Explaining mindfulness

A more concrete post this time, since a conversation with a much more realised practitioner than I helped me to put a proper explanation together. The question for me for some time was: Why is mindfulness helpful, in a contemplative sense? Why is it different to just noticing things, which happens all the time? How do I do it properly?

Christopher Johns is a Professor of Nursing and so has an investment in making more links between the holistic (intuitive, nondual, inclusive) and the reflective (analytical, purposeful, deconstructed). His definition of mindfulness is: ‘Seeing things for what they really are without distortion, whilst holding the intention of realising desirable practice’. In this case he means professional practice. It is not at all crude to exchange this for contemplative practice or the practice of virtue, shifting the intention to a different object, or to inevitably widen it to the practice of living. The boundaries between contemplation and just being alive blur once it becomes clear there is more to meditation than sharpening concentration or picking apart the aggregates, more to prayer than developing the wish to do God’s will, more to yoga than body awareness.

I didn’t agree with his definition when I first read it recently, as it seemed to involve too much activity, too much ‘me’, for a person whose practice has become seemingly so passive as to leave most of it to Him Upstairs and claiming only the desire to even do it as my choice. But it isn’t that simple, and recently the more I want to surrender, the more I am encouraged to start participating more wholly; one of those paradoxical challenges I seem to be ready and willing for, again.

So, Johns’s definition implies, to me, three things you need to practice mindfulness:

  1. Attention
  2. Intention
  3. Honesty

‘Seeing things for what they really are, without distortion’ is problematic, but it points to these. It’s arguable that there isn’t an objective reality, and so we’ll never see things for what they really are; so if you’re going to use this as a meditation manual, I’d drop your standards a little without dropping your ideals. Instead of expecting to sit down and behold Ultimate Reality, commit to paying attention to your life, in a general, enjoyably chilled out fashion. I am really not a fan of the ‘scrutinise every moment’ practices at the moment. That seems to make my thinking mind go into high gear, so it might well make yours, too. If you’re just naturally so mellow and in the moment that you can be here now in every fraction of your life without it being a strain, then go for it, I suppose, and I hate you a little bit. This is why there are so many practice aids for vipassana, such as noting and mantras, because practices proceeding from mental processes (as opposed to bodily mudras and asanas, or from more emotive or artistic practices) that pick apart your experience are doing battle right in the territory of the thinking mind. They’re playing at home and you need to have some of your supporters along to help you feel less rejected. But doing it in everyday life is more no man’s land, and you’re not just inclined to navel gaze. Put down your smart phone, stop running away from the pain in your shoulder, eat slowly rather than shovelling and then being sad you missed the actual taste of the meal.

The important thing here is the intention to practice, and to practice openly. You’re not trying to force yourself to see through the sensations to some magic unicorn land. You’re not trying to push out anything unpleasant and extract every last ounce of pleasantness from the food on your fork. You’re not trying to have no thoughts about what you’re doing. All of that is wasted effort. I really can’t emphasise this enough. If you’re doing all of these things, you’re tiring yourself out for what are in fact attempts at conditional gains. I promise that you don’t have to do all those things. All you have to do is to be honest about what is really happening, right now. The metaphor is that you are not ‘putting things under the microscope’, as some practitioners would suggest you do; that implies that you’re trying to see more than naturally comes to you, and that is impossible, really. You’re actually relaxing enough that what you can see comes into a better focus. I hope the difference is clear (and if it isn’t, I welcome emails and whatnot). Be honest with yourself about what you are seeing. If it doesn’t seem transcendent or nice or particularly spiritual, what does this imply? Reflect wisely, but again, reflect honestly. To avoid being mysterious, it should imply that the Unconditional has nothing to do with any preference of experience. You’re being taught this. There is also a dishonesty in avoiding what is actually there, and pretending it isn’t. Before you start beating yourself to death with this and feeling like you are a horrible person for having craving and aversion, remember that it is just a habit, and seeing that as a failure to be a Saint or a sign you’re the Devil is very egotistical. You are not the Messiah, just a very naughty boy.

