In this podcast episode, you will learn how to practice Threefold Mindfulness Meditation (Calm, Observe, and Analyze). This meditation technique is aimed at training the mind to overcome our habitual reactivity. The goal of this meditation technique is to learn to create a space between what happens (stimulus), and how we react to what happens (response).
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Transcription of the podcast episode:
Hello. You are listening to the Secular Buddhism podcast and this is episode #33. I am your host, Noah Rasheta, and today I’m talking about threefold mindfulness meditation.
Welcome back to the Secular Buddhism podcast, a weekly podcast that focuses on Buddhist concepts, topics and teachings presented for a secular minded audience. The Dalai Lama said “Do not try to use what you learn from Buddhism to be a Buddhist. Use it to be a better whatever you already are”. If you’re new to Secular Buddhism or you’re interested in learning more, check out my book “Secular Buddhism: Eastern Thought for Western Minds”. It’s available as paperback on Amazon, e-book on Kindle, and iBook on iTunes. It’s also available as an audio book on Audible.com. For more information and for links to those book versions, visit Secularbuddhism.com.
Now let’s jump into this week’s topic. So, before we get started I want to remind you that this content is also published on my website Getmindful.org. Two common questions I receive quite regularly are, “Why do we meditate?” And second, “How do we meditate?” So, I wanted to address this.
The reason we meditate – Our minds are engaged in an ongoing process of assigning meaning to events as they unfold. We create stories about ourselves and others. The guy who cuts us off in traffic. The strange look on the face of the clerk in the grocery store. The tone used by a co-worker and so on. We’re generally not even aware of this process and yet these stories that we create in our own minds can end up being the greatest source of stress in our lives. Meditation has been practiced for thousands of years as a tool to help us move beyond those stress inducing thoughts and into a more peaceful state of awareness that’s anchored in the present moment. And when practiced regularly, meditation has been proven to increase positive emotion, emotional intelligence and self control, while at the same time decreasing depression, anxiety and stress. I have links to all of the scientific research on Getmindful.org. So you can visit that and click on those links and see what the research shows about how meditation makes a difference.
So, the next question – How do we meditate? So, the reason that we meditate, as I mentioned, can be to obtain more calm or peace. But how do we accomplish that, because like exercise meditation may be simple but it’s certainly not easy. And the secret is to develop a consistent practice. Meditating for five minutes everyday is better than meditating for one hour every month. And threefold mindfulness meditation is a technique that I’ve developed to make meditation easier to practice.
So, threefold mindfulness meditation only takes 15 minutes and it’s broken down into three 5 minute parts. And if you give it a try – I challenge you to try meditating for 15 minutes a day. Try this for 14 days in a row. That’s two weeks. You’re going to notice a difference. I’m going to create a 14-day meditation challenge and by the time you’re listening to this podcast, hopefully you’ll see the link to join that 14-day meditation challenge on Getmindful.org.
I want to talk about the three parts of the threefold mindfulness meditation technique. Part one, I call “Calm the mind”. The mind is a lot like a jar of murky water. Constant agitation and movement of the jar causes the water to remain murky, but when you keep the jar still for long enough, the sediment will settle to the bottom and you’ll have a jar of clear water. In order to be able to gain insight into the nature of your mind, you must learn to calm the mind before it becomes clear. So, the first 5 minutes of the meditation technique are dedicated to calming the mind by focusing on your breath.
There’s a powerful breathing technique used by free divers to lower their heart rate and to reduce stress as they prepare to hold their breath to go underwater. Freediving is a form of underwater diving that relies on the divers ability to hold their breath until resurfacing rather than the use of a breathing apparatus like scuba gear. So, I learned this technique while I was training for four days with the U.S. free diving record holder, Ted Harty. What he taught me is this technique that works like this. You inhale through your mouth for 2 seconds. Then you pause and hold for 2 seconds. Then you exhale over the course of 10 seconds. And at the end of the exhale you pause or hold for 2 more seconds. Then you repeat the whole process.
