The myth of Mindfulness

One of the biggest turning points in my meditation practice came via understanding a key emphasis in the Buddha’s teachings: that of training the mind, rather than following the heart.

Up until then, like so many others, I had been riding the meditation train for years with mixed success.

I read numerous books on the subject, attended Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction seminars, visualized a gazillion tracks of guided serenity & mantras, and sat through many hours of binaural beat frequencies with the goal of synchronizing my brain hemispheres into a more relaxed alpha range, and on a good day even a deep theta state.

Though I made some progress, and often felt calm or relaxed, I could never seem to sustain that feeling. I had complied with the spiritual notion of following my bliss, but mindfulness remained out of reach – a distant, illusory, mythical destination.

The instructions seemed simple enough: “stay in the present”, “be in the now”, just “simply be aware of what is arising in the moment”. I did all of those things, and did them well – yet it felt completely, inexorably hollow and empty.

Turns out I had it all wrong.

As Buddhist teacher Joseph Goldstein puts it, I was “being aware, but not mindful; being present but not free”.

Whoa.

Goldstein refers to this as “black Lab consciousness” – the primitive tendency of the mind to remain in a state of mere knowing/awareness of the present moment while identifying, without question, with various sense impressions (sights, sounds, sensations, thoughts, emotions) that arise moment to moment.

In other words, though I had begun to notice my emotional dramas in the moment, I still hung on to them as “mine” with great fervour. No wonder I continued to suffer.

With the help of Goldstein and Thanissaro Bhikkhu (another Buddhist master), I subsequently learnt that true mindfulness consists of two parts:

1. Developing the ability to keep something in mind

In meditation practice, we usually keep the breath in mind and make it our ally – it is always with us, a place where body and mind conveniently meet. Focusing on the body of breath as it moves in and out – allowing it to be as it is without manipulation – helps bring the mind to a comfortable place to rest in.

This restful state helps sensitize us to everything else that is going on – right here, in the present moment, setting the stage for the second part of mindfulness.

With practice, the mind learns to hold not just breath, but all objects that may arise in our daily life, off the cushion, with the same ease.

2. Appropriate Attention

Being present is not enough – we must now be alert to what is arising and how we are relating to it.

How we frame the present moment is crucial. Are we identified with the sensations/thoughts/emotions coming up? (And they always will – the point of meditation is not to resist or suppress them).

If we find ourselves carried away with pleasant thoughts or disgusted with the unpleasant, it is a sign of identification. In that moment, though we are aware /present, we are far from being free.

The alternative is to harness the mind’s amazing repertoire of concentration, imagination and ingenuity to ask questions that lead to wise discernment:

  • Will the current line of thinking/relating lead to more or less suffering?
  • What are the causes and conditions that led to this moment? How might they be altered for a better outcome for all?

Appropriate attention creates the space where we have the freedom to choose skilful intentions translating to actions that bring us closer to peace.

Thanissaro Bhikkhu calls mindfulness just one “spice on our meditation shelf”. It develops over time, as we learn to keep coming back over and over to the present moment. With practice, mindfulness leans into and merges with other qualities of the free mind: patience, compassion, acceptance, insight, equanimity and goodwill.

Some of the practice tools I have found tremendously helpful are:

  • When focusing on the breath, rather than rigidly following it in and out, imagine your body as an open window. Like a breeze that is free to enter and leave, so too is the breath.
  • On and off the cushion, practice “mental noting”. This is the simple act of recognition of objects or events arising in each moment e.g. “in”, “out”, “thinking”, “desire”, “fear” etc. By naming what arises, we create some distance, a space for the identification to dissolve into.
  • It doesn’t matter how many times we get distracted – as long as we come back, over and over, to the present moment, alert and attentive.
  • Wise discernment is appropriate, judging our performance is unnecessary. The spice of mindfulness has a gentle flavour.

Thich Nhat Hanh has described mindfulness “like the sun – when it shines on things, they are transformed”.

When we care about what happens in each moment, and relate skilfully to it, we create a new narrative for our lives.