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Mindfulness

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  1. What is mindfulness?
  2. In mindfulness, we are aware of whatever is happening.  
  3. Don't strive for "bare attention" all of the time.
  4. We gain benefits from mindfulness.
  5. The technique.
  6. Exercises in mindfulness.
  7. The further stages of mindfulness.
  8. An example of mindfulness: typing at my computer.


What is mindfulness? It is a moment-to-moment alertness to the events of our world. We cultivate "bare attention"; our mind merely observes, without elaborating. Mindfulness meditation is a practical form of meditation for busy people, because it does not require us to set aside any time for it; instead, we are simply "mindful" of whatever activity we are doing. Although that might not seem like "meditation," mindfulness (satipatthana) is practiced in many Buddhist sects.


In mindfulness, we are aware of whatever is happening. Rather than concentrating on a particular object (e.g., a candle flame), we allow our attention to shift continually from one object to another, in the natural course of our daily actions; we do not direct our attention toward anything in particular. We can be "mindful" of our thoughts, feelings, emotions, sensory input, bodily sensations -- and external phenomena such as people, objects, and movements. As our attention moves from one object to another, we can "mindfully" notice both the object and the reason why our attention was drawn there.


Don't strive for "bare attention" all of the time. Perhaps in advanced stages, we can maintain this mindful state continually. But for the rest of us, a constant "bare attention" would be repressive of other states which need to be expressed. We can use the mindful state as our center, our "home," from which we venture out to engage those other "non-mindfulness" states, and to which we return when we have concluded each interaction. Those non-mindful states include:  

  1. Analytical thought. In mindfulness, we merely observe our thoughts as they pass through us. However, sometimes we benefit from lingering with our thoughts, to delve into them more deeply.
  2. Imagination. Sometimes we might need to daydream in reverie and fantasies; we shut off the input from the external world and become functionally "mindless."
  3. Personal response. Instead of merely observing, we might need to affirm our human identity and boundaries by indulging our personal reactions, opinions, liking or disliking, and our intent to change certain elements in our life.


We gain benefits from mindfulness.