So, the way it works – kind of counting it out, you would start with the inhale. So, it’s (inhaling) through your mouth – one, two; 2 seconds. And then you’re going to pause and hold your breath for 2 seconds. And then you exhale over the course of the next 10 seconds. And to do that, the secret is if you exhale through your nose, that might be easier. If you do it through your mouth, you have to use maybe your tongue kind of tucked behind your teeth; almost like you’re going to do a “s” sound or a “Shhh” sound. And that will restrict how much air comes out, because you need to restrict the air flow so that you don’t just – you know in the first 2 seconds of exhaling all your air is gone. You’re not going to make 10 seconds, so you have to exhale slowly. You don’t necessarily have to make a sound, but it is easier if you make a sound.
Then as you practice it, you’ll get more and more familiar with it and you won’t have to make a sound as you exhale. You’ll just know what the right pressure is of the exhale to ensure you’re going to last 10 seconds. And more often than not, the first time you do this – every time I do this, the first round, I can’t hit 10 seconds. I can probably do 6 or 7. And then on the second round I can do 7 or 8. And on the third round of doing this, I can do 9 or 10 seconds. Once you hit 10 seconds, you can do 10 seconds. And you are going to repeat this process over and over and over for the first 5 minutes.
And the way it works is your focus is on your breath, because you’re counting it. So, this is focusing your mind on an object. The object is your breath or staying on pattern. But what’s happening physiologically is because the exhale is longer than the inhale, your body is going through the physiological change of saying, “Okay, we need a – “. Ted told me this is called the mammalian reflex. What’s happening is your body is gearing up to be able to stay underwater longer, so it starts to put in place the systems it needs to ensure that it can last longer holding your breath, so it lowers your heart rate.
The crazy thing – in the professional world of free diving, the number one thing that will ensure you can hold your breath longer than normal is lowering your heart rate. People who tend to go into it with a strong Type A personality of “I’m going to hold my breath as long as I can”, tend to perform less well than somebody who goes in with a very calm mind. Because the more calm you are, the less your body needs oxygen. At least that’s how he explained it to me. So, I found that to be quite interesting. So, in a physiological way, we are calming the mind by slowing down the heart rate. And we are focusing the mind on a single object, which is the breathing pattern that we’re trying to stick with.
Now, what’s interesting is when you do this, after 5 minutes you will notice physically a sense of calm comes over you. This is a really cool technique that I like to use when I’m transitioning back from work to home. If I have a couple of minutes I’ll sit down and just practice this breathing technique for a minute or two. And it makes a big difference. It really does calm the mind. So, that’s Part One. We’re calming the mind using this breathing technique.
Now, I’ve made an audio track that’s 15 minutes long. You’ll see that as the next episode in the podcast. That’s going to be available for you as an MP3 to download it to use it as a guide so you can listen to this and follow along. The first 5 minutes has a metronome spaced out at 1 second intervals so that you don’t have to count in your head. You can just listen to the metronome and stay on track with the pattern. Otherwise, you wouldn’t know if you’re actually holding it for 2 seconds or if when you’re exhaling for 10, was it really 10, or are you just counting fast. So that audio file will be available and that will be very helpful for you.
Part Two is observing the mind. Meditation can help you to change the way you perceive and react to the moment to moment events as they unfold. So, this shift takes place when you go from thinking to observing. It’s by observing that you learn to create a space or a gap between stimulus and response. So, imagine you’re driving and suddenly you get cut off. That’s the stimulus. You’re walking and somebody gives you a dirty look. That’s the stimulus. How do you react? That is the response. So, habitual reactivity is when you react to an event without even having the time to decide how you want to react. This happens to us all the time.
There is no freedom in habitual reactivity. It’s in the space or this gap between what happens to you and how you react to what happens to you that you have the freedom to choose. And this is the second part of meditation. So, the first part is learning to calm your mind. But the second part is learning to practice a technique that reduces our habitual reactivity. And this is the phase of the threefold mindfulness meditation technique that’s designed to train your mind to practice observing your senses, thoughts and emotions.
