Usually we're very much in the middle of things, which makes it hard to step back for a broader perspective. Yet without that step back, our work can suffer, the people around us can suffer, and we can, too. Stepping back is a way of noticing what's happening in the present moment from a clearer, less personal, perspective. It feels essential, self-compassionate, and full of wisdom. On this episode, hear a little about how it works, and practice. Enjoy.
Hi everyone, it’s Judi Cohen and this is Wake Up Call #303. Today’s call is about Stepping Back for a Clearer View.
I want to talk about something I’ve been working with lately, as part of the G.R.O.U.N.D. practice I’ve been sharing. It builds on, or maybe it’s part of, the N of G.R.O.U.N.D., which is about noticing, “How am I doing?” by taking a step back and becoming the observer.
We engage in N, noticing, in our solitary practice already. We sit quietly and notice how the body is feeling, if that knee is acting up, whether we’re hungry, tired. Even if you’re sitting for just five minutes a day, you’re exercising your muscles of awareness, training the mind to N, notice what’s happening in the moment.
In my experience it does take practice, though, because without practice, the mind isn’t conditioned to pay attention and it’s generally off to the races. In fact, for present moment attention to be available and present on the cushion and in portable practice, not only do I notice that the mind has to be conditioned, like the body gets conditioned and develops the muscle memory to, say, swim, or do downward dog; but it’s also necessary to create the conditionS for this to happen. And the main condition is to give the mind/body/heart a few minutes to settle down.
But everyone who practices knows how difficult it is to create that space in the middle of a busy day. And while that’s still true, as we emerge slowly from the pandemic – and for a lot of lawyers and law professors I know, things have actually been busier than ever in the pandemic – it’s pretty much always possible to set aside five or six minutes – point one on your timesheet, right?
And then those five minutes have to be – or really, want to be – a gift to yourself. In other words, turn off or turn away from everything, and gift yourself with five minutes to just sit. So that’s part of the main condition – giving yourself the time. And the other part is, intentionally settle the mind. And the way to do this is, sit down, or begin walking back and forth, and choose an object upon which to rest your attention (the R of G.R.O.U.N.D.), and then allow the mind to rest.
The breath is one recommended object because it’s there, easy to access, we’re definitely breathing. But if the breath, for you, isn’t a good place to rest the attention, sound is another good place, becoming aware of sound without getting captivated by stories like, “Oh, that bird sounds lovely. I wonder if it’s a finch. My grandmother loved finches,” and so on. Just resting the attention on sounds as they come and go. Doing a body scan can also be a good place to rest the attention, slowly scanning the body from head to toe, or toes to head.
This resting of the attention on one object, can be your whole practice. I do this quite a bit, and many people I know do as well. This practice, or this part of practice, is concentration, or samadhi. It’s possible to study with teachers who can guide you into deeper and deeper states of concentration, moving from the concentration I’m talking about, which is sometimes called preliminary samadhi, to access concentration, which I’ve experienced only the opening stages of, and all the way through to absorption, which I can’t talk about other than to say I’ve read all about it, because I haven’t experienced it.
It’s important not to be achievement-oriented with concentration practice or any mindfulness practice, though, so I’m only sharing about these three levels of concentration to give you a little background, and maybe a path if you’re interested, but not to say, your goal should be to go from preliminary samadhi to access to absorption. For now, what is important to know that like giving yourself the actual five minutes, or more, preliminary concentration is a necessary condition for N, noticing how things are, moment to moment.
So we sit down, or we start walking, and we begin to focus on the breath, sound, or the body, and it might take just a moment or two for things to settle down, or it may take much longer, or things may not settle down at all.
Which is also ok. Don’t get into an argument with what’s happening. If concentration arrives, great – notice it. If the mind is bopping around like a pinball, or mired in frustration, or whatever, don’t add insult to injury: don’t take issue with the wandering or aversive mind. Just see it as it is, and eventually it will settle down, or it won’t and you’ll sit again tomorrow.
Once settling down happens and you’re following the breath or sound or attending to the body, you’ve created the conditions to step back. The mind is settled, you’re aware that concentration is happening, and now you can step back. But who is stepping back? Who is aware? You can say there’s an observer who’s aware, or, better for me anyway, “awareness is aware,” or, “awareness-ing” is happening.
So the N of G.R.O.U.N.D. is noticing, and maybe a better way of saying that is, it’s “awarenessing.” We g-connect to the ground and the earth; r-rest; o-open; u-unclench (which can be difficult – yesterday I had this wave of resentment arise and it just stuck, and the only thing I could do was be with it and let it subside); and then n-notice…from the vantagepoint of awarenessing. From that place, that stepped-back place, see that whatever you’re unclenching from, whether it’s a thought or emotion or an old formation of the mind or heart that’s sticky, none of this defines you. None of this is bad or good. None of it is a problem if you can view it from this vantagepoint of awareness. Why? Because you’re viewing whatever is happening before you say anything or act on it.
I’m not going to speak for anyone else, but in my legal career, the times I was able to exercise this muscle memory of awareness and attend to whatever was happening in my own experience before I spoke up, or sent that email, or acted on whatever was going on, I was a lot better off, and so was everyone around me. There is so much potential damage I know I can do, and I think we all can as lawyers, as teachers, if we’re not aware of our own experience. The best example I can give is the most ordinary: if I’m not aware that I’m impatient or frustrated, no amount of smiling or “wise speech” is going to cover those over, and whoever I’m talking with is going to catch a whiff. Which isn’t conducive to anything.
So it’s all about practicing settling down and stepping back into awareness, where there’s clarity. And then making choices based on what you discover, the insights you gain, from that awareness.
Which is a nice lead-in to d-drop any doubt you have in your ability to do this, and just do it. And if there’s something you need, like a reminder that you’re doing the best you can, operating under the present conditions in your life; that there’s never been a single moment when you haven’t been operating with the best wisdom available to you in that moment; and that none of this is personal anyway, not one little thing: everything is just arising and passing away, nothing to grab for, nothing to wish away; if you need a reminder like that, drop that in. If you do that – when you do that – then you’re pretty much always good.