The Art of Transformation Part 2: Looking Deeply

Welcome to Part 2 of the 5 part mini-training series "The Art of Transformation: Using Meditation to Heal your Mind and Change Your Life". 

In the last article, I listed the 4 stages of transformation and discussed how healing your mind is the critical first step towards changing your life with meditation. Many people (myself included) first come to meditation in the hopes of healing symptoms of an unhealthy mind (overwhelming thoughts, turbulent emotions, constant stress, etc). If you missed that article, take a moment to read it now <<here>>. It's foundational work before you go any further on this journey towards transformation. 

Some meditators are content with the peace and relaxation they experience once they begin to heal their mind with even a little bit of the "concentration meditation" technique we discussed in the last article. And that's totally fine. As you keep up the practice, you'll likely notice more ease and flow in your life. You may even find that issues, which have felt out of alignment for awhile, slowly begin to shift on their own.

For those that want to more actively address situations that don't shift naturally, you'll need to take your "concentration practice" a step further. If this is you, keep reading as we now dive into STAGE 2 of transformation through meditation "Looking Deeply".

Big transformations can take time and require patience and dedication. But if circumstances (in love, work, health, etc.) don't start to shift at all as you heal your mind and feel more grounded and peaceful, it's often because something is out of alignment for you on an unconscious level.

In this case, you'll want to uncover these blocks so you can firstsee them for what they are, and second, more actively start to shift them. This training is about that first part, "seeing your blocks and difficulties for what they are". 

Stage 2: Looking Deeply

While I'm not a Buddhist, I do enjoy reading the Buddha's very practical and wise teachings. And I find many of them to be extremely helpful as I navigate my own spiritual journey and transformation of undesirable life circumstances.

One that adds to today's discussion is the Buddha's teaching on suffering and how to transform it, called  "The 4 Noble Truths". The first truth is particularly helpful for today's topic of "looking deeply" (we'll discuss the other "truths" in the next training). Here's my interpretation, and how it can help you begin to uncover your unconscious blocks.

The First Noble Truth states that difficulty and pain are a natural part of life, and to transform it we must first recognize and acknowledge its presence, rather than denying or avoiding it (with addictions like food, tv, drugs/alcohol, sex, shopping, etc.).

It's a natural human instinct to want to avoid pain, and to seek or cling to pleasure. But what the Buddha and this stage of "Looking Deeply" remind us, is that in order to shift our stuck, undesirable circumstances, we must be willing to go against our natural inclination of avoiding our difficulties. And instead, we must have the courage to look deeply at them, and uncover the opportunities for change and growth hidden within them. 

To transform your suffering, you must first have the courage to face it; to touch it; to get to know it.

Last year I was having a tough time in my love life. Things with my live-in boyfriend would go smooth for awhile and then something would happen, and I'd find myself in an emotional mess. This pattern continued every couple months or so. If I'm being honest, even when things were "smooth" they never did feel quite right. But (unconsciously) out of fear of what I might uncover, I never took the time to "look deeply" into those feelings of discontent, and instead avoided my pain in many ways. One way was using intimacy as a band-aid. I thought by spending lots of time together (socially and sexually) I was fixing the relationship. 

Well, when 6 months later I found myself in the same fight, I finally realized I was going in circles because I wasn't actually facing my issues. You see, I'd been practicing the "concentration meditation" to help calm my mental and emotional turbulence in my love life, but because I was ignoring some of the deeper blocks, the peace and calm didn't last long before I found myself back confronting the same exact problems. My discontent was trying to show me where I wasn't aligned with my true desires, but I just wouldn't listen. It felt like Groundhog Day over here! 

So, I finally took my own medicine and moved from the "concentration techniques" to techniques more appropriate for looking deeply and discovering unconscious blocks. And magically, I had some deep realizations and things in my relationship began to shift.

Mindfulness Meditation

"Mindfulness can play a big role in transforming our experience with pain and other difficulties; it allows us to recognize the authenticity of the distress and yet not be overwhelmed by it."

-Sharon Salzberg (meditation teacher)

The best meditation type to help you look deeply and begin uncovering and facing your blocks are "mindfulness practices". Taking time to practice mindfulness meditation (on the cushion), will increase your ability to be mindful off the cushion (in your everyday life) as well. There are many different mindfulness practices, and I'll give you a few of my favorites in a moment. 

But first, let me explain the key intentions to keep in mind when you start practicing mindfulness:

  1. Stay focused on your current experience as it unfolds. Notice sensations, thoughts, emotions, etc. as they arise in the present moment.  
  2. Refrain from judging your experience. Refrain from clinging to pleasant ones and avoiding unpleasant ones. Just observe with curiosity.
  3. Refrain from adding meaning to your present experience. When you have a thought or emotion, don't create a story or make an assumption about what it means. (ie. I didn't get a text from that guy >> He must not like me. I must not be fun/pretty enough).

There will always be moments during your practice when you stray from these intentions. When that happens, don't beat yourself up. Just begin again, with gentleness and compassion.

Before I get to the first mindfulness practice, I want to give you a quick story demonstrating the power of mindfulness.

