In the last years there has been a lot of research done on the physiological and psychological benefits of mindfulness-based meditation. It is a practice that develops an open choice-less awareness, a state of being attentive to whatever presents itself. This open-focus meditation is different from the object-based meditation where our attention is focused on a specific object (image, symbol, mantra, etc…). In general, when we pay attention we usually focus on one object at the time, to the exclusion of all others. Les Fehmi, author of Open-Focus Brain, says that this gripping form of attention, characterized by the Beta brain wave pattern in an EEC, is the mode we typically use when writing, reading an e-mail or paying our bills. It is necessary but tiring to sustain for long periods of time, specially when we spend a long time on a computer or other technological devices. It is correlated to physiological reactions such as muscle tension, stress hormone secretion and increased blood pressure which can be detrimental to our health in the long run. On the other hand, the open-focus type of attention shows an Alpha brain wave pattern, a more receptive open relaxed state. A good example of this state of receptivity is when we are on vacation and we broaden our awareness to include new smells, sights and sounds, a mode of taking in the world that is more expansive and relaxed.
New research by scientists at the University of Wisconsin (Dec. 2013) indicates that even eight hours (in a retreat setting) of intensive mindfulness practice can reduce the activation of pro-inflammatory genes which in turn correlates with faster physical recovery from stressful situations. I strongly recommend checking Linda Graham’s web site (lindagraham-mft.net) where you will find a very generous choice of articles and mindfulness exercises to deal with different emotional challenges. I will mention here a few simple exercises using the open-focus approach. You may want to start with the eyes closed and then with eyes open.
1. Become aware of the space between your eyes and expand that space. Rest there. 2. Become aware of the space inside your throat until your neck is full of space. 3. Become aware of the space inside your heart until that space fills your entire chest. 4. Become aware that your whole body is filled with space. Keep expanding until the space between your body and the walls of your room is filled with space.
This type of expansive awareness as opposed to a narrow one-pointed awareness will release tension and stress very effectively.
There is nothing new about this approach to meditation even though today there are some biofeedback methods that have been added to the open-focus meditation. This is the type of meditation that is the basis of all mindfulness practices in Buddhism. In the Tibetan Bön and Dzogchen Buddhist traditions there is a type of meditation called sky-gazing. The sky represents the element of expansive space without shape, with no beginning and no end. It just is. This makes it an ideal subject and metaphor for the mind. In this type of meditation where we keep our eyes open but unfocused, we learn to relax, to let go, with nothing to hold on to or focus on. Just opening up to a 190 degree vista where everything is just like it is in its natural state.
“There is no difference between mind and sky. When I dissolve into that vast expanse – empty and clear – there is no end or limitation.” Shabkar
Sky gazing requires skill and is usually practiced together or after other practices like recitation, prayer, chanting and deity meditation. In sky gazing there are no more supports. Even though we are looking at the sky and our eyes are open, we are not focusing on anything, creating anything, getting fixed on anything. We are simply sustaining pure awareness or pure presence. This is the heart of the practice. I should mention here that (1) sky-gazing meditation does not necessarily require being outdoors under a cloud-less sky, although this can be a prop and a beautiful way to meditate, but it can be practiced also in a room. It is an inner state of expansion that does not necessarily require an outer setting. (2) Sky-gazing is not day-dreaming or spacing out. It is a very dynamic and vibrant state of alertness that requires effort. At the beginning this practice is done for brief periods of time in order to keep the intense non-focal concentration. We can start by following our breath or returning to it when needed or until the mind settles. Then we open our awareness to whatever presents itself: sounds, thoughts or sensations, as they arise in their own accord.
Awareness is like a lamp shining and giving life to everything, inner or outer, good or bad, pleasant or unpleasant. Awareness or consciousness is the silent witness that has been watching a show since time immemorial, since the moment we identified for the first time with the object of our awareness and we forgot that we are not the object, the body, the thought or the emotion that awareness shines on.
This awareness meditation, pure and naked, is the heart of all practices. Sustaining it 24 hours a day is the goal of yogis. I am posting here a very rare documentary The Yoga Masters of Tibet, showing some masters of yoga that allowed to be filmed while practicing the sky gazing or open focus meditation. I hope they inspire you as they have inspired me.