Appendix A of Meditator’s Field Guide
Resistance is futile.
While meditating, sooner or later, a distraction completely hijacks our attention. In meditation, these distractions are often called “hindrances” (nivarana in Pali). We may not even see them coming: one moment we’re sending compassion, the next we’re rehearsing a conversation, planning our day, reminiscing about yesterday, or attending to something other than the object of meditation.
This drifting mind is a symptom of tension that is disturbing our underlying peace. This side of awakening, we all have many tensions. So the distraction points out tightness — it shows exactly where it is so that we can release it skillfully.
The trick is to do it wisely. An unwise way is to condemn ourselves, “Oh, I can’t do this!” That criticism and aversion create more tension and destabilizes the mind further. Another unskillful strategy is to buckle down and try harder –– a kind of greed for something different. This too creates more tension and restlessness. Another unhelpful way is to give up and stop meditating.
A better approach is employing a six-phased process called “the Six Rs” that was developed by Bhante Vimalaramsi and his students.
The first step is Recognizing that our attention has moved away from the primary object of meditation. Seeing how the mind’s awareness shifts from one thing to another is crucial. In time it will be clear that something specific drew us to that particular distraction. The reason may not be clear now. That’s fine. If a thought drew us away, there’s no need to get involved in its content. It’s not important. If the content of a thought could awaken us, we would have become enlightened a long time ago. Instead, we notice the feeling in the mind-heart. There will be some tension: worry, curiosity, aversion, fear, desire, doubt, or some other attitude.
Recognizing this tightness on its own terms is very helpful. We want to recognize sensations as sensations, feelings as feelings, and thoughts as thoughts rather than confusing a thought or label with a sensation or feeling.
The second phase is to Release the hindrance. Our culture has a bias toward fixing things or getting them under control. The Six R practice is the opposite. We just let the distraction be without trying to change it. If we’re upset, we don’t indulge the turmoil or try to squelch it. We just notice, “Ah, there is a lot of hurt and anger in my system.” If we notice daydreaming about an imagined vacation, we don’t go off into the fantasy or try to shut it down. We just notice daydreaming is happening.
As Suzuki Roche put it, “The best way to control a cow is to put it in a large pasture.” Release means giving the distraction some space. It may wander across the pasture and out of our lives. Or it may come back and stare us in the face with big brown eyes. Either is just fine.
Releasing isn’t pushing the distraction away. It’s just letting go of our grip on it. To truly let something be means it can do what it wants. We no longer hold it close or hold it off. The best way to control a cow is to Release it into a large pasture and let the cow be a cow.
The third phase is to Relax. The first two phases are passive: we Recognize the distraction and Release it or let it be. In this third phase, we start to act. This action is directed inward — soothing our stress by softening the tension in it. We aren’t trying to change the hindrance or our thoughts or feelings. We aren’t trying to Relax the distraction; we’ve just Released it to do what it wants. We look inside, notice any physical, mental, or emotional tensions, and Relax them. That’s all. The term the Buddha used was dramatic: he said “abandon” the tension. Walk away from it. We don’t have to search for tension like an enthusiastic detective. Just relax. That’s enough.
There’s no need to force Relaxation. It is just a gentle invitation — like a sigh. Yet this opportunity to Relax physically, emotionally, and mentally is very helpful!
The next phase is to invite a lighter state of mind. One way to do this is to smile — not a forced smile, but a gentle, sincere one. A frown takes more energy and tension. So as we Relax, smiling comes easily.
It’s called “Re-smile” because we do it over and over (and because we needed an “R” word). But in truth, Re-smiling refers to any uplifted state — lightness, kindness, joy, ease, gratitude, spaciousness, or any state with little tension in it.
Sometimes this lightness comes by acknowledging, “Boy, that situation sure has me by the throat. Cool.” It helps to take ourselves lightly.
The smile may be on our lips, in the mind, in our eyes, or in the heart. If no uplifted state comes on its own, we raise the corners of the mouth slightly. Brain research affirms that even if we do it mechanically, it effectively encourages the mind to lighten up. Having a good sense of humor about how the mind drifts is helpful.
Now we take the Relaxed mind-heart and this brighter, lighter state back to radiating happiness and well-being. We Return our attention to our base meditation practice.
The final phase is to Repeat the process when it’s needed and as often as needed. This step does not flow automatically from the preceding Rs. But it is included as a reminder that we may need to use the Six Rs a lot. During meditation, if distractions keep grabbing our awareness, it is not a problem if we Six R each time. Meditation is not about sustaining any particular state. States come and go. Meditation is about seeing how the mind moves around. By six-R’ing, we see the mind-heart's movements more and more clearly.
If one or several uses of the Six Rs didn’t release all the tension, it will let us know by arising again. We Recognize, Release, Relax, Re-smile, and Return again, perhaps going a little further each time.
That is the beauty of this process. We don’t have to do it perfectly. Doing it just a little is good enough. As we Repeat, it gradually works itself out.
The first five Rs are not entirely separate from each other. As we learn this process, the Rs begin to blend together. They become less a set of isolated steps and more a dynamic flow of energy.
To Recognize a hindrance clearly, we naturally step back from it a little. “Let’s have a look at this,” implies getting a little distance from the hindrance so we can turn toward it and see it clearly. Stepping back is part of the Release. As we Release, we tend to Relax. As we Relax, our mood brightens. From this brighter place, we naturally Return to radiating well-being.
Think of this as “rolling the Rs.” Don’t push for this flow, but don’t be surprised if the stages start to flow together naturally into a single process with multiple aspects: recognize-release-relax-resmile-return.
The purpose of the Six Rs is not to get rid of anything. It is to see clearly what’s going on, accept it as it is, soften any tension, and then go back to radiating kindness, happiness, or equanimity. If we use the Six Rs to try to make a distraction go away, we are practicing aversion. That doesn’t help!
The Six-R process is a practical implementation of Wise Effort (or “Right Effort”), the fourth step of the Buddha’s Eightfold Path. The Eightfold Path is the fourth of the Buddha’s Four Ennobling Truths. So in practicing this way, we are engaging the Buddha’s core teachings.
The Six Rs are effective enough to be used over and over. However, after a while, repetition can become rote and dry.
Words don’t have absolute meanings. Different words have different connotations for different people. So my sangha and I thought about another set of letters that might serve as alternate reminders. Because “soften” is sometimes a good synonym for “Relax,” and “Smile” is an obvious substitute for “Re-smile,” we looked at Ss.
Because a majority of people (but not all) are visual thinkers, “See” became a good stand-in for “Recognize.”
“Send” was a good stand-in for “Return.” It means go back to the practice of sending out metta or other uplifted states.
It was a little harder to find a stand-in for Release. But since my favorite quote about it is Suzuki Roshi’s, “The best way to control a cow is to put it into a large pasture,” we settled on “Set the cow free” or simply, “Set it free.”
That left the final R, “Repeat.” We could not come up with a good S verb. However, the Six Rs are really a sweep of Five Rs with the Repeat coming later when the mind gets hijacked again. The point of including “Repeat” is not that the step is done right away, but a reminder that we’ll be doing the Rs a lot. And doing a lot of Six Rs is good practice.
“Patience” captures this attitude and looks at “Repeat” from a different vantage. Good enough.
“Patience” is the Buddhist equivalent to “grace.”
1. The Borg are a fictional collection of species in the Star Trek series. Before assimilating another species they typical told them “resistance is futile.” In meditation the phrase is a reminder that hindrances are strengthened by our opposition to them. The Six Rs allow them to relax and quietly disappear.
Copyright 2017 by Doug Kraft
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