  1. We act consciously rather than automatically. This enhances our spontaneity, flexibility, creativity, and freedom of choice. From this position of centeredness, we are "ready for anything." We notice our behavioral habits and the thoughts or emotions which propel them; with this awareness, we might modify the habit to one which is more productive, or we could lift the behavior from the realm of the "habitual" altogether and perform it with full attentiveness. Eventually mindfulness itself becomes a habit; it is the natural state of the mind.
  2. We are more aware of our emotions and thoughts. We notice them as soon as they arise, so we are less likely to become "lost" in them and thus to perpetuate nonproductive habitual emotional responses or trains of thought or fantasies or compulsions. This awareness of our inner world might be developed more easily in "thought meditation" when we are turned inward specifically to observe our thoughts and feelings, but we can also observe them during mindfulness of our daily activities.
  3. We acquire more information. Because of our increased alertness, we learn and remember more details and subtleties. Because we attend to each distinct moment, we are continually receptive to new information rather than accepting a closure (as in the statement, "I already know how to do this, so I don't need to pay attention").
  4. Our senses become more acute. We notice both the beauties and the dangers around us. For example, we have a greater enjoyment of a delicious apple, and we are more conscious of the circumstances when we are driving; my favorite place to practice mindfulness is in my car, being fully aware of my vehicle, other drivers, and the road.
  5. We perceive more accurately. Mindfulness helps us to "see things as they are" by developing an open, neutral stance from which our input is not distorted or repressed by biases. We directly observe each moment as unique and intimate, so we don't rely on abstract concepts or stereotyping labels; for example, rather than viewing a person simply as "Peter," we might experience him as "a happy person who seems excited to share some news with me." (That perspective frees us to live in this moment of "sharing some news" rather than being unduly restricted by any prior associations which we have had with Peter.)
  6. We increase our understanding of our physical body. (The benefits of mindfulness in the use of the body are examined in the chapter regarding movement meditation.) As we become more mindful of our body:
    • We can enhance its energy, pleasure, comfort, breathing, relaxation, efficiency of movement and posture -- and thereby increase our healthfulness.
    • We notice more of the tensions and pains which alert us to situations which need to be corrected, and we discern our reactions to specific foods, or to "bad habits" such as overeating, or smoking, or taking drugs.
    • We might become aware of the subtle physiological states which occur in response to our thoughts and emotions; for example, we notice the change in our breathing and muscles when we are afraid even if we are telling ourselves that we are not afraid. Conversely, we recognize the ways in which physiological states influence our thoughts and emotions.
  7. We learn to "live in the moment." The present is where we find joy and life itself. We attend to the current process rather than fantasizing about the eventual goal. In mindfulness, the past and the future do not exist (except perhaps in a sense of "flow" from one moment to the next). Contrarily, our thoughts are never in the present; even when we are thinking about a present occurrence, the amount of time in which we process the data about the occurrence has already made it a thing of the past.
  8. We learn about life's impersonal nature. As we watch the phenomena around us, we notice that the components exist separately from us, despite any psychological connection to them (as in "my" home). Our actions and thoughts and body seem to have a life of their own when we watch them closely. To an extent, we are a mass of impulses, spontaneous movements, and functions which occur without our conscious knowledge or consent; some people believe that we are composed of nothing but this impersonal activity with no permanent self behind it. (Those of us who believe that there is a permanent self can still use this general principle to perceive the world around us with less of the "personal" overlay of our projections, desires, aversions, judgments, and fantasies.) We become simple awareness -- a spectator who senses events (and ourselves) as mere "processes" involving semi-autonomous elements. To explore this impersonalness, we can ask ourselves, for example, "Who is walking?"
  9. We learn about life's transitoriness. When we observe objects, we see their changes, their growth, and their decline. In contrast, when we experience life conceptually, we don't notice the changes, because the "tree," for example, is still a "tree," rather than a sprouting life which has more flowers than it had yesterday. We also realize the impermanence of ourselves -- the passing of thoughts and feelings and moods and identities which might seem continuous if not observed carefully; for example, we might have generalized ourselves as "a sad person," but in mindfulness, we notice the many other emotions (including those of "a happy person") which pass through us. Long-lasting experiences become a series of separate momentary occurrences; for example, what we might consider to be simply "a two-hour car ride" becomes millions of ever-new sights and sounds. We begin to feel the general impermanence of the phenomena around us; objects are no longer "solid" but rather we sense them as shifting energies. In advanced stages of mindfulness (and Zen), practitioners say that they can detect "mind moments" -- the individual, extremely brief periods of time in which the entire universe repeatedly ends and recreates like the separate frames of a movie.
  10. We become more aware of our energy.
    • When we perceive the living, active qualities of our interactions (instead of experiencing them conceptually), we discern them as exchanges of energy; thus we can enhance these exchanges by directing our attention (and thus our energy) more mindfully.
    • We notice the ways in which we squander energy in mindless behavior or involuntary emotional responses.
    • We notice more interesting elements around us, so we are less apt to experience the energy-draining state of boredom.
    • Because we are attuned to present occurrences, we are not frittering our energy with worry about the future or regrets about the past.
  11. We learn about the nonverbal aspects of ourselves. Some people "think too much"; we allow a continual flood of thoughts -- labeling and judging and over-analyzing everything around us, and also processing regrets about the past, and worries about the future. The mind creates thoughts constantly; sometimes we need to attend to those thoughts. But at other times, we can direct our attention to other valuable interests; for example, we can decide instead to be attentive to the refreshing and stimulating objects of the senses -- the cool breeze, or the background music, or the warm sensations of our body, or our feelings regarding our surroundings, or our imagination, etc.
  12. We experience more of life and its possibilities. As Thoreau said in Walden, "Only that day dawns to which we are awake."


The technique. Simply, we "pay attention" to whatever we are doing.

  1. Accept whatever is occurring. In mindfulness, we are accepting and self-accepting, regardless of whatever is presented to us. With this acknowledgment of things "as they are," we do not become immersed in thoughts of interpretation, judgment, reaction, opinion, expectation, liking or disliking, or wanting to change anything. In mindfulness meditation, everything is equal; it is simply an occurrence to be observed in what the Buddhists call "choiceless awareness." For example, if we feel unhappy, we behold the unhappiness; if we are excited, we behold the excitement. We surrender to the experience of our life, rather than denying or avoiding -- but if we find ourselves denying or avoiding, we can be mindful of those activities, too. "Acceptance" is not passive. It does not transform us into "mindless" victims who would have a "choiceless awareness" about whether to walk into a busy intersection; we accept the fact that we must wait for the traffic light, and we accept the smog and noise (or we accept the realization that they irritate us), and we are mindful of the conditions which would permit a safe crossing. At such times in this complex world, we must be analytical -- but we can be mindful of our analyzing, and not allow the analysis to proceed into an emotional reaction (and judgment, opinion, etc.). The analytical part of the mind is necessary in certain circumstances, but it doesn't need to be left running all the time; when its service is completed (i.e., after we have crossed the street), we can shift to a different mode in which to be mindful.
  2. Move slowly. We can be mindful at any speed, but our practice is easier if we move slowly. When our actions are at a relaxed pace, we can feel our body adjusting to various motions, and we have the time to notice more elements around us. After we strengthen our habit of being mindful, we can attain that same degree of awareness in our typical faster pace.


