I was thinking today, three-quarters through my year of daily sitting, about skills that I have developed so far.
It took about three months for me to be able to sit for 30 minutes without spending a good chunk of that time being aware of some pain somewhere in my body. Usually it wasn’t major pain, though, but sometimes the pain seemed to accumulate during a session, and right before the timer would go off, I’d start feeling like I couldn’t stand it any more.
That probably doesn’t count as a real skill. It’s more like acclimating the body to the practice. It felt like grace when the pain (mostly) went away.
Most of the pain was around my sacrum and left sacroiliac joint, where I’ve had injury. Whatever. Do not let this stop you from meditating. You will not experience pain like I did. Yours will be different. And you will learn from it. Unjudged, pain is sensation, pure and simple.
It also takes core strength to be able to keep my spine erect for 30 minutes while unsupported. I had this ability before I started sitting, developed from both yoga and sitting on an exercise ball with my back unsupported at my job.
If you’re thinking of starting a sitting practice, it’s a good idea to work on your core strength.
Another skill for physically sitting is knowing that your knees should be lower than your pelvis. I have used a round zafu, a crescent zafu, folded yoga blankets, and a yoga bolster to create this posture.
The physical skills of a sitting practice are far easier to describe than the awareness skills.
I’ve posted quite a bit about how I’ve been given the instruction “whole body awareness” by my Zen meditation teacher, and my various explorations of how to do that. It’s been a koan — something you try to “figure out” but can’t, and meanwhile you pay of attention to your actual experience.
One of the things I’m recognizing now is that being able to shift between what’s in the foreground of my attention (hearing a siren outside) to what’s in the background (hearing everything I can hear — the siren, traffic sounds, a helicopter, birds, squirrels, conversations, my refrigerator, my breathing, my cat purring, my tinnitus) is a skill developed in meditation.
Hearing everything I hear without labeling it: another skill to practice. Let it all in and be unnamed!
To further develop meditation skill, you can take that ability to move from narrow to wide from one sense (hearing) and include another sense, such as touch.
Expand to include your other senses: what you see (even with your eyes closed, unless you are sitting in pitch darkness, some light comes through your closed eyelids, smell, and taste.
Include your thoughts and your emotional state.
Let your senses blend with each other. Let them merge. Keep moving between the foreground and background, from narrow to broad awareness.
Another skill of meditation has to do with size or location, perspective or point of view. This is the hardest thing for me to write about right now, because I’m exploring a new edge of my sitting experience.
When I first started trying to become aware of my whole body after months of my attention being drawn to body parts that either hurt or felt good, I had to learn how to “back off”.
To become aware of my whole body, I had to somehow enlarge my awareness.
Now, that’s not something you hear often. “Hey, you, enlarge your awareness!”
At first I though this meant taking in less detail to get a bigger “picture”. It’s not that the detail goes away. I can zoom back in, so to speak. And it’s not visual, and not like a camera. Those are metaphors.
Here lately, I have experienced backing off even further, to where I experience whole awareness — aware of my body as an just another artifact of my nervous system, not really “my body”. Meanwhile, my nervous system is taking in everything.
There is not a clear way for me to tell you how to “back off” in meditation. It’s like I stumbled upon it by accident, and at this point, I don’t quite know what I did, but I do know that I experienced an interesting shift.
Maybe by the end of this year, I can be more clear. I appreciate you readers who bear with me in this exploration. I think we are getting some nuggets out of it.
And when you can let all of your awareness of the background become the foreg