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Unified Mindfulness: The Key Concepts & Practices

Today you will learn the fundamentals of Unified Mindfulness, a powerful and popular mindfulness meditation system developed by the Buddhist monk Shinzen Young. It boils the meditative endeavour down into a well-defined series of concepts and exercises, taking the mist out of mysticism and giving our practice a precision edge.

I was hesitant to use the word “mindfulness” in this article. It is a loaded term that has been somewhat hijacked and turned into a cliche by corporations and wellness providers for purposes that have little to no relation to its original use.

Proper mindfulness, used in the meditative sense, is doing powerful awareness practices that sharpen our moment-to-moment attention skills, leading to a greater ability to deal with life’s challenges, spiritual insight, and other gifts that you will discover on the journey.

This system gives us a solid scaffolding on which to build strong awareness muscles. We can then deploy this strength to process any experience, whether mundane, magical, pleasurable or painful, as skillfully as possible.

I have spent hundreds of hours practicing this system and am part of the UM teacher training programme.

Later in the article you will learn mindfulness exercises you can start putting into practice today. I also have an article with a tonne of meditation exercises, helping you bring mindfulness into daily life.

For now, let us begin the vital work of understanding the machinery of Unified Mindfulness. If you want to reap the benefits of it, this step is essential.

Unified Mindfulness & The Categories of Experience

Everything you experience as a human – your sensory experience – can be put into into one of three categories, or a combination. This includes your inner world of thought and emotion. Soon you will find that these categories form the basis of your practice and help you to skillfully process anything that comes up in your senses.

The three most basic sense categories in the UM system are:

See: the sights around you, such as the device you’re using to read this, the room or scenery around you, the sky, as well as the visual component of your thoughts, such as mental images of places and people and self-referential images.

Hear: sounds around you, like cars, music and talking, along with the auditory component of your thoughts, like mental self-talk and tunes stuck in your head.

Feel: the physical feelings of your body, like touch, temperature, body sensations, along with emotional sensations in the body.

So we have See, Hear, Feel. These three labels are the bedrock of this system.

We also have two further subcategories, which we will put to use later on. These are In and Out, and they divide See, Hear and Feel into two.

The category In includes visual thought, auditory thought and emotional body sensations. Out, on the other hand, encapsulates your sense of sight, hearing, taste, touch, and any body sensations not associated with emotions.

The alert reader will realise that we now have six basic categories. Let’s now explore those. There are more categories, however, and I’ll cover those in future articles.

Unified Mindfulness & The 6 Categories In Detail

Unified Mindfulness also divides sight, sound and sensation (See, Hear, Feel) into inner and outer (In, Out), meaning we have six fundamental categories. Doing so helps us get a handle on what we are experiencing moment-to-moment and work with it more skillfully.

I have a little exercise for you to do as you are reading this: while I describe these categories, take a moment to tune into each one, right now.

See In: the visual aspect of our thoughts, like scenes, faces, images

See Out: sights around us, including the room, the sky, the city, the environment

Hear In: the auditory aspect of our thoughts, like voices and tunes stuck in the head

Hear Out: sounds around us, like music, traffic and talking

Feel In: emotional sensations like fear in the stomach, joy in the face

Feel Out: all body sensations experienced through touch, smell and taste

Did you tune into each of the sense categories?

Now we have the basic building blocks in place, let’s look at the skills you are using and developing in your UM practice.

Unified Mindfulness: The 3 Skills & Definition of Mindfulness

In his Unified Mindfulness system, Shinzen Young distills mindfulness skills into three fundamental skills. Often I’ll abbreviate them to CCE. If at any time we are practicing these three skills at once, we are practicing mindfulness. Unified Mindfulness makes it simple and clear.

Skill 1: Concentration (C) – the ability to pay moment-to-moment attention to what is of interest during the practice.

Skill 2: Sensory Clarity (C) – the ability to tease apart our sensory experience into its components. Can you distinguish thought from feeling, sound from sight, and touch from taste? Labelling the phenomena in our senses is a great way to develop Sensory Clarity – more to come on labelling.

Skill 3: Equanimity (E) – the ability to let sensory experience come and go without push and pull. You allow the experience to be there, dropping your resistance to it, saying Yes! instead of No!.

For example, when practicing with Hear In, your mental chatter, if you are striving to maintain awareness of your inner talk, separate the sounds from the sights and sensations, and allow thoughts to come and go as they please, you are practicing the three skills, at least at a rudimentary level.

These skills might sound a little abstract and mystical, but once you do the practices and deliberately attempt to cultivate them, you see that your levels of CCE determine how fully you experience your senses.

The Unified Mindfulness Definition of Mindfulness:
Mindfulness is concentration, sensory clarity and equanimity all working in tandem.

