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Richard discusses the importance of developing the “muscle of awareness” through body-centered attention so that we can begin to appreciate the landscape of our usual identification with mind and return to a more balanced and spacious state of consciousness.
So why is it so important? It becomes so important, because if you give your mind something to do– like for example, right now, even as I’m speaking. Attune yourself to your own breathing. Breathing is a big sensation. Isn’t it remarkable how often we completely lose touch with that sensation? Meaning that we have, in those moments, probably no anchor in present moment consciousness. We’re probably anchored in thinking and in identification with our thinking mind.
But if, right now, you just let a part of yourself be aware of your breath– big, big sensation. Chest rising and falling, ribs expanding, contracting. Breathing in, the abdominal muscles tighten, so the diaphragm can descend. Breathing out, the diaphragm relaxes, moves back up, air moves out.
Now, just bring your attention to the sensation of the air moving through your nose. You can close your eyes, and just take a moment to notice that sensation. As the air comes in, it’s colder than when it goes out. As you learn to observe with more precision, the air comes in, kind of like a crescendo of music. It accelerates. The temperature changes quickly.
Then, at the end of inhalation, the air is moving slowly, and it comes to a halt. The temperature changes again. And then, there’s the acceleration of the exhalation. Not as cold as the inhalation.
The more relaxed you get– and this is paradoxical. The more relaxed you get, the more precise you can be about the sensation you’re focusing on. For example, now just move your focus, not to the sensation of the air in your nose, but perhaps you can actually feel the air moving past your upper lip. That’s a much more subtle sensation.
In order to perceive subtle sensation, the mind has to actually become more spacious. That is, there has to be a relaxation in the body. For example, if you really want something, that intentionality is a form of tension that will make you less aware, less alert to the many other subtle things that may be going on around you. But in the simple practice of learning to focus your attention– the more precise your focus, the more something inside of you needs to become spacious. The mind needs to become open. If you practice this a little later, you’ll see what I’m talking about. You’ll experience it for yourself.
Now, here’s what’s so fascinating, and why this is so important. This kind of focus, unless you really are competitive and imagine that somehow this is going to lead to some special state– maybe you would like to pretend this is going to lead to enlightenment, so you’re really determined, and you’re really focused, and you’re working hard. Actually, even with that much intensity, it’s very difficult to do.
This doesn’t have meaning to the ego. There’s no purpose really. You can convince the part of you that’s thinking and identified with mind that this is really important. And so what we discover, what we see easily, is that we keep leaving. We keep going back to identification with thinking. We keep going back into something that we are planning. Or we keep going back into some conversation that remains unfinished, or we want to rehearse and practice again. We go back into evaluating what we’re doing.
Or you sit there narrating subtly in your mind, oh, now I’m breathing in. Oh, now I’m feeling this temperature change. Oh, now I’m breathing out. So the narrator is just going, as if we’re just constantly talking to ourselves.
And so the importance of the practice of centering in the body is actually to make it more clear when we’re identified with thinking. In other words, consciousness needs the contrast of the focus and the intended focus in order to recognize when we leave, when we’re pulled back into thinking. And as we begin to recognize that we’re pulled back into thinking, it turns out that the more we relax, the more vivid the ability to focus our attention on, for example, the breath coming from our nose or moving through our nose. The more that becomes precise, the more our awareness of where we go and we leave becomes precise. And you begin to be able to map what your own thinking mind– what I call “me world”– what it’s doing, where it goes, how it operates.
So it’s really important. And if you don’t have much time in any given day, just practice for a little while teaching yourself to focus precisely, just so that you’re building that muscle, the muscle of attention. Because you’re going to be defeated. Even though you intend it well, you’re not going to get there very much. And where you go is just as important. In order to see how you come into identification with thinking, you have to first give your mind something else to do.
So this practice of trying to achieve single-pointed focus is actually the practice that reveals the architecture and panorama of who we are when we’re caught up in identification with our thoughts. So go forward with your practice. And instead of being upset that you can’t stay with the focus on the breath, or stay with the focus on some subtle sensation, allow yourself to acknowledge where your mind went.
Notice the last few thoughts of where it was. Notice the feeling state or the feeling tone of the place your mind took you to. Did it take you to a place of being critical? Did it take you to a place of being disappointed? Just notice where it took you.
And keep developing that aware part of your consciousness. So in order to do it, we practice focusing. And when we lose the focus, we begin to become more and more conscious of how we leave present moment awareness.
I hope this helps you understand and deepens your desire for your practice. Thank you.