Awareness During Practice
Updated: Sep 16, 2022
Let's chat about how to begin taming the monkey mind during qigong practice.
We have established a regular practice including meditation, standing, and Snake & Turtle qigong. You've learned to avoid dangerous methods like forcing the breath, and we've discussed daily cultivation, like rest, relaxation, and rejuvenation. I'm happy to get to talk about the refinement of existing skills! This deepening process is genuinely fun, and I'm excited to hear about your progress in the comment section! Let's begin by exploring how to free the mind during practice. Spoiler alert: the method is simple and will likely change your life.
Most of us have had the experience of driving a car while only partially paying attention. Hopping behind the wheel, we let our mental automatic-pilot take over. After some indeterminate period of daydreaming, we find ourselves at the destination without memory of the journey. Your nervous system did its job and even used the turn signal. However, your conscious awareness was wandering elsewhere. You were in the car but not present to your experience. This awareness quality, sometimes called "mindfulness," will be your next focus of cultivation.
To raise money for an extended stay in China, I spent some time as a long-haul truck driver. Very quickly, I discovered the tendency of my mind to wander and be distracted from the road. I saw this happening to all the other drivers around me and realized how hazardous it could become. My meditation teacher urged me to practice as I drove. Thus, my truck became a moving monastery.
Each day I observed my habit of mentally wandering away from real life. I wouldn't even notice if my back was sore until I stopped daydreaming. It's as though I lived slightly outside my body and would occasionally "check in" to see how things were going. Sound familiar? Over years of teaching, I've found that this is how life feels for most people. This mental disconnect is a cause of untold amounts of suffering, and more specifically, it's a terrible obstruction to qigong.
Fortunately for us, generations of practitioners have refined methods for healing this rift between reality and our waking dreams.
In later lessons, we will be able to explore the qualities of attention in greater detail, and for now, let's start small. When driving long distances, my mind would leap around like a squirrel, even while attempting to remain present. It would linger upon memory and then suddenly be fantasizing about the future. As you pay close attention to this instruction, do you notice your mind jumping from subject to subject? How different would it feel if your attention settled upon the information effortlessly?
Understanding how the mind settles and how people get in their own way is essential. Let's use a more physical example for clarity. For instance, while I'm driving, if I want my shoulders to sink into a relaxed position, I allow them to fall. I don't pull them down from underneath or force them to remain still by clenching. That would defeat the purpose of our training. Relaxation is a natural property of the musculature, and tension is simply interference with that quality. In a way, softness has been hiding inside the hardness all along. Let me say that again. Relaxation is what happens to the hand when the fist is released. We do not need to add relaxation as a quality. It merely needs to be released. This wisdom is why we always emphasize doing less rather than adding more. Letting go rather than piling on. Using force or "softening harder" only obstructs your goal. And it is identical when settling the mind.
I once trained in a style of meditation that encouraged a white-knuckle grip on the steering wheel of the mind. Too often, practitioners hear that focus requires effort and willpower. A squeezing of the mind to keep it from wandering. I noticed that "trying" would keep me present for a short while, but my mind would always become even more unruly. This is because distraction and instability directly result from mental tension. Like a muscle, the mind's most natural state is relaxation and flexibility. It's a misconception to think that you must force the mind into the present moment. As with our shoulder tension, we learn to release the factors causing the problem in the first place. It settles into clarity and peace all on its own.
Let me say that another way. Too often, people say they must "fight" their mind or "pull it back" from distraction. This reaction is a misunderstanding. It's the pushing & pulling on our experience causes the chaos in the first place. Like relaxing a tight muscle, learning to soften the mind allows its inherent, desirable qualities to emerge. As with your body, when you find your mind wandering, release the resistance dragging it out of alignment. Then it can effortlessly settle and center, making peace possible.
Have you ever noticed the relatively unmoved center point on a rotating wheel? That is where your heart & mind will rest when relaxed. No matter how much the busy world spins, your clarity will remain safe in that unmoving center. Let's call that point of stability "the present moment." And allowing your awareness to rest peacefully and effortlessly in the present moment during practice is our goal.
Keep something in mind as you train. You may hear about the many benefits of mindful meditation, from improving immune function, reducing stress, or avoiding neurodegeneration that comes with age. But that's not why I include it here. Avoid turning your practice into a self-improvement project. That's just another form of tension. Instead, notice how lovely it feels when your mind rests quietly within reality, even if only for a moment. Being present and attentive to our own experience is valuable beyond measure. Ask yourself, how enjoyable and enriching would life become if you were more present and clearheaded each day? And, of course, how much more compelling would your qigong practice become?
I have heard from hundreds of folks over the years about how difficult this first step feels. It's understandable if an exhausted and distracted mind is the only one you have known. At first, you may be slow to notice when you are daydreaming. It's the normal state of things for most people, most of the time. Imagine that one day you witness your mind being clear and present. After a time, tiny desires and fears may begin to collect like light rain on a windshield. Like rainwater, the small thoughts touch and join to become larger daydreams, further obstructing your clarity. Pretty soon, fantasies and memories are the only things you can see, and navigating life becomes impossible. Rather than barreling forward, blinded by illusion and emotion, you can learn to pull off to the side of the road and park. Sit still and allow the warm light of presence to calm the storm and make the way forward clear. This is how we train. We pause and use stillness and relaxation to allow the mind-body to settle and become clear. Only then do we move forward with our practice. This is why we begin every session by releasing anything binding us, especially starting with the body.
The experience of our physicality is always immediate and in the present moment. Using our bodies and movements as anchors, we are constantly drawn back to reality. Grounding is one of the gifts of a moving meditation practice like qigong. As practitioners, we continually find our way back, bowing to the truth of how things are without resistance. This is how it is. It's like this right now. Don't grip or try to concentrate. By getting out of our own way, the body-mind is naturally better able to do its job. The stomach digests. The heart pumps. The feet connect to the Earth. Your shoulders fall open toward the hands. Your mind rests in clarity and wisdom. Developing presence is not about creating an altered mental state. It is about uncovering a profoundly unaltered state and is part of what makes qigong so effective.
The Next Step:
It's vital to become intimately aware of your level of distraction or presence during practice. Choose to allow your awareness to rest on your actual experience of qigong rather than any thoughts and daydreams that appear.
In future lectures, I will offer training methods that help your mind become more present and stable and maintain a lighter grasp on your experience during practice. Stability will take time, and there is no reason to hurry. Move on to the next lessons in the curriculum, try the "Counting" meditation method, and notice how your ability to be mindful increases over time. If your mind is particularly chaotic, spend extra time with this stage of cultivation. You'll be amazed at how much of a difference it can make to your feeling of well-being.
Ten times each day, notice when your mind has wandered away from the present moment. Importantly, don't attempt to "pull" your mind into reality or "push" away the daydream that has entranced you. Instead, like releasing a tight muscle, gently relax the mind and allow your awareness to settle effortlessly into reality.
Get better and better at this meditative letting-go, and replace any habits you have of using tension to control your experience. Other people in the community will have difficulty with this, too, so please share your experiences with them in the comment section.
Get better and better at appreciating the peace of the present moment, and enjoy your practice.
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