Great, now that we’ve covered the terminology of the system, let’s get practicing.

Unified Mindfulness: How To Practice

Before looking at specific practices, let’s talk about how to set up a session of mindfulness. How do we actually practice it? Let’s cover that.

1. Set the Scene

Location: Choose indoors or outdoors and the level of stimulation in environment. Remove distractions if need be.
Position: Choose whether to sit or stand, whether to keep your eyes open or closed, and whether you will be doing this in movement or in stillness. If sitting in stillness, make sure you are comfortable, and keep the back straight throughout.
Formality: Dedicate full attention to practice with no other distractions, or use mindfulness in tandem with other activities e.g. washing the dishes.
Time: How long will the session be? If you’re a beginner to mindfulness, I recommend you start with 15-minute sessions. Use a timer.

Examples of scenes:

  • 30 minutes sitting eyes closed in a quiet space, with full attention on the practice.
  • 10 minutes walking outside with eyes open.

2. Choose a Focus Space

Your focus space is simply the sense category you want to run the Noting Cycles on. These can be See In, See Out, Hear In, Hear Out, Feel In, Feel Out or any combination of those.

Some common focus spaces include See Out + Hear Out + Feel Out (called Focus Out) and See In + Hear In + Feel In (Focus In). With practice, you will become a master of your focus space, moulding it like clay to suit your needs and wishes in that particular moment.

3. Run Noting Cycles

This is the crux of the practice. We run 3-step cycles on the phenomena that appear in our focus space. This is called Noting. Each cycle usually lasts 5-10 seconds, but with time you can shorten or lengthen them at will. Gently return your attention if you get distracted, and begin again from Step 1.

Step 1: Acknowledge

When a phenomenon appears in your senses, there is a moment in which you spontaneously register that it is there, you acknowledge its presence. The first step in the cycle is to acknowledge the phenomenon intentionally. Simple.

Step 2: Label

Now label the phenomenon. You can say the label to yourself in your mind, whisper it, or say it out loud. Label both inner and outer sights “See”, use “Hear” for sounds, and “Feel” for sensations. During Step 3, you can re-label the sight, sound or sensation to help you maintain your attention on it.

Step 3: Savour

Now savour the phenomenon until it disappears, or for as long as you wish. Pour your attention onto the phenomenon, attempting to experience it as fully as possible.

Then open up your attention and move back to Step 1 to begin another cycle on a new phenomenon. You repeat these 5-10s cycles for the length of time you are to practice for. Easy!

Let’s now get super practical and look at some standard UM exercises.

Common Practices in UM

Practices In Stillness

Here are some really common practices especially suited to sitting in stillness:

  1. Focus In: running cycles on See In, Hear In, Feel In, or any combination of these according to need.
  2. Focus Out: running cycles on See Out, Hear Out, Feel Out, or any combination of these.
  3. Hear In and See In: here we work only with thoughts, in doing so heightening our awareness of them.

Practices In Motion

And here are three that are perfect for practice in motion:

  1. Focus Out: running cycles on See Out, Hear Out, Feel Out or any combination of these; particularly useful for anchoring in the senses when doing housework or walking outside.
  2. Hear Out, See Out: focus on sight and sound only, particularly good for maintaining attention on other person as they are talking.
  3. Soles of the Feet: an excellent practice for building your concentration skill. Make the soles of your feet the focus range as you walk.

I have found these practices most useful. Ultimately, UM is an incredibly flexible system that enables us to practice mindfulness as it suits us, so get creative and customise your practices according to your own needs and circumstances. Just remember Concentration, Sensory Clarity and Equanimity!

Building the Habit of Meditation

So we have the basic terminology of this system and have looked at some fundamental practices. Now let’s cover some FAQs relating to how to make mindfulness a habit.

Do I have to practice every day?

My advice here is not to force yourself to practice if you don’t want to, but also realise that procrastination and laziness could jeopardise your attempts to set up a meditation practice. We also have to practice enough to get the benefits from it. My hope is that you build up enough practice such that you come to fall in love with it and have integrated it into your daily functioning, meaning you can meditate on a dime, wherever and whenever.

How long should I start with?

A daily practice of 15 minutes, sitting down, is a good place to start. With time you can try practicing in motion, and long term I recommend an hour of timed formal practice per day (whether in movement or in stillness) along with informal life practice.

Will I see benefits right away?

If you were learning a language, would you become proficient after a few months of study? Unlikely. In reality, the first few months of meditation are the toughest. That’s not to say you won’t see benefits, but the real benefits and the deep transformation come after years of practice. That said, Eckhart Tolle fell into deep Witnessing consciousness having done no meditation at all!

I hope this article has inspired you to take your meditation to the next level. If you are unsure about any of the material I have covered, feel free to write a comment below and I will resolve any doubts.

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