Morning “Check In” — What is present and what is arising?
When I awake in the morning, the first thing I do is “check in” to myself to see what’s going on. I consciously breathe in and out, center myself, and just listen and watch to see what arises. I try not to get snagged by anything, but just be open to the whole experience that I identify as “I” or “me.”
This morning what arose, as I got quiet enough to see, was an oppressive sense of fear and unease. Looking deeper, I saw that there were nameless fears about my body, fear about the struggles of friends and loved ones, and fear about the problems of the world.
Often, my response to such feelings is to begin metta—loving-kindness meditation—for myself, for the loved ones, and for the world. Love is a powerful antidote for fear—as I recall, there’s a even Bible verse that says, “perfect love castesth out fear” (the King James version I grew up with.)
But today, instead of doing metta, I felt the need to look more deeply into the fears, individually. What did a particular fear feel like? What was it’s mental “flavor” or “color” so to speak? And perhaps most importantly, what did the particular fear feel like in my body if I paid interested attention to that fear?
Looking into fears with mindfulness and interest
I needed to find out, so, with concentration, (called samatha in Buddhism), I just paid close attention to the sensations associated with the fears. The important thing was not the details of the fears—not the reasons and rationales for them—but just concentration on the fear itself and how it felt in the body.
If you have practiced meditation and gained some ability to concentrate quietly without your “monkey mind” swinging all over the place, you will find that you can really zero in on the feeling of fear. Instead of following your mind’s story lines, you see the fear just as it is, without ideas, stories, and all the sticky, entrapping human details. You don’t try to “do” anything to the fear, though you may feel a part of you resisting feeling it. Notice the resistance, but just pay interested, calm attention to it and go back to noting the sensations.
Do you feel a tightness in the stomach? Then focus there, and relax. Use your focus on the breath to mentally breathe into your stomach, as if the in-breath and out-breath were originating in the stomach and moving in and out of that area. It might sound like a kind of visualization, but actually is a lot more. It’s literally feeling the energy of the breath right there in the stomach, moving in, and moving out, moving in and moving out. Where you feel the tension, the discomfort, focus and breathe there.
Notice the feelings in the body, then relax — and smile!
As you do this, notice any tensions and tightness of muscles, and relax. And smile to yourself. Yes, literally smile. Smile to your stomach, smile to your fear. This is a powerful skill I learned from my heart teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, and a wonderful Theravadan teacher, Bhante Vimalaramsi. (See also: The Power of the Smile in Our Meditation and Lives)
You might even talk to your muscles and say, “Dear muscles, you feel so tight and tense. I invite you to you relax! I invite you be at peace!” This is bringing a little bit of metta, loving-kindness, into the work.
Smiling helps you let go. Then, as you feel your body relax, go back to the sense of the breath moving in and out in the area where you feel the fear and tightness or pain.
When you feel ease, bliss, joy, calm, appearing in your stomach area (or wherever), then smile. Smile, and shift your attention back to your whole breath as just your breath in the body. Listen and watch. Where else do you feel fear in the body? The throat? Then shift your attention to the throat and any pain or tightness that is there. Relax. Smile. Return to the breath. Pay attention, but not tightly, not fiercely, but loosely and lovingly. Nothing else in the world matters at that moment except being present, showing up for what’s there in your mind and body, and being with that with attention and compassion until insight arises.
As I worked this way this morning, I felt the oppressive sense of fear dissolve away. I felt my body and mind fill with light—the light of mindfulness, presence, and awakening to what is. For a while, I just stayed with this light and enjoyed the freedom. After a while, I returned to my daily metta work for myself, for my beloved wife, for friends who come to mind or who I know need special help. When goodwill to them established, I then went on to metta for casual acquaintances, and then for the whole world—metta for the struggling hearts everywhere, for the plants and animals of the world, and for all beings, everywhere.
Changing your life by “checking in” on your feelings and taking care of them
If you have time, or make time, for this kind of “check in” in the morning, I think you will find it changes your whole day, and your life. Even if you don’t have time in the morning to stop and work this way, it helps to have paid attention to what is in thought when you woke up and to keep track of that during the day so you are more awake to what’s going on. Later, as you have time during the day, or if you can take meditation break, you can go back to the those feelings and work with them skillfully through attention to the breath, through mindfulness, through metta, and through relaxing, smiling, and letting go.
Always remember: fears aren’t really “you” or “me,” since all fears are “not self” as the Buddha’s teaches. Rather, fears are merely mental and emotional “visitors” and “vendors” that we need to take note of with attention, compassion, and wisdom. Rather than ignoring our fears, we need to keep track of them, make them “check in” with us, so to speak, and notice when they arrive and depart.
When a fear arises strongly, we need to see just what the “vendor” is trying to sell us about ourselves, or life. We don’t have to believe everything we think or feel! Almost all fears have their origin in a mistaken sense of who we think we are. Over time, and with the practice of mindfulness and meditative insight, our non-reactive attention to our thoughts and feelings begins to to dissipate our fears, release their energy, and eventually, they stop arising. They don’t even knock on the door of our thought!
And even long-standing fears that seem to have gone from “visitor status” to uncomfortable squatters in our lives can finally be evicted. I can attest from my own life that even the deepest, oldest fears that plague one can finally be seen as “empty” of an intrinsic self. The “I-ness” and “Me-ness” of fears can seen through and their knotted, trapped energies released. The daily practice of mindfulness and loving-kindness will show us how, but we need to be loving and patient with ourselves.
I hope these skills I’m sharing from my own practice are a help to your life and to your spiritual practice. Through mindfulness, attention, and meditative insight, we can unbind ourselves from fears and find freedom of mind and heart!