Meditation Sucks. Now What? Part Two: Spacious Awareness

Meditation Sucks. Now What? Part Two: Spacious Awareness

In Part One of this two-part series, I said that Megan Campbell has written a post called Meditation Sucks + Souls Shivers  in which she said the hardest part of deepening her spiritual practice (until just lately) had been meditation. She said it sucked.

I wrote that I could definitely relate. As I said in Part One, I have meditated since 2000, and especially regularly since 2010, and it has pretty much always sucked. Details here, in case you’re interested.

In Part One I described the practice of Sober Breathing Space, and how I adapted it to support my sitting meditation practice.

I have been working with SOBER Breathing space for a while and it has been a helpful tool to support myself when I’m re-experiencing sensations, emotions and thoughts associated with trauma.

The next step on my meditation journey came as part of a program through WildMind.org . This program introduced a way of working in meditation called spacious awareness. Spacious awareness can be integrated into the E (expand) of SOBER and it can also be a starting point for your sitting practice.

Spacious awareness (Adapted with permission from http://www.wildmind.org/blogs/on-practice/the-still-spacious-and-vibrant-mind-of-equanimity )

Spacious awareness first involves becoming aware of the outer world of light, sound and — above all — space. When sitting, after having settled in, we simply notice the space around us — in front, behind, to the sides, above, below — and notice the sounds and light that fill that space. It can feel as if our consciousness is filling the world around us, so that there is a spacious sphere of awareness.

Then we extend this spacious awareness so that we’re also paying attention to the inner world of physical sensations, thoughts, and feelings. (Conceptually, it’s better to think of this as simply noticing the inner part of our sphere as awareness.)

Lastly, we maintain this awareness of the inner and outer dimensions of our awareness.

If we start to lose touch with either the outer world (because we’ve started obsessing about a thought, for example) or if we start to lose touch with the inner world (perhaps because we’re listening to a sound) we return to cultivating this open, spacious awareness.

How spacious awareness helped me: there is an “I” that is larger than all this

There is an "I" that is greater than my difficulties.Tension, claustrophobia, panic and physical pain have been features of my sitting meditation since I began. I am now beginning my sitting practice with spacious awareness, rather than focusing my attention on the breath, as is traditional and as I had been instructed many times. Situating myself in an expansive field first, as a kind of “ground” for my sitting time enables me to relax, and establishes “ground” to which I can return when I get lost in thought, pain and panic, much like traditional focus-on-the-breath instruction. But for me, concentrating on the breath narrows my focus more than I seem to be able to tolerate and intensifies the distress. So I return to spacious awareness over and over throughout my practice.

Spacious awareness practice has much more ease for me than investigating panic and pain. I have learned that “I” (an “I” that is not-me, includes me, and is more than me) am larger than “all this” (my difficulties). Now I have a container that is not my body (which I don’t experience as safe or grounding anyway)… or we could say it is my body and more… that is big enough to hold whatever is happening.

 

There is an “I” that is larger than my difficulties. Click To Tweet

 

Going Deeper: a feedback loop of mutual awareness

I shared what I wrote above with Wild Mind’s founder, Bodhipaksa.  In response, he said, “One refinement of the spacious awareness exercise is to recognize that, in some sense, the space around you is conscious of the body, feelings, and mind-states within it. I know this may not sound like it makes sense, but it can work, experientially.”

 

The space around you is conscious of the body, feelings, and mind-states within it. Click To Tweet

 

I would say that this space is not the body (not identified with it), but it is not not-the-body either. In other words, the space includes the body as part of “itself” (if space could be said to be a self, which it isn’t).

Really, we are interpenetrating or interpermeating each other, if there is an other, which there isn’t, either! It’s all one big -ING, one big ongo-ING interbe-ING (to steal from Thich Nhat Hanh).

One of the things I had been saying to myself in the E of SOBER is “I am held. I am OK.” meaning the environment, the great everything, is doing the holding. I take in the light, the greenery, the air, etc. and remember I am not alone. These things are not inert; my be-ING is as integrated into the natural world around me as are all the non-human beings. Like the organs in a body, my be-ING is distinct but not separate.

Bodhipaksa replied, “This is actually very close to what I was getting at: a sort of experiential non-duality, in which the awareness of space around (and including) the body is, after all, an awareness. If we’re perceiving space, then that space is awareness, perceiving.”

This connects with what Megan had said to me in our conversation about her post Meditation Sucks and Soul Shivers, which started me on this particular theme. I had forgotten what she said until I wrote this post. Speaking of how she is with herself when meditation sucks, she said: “For me it has been more a form of connection to prayer, guides, angels, and sitting in comfort that this is when the magic happens.”

 

The “magic” of meditation happens by accident. We can't make it happen, but with regular… Click To Tweet

 

This takes the whole practice to a deeper level. What’s valuable to me in what Megan said is a reminder that in expanding (in both SOBER space and spacious awareness), it is good for me to include reconnecting with the sense of the presence of powers greater than I.

I’m very curious to know what your meditation practice is like. What are your challenges and successes? Have you experimented with SOBER space or spacious awareness? What was it like to do that? Let me know in the comments below. I’m looking forward!

11 Comments

  1. Thank you for those distinctions Shulamit. I have occasionally experienced a similar constriction by retaining focus on my breath. I really like the concept of spacious awareness, I suppose I’ve instinctively began to practice something similar, your definition is very helpful.
    My biggest challenge in meditation right now, is in maintaining a balance between self-discipline with the openness of letting my body take me where it needs, every day.

    Reply
    • Catarina, I can totally relate to your challenge. How are you working with it? I’m curious.

      Reply
  2. Love your rendering of spacious awareness practice, Shulamit. Even just reading it filled me with a greater sense of ease and remembrance of the larger whole at once constituting and containing my smaller self. Thank you!

    Reply
    • Oh yay! I’m so glad to hear that 🙂 Thanks for posting, Dana.

      Reply
  3. Thanks for this reminder. I had heard of “Spacious Awareness” and forgotten to practice it. My biggest challenge in meditation is losing presence and racing away with mental plans for the day, or worries that I will forget something important. Even when I’m supposedly focusing on a mantra or my breathing I notice that I can simultaneously be doing these mental acrobatics. At least in seems that way.

    I’m going to cultivate this spacious awareness in my next meditation and see what happens.

    Reply
    • Sarah I had to laugh when you said you can run the two tracks at once. Me too!! What is that about? Lol. I was taught–as probably you were–that the good thing about losing focus is that becoming aware of that and coming back to the focus *is* the practice. Aren’t we lucky?

      Reply
      • LOL, I used to make it mean something was somehow ‘wrong’ with me and I’m a hopeless meditator. Now I practice self compassion (as much as possible) and yes, come back to focus grateful that this ‘is’ the practice.

        Reply
        • 🙂

          Reply
  4. Shulamit, spacious awareness is a beautiful thing. And mysterious, but I think I can accept the mysteries and dive in anyway. Thanks so much for sharing it.

    xoxox
    Sue

    Reply
    • Thanks for the comment Sue. I like mysteries. I’ll be curious to know what your dive is like.

      Reply
  5. I am relatively new to spirituality (though I’m 56 years old!) and have been successfully (I think!) practicing short sessions (3-5 minutes) of mindful meditation. I am a happy person but come from a long line of rapid, over-thinkers and truly find peace while meditating.

    I just read this page and am extremely eager to learn more about how to visualize and experience spacious awareness — anything that can help me to clear my mind and refresh my soul.

    If any other resources are available, I’d love to know about them.

    Reply

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Sign Up for Yoga Classes Today Learn more
Hello. Add your message here.