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The Softening Into skill is a skill of Mindful Non-Resistance. It’s a skill of learning to be with experience, regardless of what it is, without fighting, without running away, without hanging on to it. To understand this Mindful Non-Resistance, the skill of Softening Into, we first need to understand where the word Softening came from.
When you are mentally resisting something or fighting something - what’s the experience of your mind?
How does your mind feel?
How is it experienced during that resistance?
How do you experience your mind when you don’t want something to be there or you want something to change, or you want another experience to appear, to arise?
If we observe our mind we will start to notice that whenever our mind experiences something, whenever it longs for something to be other than what it is, we become mentally tight, we become mentally hard, unmoving and unpliable.
On the other hand, when our mind is accepting, when its open, it becomes soft, pliable, it allows things to be, it allows things into the heart. So, when we resist we become mentally hard and tight. When we accept, our mind becomes open, pliable and soft.
Softening is a process of turning hardness into softness, of turning mental resistance into mental openness. So, in MIDL Mindfulness meditation the Softening Into skill is an ability to lower and abandon all resistance. It’s a necessary skill to deepen our meditation practice. It’s a necessary foundational skill.
We train the initial Softening Into skill by taking a seated posture. We first ground our awareness as in exercise 1 & 2 within our body.
“Observe how you can just experience yourself sitting here now”.
“Just allowing your awareness to start to immerse within your body, experiencing the different sensations, becoming aware of the points of touch; touch of your hands, your arms, of your body pressing on the chair or the floor, of your feet, and then widening your awareness throughout the whole of your body.”
“Experiencing all the sensations within your body, all the points of touch. Relaxing deeply into your body and experiencing the increasing sensation of heaviness as you relax, immersing your awareness within it. This creates your initial MIDL foundation.”
The next stage is to learn how to breathe in the belly. Breathing in the belly is breathing using the diaphragm muscle. This does not necessarily feel natural to all of us. We start this by placing our palm just below our belly button. We take a slow breath in through the nose breathing into the belly so our palms rise and lift. We allow the breath to go out slowly and naturally. Breathing just into our belly again, we breathe into our belly so our palms lift up and we allow the breath out slowly again. And in, and out.
When doing this initial training we should aim at slowing down the breathing in our belly, making the breathing very slow as it comes in and even more slow and exaggerated when it goes out. This will create the initial calming effect. This can be trained in MIDL Mindfulness Training 3/52: Autonomous Breathing.
The next stage after learning to breathe in the belly is learning how to fill our chest with air without engaging the chest, upper shoulders and upper back muscles. During stress breathing these muscles are engaged moving the rib cage to allow us to breathe. During the Softening breath we want learn to dis-engage these muscles to allow our lungs to passively lift our body as they fill with all the muscles in our upper body totally relaxed.
This can be understood by thinking of a hot air balloon, when a hot air balloon is deflated it has no structure no form, as we fill the hot air balloon with air the air comes in and the structure of the balloon sits on the air, its supported on the air and as the air goes in, the balloon lifts up, it lifts up and fills, it inflates. During this process the balloon is sitting on the air, its resting on the air. When the air goes in - the balloon fills, when the air goes out - it deflates.
During this process, the balloon never has any structure instead the air gives a hot air balloon its structure. In the same way during the Softening breath when we are breathing up into our chest, we allow our ribs to be the hot air balloon. Allowing our body to sit on the air. Allowing our whole body structure to be supported by our lungs as they fill.
To train the next stage we place one palm below the belly button and one palm on the top of our chest. We breathe into our belly first so our palm lifts we then help the breath by pushing our ribs forward and out. The breath then comes up into our chest, we continue to breathe into our chest so our top palm lifts up, rising up, body lifts and then we allow the breath out slowly, we allow our shoulders, our chest and upper back to relax.
We abandon all effort. We breathe into our bellies so our palm lifts, pushing the ribs out our breath comes up sitting on the lungs supported by our lungs to the top of our chest and then we allow our whole body to drop and relax with the out breath. Once we can feel this we can then remove our hands. Breathe into our belly, our ribs, the top of our chest, our body lifts up and as the breath goes out we relax deeply.
