By Leo Babauta

I’ve been loving all of the great work you guys have been doing in the Drop Deeper into Mindfulness Challenge … this week, I want to talk a bit more about three of the practices:

  1. Getting better at focusing during meditation
  2. Dropping into bodily sensations (including during difficult emotions)
  3. Practicing with groundlessness

These are three incredible practices, and I know the first two are pretty popular among you guys doing these mini-challenges. So let’s dive in!

Getting Focused During Meditation

Staying focused during meditation is a struggle for most of us. In fact, I would say that nearly all of us have this difficulty — we might even say that the default mode during meditation is not being focused.

And that’s completely OK.

We’re not trying for perfection here. We want to practice wholeheartedly, and try our best, but there is no need to fret about getting really “good” at focusing.

Instead, we can relax around our distracted minds. This is how our minds are all the time … we just see it more clearly during meditation. In this way, we’re giving ourselves space to get to know ourselves, and see clearly how our mind works. And we can accept that without judgment.

That said, even if we see the distracted mind wandering off and relax around it … we can still wholeheartedly bring ourselves back to the present. Gently, without harshness toward ourselves. Just come back.

Sometimes it’s suggested that we label our thinking, saying, “Thinking.” And then just come back to the present. That can be helpful.

Other times, it’s suggested that we count the breaths. Breathing in, count “one” (silently). Breathing out, don’t count. Breathing in again, count “two.” And so on, up until “ten,” and then start again at one. If your mind wanders, just start again at one. Over and over. It’s helpful to train the mind in this way, but it’s important to remain gentle with yourself if you keep starting back at one.

As suggested in one of the mini-challenges, you might try some tight practice: Imagine that you are on a narrow plank walking across a deep ravine — what would your focus be like then? Bring that kind of focus to the present moment during your meditation. Don’t be harsh when your mind wanders (it will) but be as “on the dot” about the present moment as you can, continually coming gently back.

While this is a tight practice (walking across a deep ravine on a narrow plank), see if you can also bring a sense of relaxedness to your practice as well, finding the middle ground between tight and relaxed.

Finally, I’d like to stress again that it’s not important to be fully focused the whole time. Relax around how your mind is. Be gentle. Keep practicing.

Dropping into Bodily Sensations

Two of our mini-challenges ask us to drop into our bodily sensations:

  1. Notice bodily sensations during the day.
  2. Drop into bodily sensations when you’re stressed, angry, sad, etc.

I want to talk a little more about this practice, because it’s an incredible foundational practice.

Practicing with noticing your bodily sensations is the key, I’ve found, to bringing mindfulness to more parts of your life, outside of sitting meditation. If you can notice your bodily sensations, you’ll notice when you’re tired, stressed, angry, peaceful. You are dropping from the thoughts spinning around in your head to the sensations in your body, in the present moment.

I like to notice the sensations in my torso. Bring curiosity to this practice. What is it like? What else can you notice? Do the sensations change? Bring a gentleness and relaxation to your noticing. Drop your judgments, and just stay with the sensations.

If you practice with noticing bodily sensations during the day, you’ll be able to practice when more difficult situations arise, like getting angry at someone. These are difficult situations, not only because the other person is being a jerk, but also because we get so caught up in our narrative about it that we can’t interrupt the habit of complaining about the person and getting more and more angry.

By dropping into the bodily sensations, we get out of our narrative, and into the present moment. It’s a pattern interrupter. And being present with these sensations, we can bring curiosity, gentleness, compassion, gratitude. Yes, even gratitude. Can you imagine being grateful for the sensation of anger or sadness in your torso? Try it, and see if you can do it. It might shift something.

Even if the sensations of difficult emotions don’t go away, that’s OK. We’re not trying to escape from our emotions or difficulties, we’re trying to practice being with the sensations of them. With gentleness, we learn that we can be with these sensations — it’s not the end of the world. It can be unpleasant, but not more than we can stand, usually.

Note: It has been pointed out to me that this kind of meditation isn’t for everyone. Victims of severe trauma, for example, might not be able to do this, because of the intensity of the emotions they’re holding in their body. If this isn’t right for you, you might try a moving meditation instead. But it’s worth a try, at least at first, if you feel safe doing it.

Practicing with Groundlessness

The final mini-challenge is to “Put yourself mindfully into greater groundlessness” … and I’d like to go a little bit more into that practice.

This is a bit of an advanced practice, because you’ll do better if you’ve had a foundation of sitting practice for a bit, and if you’ve practiced with bodily sensations, even during difficult emotions. Basically, it’s the same practice, but during any kind of uncertain, shaky, fearful, groundless situation.

With this kind of groundlessness training, we begin to open up to the uncertainty that is always with us, all day long. This uncertainty can stress us out, have us seeking comfort foods or shopping, have us reach for a cigarette or beer, make us unhappy or lash out at others. It’s the heart of so many of our problems.

But if we can be with the bodily sensation of uncertainty, we no longer have to run to those habitual patterns. We can stay present with the feeling of groundlessness in our body, practice with it with curiosity, gentleness, relaxation, compassion, gratitude, presence. We breathe deeply into it, and learn to be perfectly fine in the middle of groundlessness.

We just accept the beauty and deliciousness of the groundlessness.

The bad news is you’re falling through the air, nothing to hang on to, no parachute. The good news is, there’s no ground.
– Chogyam Trungpa

For myself, I regularly put myself deliberately in groundlessness. Some examples:

Whenever I don’t feel like I’m putting myself into uncertainty, I find something new to scare myself with. I’m a groundlessness junkie!

And with each of these kinds of situations, I don’t just go through it and tough it out … I practice with the bodily sensations of the groundlessness, and stay with it as much as I can. I’ve learned to make friends with it, which is a lovely thing.