The Story of the Dark Attic:

Imagine your unconscious mind is a dark attic. You head up to the attic to clean it out, but when you get up there it's pitch black so you can't see, and keep bumping into things. Between the darkness and the obstacles you can't quite identify, you're stuck. But then you remember the "mindfulness tool" given to you by a wise master. As you turn it on, a diffuse, wide beam of light shines all around your body. You begin to catch glimpses of the obstacles that were once invisible. As you allow yourself to face and move closer to the obstacle, you can now observe it, identify it, and name it. With this new ability to look deeply at it, you gain the power to do what you'd like with it (and it loses its power over you). 

Mindfulness Practice (on the cushion): "Body Scan" 

This practice will help you notice your inclination to cling to pleasant experiences and push away unpleasant ones. This is helpful, because as I said above, the first step of "looking deeply" is about learning to face your unpleasant experiences or circumstances, so you can eventually see their causes (we'll dig more into "causes" in next lesson).

In this practice, which asks you to mindfully scan your body from head to toe (or toe to head) and pay attention to sensations, you'll often get distracted with thoughts, emotions, or even physical discomfort. This is a great opportunity to play with just acknowledging and being with your experience, without judging, clinging, or trying to get rid of it. Once you cultivate that skill, you'll be ready to move onto step 3 of the transformation through meditation process. But let's not get ahead of ourselves :)

Take Action: (quick basic instruction if you want it; otherwise skip to the guided links below)

  • Sit or lie down comfortably. (this is often done lying down, but if you're sleepy sit up so you don't doze off)
  • Take a moment to calm and ground in the present moment by bringing your attention to your breath for a few full inhales and exhales.
  • When you feel present and focused, bring your attention to the soles of your feet. Notice any sensations you feel there. Perhaps pressure or warmth where they rest on the ground. Take some time to feel any sensations as you scan the area.
  • Then scan your way slowly up the entire front of your body, noticing any sensations you feel inch by inch. Temperature, pressure, tingling, pain, etc.
  • Once you get to the top of your head, begin to scan down the entire back of your body in the same way.
  • Some areas may have sensation while others may not. That's ok. Scan the entire body either way. The more you practice, the better you'll get at noticing sensations.
  • At the end, you can close your practice by thanking yourself for taking the time for self-care and meditation.
  • <<10 minute guided practice >> 
  • <<20 minute guided practice >>

Mindfulness vs. Concentration

You may have found that this mindfulness practice feels similar to the concentration meditation we learned last week. While the " body scan" can indeed strengthen concentration as well, it's a bit more complicated than just focusing on your breath, which is why we often start with the simpler task of breath awareness to cultivate focus. There is also a subtle difference in the intention of each meditation, which is useful to keep in mind.

If we go back to the flashlight metaphor used above, "concentration" is more like a spotlight used to maintain focus on one specific object. It may wander for a moment when you're distracted, but the intention is tighter focus on the original object (ie. the breath) for the sole purpose of strengthening your ability to build concentration and focus.

"Mindfulness" is more like a diffuse light that encompasses much more area. The intention is to focus on an object (ie. your body sensations as you scan), but allow your awareness to feel more loose. When it picks up something else (a thought, emotion, pain), you can momentarily move your focus there for the purpose of observing, identifying, and naming it

This added element of mindfulness is what helps you cultivate that ability of facing your difficulties head on with equanimity (non-judgement). It also helps you recognize your present experience in its bare form, so you can separate raw experience from the added meanings and stories you've given it (mindfulness is also called "bare attention"). 

Noting/ Naming Technique

As I mentioned above, it can be helpful to observe, identify, and (silently) name your experience as it unfolds during the body scan or any mindfulness meditation. The "noting or naming technique" simply asks you to note anything that takes you away from the practice of body scanning. For instance if a thought pops up, you can simply note "thinking". If that thought then leads to an emotional response, simply note "sadness", "anger", or "boredom". Do this with quickness and curiosity (without judging the thought or emotion). Once it's noted, bring your attention back to the body scan wherever you left off.

This noting technique will further help you cultivate the ability to be with your experience honestly and with deep awareness. Again, learning to do this in your formal practice, will help you start to automatically do it in your life. And this ability is the an important step in the transformation process.

Take Action >> Do one of the guided body scan meditations above. Be sure to keep the key intentions in mind, and begin noting your experiences if you'd like.

Mindfulness Practice (off the cushion)

Once you try the above "mindfulness meditation" and "noting exercise" on the cushion, you can begin to play with this in your everyday life. Start to notice when you're not focused on the present moment throughout the day. The idea is to make mindfulness and getting to know your mind fun. And you'll start to see what your tendencies are. These are some of mine:

  • for thinking >> "planning", "obsessing or dwelling", "daydreaming", "complaining" create your own!
  • for emotions>> I simply name the emotion and watch as one can quickly shift into another. "anger", "sadness", "fear", "guilt", etc.
  • physical sensation >> "pain", "pleasure". Also notice your tendencies to run from or cling to the experience. No judgment, just noting :)

Let's play a game >> Today or tomorrow I invite you to play with me. Set the intention to go through your day as mindfully as possible. Start to note your daily experiences and see what things come up for you the most. Share them in the comments below! I'll post mine tomorrow :)

This lesson "Looking Deeply", all about having the courage to observe, identify, and name your difficult experiences. This is a critical step on the path to transformation. In the next lesson "Part 3: Understanding", we'll dig deeper so we can begin to understand the roots and causes of these patterns and blocks.

Knowledge is power, so with understanding comes the possibility for deep transformation.