09 Mar

What is Mindfulness? (Part I)

To be clear from the start, whatever the process is that anyone is pointing to when they talk about mindfulness, it is  not that.

The actual experience that one is referring to in discussing mindfulness or awareness cannot be described.  Such is the conundrum posed in trying to present such a topic.

No matter what I might say or how I might describe mindfulness, it is not that.

And yet, mindfulness as a practice, or as an orientation, or as a quality of experience is as real (if not more real) than even the material world.  Indeed, to me it is perplexingly odd how little most people know about mindfulness or the immense value it can offer.

Let me therefore try to offer a brief glimpse of mindfulness as I see it, with the understanding that I am using these words to point you towards something beyond the words.  Somewhat like a recipe for a cake, if you follow the instructions you may get a taste of something that can never come from the paper the instructions are written on.

In order to begin, I would ask that you understand that the first few steps I am going to ask you to do, in and of themselves, will have little relevance or meaning  for you.  But if you bear with me, I hope we can move past the “so what” part and begin to talk about mindfulness in a more meaningful way.

Concentration Practice.  Learning to stay connected to the present moment.

Step 1:  

Okay, let’s begin.  What I would ask you to do for about 5 seconds is look at the symbol at the end of this sentence; so when you are ready:  +

If you did what I asked, then you have briefly entered into a state of mindfulness.

And as I said, it will have very little meaning for you.  (As a rough analogy consider giving someone a key to something but they don’t yet know what it is for).

So let me make an important observation here.  Entering a state of mindfulness is simple; staying there is the difficult part.  Put another way, it is not hard for someone to wake up, it is nearly impossible for them not to fall back asleep.  If you want evidence of this particular difficulty then let’s move on to step two.

Before we begin, let me clarify that in order for the rest of what I want to show you to have any value it has to be experientially true for you.  That is to say, I don’t want you to believe what I am telling you, I want you to see it for yourself.  If you do the practice you will have the experiences for yourself, and the truth of what I am saying will be self evident; it will come from your own experiential reality.   So please, try the next exercise before you continue reading.

Step 2:

Go back to the symbol and try to maintain your awareness of it for 30 seconds.  Don’t read any further, go back.

What you probably noticed, if you were paying attention, was that within a matter of seconds you began to have various types of “intrusions” into the previously clear state of awareness.  Perhaps you found yourself counting the seconds out loud, or wondering why you were even doing this exercise.  If this, or some other type of intrusion didn’t happen (thoughts, images, memories etc.) there are a few possibilities to consider.

Perhaps you are already skilled at maintaining a sufficient level of awareness to complete the task.  Or, perhaps your existing awareness of your own experiences is so limited that you didn’t even notice the intrusions.

If you didn’t notice these intrusions and are not already skilled at doing this, then this presents a roadblock which must be overcome before we can move further down the road.  Try the exercise again, and see if that helps.

If you completed the exercise and noticed the intrusions then there are a few observations which we should be able to agree upon because they were actually part of your experience.

Firstly, you didn’t ask for these intrusions to occur, they just happened.  Watch this carefully until you can verify for yourself  if what I am saying is true or not.

Secondly, there is no way of predicting how such intrusions will present themselves.  Mainly they tend to be thought level experiences but can take a variety of forms which shift and blend seamlessly into one another.

Importantly, these phenomenon that I am calling intrusions are occurring all the time during your waking (and dreaming states).  In fact they are actually the products of your own mind which are constantly overlaying themselves on top of your sensory experiences.

Given that the intention of the exercise was to maintain concentration on the symbol, if you were distracted by these intrusions, you were probably beginning to fall asleep (see What is Mindfulness? – Part 2  for clarification)

If this all makes sense to you so far, then we have the basis for beginning to discuss the meaning and interplay between topics such as “mind”, “reality”,  “truth”, “self”, “legitimate suffering”, “depression”, “surrender”, and a whole host of other descriptors of human experience.

I want to repeat however, that in order to truly understand these discussions you must first have the actual experiences, have your own truth.  If you are with me so far then we can move forward, which we will do in my next post.