The technique works likes this. You practice observing your physical senses first. So, you can scan your senses from top to bottom of your body. For example; starting with your head, try to observe and ask yourself, “What does my head feel like?”; “What do my ears hear?”; “What is my nose smelling?”; “What does my back feel like? Is it sore?”. You’re just observing. You’re not answering these questions. You’re trying to get in the mindset of observing. “What does it feel like to observe my body breathing?” You’ve just been doing 5 minutes of breathing where you’re trying to stay on a pattern. There’s a lot of observing that can be done there. “What do my legs feel like? Are they going numb from sitting here with my legs crossed?” “What do I feel in my feet?” And so on. Again, you’re just observing things here.
Then you move on to your thoughts. You can imagine that you are sitting in a field and you are observing the clouds passing by in the sky. When you look at clouds, do you ever see a misshapen cloud? No. Because there are no misshapen clouds. When you’re observing your thoughts, it’s the same way. It’s not about right or wrong thoughts. What you see is just what is. So, apply this to the meditative process of observing. Just observe your thoughts, but don’t judge them. And don’t think that there’s something you’re supposed to or not supposed to be thinking while you meditate. Because remember it’s thinking mind that we’re trying to get out of and observing mind that we’re trying to get into.
So next, I want you to practice observing your emotions in the same way you would observe clouds. Notice how if you are feeling an emotion, like anger for example, you are not actually angry. You are experiencing anger. This is creating a little bit of separation between your emotions and you. So, two key findings should emerge when we’re consistently observing our senses, thoughts and emotions.
One is that they are impermanent; meaning they are always changing. They arise. They linger. They go away, just as the clouds in the sky do.
And number two is that they are interdependent; meaning they have causes and conditions. For example; if you sit long enough and your leg goes numb, the cause of the leg going numb is that I’ve been sitting here. There’s a cause to it. And the cause has its own cause. And that goes on and on. Every cause has its cause. So during this part of the meditation you’ll notice how quickly your mind shifts from observing back into thinking; making meaning. And when it does, just bring your attention back to the practice of observing. Remember, observing that you’re no longer observing is still a form of observing, so don’t be harsh on yourself.
The whole goal of this part of the meditation is to practice observing. That’s what creates space between stimulus and response. It’s our ability to remove ourselves from the thinking mind into the observing mind and that will create that space between stimulus and response. You choose how you respond.
So, part one is calming the mind. part two is learning to observe, and what we are observing specifically are senses, thoughts and emotions. And now we’re going to talk about part three.
Part three is called “analyzing the mind”. After observing that the nature of our senses, thoughts and emotions is that they are impermanent and interdependent. Now, we want to analyze the implications of these observations. So, if you are experiencing an emotion, such as anger, this is where you get to spend time analyzing it now. For the second part, if you were noticing or observing your emotion, you’re not doing anything with it. You’re just observing it. But for this part, we are going to analyze it. So you could ask “What are the causes and conditions of this emotion?”. And when you find the causes, “What are the causes of those causes?” What you should find, if you are analytical enough and you spend time with it is that everything that has a cause, has a cause. And that cause also has a cause. And this goes on and on. And this process can go on forever because all things are interdependent; all things have causes.
So, if your senses, thoughts and emotions are not permanent, what about your sense of self? What is the “self”? The Dalai Lama practices this form of meditation, called analytical meditation, which I have incorporated to be the third part of threefold mindfulness meditation. So, it’s in this phase of meditation, he asks himself the question, “who am I?” And this is what you’re going to do, too. Ask in the context of observing the nature of my mind, being impermanent and interdependent, then “Who am I?”. And if you can observe your thoughts, then you must not be your thoughts, so perhaps you’re the observer of your thoughts. And if you can observe that you’re observing your thoughts, then maybe your not the observer. You’re the observer of the observer. This gets crazy, because this can go on and on.
If you can observe your emotions, then you are not your emotions. Are you the observer of your thoughts and emotions? So, the ultimate aim of meditation is to arrive at an understanding of the nature of reality; the nature of the self. And that is that the sense of self we experience, like all other things, is impermanent and interdependent. It’s constantly changing and it has causes and conditions. So, whatever it is you’re experiencing, try observing it and then analyzing it for its causes and conditions.