Exercises in mindfulness. We can be mindful during all activities, but these exercises give us some special challenges.

  1. Repeat a simple activity for a period of five minutes. We can select action which is so easy that we would ordinarily become bored (and mindless) while doing it. For example, sit at a table with your arms resting on the table. Now, very slowly, reach several inches to pick up a pen. Raise it a few inches and then set it down. Move your hand back to its original position of rest. While you repeat this action throughout the time-period, experience each repetition with freshness, as though you have never done it before. You can direct your attention toward different aspects of the movement: watching your hand, or feeling the muscles contracting. You can even close your eyes and concentrate on your sense of touch, sliding your hand across the table toward the pen, and being aware of the different textures and pressures. (With eyes closed, a variation is to dwell on the sounds which are created by the sliding and your movement of the pen.)
  2. Listen to some enjoyable, peaceful music. Each time you become distracted by a thought, write a brief note about the content of that thought. After five minutes, read the notes. What types of thoughts pulled your attention away from the music? Why did those particular thoughts attract you? Were they derived from charged elements in an archetypal field?
  3. Watch a movie or television program while maintaining mindfulness. (Our habit -- and the producers' goal -- is to lose ourselves in an emotional involvement.) Try different types of programs: sitcoms, news reports, dramas, soap operas, etc.
  4. Write down the details of an activity after you have performed it mindfully. (This activity can be a short walk or a household chore.) Then repeat the activity, and notice the many details which you did not recall the first time.
  5. Do a familiar activity as if this is your first time. Say to yourself, "I have never done this before." In Zen, this viewpoint is called "the beginner's mind." Be fascinated and surprised by each step of the process; you don't know what to expect next, so the activity is fresh and exciting and even ecstatic.
  6. One of my favorite variations of mindfulness meditation is to use the phrase, "This is just ..." (e.g., "this is just walking" or "this is just driving"). That phrase releases me from the burden of analyzing an activity in terms of my personal benefit and thus it frees me to experience the activity in its own manner, with a resulting exhilaration and an experiential intimacy.


The further stages of mindfulness. We can expect the following developments. However, during the mindfulness practice, we do not seek these states as "goals," nor do we seek a sense of "improvement" in our mindfulness "skill"; to do so would impose an overlay which would distract us from the mindfulness itself. We simply do the practice, and we let it unfold in its own manner.

  1. We become progressively aware of smaller increments of the phenomena around us, so the benefits stated previously become more profound. For example, we see more details; we hear more nuances in the sounds around us.
  2. Mindfulness becomes a habit because:
    • We are attracted to the pleasure which it creates.
    • It is a more natural and streamlined mode of functioning, so it appeals to the mind's aspiration for efficiency.
  3. We explore the nature of perception. As we strip away the personal overlays (our emotional reactions, etc.), we strive for a direct, intimate contact with our surroundings. In doing so, we realize that this supposed "contact" is actually a series of nerve messages and brain processes which occur entirely within us. (We don't know what is "out there"; we only know how the external world is experienced through our human nervous system.) If we seek a more-profound contact through mindfulness, we might transcend our physical senses to become mindful of intuitive or "psychic" perceptions of the energy of those objects. But there are more subtle levels beyond the psychic, as explained below.
  4. We contemplate the duality of "the person who sees" and "the object which is seen" -- and we achieve the state where the "seeing" is an impersonal function; "seer" and "seen" are merely two sides of that function. For example, when we are walking mindfully, we might feel our foot reaching down to touch the ground while the ground simultaneously reaches up to touch the foot, and in their contact is a perfect gestalt, a wholeness which is so complete that nothing exists in the universe except those two agents briefly merging into one incident within a field of emptiness. We might sense that the mind and the objects which the mind perceives arise together from that emptiness; neither one has an enduring quality nor an independent existence, and neither of them constitutes "who we are" nor a reason to provoke our personal concerns.
  5. When we can maintain mindfulness continually, it matures into "insight meditation" (vipassana). Because our mindfulness is constant, in regard to all that we encounter, we begin to perceive these elements' interplays and patterns. We have no distractions which would cause us to miss a moment of the action (and which would leave us with the absence of important pieces from our puzzle). Thus, we gain "insight" into the general nature of our world and ourselves.
  6. We can maintain mindfulness during sleep. We develop this ability in lucid dreaming and in "Tibetan dream yoga," to be conscious during the entire sleep-period. During some lucid dreams, we are as mindless as we are during wakefulness; however, we have the option of practicing mindfulness as we pursue activities within the dreamscape. Some people are able to maintain consciousness 24 hours per day; they are "lucid" during their dreams, and aware also during the non-dreaming periods. When they awaken, they are fully refreshed, because their body has had a natural sleep and their mind, too, has recharged itself.


