How to Develop and Direct Your Awareness for Meditation

If, as the old saying goes, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, then the journey of meditation begins with the cultivation of awareness, or attention. In fact, awareness is the mental muscle that carries you along and sustains you on your journey, not only at the start but every step of the way.

No matter which path or technique you choose, the secret of meditation lies in developing, focusing, and directing your awareness.

In meditation, you can use awareness in different ways. To begin with, you can increase your powers of awareness by developing concentration on a particular object.

Then, when you’ve stabilized your concentration, you can, through the practice of receptive awareness, expand your awareness to illuminate the full range of your experience.

Next, you can concentrate even further in order to cultivate positive emotions and mind-states. Or you can use awareness to investigate your inner experience and contemplate the nature of existence itself.

Build your concentration to meditate

To do just about anything well, you need to focus your awareness. The most creative and productive people in every profession — for example, great athletes, performers, businessmen, scientists, artists, and writers — have the ability to block out distractions and completely immerse themselves in their work.

When you meditate, you calm your mind by making it one-pointed rather than scattered and distracted.

Many spiritual traditions teach their students concentration as the primary meditation practice. Just keep focusing your mind on the mantra, symbol, or visualization, they advise, and eventually you’ll attain what’s called absorption, or samadhi.

In absorption, the sense of being a separate “me” disappears, and only the object of your attention remains. Followed to its natural conclusion, the practice of concentration can lead to an experience of union with the object of your meditation.

Be open to receptive awareness to meditate

The great sages of China say that all things comprise the constant interplay of yin and yang — the feminine and masculine forces of the universe. Well, if concentration is the yang of meditation (focused, powerful, penetrating), then receptive awareness is the yin (open, expansive, welcoming).

Where concentration disciplines, stabilizes, and grounds the mind, receptive awareness loosens and extends the mind’s boundaries and creates more interior space, enabling you to familiarize yourself with the mind’s contents. Where concentration blocks extra stimuli as distractions to the focus at hand, receptive awareness embraces and assimilates every experience that presents itself.

Most meditations involve the interplay of concentration and receptive awareness, although some more-advanced techniques teach the practice of receptive awareness alone. Just be open and aware and welcome whatever arises, they teach, and ultimately you’ll be “taken by truth.” Followed to its conclusion, receptive awareness guides you in shifting your identity from your thoughts, emotions, and the stories your mind tells you to your true identity, which is being itself.

Of course, if you don’t know how to work with attention, these instructions are impossible to follow. That’s why most traditions prescribe practicing concentration first. By quieting and grounding the mind (enough so that it can open without being swept away by a deluge of irrelevant feelings and thoughts), concentration provides a solid foundation on which the practice of meditation can flourish.

Use contemplation to meditate for greater insight

Although concentration and receptive awareness provide enormous benefits, ultimately it’s insight and understanding — of how the mind works, how you perpetuate your own suffering, how attached you are to the outcome of events, and how uncontrollable and fleeting these events are — that offer freedom from suffering.

And in your everyday life, it’s creative thinking — free from the usual limited, repetitive patterns of thought — that offers solutions to problems. That’s why contemplation is the third key component that transforms meditation from a calming, relaxing exercise to a vehicle for freedom and creative expression.

After you’ve developed your concentration and expanded your awareness, you eventually find that you have access to a more penetrating insight into the nature of your experience. You can use this faculty to explore your inner terrain and gradually understand and undermine your mind’s tendency to cause you suffering and stress.

If you’re a spiritual seeker, you can use this faculty to inquire into the nature of the self or to reflect upon the mystery of God and creation. And if you’re a person with more practical concerns, you may ponder the next step in your career or relationship or contemplate some seemingly irresolvable problem in your life.

Cultivate positive, healing states of mind with meditation

Some meditations aim to open the heart and develop certain life-affirming qualities like compassion, loving kindness, equanimity, joy, or forgiveness. On a more practical level, you can use meditation to cultivate a proactive, healthy immune system or to develop poise and precision in a particular sport. For example, you can visualize killer T cells attacking your cancer or imagine yourself executing a dive without a single mistake.

Where contemplation aims to investigate, inquire, and ultimately see deeply into the nature of things, cultivation can help you transform your inner life by directing the concentration you develop to strengthen positive, healthy mind-states and withdraw energy from those that are more reactive and self-defeating.

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