This is a very brief description of what is meant by mindfulness and mindfulness meditation. If you want a full presentation there are many wonderful works of popular scholarship on this topic, several of which I list at the end of this piece. Also Google is an endless source of a more complete reference list.
In recent years people have awakened to the rich traditions of Buddhism. There are many flavors available to us in this country and it can be confusing for anyone new to this spiritual path. They all began with the Siddhartha, the historical Buddha, born in what is now Nepal, nearly twenty-six hundred years ago. The teaching spread widely and, depending on the culture where it was taken up, it adopted different flavors and emphases. But they all share the basic teachings of interdependence, impermanence and emptiness. They all hold out the promise of insight into and freedom from suffering.
Now Mindfulness is an essential element of Buddhist practice – presence of mind. It has been taken up by modern medical and psychological approaches to healing and there is now much research available on its efficacy in wholeness and healing. But really in our ordinary lives, being aware, being present IS our life. There is nothing exotic about this. We are naturally aware, but don’t always appreciate the freedom and spaciousness in just being present. There is a simplicity to mindfulness. We just notice and engage what is unfolding right now.
The Satipatthana Sutra, The Discourse on the Foundations of Mindfulness lays out the teaching in fine detail and can be taken up as a guide in mindfulness meditation. It’s helpful to recognize that mindfulness is always a possibility, but mindfulness and mindfulness meditation are not the same thing. Mindfulness meditation is an intentional and minutely specific practice. We begin in stillness in a seated position, but can also practice it while walking, standing or lying down. This silent, set-apart meditation practice has an impact on our ability to be fully engaged, then, when we are in the midst of the din and distraction of our ordinary activities. So, if we are mindful, we are paying attention, even when we are moving quickly and talking and listening. That is different from Mindfulness Meditation, which is deliberate and nothing else is going on but that.
So, if you are doing mindfulness meditation while walking, just the upright posture fills your awareness – the most intimate, inmost physicalities of lifting the foot, bringing it forward, placing it, shifting weight, etc. In mindfulness of breathing, as the Buddha sets out, you are aware when breathing in, that you are breathing in; when breathing out, you are aware of breathing out. The attention is not bopping around in thought, but rather flowing with breath. . . in, breath . . . out.
Once we have engaged this formal practice, we see that there is never a moment when it is not possible to be aware and notice the object of our awareness – what fills our awareness. When we forget, we can simply come back and allow full presence in the moment, in the breath, in the step as our refuge.
More detailed treatments can be found in:
- Upasika Kee Nanayon, Pure and Simple
- Venerable U Silananda, The Four Foundations of Mindfulness
- Thanissaro Bikkhu, Right Mindfulness
- Bhante Henepola Gunaratana, Mindfulness in Plain English
We human beings we are always at play in the ordinary conditions of our life. We experience our days and nights through the lens of all our previous experiences – our fantasies and expectations of a “future”, our temperament, through our senses, our preferences, our dislikes, our opinions, our emotions. Most of this is automatic …..unless we have a steady practice of stopping, breathing, looking.
Uncovering our natural and unclouded mind through daily meditation allows us to be more at ease, to be aware of the primal and unconditioned flow of the energies of life, even as we engage wholeheartedly with our circumstances. We are never apart from the flow, just as we are never apart from our circumstances. This unconditioned flow is infinite and open. When we see our life in these terms, we can notice the fluidity and playfulness, and be open to possibilities that we are blind to when we get stuck in our limited habitual views.
There’s a koan : Be an ancient tree in a high wind.
This koan can inspire a way to approach the forces and energies in our lives that catch us up and blow against our fixed ideas about things.
And it brings to mind, too, what is ancient in ourselves. Or even what lies outside of time altogether about ourselves. If you’ve ever been in the presence of an ancient tree, like the Sitka spruce at Cape Perpetua south of Yachats, or any of our local Douglas fir elders, which have withstood the winds of recent storms, you may have felt quieted by their enormity, their stillness, their steady presence.
We share in the ancient earth and stars which make us up and can draw on this timeless ground of being when the winds bring change, fire, confusion, loss, discouragement. Holding steady in a high wind is an image that can motivate us to wholeheartedness and can help us out when things fall apart, ease our distress. Even as we sit in zazen, we forbear in the winds of thought, restlessness, sluggishness, not caving to their buffeting, but just in a very simple way, maintaining in the very ground of our being, complete and holding steady.
While looking at a photo of a group of friends, I was struck by the various expressions as they looked at the camera. One was beaming, a couple were smiling dutifully, one was quite doubtful. All but the beamer had several things going on. Each expressed such different states of mind. Their faces, their posture reflected it. The one who was beaming seemed to have one unified body-mind. But the others were held back in their own ways.
Do you notice often when you are taken up with thoughts, worries, agendas – you hold back. You are scattered and not being entirely present, right here? This happens to all of us. We get busy, attending to so many things at once.
Whenever we notice this scattering, we can always, immediately return to right here, by breathing into our body, into our posture. We notice when we do this, how the vitality of our presence returns. We regain all that we are and can bring all of it to whatever our present circumstances ask of us. With a life of practice this becomes more of a habit – this habit of returning to the present as a source of energy and clarity.
We always have the choice of what our basis of operation will be. Even when we lose track and forget who we most fundamentally are, our Buddha nature continues to operate. And we can, by simply remembering our vow to awaken, turn our heart and mind back in the direction of Buddha.
This is the significance of taking refuge. We can develop a habit of taking refuge in our Buddha nature, guided in our actions by the precepts, rather than falling back into taking “refuge” in our habitual, samsaric states of mind and reactivity.
When we take refuge in our Buddha nature we are open, aware, free, and intimate with all that shares this moment with us, just as it is.
It’s one thing to “just walk” when doing walking meditation (kinhin) during formal practice. Mind and body doing the same thing. But how do we carry over our practice as we walk around during the day? Same activity, different state of mind, different settings.
Walking from activity to activity at work, at home, everywhere, we can find ourselves dominated by our thoughts. In fact, we may not even be aware at all of our body if we’re really deep in thought.
Taking refuge in “just walking” from task to task during the day, releases us from the strictures and strains of constant thought. Freeing ourselves in this way, step by step, we help us to recognize how our habit of continual thinking maintains a sensation of stress, feeds it, increases it, while the practice of “just walking” releases it.
So when you’re walking down the hall at work, or up the stairs, through an open door, waiting in a line, walking around the block at lunch or anytime at all, calling up the practice of mind and body doing the same thing, just walking, can bring you, me, all of us, back to this moment of our life, which is the only moment we have.
In zazen do we think? Do we not think? This can be confusing?
It’s not that we have to shut out thoughts, but rather we don’t have to become so involved with them. They bubble up. Thoughts bubble up on their own. In practice, we have a choice of whether to engage with our thoughts; whether to believe them. Whether to become involved with and follow them. Or whether instead, just to recognize their evanescent nature, see them arising unbidden, and then watch them dissolve.
This enables us to recognize that our mind is much more than our thoughts and to discover the open field of awareness into which thoughts bubble.
- 1st Noble Truth – There is suffering (anxiety, unsatisfactoriness in our daily life)
- 2nd Noble Truth – The cause of suffering is ignorance (experienced as craving or thirst)
- 3rd Noble Truth – The cessation of suffering is possible
- 4th Noble Truth – Describes the path to the cessation of suffering