Meditation: A Process Of Retraining The Mind

Bhante Gunaratna

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Awakin FeatureGently, but firmly, without getting upset or judging yourself for straying, simply return to the simple physical sensation of the breath. Then do it again the next time, and again, and again, and again.

Somewhere in this process, you will come face to face with the sudden and shocking realization that you are completely crazy. Your mind is a shrieking, gibbering madhouse on wheels barreling pell-mell down the hill, utterly out of control and hopeless. No problem. You are not crazier than you were yesterday. It has always been this way, and you just never noticed. [...] So don’t let this realization unsettle you. It is a milestone actually, a sign of real progress. The very fact that you have looked at the problem straight in the eye means that you are on your way up and out of it.

In the wordless observation of the breath, there are two states to be avoided: thinking and sinking. The thinking mind manifests most clearly as the monkey mind phenomenon we have just been discussing. The sinking mind is almost the reverse. As a general term, sinking mind denotes any dimming of awareness. at its best it is sort of a mental vacuum in which there is no thought, no observation of the breath, no awareness of anything. It is a gap, a formless mental gray area rather like a dreamless sleep. Sinking mind is a void. Avoid it.

When you find you have fallen into the state of sinking mind, just note the fact and return your attention to the sensation of breathing. Observe the tactile sensation of the in-breath. Feel the touch sensation of the out-breath. Breathe in, breathe out and watch what happens.

Don’t set goals for yourself that are too high to reach. Be gentle with yourself. You are trying to follow your own breathing continuously and without a break. That sounds easy enough, so you will have a tendency at the outset to push yourself to be scrupulous and exacting. This is unrealistic. Take time in small units instead. At the beginning of an inhalation, make the resolve to follow the breath just for the period of that one inhalation. Even this is not so easy, but at least it can be done. Then, at the start of the exhalation, resolve to follow the breath just for that one exhalation, all the way through. You will still fail repeatedly, but keep at it.

Every time you stumble, start over. Take it one breath at a time. [...]

This meditation is a process of retraining the mind. The state you are aiming for is one in which you are totally aware of everything that is happening in your own perceptual universe, exactly the way it happens, exactly when it is happening; total, unbroken awareness in present time. This is an incredibly high goal, and not to be reached all at once. It takes practice, so we start small.

Excerpted from this article by Bhante Gunaratna. 

Seed questions for reflection: How do you relate to the notion that our mind is a 'shrieking, gibbering madhouse'? Can you share a personal story of a time you were able to get beyond thinking and sinking, and into total awareness? What helps you deepen your awareness?

Add Your Reflection:

8 Previous Reflections:

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    On Dec 31, 2019 Vikas Ratanjee wrote:
    Being simply a witness to what is taking place around you, as if you are in the middle of a busy road and are trying to be alive to how are things unfolding is one way to both avoid your shrieking madhouse state of mind and to be aware to the moment, though not reacting!

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    On Dec 31, 2019 Jamilee Brown wrote:
    "As a general term, sinking mind denotes any dimming of awareness. at its best it is sort of a mental vacuum in which there is no thought, no observation of the breath, no awareness of anything. It is a gap, a formless mental gray area rather like a dreamless sleep. Sinking mind is a void. Avoid it."

    As a person who meditates regularly, I wholly disagree with the 'sinking mind' concept and avoidance of it. The place where there is no thought or observation of breath is EXACTLY what you strive to achieve so you can finally allow the vibration to rise and allow the Inner Being a voice which is only heard in such a void whilst meditating. The place where you are there in a meditative state, awake yet disconnected from sensation or thought is the allowance - the grace from the monkey mind - to feel yourself gaining perspective that is above the nonsense that is regular mental chatter.

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    On Dec 31, 2019 Patrick wrote:
    For those of us who follow a “Christian” path, this is the contemplative way to become “en Christo”, one with Universal Christ. It is of course similar to states alluded to in other faith paths. }:- a.m. (anonemoose monk)

