In any moment of mindfulness, we have the beginning, middle and end of the path.
From the Bhavana Program, BCBS March 2000
I want to speak a little tonight about mindfulness, perhaps from a slightly different angle than your discussions today with Than Santikaro, but hopefully in a way that is complementary. The word “mindfulness” can have a passive sound to it. It may feel to us at certain points like it’s some kind of state that will arise—or not—and there’s really nothing much for us to do. Some teachers call it “awareness” or “full awareness.” I’ve also heard mindfulness described as “observing power,” which gives it a more dynamic quality. But as we’ve mentioned today, mindfulness is not to be understood as removed, uninvolved, or as a form of intellectual observation. Rather, it’s much more of a participatory or embodied state.
Venerable Gunaratana has said: “Mindfulness is objective, but not cold or unfeeling. It is the wakeful experience of life, alert participation in the ongoing process of living.” (Mindfulness In Plain English). In the classical tradition, as I have learned from the teachings of U Pandita Sayadaw, mindfulness is sometimes described in terms of the following three aspects: its characteristic, its function and its manifestation. Let’s look at these.
The characteristic of mindfulness is non-superficiality. What this means is that mindfulness is deeply penetrating. An analogy that illustrates this penetrating quality is to imagine throwing a cork into a stream. The cork just bobs along on the surface of the stream. But if we throw a stone into the stream, the stone sinks right to the bottom. It’s not carried away by the current. Mindfulness is like that stone. It penetrates into each moment’s experience deeply. That penetrating quality is the characteristic of mindfulness.
The function of mindfulness is non-disappearance. When mindfulness is present we’re able to keep the object of our awareness in view. We don’t forget the object, we don’t allow it to disappear, of course as we’re training and as we’re developing mindfulness, we do forget over and over again. But mindfulness is remembering to come back, over and over again. In our sittings, we’re coming back to the breath. And in our walking, we’re coming back to the sensations in the body, the feet, the legs. As we come back again and again, the quality of mindfulness grows, and we’re able to have more and more moments of mindfulness in a row.
Also, when we’re new to practice, we tend to think of mindfulness as a kind of steady state that we have to achieve. I know I did. It really helped me to shift my understanding to cultivating more and more moments of mindfulness, rather than trying to somehow achieve a grand “mindfulness state” that was unchanging. Really, we can only take it one moment at a time. So the function of mindfulness is to remember, to come back. It’s not letting the object of our awareness disappear, or at least not for long.
The manifestation of mindfulness is confrontation. This is an interesting word. To be confrontive does not necessarily mean to be combative. We need not attack the object of our awareness with our attention. But we do need to meet it actively and with some energy. It means coming face to face with the object of our meditation. This aspect of confrontation, coming face to face with our experience, helps to develop the other two aspects of non-superficiality and non-disappearance. We have to face what we’re experiencing in order to know it deeply, and in order not to forget, to keep steady with it. So confronting means meeting each moment of experience with some energy, but not clobbering it with our awareness. We need to have a balance of energy so that we’re not straining to find the next breath or the next moment. What helped me to find balance was shifting to thinking of it more as receiving the next breath, receiving the next moment.
As I was thinking about these three aspects of mindfulness—non-superficiality, non-disappearance or not forgetting, and the quality of confrontation—I was thinking that they seem not only applicable to our meditation practice on the cushion, but they also seem to be essential to living an active or engaged life. If we think about it, we sometimes don’t become involved because it’s often easier to stay on the surface of things. But we have to be willing to look beyond the superficial level to really come to know how our actions might be most beneficial in this world. To do this we must look deeply, with penetration. This is the first aspect of mindfulness.
And we can’t forget or allow the issues that we’re facing to disappear from our consciousness if we’re going to take action. This aspect of not forgetting seems to me to be the opposite of denial. This is very important, because there is a lot of denial in this culture—in our families, in our work environments, in our communities, and on and on. By cultivating mindfulness, our ability to stay present with the truth grows, and we’re able to do this in more and more areas of our lives. This is the second aspect of mindfulness, its function: to remember, to keep in view.
The third aspect of mindfulness, confrontation, means we have to be willing to come face to face with what is often difficult and painful. This willingness takes courage and often seems to be a characteristic of people who are engaged in social action. We can’t really begin to act until we’re fully able to face the truth of what is happening in our lives and in the world. There is an incredible power inherent in facing the truth, in being willing to be present in difficult times as well as joyful times. And there is a transforming quality of that kind of presence, when we’re able to embrace the totality of our experience without shrinking away from anything. Awake, alive, engaged—these are the qualities that I associate with presence, with being fully mindful.
