Our personal agency—meaning, that over which we have direct control—comes into play when we can change our relationship to our thoughts and our emotions, allowing us to fine-tune our reactions to our own emotions as well as those of others. Developing the capacity to relate differently to our internal experience, first requires that we become cognizant and aware of what is unfolding in the moment. Once we become aware of our own mental phenomena (i.e. our thoughts and emotions), we can then develop the capacity not to get sucked into the vortex of that experience in an unconscious or reactionary kind of way in which we then might say or do something we later regret.
Learning to notice our own patterns of thought and emotion can be difficult, but thankfully it’s not impossible. That is where meditation or mind training comes in. The word for meditation in Tibetan “gom” literally means ‘getting used to’ or ‘familiarizing oneself with’. Getting used to what? Familiarizing ourselves with what…our own minds and how our thoughts and emotions unfold within our experience.
There are many ways to meditate and train the mind. One way that I’ve found helpful for familiarizing myself with my own patterns of thought and emotion is to sit up in a comfortable yet upright position in which my spine is straight. Instead of closing my eyes, I often leave mine open. I prefer this because it better prepares me to be able to employ these practices in day-to-day circumstances. I’m not closing myself off to sensory input, rather I’m training in circumstances that more closely resemble our waking reality.
Instead of focusing on an object, I notice and let my mind settle into its naturally awake quality, allowing myself to become aware of the quality of mind we all possess, that aspect of mind that has the capacity to perceive and be aware of whatever may come into its field of reference (either internally or through the various sensory inputs)–sometimes referred to as meta-cognition. Gently noticing my mind’s capacity to be awake, clear, and aware, I don’t intently focus on this or that. I just allow my mind to rest in a natural state of being open. I don’t have to imagine or conjur up anything in my mind’s eye, nor do I get involved with what is taking place visually in front of me or what I may hear happening around me, or even with what is unfolding within my own perception (i.e. my thoughts and emotions).
When I do get distracted by sensory inputs or by a thought or an emotion, or any movement of mind whatsoever, I gently notice this with an attitude of openness, like the experience of passing through beautiful scenery while on a train ride. We see the beautiful scenery, if only for a brief moment, and then it’s gone. Instead of getting caught up with the thought or the emotion, which is indicative that we’ve already become entangled with the thought or emotion in a conceptual kind of way, I let it pass like a cloud moving through the sky on a sunny day. Clouds don’t make a big deal about themselves. They just come and go rather unceremoniously. They might produce rain or lightening or thunder and then they are on their merry way. Like waiting on the platform for a train, we may notice the trains as they come and go, but we let them pass, knowing, ‘this isn’t my train to catch,’ and so we don’t get on.
By the time you notice you’ve been distracted, you’re already back, meaning your awareness is already poised and ready to perceive whatever unfolds next within the space of your awareness and perception. It’s like riding a well-trained horse, you don’t have to yank at the reins, you lean and the horse senses what you want it to do by the shift in your body’s weight. Our minds are like this, gentle touches are all that is needed. If you start trying to yank around your mind, scolding it each time it moves, be prepared to watch it act out.
Now, sometimes our awareness can take on the quality of a cat lying in wait, tail switching back and forth, ready to pounce on whatever comes into its path. When we notice that our awareness is lying in wait for the next thought or emotion to appear, or alternatively when we notice our minds becoming sticky (like fly paper), we give that up too, letting go of any urge we might feel to become expert noticers. Instead, try taking in a deep breath, one that’s slightly deeper than usual. Let this be a gentle reminder (like the example of leaning in and shifting your weight) giving your mind permission to ease up (on the reins). Then, as you breath out, release the urge for any mental doing. You’re only job at this moment is to be aware, allowing the mind to settle into its natural capacity to be kind, calm, and clear. The bright and crisp quality of mind is similar to the experience of taking in a breath of crisp, cold air when you first step outside on a cold winter’s day or how the mind feels after a brisk run when we collapse on the couch when we get home. For that instant, the mind clears right up and isn’t preoccupied with anything.
I find, for myself, having something that isn’t tangible, yet can still be experienced (like the awake and aware quality of my mind left untampered) versus intently focusing upon an object (whether it’s my breath or otherwise) is more helpful to me personally when it comes to being able to change my relationship to my thoughts and emotions in the moment, where the rubber meets the road, so to say. It’s easier somehow to let go, when you’re not holding on so tightly to begin with. I acknowledge, however, that this kind of practice (Open Awareness practice) doesn’t resonate with everyone. Nonetheless, I thought I would share my limited experience with this kind of practice.