Becoming a Mind Whisperer
Sustaining your attention on the breathing really develops awareness but when you get lost in thought or restlessness, that's all right too. Don't drive yourself. Don't be a slave driver or beat yourself with a whip and drive yourself in a nasty way. Lead, guide and train yourself; leading onward, guide yourself rather than driving and forcing yourself.
Ajahn Sumedho: The Way It Is
As we go deeper into the practice of mindfulness the workings of mind become more familiar, curious, and fascinating.
Sitting on the cushion we turn our focus toward the breath. We note the physical location of our focus: either the abdomen or the nostrils, and we firmly place the point of our mind's focus on this place as we observe the process of breathing. In....the middle of the breath....its end...the pause before exhalation....the beginning of the out-breath....its full length....its conclusion....another pause....and the process repeating over and over.
This practice is designed to bore us, and it isn't long before the mind wants a break from this level of concentration.
Where does it go and for how long? By seeing ourselves escape from the present moment we can get some insights into our attachments and habits of mind. Without judging harshly we see ourselves making a "to do" list, or worrying about bills, obsessing over the behavior of someone we know, envying the recent accomplishment of a friend, reliving a beautiful memory, planning our next adventure. Are not these the very things we do throughout the day without noticing them?
And then, in our meditation, awareness brings us back from our mental wanderings and we remember that we're supposed to be watching the breath. THIS breath. THIS present moment.
It's a jolting experience to return, and sometimes we are disappointed in ourselves: "I hardly lasted three breaths before my mind wandered away." And the recriminations begin: "I'm no good at this. I'm not getting any better. I have to work harder at this. Everybody else can do this easily. I don't even know why I TRY!"
So we get out the metaphoric whip, to use Ajahn Sumedho's description, and we beat ourselves up in an effort to be good at meditating. You might reflect on how your teachers, parents or other authority figures taught you this response. In other words, this is a learned, conditioned behavior. It isn't really you, but it may very well be your "go-to" response to disappointment in yourself. You were taught how to use the whip.
More than a few teachers of mindfulness refer to the mind as a wild horse and the process as being one of skillfully teaching the horse to take on new habits.
The question is, "How shall we treat this horse?"
Shall we beat it or guide it? Does it deserve to be whipped or do we simply lack any other skills to use in order to teach it?
Is the horse at fault for wandering? Or is it simply not yet trained?
Non-violence begins at the moment of awareness that we have left the focus on the breath. We note that we wandered away and we return.
We add nothing else. We do not need a whip. Actually it simply delays the teaching. The whip is not a skillful tool.
And so we gently whisper to ourselves: "Return to the breath."
And, over time, the wild horse settles down, accepts our teaching, and is guided toward new behavior.
No longer acting like a wild beast, it becomes a companion of the highest order. A trained, skillful friend.