THE BLOG
04/11/2013 02:33 pm ET Updated Jun 11, 2013

An Open, Spacious Awareness for an Open, Spacious Life

One aspiration of a mindfulness meditation practice is to create spaciousness and openness in our everyday lives. Many times, our lives can feel beyond its capacity to hold one more thing that inevitably comes along, pulling for our limited attention and energies. Not only can multiple demands on our life lead to a sense of stress and overwhelm physically, but it can also feel unsustainable and hopeless emotionally. We are all human, so we all share the possible distress of death or separation of a loved one, unexpected trauma or injury, inequities and injustices of our larger society, and losses through aging, illness or disability -- all on top of the formidable tasks of educating ourselves, making a living, raising a family and creating some sense of purpose for our lives.

Whether it is the internal or external sense of being "maxed out," what is often helpful is to seek a larger landscape in which to hold one's experience. This is not only a skillful means of coping with difficulty, but it is also an aspect of mindfulness and awareness -- not to forget that our lives are always more expansive that we think them to be, especially when we are unable to move beyond a specific problem. A spacious mindfulness practice can benefit a sense of larger perspective, a bigger picture, an openness that often can soothe the mind and calm the heart. And even if the practice does not completely do this every single time, it may do it enough so that we can be present one more moment, one more hour, one more day -- to allow the boundless qualities of Life to arise and remind us that a clear mind and open heart are possible even in the most difficult circumstances.

One of the classic images used to express this is a storming bull that is caught in the confines of a very small barn. What happens as the animal rages and bucks against the narrow walls of its prison? Likely, it will both destroy the barn and deeply injure itself. However, place the bull in the space of an open field with no obstacles or boundaries; its energies will surely be vented, and its forces also will also exhaust and calm themselves over time. Our minds and hearts are similar. Placing our minds and hearts within a larger landscape allows whatever to arise to be held with mindfulness. The broader the picture we have of our life, the more space we have to maneuver any difficulties that arise.

Many traditions offer meditations which imagine or visualize the mind and heart to be as wide and deep as the sky itself. These visualizations of the boundless qualities of mind and heart are helpful metaphors for our life. They are inspiring, and personally, I benefit from a bridge between visualization and actualization. I am best supported by a tangible practice that will not just point me toward more expansiveness but actually offer my mind, heart and body a taste of the experience of vastness.

There is a practice that I call "Sensing Freedom" which has helped me actualize the expansive potential of mind and heart. When I sit in a period of silent mindfulness meditation, and especially if I am ensnared with a specific struggle or dilemma, I will take a journey of awareness through my senses -- all of my senses. In the Buddhist psychological frame, there are six sense doors: the five senses common to Western understanding (seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching) with the sixth sense being the sensations of the mind-heart (thoughts and emotions).

As the body settles into its meditation posture, one's awareness is invited to cycle through all the six senses with balance, giving each sense door about the same emphasis as the others. I usually begin with the sense of seeing. This meditation can be done with the eyes open or closed. Even with the eyes closed, the eyes do not stop seeing. The guidance is to allow the mindfulness to be gently aware of what it is that the eyes see, whether the eyes are open or closed. Notice the colors, shapes, pulsations of light and darkness. Invite the mind to refrain from any need to interpret or understand what is being seen. Allow the mind to get out of the way, and have the optical nerve to do its natural cellular function. There are an infinite number of minute visual sensations that the sense of sight absorbs in any one moment.

After a time, gently have the mindfulness to shift to the sense door of hearing. Feel that sounds can be heard without any additional effort on your part. They come into your awareness and fade away. Notice the fainter sounds with as much mindfulness as the louder ones. Again, try not to interpret, have an opinion or even a preference of the sounds that are heard. The invitation is simply to meet the sense experience as it arises. There is always a symphony of sound impressions being taken in by the sense of hearing.

As you shift into the sense of smell, notice how often the experience might seem to be completely vacant of sensation. Unless there is something fragrant in front of us, or unless we have a respiratory condition, there are likely few fragrances that we are noticing every moment we breathe. This can be a place to notice how much of our breath is neutral and extremely subtle--and yet who would we be without this breath? What can be learned from those subtleties of our life? What does is the experience of "fresh air" smell like? What other nuances in our life do we tend to take for granted or overlook; where else are we missing an opportunity to direct our gratitude?

Next, invite the awareness to flow into the sensations of taste. If you have recently eaten a meal, there still maybe the sensations of after-taste in your consciousness. If not, again, there may be the neutral sensations of subtlety -- an ever-so slight bitterness, sweetness, saltiness or sourness. Each of our sense organs opens into a universe of impressions with their combinations and permutations. Whether we are aware of them or not is an effort of our mindfulness practice.

Allow the awareness to flow into the sensations of touch in the body. How are the sensations of physical feeling being experienced? Is there awareness of the placement of the hands or feet contacting the floor? Especially if there is a difficult experience currently arising in your life, the sensations of the body may reflect tension, stress, contraction, tightness. Where in the body are these felt? If there are unpleasant sensations that you feel, where in the body are they not felt? Lightly scanning the entire body for physical sensations can offer breadth to the capacity of mindfulness.

Lastly, move the awareness into the space of the mind and heart. Whatever challenges or difficulties are presenting in your life, invite the awareness to notice the tone of the heart and mind without needing to get into the details of the content (at least during your meditation period). Invite the mind-heart to feel the spaciousness of the sensations of all the other sense doors. All these sense impressions combine to create our experience. And there is an expansiveness that each sense invites. We do not have to be defined by any one situation, or identity, or difficulty, or challenge in our life.

As this practice of "Sensing Freedom" cycles through our senses, we gain the larger perspective that, while we may move through the world dependent primarily upon the responses of the mind-heart, this is really less than 17 percent of our direct experience with the present moment. We are invited by the mere existence of our multiple sense doors to be aware that our lives are so much more than what we think our lives to be with only our minds. We are encouraged to feel that each of our six sense doors opens into a whole vast universe of sensations. As these fields of sense worlds cascade into and intermingle among each other with greater, refined awareness, they create a landscape of expansive horizons that can reach in all directions and can embrace all of our experiences. We begin "sensing" freedom through the all the senses, not just trying cognitively understand or figure out or live freedom through our minds. This kind of spacious open awareness does not repress, deny, or change the experience of the mind. It simply gives the mind room to breathe, relax and come into its fullest potential -- to be kind, clear and free.

The breadth of our life has the capacity to tend and care for all of the multiple joys and sorrows that come our way. Part of mindfulness is remembering that spacious quality of not just our minds and hearts but that it can pervade all our lives. In that boundless quality of our Life, is the possibility of more freedom and greater peace.