Now we enter into an important phase in the softening skill. The Softening Into skill is not about breathing, it’s about using the breath to teach us how to soften, relax. During this initial stage we are learning how to relax deeply within our body. In the next stage we learn how to relax deeply in our mind. In this physical stage we focus on relaxing our body with the out breath. This means aligning your relaxation with the breath as it goes out. As the breath comes in your body inflates, it lifts.
The important part of this skill is to learn how to allow everything to go, to give up all effort, to allow all the muscles to relax, to drop in line with the breath going out. This can be likened to sitting up the top of a slide or in Australia we call it a slippery dip. As we slide down the slide our body connects with the slide, it’s always in contact with the slide. As the breath inflates our body and lifts us up and we connect with the slide, we connect with the breath. As the breath goes out, the body drops, it deflates, we allow all our muscles to relax, we allow everything to relax with that out breath.
So, just try it now.
“Breath comes into your belly, ribs and top of your chest, lifting you up. The breath goes out allowing your shoulders, chest and upper back to drop / relax.
Doing this again. Breath comes in lifting you up, breath goes out everything relaxes, sink.
Experiencing the beauty of each breath, the beauty of relaxing deeply. Allowing gravity to relax you. Allowing gravity to pull you down and stretch your muscles over your structure, over your body.
Once we have this initial stage we start to feel deep relaxation within our body.”
We move into the next stage of Softening by exaggerating the out-breath through the nose. First, we mentally feel the relaxation within our body. We align our self with the relaxation of our body. As the breath comes in we feel our body lifting up and then we move our focus from our body on the out-breath, from the shoulders and chest to the frontal lobes of our brain.
We initially focus on any mental tension we can feel and then as the breath goes out we exaggerate the out breath, we slow the out-breath through the nose and we allow ourselves to mentally sink, relax with that out breath. We feel the breath come in from the belly moving up through the ribs, top of the chest lifting us up then we focus on any mental tension and we breathe out slowly through the nose allowing our whole body to deflate, allowing ourselves to mentally deflate.
Again, like the slide we align the mental relaxation with the out-breath. With the relaxing of our body breathing in lifting up, slowing down the out-breath through the nose we allow ourselves to mentally drop, to sink. Allowing ourselves to sink more deeply, breath comes in we lift, slowly out through the nose, we drop, we sink, relax.
During MIDL practice any movement of attention away from 'grounding' of awareness within our body is acknowledged and then Softened Into. We Soften into everything. We Soften into everything we experience. We Soften Into unpleasantness, we Soften Into pleasantness, we Soften our relationship to everything.
With continuous Softening and refining of Softening our skill becomes very refined. It becomes so refined that we can deeply mentally and physically relax without the use of breathing. We can mentally and physically relax at will. We can relax so deeply that our mind always knows that right now is safe.
This Softening Into skill as it matures leads the mind towards Equanimity. It leads our mind to a quality of neither liking nor disliking, of neither attraction nor aversion, leads it into balance. It settles the heart, it matures the heart.
The Softening Into skill abandons that which is Unskilful, that which is Unwholesome, that which pushes away.
The Softening Into skill also strengthens that which is Skillful, that which is Wholesome because the Softening skill is a skill of combining; it’s a skill of bringing that which is separate together as one.
The Softening Into skill leads to maturity within our Mindfulness meditation practice. It leads to maturity within our lives. With continuous Softening, with relaxing and Softening deeply into our relationship to whatever is experienced 'now', our mind gradually neither pushes away nor grabs on to anything. Our practice starts to mature and Equanimity arises within the mind. It deepens, it matures, we experience peace.
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This article was written by Stephen Procter, Meditation Instructor from Meditation in The Shire, Kirrawee NSW, Australia. If you wish to post this article on another website or in a publication please respect the author and reference / link back to this website, thank you