So how do we develop mindfulness? It’s said that the cause of mindfulness is mindfulness itself. At the beginning, our mindfulness is weak. But one moment of it conditions the next. Over time it strengthens, even to the point of being one of the factors of awakening. There are many ways to develop mindfulness: Cultivating it in our sitting practice. Bringing mindfulness to the breath. Or cultivating a broader mindfulness as you move through the day. Developing mindfulness of body; knowing that we’re standing when we’re standing, or walking, or bending, stretching, reaching. We can cultivate mindfulness of the body and all of its actions at almost any moment.
The second and third ways of developing mindfulness are avoiding unmindful people and choosing mindful friends. It makes sense if we think about it. Having friends who are committed to waking up in some way makes a great difference in our lives. We can be supported by that power of community, it’s a wonderful support.
The fourth way of developing mindfulness is inclining the mind toward mindfulness. This means refraining from activities that are not conducive to mindfulness. Aside from obvious ones, such as taking intoxicants, we need to pay attention in our own lives, in our own experience, and see what is conducive to staying awake, to being present, and what is not. Inclining the mind toward mindfulness also means simply remembering to be aware of what is happening in the present moment.
You may have noticed that, on some very basic level, mindfulness is pretty much the answer to everything. In my experience with interviews, no matter what kind of experience I reported—however dreadful and terrible, or exalted and wonderful—generally I was asked, “Were you mindful of it? What happened to it when you paid attention to it?” This happened over and over again until finally I realized that it was the practice of mindfulness, and not the particular experience, that was important.
Nyanaponika Thera, a German man who ordained as a monk in Sri Lanka, wrote a book called The Heart of Buddhist Meditation, in which he talks about the Buddha’s message as “a doctrine of the mind that teaches three things. The three things are: to know the mind, something that’s very near to us and yet so often unknown; to shape the mind, that can be so unwieldy and out of control, and yet has the capacity to turn so pliant; and to free the mind.” That is, to free the mind from bondage to the forces of greed, hatred and delusion. He then goes on to explain that mindfulness is the beginning, middle and end of the path to knowing, shaping and freeing the mind. Mindfulness is the key to knowing the mind, and so it’s the starting point. Mindfulness is the perfect tool for shaping the mind, and so it’s the focal point. And mindfulness is the manifestation of the achieved freedom of mind, and so it’s the culmination point.
When I read this I felt really happy. I love it because it’s such a holistic viewpoint. In any moment of mindfulness, we have the beginning, middle and end of the path. It makes me appreciate those moments even more. I think acknowledging or appreciating moments of mindfulness is important. It’s like what Than Santikaro talked about today in terms of tendencies, or patterns of mind that reinforce themselves. I know at times I can be very aware of difficult mental or emotional patterns in my mind, and not tune in as much to the positive or healthy aspects, such as mindfulness. If we dwell on the unhealthy responses, it further strengthens that tendency. This is not to say that we should dwell on our moments of mindfulness, or identify with them, thinking, “Oh, I’m a good meditator.” But it is helpful to simply recognize those moments, to not discount them, and to actually delight in them.
It’s important to remember that mindfulness is participatory observation. We’re both the participator and the observer at the same time. Again, I think of it as a fully embodied state. So we begin by practicing being present with our breath, something completely based in the present moment, something relatively non-conceptual. Using the breath as an anchor, we refine the qualities of mindful presence. Grounding our attention in the breath brings us back to presence in each moment.
We can tune in to the breath throughout the day, as we’ve mentioned today. Or, if the breath is too elusive or subtle a thing to be with in the times of discussions and moving about, then try just being in your body very fully. I find tuning in to the postures of the body very helpful. When you are sitting, know you’re sitting. Know when you’re standing. Or simply feel your body moving through space throughout the day. These are all good ways to stay connected with the present moment, to keep inclining the mind toward mindfulness.
Relationship with others is also a great place to practice mindful presence. This retreat offers us the opportunity to do that, more so than a silent retreat. Can we be there fully for another, to hear or witness the truth of their experience completely, without judgment or reactivity? The periods of dharma discussion this week will be good opportunities to cultivate this awareness. Please remember to use these times. How present can we be with all of our experience, even off of the cushion? Do we dare to be seen in this world in all of the strength and the vulnerability of presence? In many ways, this retreat is really a lot more like our regular daily lives, with times of study and interactions with others. So it’s a great opportunity to cultivate the practice of presence, which we can carry into our lives. Use your sitting practice as a reminder, and a place to develop those skills, but make the whole day your place of practice.
Let’s sit together for a while.