Inner  Frontier
Fourth Way Spiritual Practice

 

Inner Work


For the week of May 3, 2010

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Right Mindfulness

(Aspect 7 of the Eightfold Path)

The practice of mindfulness, in its many manifestations, lies at the core not only of Buddhism but of every major spiritual path that leads to transformation. One might object to this claim by pointing to devotional ways which do not explicitly teach mindfulness. But even prayer, at least in its deeper forms, depends on the kind of well-developed awareness that results from mindfulness, not because that awareness necessarily enters into the prayer directly, but because the broad, non-judgmental awareness of mindfulness purifies our heart. And the deeper stages of prayer absolutely depend on purity of heart.

What is mindfulness? We can start by saying that it is awareness of perceptual awareness. In mindfulness we are aware of whatever perceptions, be they mental, emotional, or sensory, are at the forefront of our mind. This notion of being aware of whatever we are aware of is not a tautology. Rather there are two levels of awareness involved in mindfulness, operating with the sensitive and conscious energies respectively. The first is the perceptual awareness of content: a sight, a sound, a thought, an itch, a feeling. The second is awareness of that perceptual awareness, a sort of meta-awareness of the whole field of perceptual, content awareness: consciousness aware of sensitivity. Mindfulness means being the context, being the broad awareness, not just its content of perceptions.

In addition to its energy/awareness component, the other major enabler of mindfulness is a particular attitude of will. The attitude of mindfulness consists of impartial openness, allowing, non-judging and non-identifying. In mindfulness practice, we do not seek to shape the content of our experience. We just see the content of our mind and allow it all to arise and to pass, while we remain rooted in impartial awareness. This attitude is known as equanimity.

Two things should be pointed out here. First, to adopt the attitude of equanimity is not so easy. Just consider the challenge of letting anger subside once it has arisen in you. Our typical approach is to feed the anger with our thoughts and even to act on it. In mindfulness, we see all that and let it go. The second point to make is that equanimity does not mean a passive attitude toward our life. Indeed equanimity toward and non-identification with the contents of our mind and heart leaves us freer to act in an energetic, creative, and responsible fashion.

For maximum efficacy, mindfulness must be practiced in two broad ways: in daily periods of formal meditation and in our ordinary life activities. These forms mutually support each other. The more we develop our meditation, the more it spills over into a mindful life. And the more we practice mindfulness in our daily rounds, the stronger our meditation.

Mindfulness meditation typically begins with some type of focusing or concentration of attention, for example on the sensations arising from the process of breathing. The practice of concentration, of directed attention, will be discussed in next week’s aspect of the Eightfold Path, so we will leave the subject for now. After focusing our attention and becoming established in a concentrated mind, we open to mindfulness meditation proper. Instead of holding our attention on a single object, such as the breath, we widen our attention to the whole field of awareness. We notice whatever is most prominent in that field, for example, a sound, a thought, a feeling, or a physical sensation, and we let that perception subside on its own. Then again we notice whatever is most prominent, follow it, and let it pass. In this way we do not allow ourselves to be carried away by a particular train of thoughts or sensations. We remain in the noticing, in the seeing, not lost in the streaming objects of our perceptions. Whatever arises in our body, mind, and heart is OK. We just notice it and let it pass, without comment, without judgment, and without interpretation. If there are comments or judgments or interpretations, we notice those and let them pass as well.

Mindfulness leads toward peace, purification, and liberation, because by allowing everything to arise in our mind and letting it be, we retrain ourselves not to be identified, not to believe we are these perceptual objects. The subtlety of mindfulness practice is to see with an open, accepting mind, to see with impartial objectivity. We neither grasp at nor reject what we see. We just see. And in doing so, all the many urges and desires and fears that would formerly grab our attention and our energy gradually lose their power over us. For that, though, we need to practice mindfulness in our daily life and in meditation sessions.

To live in mindful presence, we need to remember to be mindful and we need an anchor. The most common anchors for mindfulness are the physical sensations associated with breathing and the more general physical sensations of our whole body. Intentionally basing our mindfulness in one of those anchors boosts our chances of staying mindful for more than a few seconds. Keeping the physical sensations in our awareness, we broaden out to include whatever else might be prominent in our perceptions, and we become aware of those perceptions as perceptions, thoughts as thoughts, just as we do in our sitting meditation practice of mindfulness.

The great power of living mindfully transforms us, gradually and organically. So by staying with the practice mindfulness for the long-term, our heart opens to joy, to peace and equanimity, to compassion and love.

For this week, practice being and living in mindfulness.


     

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