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    On Dec 31, 2019 Dagmar wrote:
    I am going through a tough time of huge changes, moving from one US coast to the other, giving up meaningful work and relationships, living now in a pretty isolated area (suburbs). Consequently I am finding myself feeling amazingly rudderless and in need to navigate a mind that is running wild. I have been meditating for decades and am a mindfulness and meditation teacher. I am also feeling again a complete beginner in my practice. The difference is that when I usually approach the cushion with the beginner's mind, it is with a relatively calm, even joyful and curious mind - one without expectations. That mind is able to become aware of all that arises and let go of ongoing commentary. In contrast this present mind, the "shrieking mind" is born out of and cultivated by the need to judge everything and to resist in a knee-jerk reaction all that has already happened, or is happening that is negatively judged. This monkey mind (state) is governed by its need to grasp and ... [View Full Comment] I am going through a tough time of huge changes, moving from one US coast to the other, giving up meaningful work and relationships, living now in a pretty isolated area (suburbs). Consequently I am finding myself feeling amazingly rudderless and in need to navigate a mind that is running wild.
    I have been meditating for decades and am a mindfulness and meditation teacher. I am also feeling again a complete beginner in my practice. The difference is that when I usually approach the cushion with the beginner's mind, it is with a relatively calm, even joyful and curious mind - one without expectations. That mind is able to become aware of all that arises and let go of ongoing commentary.
    In contrast this present mind, the "shrieking mind" is born out of and cultivated by the need to judge everything and to resist in a knee-jerk reaction all that has already happened, or is happening that is negatively judged.
    This monkey mind (state) is governed by its need to grasp and hold on to what feels (or felt) good and avoid what is deemed negative or difficult but already here right now. I can feel its workings in the body.
    The task is clear and familiar. To keep practicing. As I connect with this in breath and this out breath I notice changes in the body and mind. This is my medicine, on and off the cushion.
    Personally I find that there is no better way to overcome/transform the shrieking mind except to faithfully, mindfully meditate with it. [Hide Full Comment]

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    On Dec 30, 2019 Prasad Kaipa wrote:
    When I read the passage this week, I was in Costa Rica Sarapiqui region. After I read it, I took a walk consciously paying attention to my breathing and walked to the window and looked outside. The mist was amazing and made me feel like the universe is breathing together as well. When it breathes out, we see the universe outside and when it breathes in, the universe disappears. This photo at 6:45 am in the morning is what I felt represented the passage and the etherial nature of breath and life.



    Click on the image for higher-res photo.

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    On Dec 28, 2019 David Doane wrote:
    I easily relate to and identify with having a mind that can be a shrieking, gibbering madhouse. I think of times when I'm into my shrieking, gibbering mind as driving myself crazy, which is a bad and worthless crazy. I think of my spontaneous, playful, creative, right brain time as my being good crazy, and that I value. I do enjoy more times of peaceful meditative mind than years ago, but such times are still brief and not frequent enough. I have times of getting beyond thinking and sinking, sometimes when by myself and sometimes in relationship, mainly by way of intentionally paying attention to what is happening in and around me here and now. If I'm ever in total awareness, it's only for moments. What helps me deepen my awareness is practice being in the present paying attention to what I am experiencing. Sometimes that involves paying attention to my breathing, relaxing, and closing my eyes.

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    On Dec 27, 2019 Vinod wrote:
    The fact that after an out-breath, if there is no in-breath, it means death, can heighten one's awareness.
    There's birth and death with every In-breath andin every out breath.

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    On Dec 27, 2019 Jagdish P Dave wrote:
    Our untrained mind is a"shrieking, gibbering madhouse". It happens in our waking state as well as in our sleep sate. Our mind hardly rests.Our mind is like a monkey mind, jumping from one thought branch to another thought branch.It is either restless or void or blank.We need to be awareof these two states of the untrained mind. Noticing these two states of our mind without judging is the first and foremost step for retrainingour mind. I like the way BhanteGunaratnadescribes the process of Retraining the mind." Gently, but firmly---, simply return to the simplephysical sensation of the breath. Then do it again the next time, and again, and again, and again." It sounds simple but it is very profound. I practice this breath meditation everyday. It has been very helpful to me. Daily practice of the Breath Meditation helps me to go beyond thinking and sinking mind into total awarenessof what's happening in the present moment.It helps my mind to be quiet, centeredan... [View Full Comment] Our untrained mind is a"shrieking, gibbering madhouse". It happens in our waking state as well as in our sleep sate. Our mind hardly rests.Our mind is like a monkey mind, jumping from one thought branch to another thought branch.It is either restless or void or blank.We need to be awareof these two states of the untrained mind. Noticing these two states of our mind without judging is the first and foremost step for retrainingour mind.

    I like the way BhanteGunaratnadescribes the process of Retraining the mind." Gently, but firmly---, simply return to the simplephysical sensation of the breath. Then do it again the next time, and again, and again, and again." It sounds simple but it is very profound. I practice this breath meditation everyday. It has been very helpful to me.

    Daily practice of the Breath Meditation helps me to go beyond thinking and sinking mind into total awarenessof what's happening in the present moment.It helps my mind to be quiet, centeredand clear. This is an ongoing process and not a one time deal. When my mind goes astray or takes a hike, I notice it without judging and return to in-breath and out-breath awareness.

    May we cultivate the skill of remaining fully in the present moment!
    Namaste!
    JagdishP Dave



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