by Will Kabat-Zinn
- Mode 1: Mountain
- Mode 2: Mountain and Sky
- Mode 3: Beyond Mountain and Sky
- Moving between Modes
- Living with Awareness
Arrange your body in a posture that is upright, balanced, and relaxed.
The spine is erect and balanced
Head is straight (upright) with the chin slightly tucked
Ears are in line with your shoulders
The nose is in line with the navel
Hands rest in your lap or on your knees.
Invite a gentle softening in the musculature of the body. You will need some muscle engagement to keep the body upright but let even the engaged muscles be soft. Let go of any extra effort, extra strength, or tension in the body. Particularly soften in the belly, back, shoulders, hands, and feet, arms and legs, face and jaw.
The sensation body
Sense your whole body sitting, aware of the body simply as a field of sensation that is appearing here and now. This is not your body-image (a mental picture you hold), or your memory-body (memories you have of your body), or your story-body (the thoughts, judgments, narratives you have about your body). The sensation body is what is actually appearing in the domain of felt experience here and now and nothing more, no evaluating or judging, no comparing or narrating.
Mode 1: Mountain
Within the felt sense of your whole body sitting, allow yourself to feature the sensations that come with breathing. Your body is already breathing in a continuous and yet ever-changing, moment by moment flow of experience. Can you notice how these breath sensations are manifesting here and now? Let them be exactly as they are, however they are.
Rest your attention wherever in the body the breath sensations are most vivid, or easy to feel and simply be aware of the flow of the breath moment by moment and breath by breath.
Common places to feel the breath:
- Nostrils: Feel the touch of the air at the rim of the nostrils, or passing over the upper lip, or slightly inside the nose. The exact location will differ from person to person.
- Chest: Feel the chest gently expanding and softening.
- Belly: Feel the belly gently rising and falling.
- Whole-body: Maintain a light awareness of the whole-body breathing, note how the sensations of the whole body of the breath move and change within the whole body. This method involves a more-full body awareness.
For our purposes, it does not matter where exactly you feel the breath in the body. There is no hierarchy in terms of where to feel the breath. Feel the breath wherever it is most natural easy to notice. Let whatever sensations you feel be enough. Let them be complete as they are, perfect as they are. Don’t go searching for more sensation than you are feeling and don’t try to amplify the sensations that are present. Let just this breath, as it is, be enough. And only for this moment, just for right now.
Let go, let be
As you feel and feature the breath sensations, let go of thoughts about time and space, let go of knowledge and concepts, let go of ideas of good and bad, progress or stagnation. Let go of thinking about yourself or the world. “Let go” just means let these thoughts happen in the background. Let the breath sensations be center stage in the field of awareness, the primary domain and anchor for your attention. Feel the texture of the breath, the raw sensory data.
Here and now
The only breath you can feel is the one that is happening right now, so your task is actually quite simple. It involves only this moment, this breath, nothing more.
As you attend to the breath sensations in this simple way you are training in radical openness and pure perceiving. As you breathe, desires will arise, fears and worries will arise, doubts and questions will arise, thoughts and memories, fantasies and imaginings of all kinds will arise. Don’t let any of this bother you or simply notice if it does. For now, just let all of this happen in the background. Don’t latch onto thoughts or push them away. Don’t label them as good or bad.
Notice thoughts, return to the breath
When your attention gets pulled into thought worlds, stories, or narratives and you become aware of it, simply notice this and return your attention to the breath sensations. Do this only when you lose touch with the breathing body and are “lost” in the thought worlds. “Lost” simply means that you are not watching or lucidly observing the thoughts in real-time. If thoughts arise and you do not lose touch with the breathing body, simply let them come and go on their own in the background. Thoughts arise like sounds in the environment, unbidden they come and go, arise and pass due to conditions and are not subject to your direction or control.
Let go of everything that has come before. Engage wholeheartedly with this breath exactly as it is. Let your attention be full of interest, curiosity and wonder while at the same time being relaxed and soft.
Like a passenger along for the ride
In featuring the breath sensations, you can relate to the waves of sensation as if you were floating on a raft in the ocean and just feeling the ocean’s waves (the waves of the breath) moving you. Simply relax, feel, and let the waves carry you. You don’t need to “do” anything. “Doing” the breathing is like feeling that you need to make the ocean wave. The waves of breathing are already happening. Relax as you ride along with the breath sensations.
You do not need to breathe in some special meditative way. The natural breath is best for our purposes. Let your emphasis be on directly apprehending the sensations here and now.
Stay awake and aware through the pause or transition between breaths. Rest in this space, but with awareness. “Transition” is just a concept, a made-up designation that arbitrarily categorizes one part of an experience as important (the “event”) and something else as not as important (the transition or “in-between”). We can see how arbitrary this designation is and how it privileges certain experiences and how much of life it leaves out.
If your attention is getting tight or brittle, invite the attention to be softer. Don’t strain. “Do” less. Simply attend.
Sitting like a mountain:
As you connect again and again with the direct experience of your own breathing you slowly begin to abide for longer periods, present, awake, and aware, in the here and now. As your attention becomes more stable, steady, and unified you will begin to feel more stable in the posture itself, anchored, rooted, mountain-like. It is your connection to present moment awareness that is more stable. The stability of awareness gives rise to an embodied and pervasive sense of inner stability. You sit like a mountain.
