What can a bird teach us about creating a balanced meditation practice?
There is a wide range of mindfulness practices, meditation techniques and different styles of teaching out there. How do they fit together? What should we practice should we do? In this Frame, we will use the image of a bird as an analogy to help create a balanced meditation practice.
Bring to mind an image of a bird with its wings spread. One wing represents insight and awareness, and the other represents love and acceptance. Now, just as the bird needs both wings in order to fly, we need both of these aspects in order to to realise mindfulness (Sati)*. Let’s stop and think about this. Insight, clarity of mind and awareness on the one hand. Loving acceptances and compassion on the other. These are the two virtues we are cultivating through our meditation practice. So this begs the question; “how do we practice?”
Becoming aware of the lens of our mind
The first wing of clear seeing is cultivated through meditation practice. We use mindfulness meditation to gain insight into our minds and the nature of reality. In fact, the word vipassanā (a traditional buddhist meditation technique that underlies mindfulness meditation) literally means “super seeing” and is often translated as insight meditation.
To briefly explain the process of meditation, we can look at our minds as a lens through which we view the world. The lens gets colored by our personal history, our beliefs, preconceived ideas, temperament, genetic makeup. All of these alter (and often distorts) or perception. When we are not aware of the fact that we are looking through this lens, we tend to confuse our perceptions and interpretations with reality itself. Hence the saying “we don’t see the world as it is, we see it as we are”.
Mindfulness meditation trains us to drop back and become aware of the lens itself. As an example, let’s say someone has done something that really triggered a feeling of anger inside you. You are bubbling with rage and you experience the situation through that feeling of anger (you “see red”). In these situations, we tend to identify with the anger; “I am angry”. We feel that the anger is justified and we act from that place of anger.
Through meditation, by contrast, we learn to look at the lens instead of looking through the lens. There is suddenly a distance between ourselves and the emotion, which enables us to observe the anger directly without being overwhelmed by it. Rather than identifying with the anger (“I am angry”), we can now see it with an increased sense of clarity (“there is a feeling of anger”). There is space in the mind. Space from which insights can emerge.
Meditation as a frame-breaker
In mindfulness meditation (which is the focus of this Frame), we begin by becoming familiar with the breath. We establish the breath as a steady anchor of our attention to which we return as the distractions come up. We practice continuously renewing our interest and focus on the breath. We are not trying to control the breath or think about the breath. We stay with the somatic experience of the breath as it manifest in the body. Over time, this process of discovery leads to insights into the mind and the body and the connection between the two.
As our mind settles and we find concentration, we can apply the same technique to other aspects and domains of our experience. We learn to observe bodily sensations, feelings, emotions, thoughts and mental activity without adding layers of interpretations. Eventually, we can allow any content of awareness to drop into the background. We become aware of awareness itself – “that which is aware”. By staying with the awareness and allowing all phenomena to come and go we begin to see common patterns. We realise what is known as the “three marks of existence” in all phenomena. For more detail on meditation, see “Introduction to meditation” or “Instructions for insight meditation” for specific insight meditation instructions.
Insight is not about gaining propositional knowledge or learning certain facts. It is more like a flash of recognition in which something suddenly becomes clear. Aha! As we gain access to insights, we start becoming aware of ways in which we delude ourselves and mis-frame situations. One way to think of insight meditation is as a process of seeing beyond – and breaking down – limiting frames.
Our capacity for insight needs to be balanced with equanimity in order not to get overwhelmed or seduced by the mind. Equanimity is our capacity to stay centered in the midst internal and external tumult. This is related to our ability to meet our experience with acceptance and compassion. Returning to our metaphor, we need a strong wing of love as support for the meditative journey. The set of practices we use to strengthen this second wing can be summarised as contemplation.
We have described meditation as the process of stepping back of looking at the lens in order to gain insight. In a similar way, the process of contemplation can be described as applying a new set of lenses and using those lenses to look out into the world.
Contemplation, just like meditation, comes in a wide variety of forms. I would include the recitation of mantras, various forms of prayer as well as inquiry in this category. In the mindfulness tradition, contemplation is typically done through a series of practices known as the brahmavihārās. The most well-known of these is the practice of mettā – often translated as “loving kindness”. This is a contemplation practice in which we set intentions and work with recitations and visualisations in order to cultivate a quality of loving kindness. We then direct this “heart quality” toward ourselves, our loved ones, and further toward an ever-widening circle of compassion – finally embracing all sentient beings.
Bringing the wings closer together
In closing, I want to mention a third aspect of our practice which has to do with integration – of bringing the wings closer together. This third pillar is various forms of movement practices, in which we coordinate bodily movements with the breath. This brings meditation into movement and closer to our everyday life in the world.
Here, too, we find a wealth of practices ranging from ancient qigong and yoga systems to various forms of breath work. In future Frames, we will explore this third aspect in more detail through what I call “energy work” (mainly coming from the Chinese qigong tradition). For now, I simply want to give a taste of how these practices fit into the bigger picture:
A one-sided practice tends to focus on one aspect – whether it be insight or compassion, concentration or open awareness – at the expense of other aspects. Even if our practice includes both aspects, we sometimes get stuck in one end of the spectrum. Incorporating movement into our awareness practice can help create flow. Flow is the opposite of stuck-ness. It helps us move dynamically between the details (“zooming in”) and the big picture (“zooming out”). This brings us to integration – the ability to adapt and find the optimal level of attention given the circumstances and demands from our environment.
The two wings of awareness training* point to the need for two distinct set of practices; meditation and contemplation. Insight without love or vice versa is not a good recipe – we need both wings in order to fly. To add to this, we don’t want our practice to be separate from our lives in the world. In order to integrate our practice and make it into a coherent whole, incorporating conscious movements can be of great benefit. Just like the bird – our practice is more than the collection of parts – it’s a living, dynamic organism.
I hope you found this framing useful in setting up a personal, balanced practice. Feel free to reach out with questions – email or comment below. Good luck!
Go deeper through these Frames:
Video version of this Frame:
Thanks to John Vervaeke for some of the concept used in this Frame.
* I consider both wings to be included in a complete mindfulness practice. Some models, however, look at mindfulness as one of the wings (the other being compassion). From this perspective, we can say more generally “the two wings of awareness training”.