The Way of Freedom Week 2 Q&A

Ken McLeod, George Draffan, and Claudia Hansson

Visit the "The Way of Freedom" retreat here.

Sometimes in meditation my "thinking" becomes a kind of rehearsing of teaching or delivering a discourse on a Dharma topic. (I am a fledgling Dharma teacher). Sometimes I have the feeling that this rehearsing is not what my meditation should be (HA!) and I stop the experience by bringing attention to experiencing breath. At other times I pay attention (like taking good notes) until the lecture ends on its own (thinking that this is a "transmission"). Or 'performance anxiety'?  Either way I feel some discomfort. You mentioned today a 5-step process that allows one to be at peace with your experience 'as it is'. Can you share that process with me?

Ken responds: Yes, it is easy to be distracted by an anticipated talk or teaching. Thoughts are thoughts, whatever their content. Thus, when we meditate, we meditate. At another time, yes, then it's good to let ourselves become quiet and think through or rehearse what we are going to way and how we are going to say it. But our meditation time is precious, so, when we meditate, we meditate. A story is told of Theresa of Avila, one of the great Spanish mystics. A couple of nuns discovered her in the convent's refectory sitting at a table eating two cooked chickens at the same time. "What about the sin of gluttony?" they asked. Theresa glared at them, "When I eat, I eat. When I pray, I pray."

As for the five-step process for working with difficult feelings or experiences, you can find an outline on Unfettered Mind's website. A full explanation is also available here.

George responds:  In general, recurring discomfort is a fundamental aspect of the reality of human experience. The insight of the Buddha was that much of our suffering is compounded by trying to make things other than they are: ever-changing, uncontrollable, dependent on innumerable uncontrollable causes and conditions. When we stop and open to how things actually are, in the moment, we interrupt the usual habitual reactivity that tries to control our experience of the world. Eventually, slowly, over time, with awareness and growing discernment, the habit of struggling against reality begins to unravel. Discomfort still arises, depending on conditions -- for example, encountering what we don't want, not getting what we do want, illness, old age, etc. But we don't compound the stress and suffering by struggling with what is. The five-step mindfulness practice (a.k.a. seeing from the inside) is here.

During meditation practice sessions, returning to the body is a reliable way to ground attention, so that we less likely to be carried away by thoughts and feelings; this is why the body is the first foundation of mindfulness.

When teaching, I remind myself again and again not to try to present something I don't actually know from experience. I clarifying what I'm trying to convey to my audience: What experience do I want them to know or recognize? What practice or skill am I trying to teach? I reflect and prepare well what I'm going to say, but when the time to teach arrives, I set my ideas and notes aside (other than a very short list of topics to keep me on track). Coming back to the body, I recall the experience or insight I intend to convey, and then let it be expressed. And I stay connected with my audience, so that I don't start running on my own reactions or ideas.

Claudia responds: I have found in my own experience that what you're describing can be a huge distraction. We are really attracted to this information and thus want to attend to it. Distraction is distraction during meditation and returning to the body is the best way of cutting this. There is another important aspect here.  While some planning is very important for teaching especially a general outline and setting of intention. The exact word for word details are not very useful.  I have found the most effective way to teach is to deeply drop into presence, open and let things arise in the moment.

Thank you so much for this teaching. It's an amazing experience. I am beginner, so please forgive the basic nature of my question! How do I think without adding another layer of thought on top of that? What can I do to observe my thoughts without thinking? The thoughts just multiply. A woman in the session asked a similar question but she seemed more ok with it than me. I did respond to what you said about once we're in the mind we've left the body but I still can't from the mind back to the body. When mind looks at mind, the flow of thinking stops—there's nothing there? When I look right at an emotion, or a feeling—I feel a floating for a second (is that good? Is that anything?) then I'm thinking again. Thank you.

Ken responds: Yes, when you look at an emotion, you feel a floating for a second, but then the thoughts come up again. That's right. That's what happens. Now you do this over and over again, but as soon as you feel the floating, just rest. Don't try to do anything more. When the thoughts start up again, then stop. Look around for a moment or two. Then look again, and rest. Gradually, you will be able to rest in the looking.

Alternatively, and it's good to alternate, just rest in the experience of breathing. When you notice thoughts, don't block them. Just return to the physical experience of breathing, over and over again. Bit by bit, you will rest in the breathing and then you may find it easier to look at emotions. In this way, you learn to look in the resting.

These two ways will gradually come together: look in the resting, rest in the looking. When I say gradually, I mean gradually. Don't look for results in a few days or a few weeks. We are learning to experience things a different way and it takes time, months sometimes, but usually years.

George responds: Sensations, feelings, thoughts and emotions, behaviors -- they do multiply. This is a great insight, one worth reflecting deeply upon, and worth looking into again and again, in every aspect of life. What happens on the cushion is just a slow-motion view of what's happening all the time as we go through daily life.

Certain kinds of concentration and energy practices are designed to slow and even stop the thinking process, but they are special practices more suited to monastic or retreat life. For most of us, with active lives in the world, a simpler, more reliable method is to rest in the breathing body, returning again and again and just resting in the sensations movements of breathing. In some sessions you'll notice that thinking does slow down, or at least become lighter and less insistent. In other sessions, the monkey mind just keeps swinging. Never mind -- don't try to do anything with the thoughts or feelings, just return to the breathing body and rest, again and again.

Consistent daily practice over many months will definitely bring more stable attention, and along with it a more grounded mind and calm heart. In part, it's a physiological process of retraining the nervous system and balancing the hormonal systems, and that takes time. But it does happen.

Claudia responds: When you notice you are engaged in thinking move your attention back to where you most experience breathing in the body—usually the belly. If trying to open to thoughts arising seems to always knock you out of attention, I recommend just focusing on opening to the body for an extended time.  When your ability to rest with the sensory sensations arising in the body is more stable, then move to the additional steps of opening to feelings and thoughts.  This may vary from day to day.  One day you may have good stability and be able to open to feelings and thoughts and the next day you may be quite distracted and have to stay with just the body.  This is all normal.  Your capacity will increase with consistent practice.

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