Mode 2: Mountain and Sky
As stability emerges through breath awareness, as you begin to sit like a mountain, your awareness naturally becomes clearer, more spacious, and panoramic.
You are now sitting like a mountain with the open sky all around. Your body is the unmoving mountain and your awareness is like the vast sky in which every kind of weather pattern arises and passes away, morphs and changes form. All of these weather patterns are a result of myriad causes and conditions, most of which are beyond your control. The weather may be sunny and calm, or wild with storms. There may be lightning or thunder, light rain, wind, fog, or snow. There may be warm sun or a clear and cold moonlit night. Through it all, the mountain remains stable, and unmoving, while the wide open sky welcomes weather of all kinds equally without any preference whatsoever. In the same way, the sky-like nature of your own awareness receives all experiences equally including your mountain-body and everything that happens within it, the thinking and perceiving mind, and everything that happens within it. All mind and body states, all experiences appear within this vast sky-like nature of mind. Preferences, judgments, and evaluations also appear within the space of awareness, each just another kind of weather. Awareness is the space in which everything happens. Yet, unlike empty space, it has a knowing quality that allows experience to manifest and be known. It is like empty space pervaded by light. The light (knowing) is invisible to the eye until an object appears and is illuminated.
Breath as an anchor
Now you can more fully include other experiences that before were just “in the background”. The breath is still featured but now serves as an anchor or support, helping you to not be pulled into the stream of thinking. Now you have room to notice other experiences that arise in the field of awareness as well. You can do this without immediately losing your steady observing and inner equipoise.
At times you will be breathing with sounds, pleasant or unpleasant bodily sensations, feelings, reactions, impulses, moods, emotions, mind and body states, and thoughts. Don’t try to control or manage your experience. Let what emerges naturally be featured in awareness while it lasts until the next object arises that is compelling enough to take its place. At times this may feel less like breathing with one object after another and more like breathing with an entire symphony of experience. All of it, the symphony of sound and sensation, of mental events, feelings, and emotions, arises in the open space of awareness.
Mode 3: Beyond Mountain and Sky
The Anchor Lets Go of You
At times now you may naturally let go of the breath as an anchor and simply rest in an awareness of the flow of experience. All that appears is constantly arising and passing, moving and changing, unfolding due to myriad conditions. Your job now is to do nothing but observe, allow, let be, to be the space of awareness itself. Although at times this mode of experiencing may arise effortlessly, you can also play with intentionally letting go of the breath and just letting interest in knowing your experience keep you awake and aware.
Moment by moment keep including what appears in awareness. This including is what allows the stability to continue and become increasingly unshakable. What you do not include in awareness will take you over and shape your consciousness. What you do include becomes the living and free display of awareness itself.
Return to the knowing
In this phase, when you get pulled into the content and lose touch with the free and lucid quality of knowing (awareness) you can simply remember to notice the knowing that is already here, and again include whatever is happening. This mode/phase is sometimes called choiceless awareness because there is no intentional directing of the attention. When intentions arise and result in the directing of attention or some kind of “doing” this too is noticed as just another phenomena appearing in the space of awareness. There is nothing that cannot be included. Whatever arises becomes the curriculum.
Moving between Modes
In your daily practice feel free to experiment, to move between these phases or modes. If you are newer to meditation you will most likely want to begin with Mode 1 to develop some stability before opening up to more territory. That said, some people are so interested in watching their own mind that they can start with Mode 3. Sustained interest provides the continuity and stability of attention.
Let one mode flow naturally into another. There is no objective “right” way to practice. It is more useful to have an attitude of play or interest in exploring rather than one of forced discipline or trying to do it “right”. There is no hierarchy in these modes though there may appear to be. I practice regularly with all three and move freely between them. Learn to trust yourself in this navigation. Watch out for trying to over-optimize what mode you “should” practice with. Be natural. Play and learn.
Much of the art of meditation involves learning how to skillfully relate to your experience. You can respond when the mind needs to center and regroup (Mode 1). You can use the breath as an anchor (Mode 2) when you want to maintain a more open and panoramic awareness and not be swept away. When you can let go of any kind of effort, “doing”, or focusing, and simply be free and easy, allowing life to unfold all by itself you are in Mode 3.
Living with Awareness: Practicing with All of Life
Formal sitting and walking meditation practice are powerful vehicles for growth and transformation. They are a kind of basic training that can lead levels of clear seeing and liberating insight that radically transform your understanding of yourself and your relationship with the world.
However, without including all of life in our practice, meditative insights will be of limited value. Our training must be robust enough that we can embody what we know when it counts. For that reason, we must bring awareness to all aspects of our lives.
When walking be aware of walking, when sitting be aware of sitting, when talking be aware of talking, when listening be aware of listening and so on, and so forth for everything you do at all times of the day. The territory that arises in sitting meditation, your five senses, the mind, sensations, feelings, moods, emotions, mind-states, and thoughts is also the curriculum of your daily life, all day, every day. What will you include? What will you choose to leave out?