When I started focusing on mindfulness, I realized that it was something I had already been practicing acutely for most of my life.
Mindfulness has been so much a part of how I have survived as a Black queer man in this world. It is being aware of how people notice me in space, how I can become a suspect by walking into a store—and how I have no choice but to be mindful of the cashiers or plainclothes security.
The practice, for me, continues to be one of surviving under precarious conditions, where my body becomes a canvas on which other people project a false, and often harmful, reality. To be present to this process is to resist this kind of violence.
Though I have no formal training in mindfulness practices taken directly from the sutras, I have been working with the Satipatthana (Four Foundations of Mindfulness) sutta in my personal practice. It has been a foundational text for me as I continue to understand meditation and what Michel Foucault called “technologies of the self”—the various means through which we can affect personal, mental, and physical changes and produce more happiness, contentment, and wisdom.
Mindfulness must first emerge from my body as it is in the world, open and sensitive to the many ways it is interpreted by others. Sometimes it shows up in ways that are traumatizing and wounding, and sometimes in ways that celebrate my body.
Now, practicing each day, mindfulness has become a way of being in my body as it breathes, hurts, and rejoices. When I am with other bodies—sharing spaces, communing together, or making love together—mindfulness allows me to show up, fully.
As an authorized lama in the Tibetan tradition of Buddhism, I am trained in Mahamudra (Great Seal), a system of meditation and philosophy that is concerned with revealing the true nature of mind and phenomena. Mahamudra emphasizes shamatha (translated as calm abiding, peaceful abiding, or tranquility) and vipassana (insight) meditation.
Shamatha is learning to allow the mind to be as thoughts, emotions, and perceptions flow in and out, while insight is the practice of discerning what the mind is by exploring and analyzing phenomena of mind. The initial stages of calm abiding is essentially mindfulness training. This practice provides the stability and concentration needed for insight meditation.
Shamatha is a doorway into noticing and learning to be in relationship to our bodies. We focus on the breath, using the physical sensation to anchor our attention. When I practice shamatha, I begin by simply noticing that I have a body. This is an important first step before I move on to noticing the sensations of my body. For anyone who manages any level of body trauma, acknowledging the body may be as close as they can get to noticing physical sensations. However, just knowing you have a body is still an important practice.
How to Practice Shamatha Meditation
The purpose of shamatha meditation is to stabilize the mind by cultivating a steady awareness of the object of meditation. Shamatha is traditionally practiced using different kinds of supports or anchors, but eventually the practitioner lets go of those supports and begins meditating on emptiness itself with an open awareness. Here, the instructions will focus on the breath.
Shamatha meditation allows us to experience our mind as it is. We learn to see that our mind is full of thoughts, some conducive to our happiness and further realization, and others not. It is important to understand that having so much happening in the mind is not extraordinary but natural.
Over time, shamatha helps us calmly abide with our thoughts and emotions as they are. We experience tranquility of mind and our unhelpful thoughts decrease.
When we experience stable awareness, we are then ready to practice vipassana, in which we develop insight into what “mind” is. In the Vajrayana tradition of Buddhism, the goal is to practice calm abiding and insight in union and, ultimately, realize the true nature of mind.
The Seven-Point Posture
Shamatha instructions begins by looking at the physical body. The seven-point posture of Vairocana [the cosmic buddha] is an ancient set of posture points that are said to align the physical body with our energetic body. The posture has been practiced for thousands of years by Hindu and Buddhist yogis. The seven points are:
- Sit cross-legged.
- Hands in lap or on knees.
- Have a straight back.
- Widen the shoulders to open the heart center.
- Lower the chin.
- Open mouth slightly with the tongue resting on the roof of the mouth.
- Eyes open, gazing about four finger widths past the tip of nose.
A Body-Sensitive Posture
We all have different bodies and capabilities. It is important to adjust this demanding traditional posture to meet the needs of our own bodies, and not struggle to adapt our bodies to the posture. What is most important in terms of body posture is keeping the back and spine as straight as possible and remaining comfortable. So the seven points of a more body-sensitive posture could be:
- Sit on a cushion or a chair, stand, or lie down.
- Arrange your hands in any way that is comfortable.
- Hold your back as straight as possible.
- Keep your shoulders relaxed and chest open.
- Hold your head at whatever level is comfortable.
- Keep your lower jaw slightly open.
- Keep the eyes closed or open.
There are many kinds of breath meditations. Some have been written down, while others have only been transmitted orally from teacher to student. The following is a basic breath meditation from the Vajrayana tradition:
After adjusting the body into a comfortable position, start becoming aware of your breath. Notice the inhalation and exhalation.
As you focus on the breath, let go of any thoughts that arise. Each time you are distracted by or start clinging to a thought, return to the breath. Continue doing this over and over again.
Eventually, as you exhale, start to become aware of your breath escaping and dissolving into space. Experience the same thing with the inhalation.
Slowing down, begin to allow your awareness to mix into open space with the breath on both the inhale and exhale.
To deepen the practice, inhale and hold the breath for a few seconds before exhaling. By doing this, you are splitting the breath into three parts: inhalation, holding, and exhalation. Keep doing this.
As you inhale, begin to chant om to yourself. As you hold, chant ah. As you exhale, chant hung. Chanting these sacred syllables helps to further support awareness and is believed to purify our minds.
As you continue with exhalation, relax more. Continue awareness practice, letting go of thoughts and returning to the breath, for as long as you can.
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