THREE POINT AWARENESS MEDITATION
(From Zen Heart by Ezra Bayda, p. 111-115)
The following mediation is a powerful technique for cultivating the state of wide-open awareness. As with many meditations it may take some time to become comfortable with the instructions. However, with repeated practice you will find that what at first seemed complicated is actually quite straightforward, and the disciplined effort that’s required when learning this meditation later becomes much more natural and fluid.
First Point: Breath into Chest
First, take a couple of deep breaths to bring awareness into the body. For this meditation it is best to keep the eyes open and the body still. Bring awareness to the sensations of the breath, particularly the sensations of coolness as the breath enters the nostrils on the in-breath, as well as the subtle texture on the out-breath. Stay with the sensations of the breath in and out of the nose for three full breaths.
Now direct awareness to the feeling of the breath in the center of the chest, feeling the sensations in the area of the heart. On an inhale, breath as if you were breathing directly into the center of the chest, feeling the quality there. Then simply breathe out. Stay with the sensations of the breath in and out of the chest for three full breaths.
Next, direct awareness to the sensations of the belly, feeling the sensations of expansion on the in-breath, and the sensations of contraction on the out-breath. Stay with the experience of the breath in and out of the belly for three full breaths.
Finally, see if it is possible to experience the breath in all three areas simultaneously—the breath in and out of the nostrils, in the center of the chest, and in the belly. You may have to flicker quickly between the three, but place most of the attention on the area in the center of the chest, and stay with this more complete experience of breathing for three full breaths.
When thoughts arise during the part of the mediation, do your best not to get caught in them, and instead keep the awareness focused on the physical sensation of breathing.
As you continue with this expanded experience of breathing, you can also become aware of the rhythm of the breath. Regardless of whether the breath is fast or slow, deep or shallow, regular or irregular, simply notice the rhythm without trying to alter it. Let the breath breathe itself, at its own pace. You don’t need to do anything except be aware of it.
As you become aware of the breath’s rhythm, be sure to continue staying with the various sensations of breath throughout the body, especially the sensations in the center of the chest. Stay with the expansive experience of the sensations and rhythm of the breath for at least three full breaths.
Awareness of breath, particularly in the center of the chest, is the first point in the Three Point Awareness practice.
Second Point: Awareness of Environment
The second point is the awareness of the environment. While still keeping some attention on the breath, bring awareness to the sense of space in the room. You can be aware of the quality of light and temperature, as well as sounds, including both near and far away sounds. Simply be aware and listen. There may also be a subtle sound in the head. There may also be sounds between the sounds—the sound of silence. The sounds don’t have to be beautiful—include the traffic, the hum of the refrigerator, the voices of people talking. Simply listen. Listen with the whole body, not just with the ears. As you listen, feel the breath into the center of the chest, while staying tuned to the space around you. Stay with the dual awareness of breath and environment until you can hold the two without too much difficulty. Naturally, attention will wander off repeatedly. The practice is to first return to the anchor of the breath, then to the anchor of the environment, reestablishing the wider container of dual awareness. If possible, maintain awareness of both simultaneously.
If thoughts arise during this part of the meditation, don’t push them away. But don’t indulge them either. Just notice them and, if necessary, label them to help dis-identify with them. Then come back to the dual anchors of the breath and the environment.
Third Point: Overall Body—“I am here”
Once you can hold these two points, attention is directed to the third point, which may be difficult to locate, but which can best be described as the outline of the body. It’s the overall feeling on the body-in-space, rather than the directed attention toward any particular sensations. You may want to focus briefly on the tip of the nose to help you tap into this particular experience of the body. You may also find it helpful to silently repeat the phrase, “I am here.” The “I” in this phrase is not the little “I” of ego but the bigger sense of I-as-Awareness [or I-as-Infinite-Spirit]. As awareness expands into the third point, there is a sense of Being Awareness, which is the unique, experiential sense of presence—including the body yet not limited to the body.
Stay with these three points for the remainder of the mediation, combining awareness of the breath into the center of the chest, the perception of the environment, and the overall feeling of the body. It’s perfectly OK to flicker back and forth between them; with practice you’ll gradually be able to hold all three at once.
Whenever you drift off into thoughts, there is a crucial instruction: when you become aware that you are caught in thoughts, make the conscious intention to come back to reality for at least three breaths. With the first breath you reestablish the anchor of the sensations of breathing in the center of the chest. With the second breath you reestablish the anchor of the environmental awareness. And with the third breath you reestablish awareness of the overall sense of the body, including the experience of “being here.” This particular combination—breath in the chest, awareness of the environment, and awareness of the outline of the body [or overall sense of the body in space]—seems to accelerate the expansion of awareness into the more awake state of Being Awareness.
If you get caught in an emotional reaction during the meditation, you don’t need to push it aside. Rather, you just have to temporarily change gears. If the emotion is light, notice and feel it, then reestablish the Three Point Awareness practice. If the emotion is strong you may need to really focus on experiencing it with “What is this?” mind—which means staying intently present with the physical sensation of the emotion. But as soon as the heaviness or agitation begins to lift, move back into the meditation by reestablishing the three points on the successive breaths. It’s possible to even include and residual emotional experience within the wider container of the Three Point Awareness [by holding the emotion as another point of awareness, without reacting to the emotion or trying to figure it out or trying get rid of it; just hold your experience of the emotion, especially the physical sensation of the emotion, along with awareness of the breath, the environment, and your overall sense of the body.]
This Three Point Awareness Meditation is the essence of wide-open awareness, where we allow whatever presents itself—thoughts, feelings, sensations—to arise within the wider container of the three points. Awareness is not limited to just the three points, nor are we staying with the three points in a focused way; rather we are holding attention to them lightly, as best we can, continuously. In this way, awareness excludes nothing. This is similar to the Zen practice of shikan-taza [which is a state of intense focus, often referred to as the “mind of someone facing death”], with two important differences. First, the three points give a context within which to experience whatever arises, including thoughts and emotions; and second, they offer a very specific anchor to return to whenever attention wanders. This context and anchor help prevent the practice from becoming amorphous or spacy, which are the major difficulties people sometimes have with shikan-taza. As you develop the ability to maintain the Three Point Awareness practice it becomes possible, with intention and effort, to tap into this awareness periodically throughout the day, such as during walking, shopping, or driving.
There’s an instant version of this meditation that’s ideally suited for those moment when you’re waiting in line or sitting in your car at a red light. This version emphasizes the phrase mentioned earlier—“I am here.” Breathing in, bring awareness to the center of the chest; and on the extended out-breath silently say, “I.” On the second in-breath, while continuing to be aware of the breath into the chest center, bring attention to the environment, and on the extended out-breath say “Am.” And on the third in-breath, which keeping attention peripherally on the breath and the environment, become aware of the overall sense of the body in space, and on the extended out-breath say “Here.” Each word can take on a rich meaning in this brief but powerful exercise. You can do this exercise anywhere, anytime; and as you repeat the three words you may instantly enter into the experience of Being Awareness, of living aware. Every such moment spent in the Three Point Awareness becomes food for one’s being.