How the "steps" of the five-step mindfulness practice evolve

Ken has encouraged me to use the five-step mindfulness practice in conjunction with the primary or central practice, and this has been very helpful, particularly when strong resistance, aversion and anger arise in daily life. Recently I've been listening to the audiofiles from A Trackless Path II  and found this advice from Ken to a student who asked about whether it was important to do all the steps sequentially.....

Evolution of 5 Step Practice (from ATPII02: A Trackless Path II (retreat) 00:01:05.00 - 00:07:35.60) (download into iTunes)

It's called five-step mindfulness practice and there may be a better word in English rather than step because step is the idea that I take one step and then another step, or climbing a set of stairs, and you deliberately move from one to two to three to four and five. This practice doesn't really work that way. The steps evolve out of each other. So the first step is: "Breathing in, I experience this reaction; breathing out, I experience this reaction," or pain or difficulty or problem. And as you do that you naturally evolve into the second step which is: "Breathing in, I experience my reactions to this problem; breathing out, I experience my reactions to this problem." And those reactions are, at the physical level, how the body's reacting; at the emotional level, all the emotions that are coming up and at the cognitive or mental level, all the stories and associations and memories and distractions that come up. And you just experience those.

And what's happening there is one is moving into a fuller and fuller experience of the problem, the reaction, whatever. And in that you find yourself just experiencing all of that. And now rather than reacting to all of that you're just experiencing it, which is actually the start of the third step, which is: "Breathing in, I experience calm in the reaction," or in the problem. And that's something that evolves out of opening to the experience of the problem itself and all the reactions to it. You follow? So you may find yourself naturally moving into step three without actually deciding to.

Now when you hit step three and particularly step four, as you rest in all of that stuff, okay, "Breathing in I experience calm in this reaction; breathing out I experience calm in that reaction. " That calm gradually evolves into ease or relaxation. So now you're sitting with this problem and you're actually relaxed. And as soon as we start to relax, then attention opens up and we experience the problem more deeply. And often that puts us right back into step one again. But now we're operating at a different level. And it continues to cycle around this way. And can, over decades actually. [laughing] Maybe none of you are as screwed up as me, but it really can be like that because you are actually able to experience something progressively deeper.

And all of this time you think, "It's just a mess," but that's the subjective experience that it's a mess. What is actually happening is one is experiencing more and more completely what's really going on in you. And the more we're able to experience the less we have to react. So though we may feel like it's a total mess inside. Other people may think, "How can you be so calm?" Because we're dealing with all the reactions inside rather than spewing them out into the world. You follow?

And through this then step five isn't something you decide. "Oh, I understand this now," or "I'm going to understand this now. It's something that evolves out of being in that experience and what happens is that you find the clarity in the experience and the understanding of the experience, of the reaction, of the problem, arises spontaneously out of the calmness and clarity. And you realize, "Oh, I was looking at it this way, but now I see it this way." And one's whole relationship with it will have shifted. But none of the steps are something that you decide: "Oh, I'm going to do this now. I'm going to do this now. I'm going to do this now." It's not those kinds of steps. You just start off just breathing in, experiencing it, and then you become aware of the physical reactions, become aware of the emotional reactions, you become aware of the cognitive reactions.

Where people get tripped up a lot is that as they sit with the problem their level of attention is often swept away by the stories that come up. And so they start spinning the stories, but once you start spinning the stories you're no longer experiencing the reaction or the problem. You're in the world of the stories. And this is why I consistently emphasize coming to the body. And becoming clear about the physical reactions that are arising, because that grounds you in your present experience and you don't spin off in the stories. When you're able to stay in the body and the emotions then you can experience the stories as stories and not get distracted by them. They're just stuff that is flying around all over the place.