Our breath is always with us. Sensations are also always present, even if not noticed. So too, emotions are there for the finding, if one chooses to search. Any of these objects can be used as the foundation for mindfulness training. As we progress from watching the breath to sensations to emotions, the challenge grows to stay focused. The sensations come and go, sometimes here, sometimes there. The emotions are ephemeral at times, and are often very difficult to detect and watch. The biggest challenge, however, is to watch our minds.

Many beginning students believe that the purpose of meditation is to stop all thoughts. They have heard the definition of yoga from the Yoga Sutra [1] and believe that meditation too has the goal of ending the whirlings in the mind. And sometimes this may actually happen: the mind may become so calm that fewer and fewer thoughts arise, until there is complete stillness. But this is never a permanent state, so the Buddha said this couldn’t be the real goal.

We do not try to stop our thoughts from arising: we do not wrestle with them. As Fronsdal offers, “Mindfulness of thinking is simply recognizing that we are thinking.” Certainly when we watch the mind we can become calmer. But this is not the calmness of torpor, a drugging or dulling of the mind. This is an active calmness, the yang within the yin.

When we do more than simply watch each arising thought, we get caught up in it. We struggle with it. The thought creates some emotional response and this is manifested somewhere in the body. This cycle is endless – the mind affecting emotions, emotions affecting the body, the body affecting the breath, and then the breath affecting the mind again. Sometimes the cycle begins with a sensation in the body or an arising emotion. Any arising can in turn create new thoughts. We can interrupt this cycle by not reacting to, or struggling with, the thoughts.

Rosenberg discusses the third tetrad of the Anapanasati sutra [2] in detail in Breath by Breath. This is the grouping where we breathe with the mind. He warns us:

The point is to change our mind from a battlefield, where we’re always fighting these (mind) states, or getting lost in them, to a place of peaceful coexistence. Then these visitors, these guests in consciousness, don’t have such power.

His prediction on when we succeed: “When that happens, these states start thinning out, falling away.”

The Buddha told us long ago that it is our attachments that cause our suffering. The way to end attachments is by simply watching them arise. We observe and get to know our cravings. Instead of just instinctually reacting to them, trying to obtain whatever it is we want at that moment, we just let the thoughts or feelings come. Rosenberg says that there is something false about trying to let go. Often it is an attempt to push away, which means a struggle is occurring. The practice is not to struggle or push away desire or attachment, but simply to observe it.

Wishing our states of mind don’t happen is pointless; it doesn’t work to force them away. All our states of mind need to be accepted as part of our consciousness. Let them come, let them blossom, look at them closely and when they go, let them go. Thich Nhat Hanh suggests an even more radical approach. Echoing Jesus, he suggests we learn to love our kilesas.

Whether we meditate while formally sitting for thirty minutes, or use the briefer periods of a Yin Yoga pose, we can always come to the deeper level of mindfulness – watch the mind itself! We have found four acceptable anchors to our mindfulness practice. We can begin by watching the breath, we may choose to watch sensations in the physical body, we may watch emotions arise and flow, or we may choose to watch our minds. There is another effective anchor we can also use. We can simply listen.

  1. — Yoga citta vritti nirodah.
  2. — The mind group.

(Next: Listening )