who has long practiced meditation but still comes to the practice with a learner’s mind.

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