One of the secrets of meditation is that you don’t will yourself to be calm or peaceful by meditating. It cannot be forced. And I think there’s a misconception here, because people spend time meditating thinking what I’m doing is I’m sitting here and pretending to be peaceful or calm hoping that if I fake until I make it, eventually I will be. And that’s not how it works. The key is that you learn to understand the nature of your anguish; the nature of your anger or your discomfort, or whatever emotion it is that you’re experiencing.
Understanding the nature of yourself brings about peace naturally. It’s not forced. When you understand your anger and its causes, then you become liberated from it. And it’s not because you force it to go away, but because you allow it to be the impermanent emotion that it is. And by the very nature of being impermanent, before you know it, it’s gone. And when it comes back, because it will, you can greet it like an old friend. But this time you won’t be trapped by your reactivity to it anymore. Freedom from habitual reactivity is the essence of what it means to be mindful. What it means to be awakened or enlightened. And it’s something that we can practice. We do this over and over, day after day, until we’re free from our habitual reactivity. This is the goal of threefold mindfulness meditation.
We learn to calm the mind. Then we observe the nature of the mind. Finally, we analyze it, so that we can gain insight about ourselves.
So, to make this meditation easier, I mentioned before, I’ve created a 15 minute audio track to help you through each phase. The first 5 minutes have a 1 second metronome to help you stay on track with the breathing pattern. At the end of part one, you’ll hear a bell. This bell indicates that you’re now entering part two. During the next 5 minutes, practice observing your senses, thoughts and emotions. Over time, you’ll get back into thinking mode, where you start making meaning of things. Gently return to being a neutral observer; like watching the clouds. When you hear the bell ring again, you’ll know that now you’re on part three.
And it’s for this last 5 minutes you’re going to practice analyzing the causes and conditions of your senses, thoughts and emotions. It’s amazing how many of us experience emotions without ever really understanding why we’re experiencing them. Are you really mad that somebody cut you off? Or is there a deeper discomfort that’s causing you to react with anger to a stimulus such as being cut off? You can ask yourself, what if it was a duck with its ducklings that’s walking in the road that forced you to slam on your brakes or forced you to swerve. Would you still feel the same amount of anger? Why or why not? Analyze that emotion. And at the end of the meditation, you’ll hear the final bell that indicates the 15 minute meditation is over. And that’s it. In one sitting you’ve practiced threefold mindfulness meditation.
I would challenge you to make a goal to practice this everyday for at least 14 days and see if you notice a difference in your habitual reactivity. And then after that, keep going. Just make it a daily practice. So think about this for a second. What price would you be willing to pay to be free from your habitual reactivity? The investment is only 15 minutes a day. And I hope the resources I’ve made available to you on our journey to have greater peace and contentment in life will be helpful in that process.
Try using the audio track. I am going to make a guided version of this. And as you use the guided version I think it’ll help you to become familiar with the technique. Over time you may not need the guided version. You can just listen to the audio. The audio helps you stay on track to know when to switch from part one to part two to part three. And how to stay on track with the breathing pattern in part one. And eventually you may not need that one either. You can just do this without any kind of assistance. I’m going to upload the 15 minute audio file to help you as a meditation guide. There will be the unguided version, which is just the music and the metronome. Then you can download the guided version, too. And you’ll be able to download this as an MP3 and save it for whenever you meditate or you will be able to stream it like you would a podcast. I am also going to be uploading that guided version that I told you about. So, you’ll see those on the podcast list soon. And remember, this content is typed out and published on Getmindful.org so you can re-read this to really get a sense for how this meditation works and how to do it.
So, that’s all I have for the podcast episode on how to meditate or an introduction to threefold mindfulness meditation. If you have any questions about it, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me. You can find me on Facebook. We have a Facebook study group called “Secular Buddhism”. We have the Facebook page that’s also called “Secular Buddhism”. And then on the SecularBuddhism.com website, you can always reach out to me through the contact link and it’ll email me. There are several ways to track me down and get a hold of me.
If you enjoy this podcast, again, please share it with others. Write a review. Give it a rating in iTunes. If you are in a position to be able to, I would encourage you to consider making a one-time donation or becoming a monthly contributor to the podcast by visiting SecularBuddhism.com and clicking the donate button on the top of the page. That’s all I have for this episode and I look forward to another one. Until next time.