An example of mindfulness: typing at my computer. We cannot be mindful of everything, but we might be mindful of some of the following elements while typing. Possible digressions are also described.

  1. My computer's monitor: I see the blinking cursor; I digress into a thought that it is blinking very quickly and so I should adjust the speed -- but then I return to mindfulness and simply observe the blinking, and I notice (for the first time) the individual pixels which are visible within the cursor. I see the white-on-red color of my text on the computer; I digress into a thought that it looks blood-red and that that's morbid -- but then I look at the color itself and notice the tingling sensation in my eyes as they process the image. I look mindfully at the monitor itself, and I notice the texture of the plastic (for the first time), and the shadows which lie on it, and I sense the fervent electronic activity which is occurring with in it. I sense the physical composition of the monitor -- the minerals which were extracted from the earth and were then fabricated into this machine, and I feel their connection to the minerals in the ground outside of my home; in a further penetration -- not a digression -- I sense their participation in an infinite flow which temporarily has fashioned them into a human device but will eventually return them to the ground.
  2. My hands on the keyboard: I feel the smooth surface on top of the keys. I hear the clicking of the sound of the keys; I digress into a thought they sound business-like -- but then I listen to the sounds themselves, and I feel tingling in my ears (but I digress to compare the tingling to the sensation I had felt in my eyes when looking at the monitor). I feel the heat and muscular tautness in my forearms. I feel the acute readiness in my fingers, preparing to type more words; I digress to compare their bursts of activity to that of a machine gun. I look at the curve of my ergonomic keyboard; I digress to feel happy that its ergonomic quality is protecting my health, and I feel proud that I am "smart enough" to have bought an ergonomic device -- but then I return to looking at the keyboard and I notice the many individual shapes and shadows of the keys.
  3. Myself: I sense the connection of my body's energy to the keyboard, and I feel the energy flowing into the plastic and electronics, and I also feel it radiating back to me as a warmth. I notice the typing of my fingers; I digress to feel proud of the speed and skill, but then I am corrected and humbled by the recollection that when I try to claim that skill as my own, my fingers become "self-conscious" and clumsy, and they regain their swiftness only when I withdraw and become the "typing" itself rather than the "typist," so I withdraw my identification and I permit the impersonal action to occur. I feel anxiety surrounding my desire to write more pages of text today; I digress to plot a remedy to this anxiety -- but then I accept the anxiety, and I feel a transcendent peacefulness which allows the anxiety to exist, and I notice that I am no longer compounding the original anxiety by being disturbed about it; eventually the original anxiety fades of its own accord as my attention inevitably redirects toward a mindfulness of something else. I observe my body's involuntary movements: the shifting of my weight on the stool, and the adjustments in my posture, and the scratching of an itch, and the periodic squinting of my eyes, and the pauses in my breathing, and the tiny "jiving" rhythms to which my body playfully moves as though it were listening to a silent song.
  4. My surroundings: I look at the curtain in front of my desk, and I notice its bright blue color and the intricate weave of threads; I digress to notice that it needs to be washed. I see the papers disarrayed on my desk in a chaos of shapes and shadows and colors which fascinate my eyes; I digress to judge the papers as a "mess" which should be organized. I hear the air conditioner, and I notice that the sound is not a steady white noise but instead it has a pulsing and a variety of pitches; I digress to remember that it probably needs to be serviced. I feel the stool upon which I sit; if I allowed my mind to digress with no control, I would follow a mindless stream-of-consciousness that would proceed through these thoughts: This is a hard stool. I looked for a comfortable stool at a store which is north of town. That store is across the street from the park. I haven't gone to the park in a few weeks. I used to go there before my weekly shopping-trip. I need to buy groceries tomorrow. I need to make a shopping list. My shopping list is in a folder in my box. I need to process some of the paperwork in that box. I don't have time for that. How am I going to spend my time tonight? I need to read some books. I need to go to the library for more books. ... And so on. Such is mindlessness.

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