There’s also, slightly more esoterically, the discussion of ‘recollection’, which again I think is a red herring, or more charitably, merely easily misunderstood. It implies that you need to know everything that is going on at all times, and never to forget it. This is not the case. What you need to recall is that intention to practice in the right way. You have a million aids simply to get this mind, that normalises things, that lets them settle into the background, to refresh this heartfelt mode of attention. It might be very cool if, for example, a Zen Master had amazing powers of memory, or a Christian Monk was massively aware of everything happening in their sensorium, but these are (to use my own language) fringe benefits. The only reason to make a young acolyte remember whether they put their shoes on the left side of the door or the right when they took them off to come inside, is to foster this habit of paying attention, rather than floating through life not really being there.

So to recap, you want to pay attention, honestly. That’s mindfulness. If you are not doing one or two of those things, you are not being mindful.

So, you can start with this basic attention (aided by the various virtue practices that will chill you out nicely) and if you want, move onto the archetypical sitting on a cushion and examining your experience in a more concentrated fashion. I think I’ve said before that I think ‘concentration’ is a poor choice of words for samadhi, and in this case we shall use ‘continuity of attention’. This allows the practice of discernment, once you are able to fix your attention on one particular sensation with more consistency. It is not drilling into the sensation to make it give up its magical secrets. If I seem annoyed, it is entirely proportional to the amount of time I spent trying to rip open experience. It was a puppy that ran away the more I shouted at it to come back. When I sat and maybe offered it a treat (doing some pleasant practice, perhaps, my metaphor isn’t well thought out) then it was suddenly right there.

But I digress slightly. Discernment is not drilling down, it is the isolation of the smallest phenomenon you can make out. You expose it like a surgeon would an organ in preparation for an operation. You seclude it from other sensations that demand attention and, from a distance, seem blurred into it. The word ‘seclusion’ is used endlessly in the Pali Canon. The monk is encouraged to sit under a tree in a forest, where they will not be distracted by human concerns. They are encouraged to seclude themselves from sensual pleasures, that will make a slave of them and remove the time for intensive meditation that the tradition requires. They are encouraged, in fact, to focus on what matters; to narrow their attention, to achieve one-pointedness of intention, and this will show through in their perceptual abilities. It gets to the point at which you can, in a most gentle way, zero in on just one very tiny phenomenon in your sensorium. There seems to be ‘space’ around it so that it cannot be confused with other sensations crowding in on you; the mind speeds up and so you have a nice little bullet time effect, as the sensations coming before and after don’t impinge. I’ve even heard practitioners with devastating concentration, coming from doing the most strenuous practices, talk about experiencing a void between sensations, as they notice the gap in experience. The mind can only take in so much, after all. That’s not been for me, classically, though; I’ve given myself bodily pain from straining to be that one-pointed, when there was more foundational work to be done around virtue and simple honest living. To put it another way: being less of a twit does wonders for your mindfulness.

So! You’ve sat down and your faculties are bright, as the Pali Canon says, and you’re intending to seclude these phenomena. More, you’re intending to let them seclude themselves, as you gently and kindly let yourself get into the zone, ready to spend maybe half an hour just being honest about what is happening, and being unafraid to look at it, as boring or terrifying or soporific as it might become. Of course, this seclusion demonstrates the three characteristics of existence. The phenomenon has a beginning and an end, which you perceive finally rather than it being a mishmash, or being distracted by another sensation and so not really noticing the endings. Noticing endings is a very good practice to experience anicca. The phenomenon, secondly, has a feeling-tone attached to it, of pleasant or unpleasant (there isn’t really neutrality, looking closely), and that is the dukkha as craving and aversion come into play. Finally, it comes out of nothing and goes back to nothing, seemingly unattached to other phenomena, caused but not reliant on them, and that’s anatta. If that doesn’t make sense, that’s because I cannot explain non-inherency very well. It’s just a percept I have when vipassana is going well. Delve into one of those deeply enough and you’ll have quite the insight, because seeing the universal qualities in a single sensation with clarity is sufficiently undeniable that the knowledge of them is extended to your whole perception.

But again, it doesn’t have to be all heroic penetration of the object in this fashion! I’d recommend a two pronged attack – sit and do vipassana for a bit every day, but also generally try and live in your body, as well as setting the scene for a good practice by mixing in kindness, peace and honesty. Remember that it is not about straining to go beyond yourself, but more like setting up the conditions, raising the lowest common denominator of your experience, by living a different way as much as you can so that it becomes the habit of a lifetime.