Week One of the 2018 Challenge

Welcome. I’m looking forward to our month of practice together. This first week is devoted to the deepening of concentration. There are several skills inherent in the art of concentration, 2 prominent ones being balance, and the ability to let go. Whatever object of awareness we choose to concentrate on, in this case, most often the feeling of the breath, we rest our attention lightly on that object. Some people, for example, think that if they get a death grip on their breath their attention won’t wander. In fact, it will wander more. The Buddha said, “Rest your attention lightly, like a butterfly resting on a flower.”

And for virtually all of us, our minds aren’t going to be perfectly still. There will be thoughts, sometimes a lot of them, and sometimes some really nasty thoughts along with lovely ones. Don’t worry about any of this. Our goal is not to block thoughts or annihilate them. Our goal is to develop a more spacious relationship to them, so that we can choose which to act on without being driven by the sheer force of habit.

For now, this means practicing letting go when you have gotten distracted from the breath, and gently coming back from whatever the distraction has been to the breath. This doesn’t in any way mean that you are a failure, or that you have some big problem meditating. It actually means you’re doing it correctly.  The transformative moment is after we’ve gotten lost in thought or spun out in a fantasy or after we’ve fallen asleep. One of my teachers, a Tibetan lama named Tsoknyi Rinpoche, described it as “exercising the letting go muscle.” When we emerge from the distraction is the time we have the chance to gently let go, and without judging ourselves, begin again. A poetic way of saying this is, “The healing is in the return, not in never having wandered to begin with.” Your attention will wander. We expect that. The training is in letting go and shepherding your attention back.

It’s a good period of experimentation, as there will be several techniques offered. You can see which seems right for you to pursue. Then we’re going to build mindfulness of the body and mindfulness of emotions and thoughts on this foundation of greater stability, centeredness and concentration.

Sometimes, even though it is just a few minutes each day, it can be surprisingly hard to find the time to sit. This too is a circumstance where it is important not to dwell in feelings of failure, but instead realize it as another time we can let go and, with kindness towards ourselves, begin again. One of the reasons we are doing this together is that the group can become a community of support, and we can increasingly enjoy this support as we go forward.