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.

15 Oct

What is Mindfulness? (Part II)

In my previous post, “What is Mindfulness? (Part I)”, I offered an exercise in paying attention to the symbol  + , in order to introduce the idea of Mindfulness. In this article I would like to consider this Mindfulness process further to hopefully provide further clarification as to what it is, and what it is not.

All animals. even newborn infants, can “pay attention”.  In addition to constant scanning of their environment, sudden noises or certain movements will reactively generate curiosity or alert responses such that the animal’s or infant’s attention is immediately drawn to such events.  Typically the animal or infant only “notices” such events for a very brief period of time before their attention re-directs somewhere else.  This type of response is automatic and essentially “hard wired”  into the organism.

A more complex process than briefly noticing occurs when attention is sustained for an extended period of time, perhaps for many minutes rather than seconds, and typically happens in us humans only as our brains mature and develop.

The capacity to engage in intentional focussing or concentration is an even more complex attentional task.  I am not talking here about the more limited type of attentional demand required to watch television or read a book. Rather I am referring specifically to the type of sustained attentional activity required, for example, in maintaining awareness on the symbol  +.

Such a task is more complex because in order to accomplish it successfully, one has to be able to do two very unique things.  First, in order to actually maintain  focus on the symbol, one has to also be able to “notice” other experiences described as “intrusions”,  so as to exclude them. These “intrusions” refer not only to external events such as sounds for example, but also to those types of experiences we would describe as internally generated states such as one’s heartbeat, or perhaps physical discomforts.

But internal experiences would also includes those events we would normally describe as being created by one’s own mind, such as thoughts, memories, and even emotional states. In other words, in order to focus on the symbol as an “object” of awareness, one also has to have a well developed capacity to be aware of one’s subjective experiences.

The second attentional complexity involved in this task is that one has to not only notice these various types of  “intrusions”, but then, in order to refocus back onto the symbol, one has to override the almost unconscious tendency to get distracted by these intrusions.

For those who can easily notice these various “distractions”, and then not get carried away by them, these complexities may seem rather simple. But many people struggle with such a task, for a variety of reasons, making it almost impossible for them to complete the focussing exercise properly.

But, you may ask quite sensibly, since this all sounds like fairly standard requirements for the practice of meditation, what does it have to do with Mindfulness?  And why is any of this important anyway?

My answer to the first question first requires an unfairly brief description of meditation.  Clearly there are many different kinds of meditation practices: some are designed to help us relax while others are meant to produce altered states of consciousness. But one feature common to many meditation techniques is that just as with the symbol exercise, you are explicitly requested to maintain awareness on a particular “object” of attention (often your breathing), notice the arrival of the “intrusions”, and then “let them go” and return to your breathing.

But this direction to notice and then exclude or “let go” of  those experiences identified as “distractions”, or “hindrances” completely bypasses the one critical step, which in my opinion, one absolutely must take in order to properly utilize the practice of Mindfulness.  And I would describe that step by saying that one of the core and defining features of Mindfulness is that it serves as a vehicle by which we come to learn about and more deeply understand the nature of our subjective experiences, typically the very experiences being excluded in meditation.

Mindfulness, as I describe it, offers a way of learning about “mind”; a vehicle by which we use all of our experiences to learn about the nature of our self,  and about our relationships with others and the world in which we live.

By my definition, if you learned nothing about yourself in the process of focussing on the symbol, (or in your practice of meditation) it means you were unable to profit from the process of being Mindful.  This distinction may seem confusing or perhaps trivial. But in my experience it is precisely this failure to see or understand this difference that explains why it is that most people cannot see this doorway in order to to go through it.

So in the symbol exercise, or in a meditation practice where you were able to notice the “intrusions”, and were able to return your focus to the symbol, then good for you.  But you weren’t being Mindful, at least not yet.

As for the second question,  “why is this important”,  it is because Mindfulness, as I practice and teach it, offers a particular way of “knowing” that is completely different from our traditional way of knowing and learning things.  It is because it is so different, that it is also so hard to grasp without practice.  I will discuss this particular way of Knowing in an upcoming article called, “Mindfulness, A Way Of Knowing”.

14 Feb

What are we doing here?

Relationships serve many different purposes. Minimally, relationships should provide security, comfort and a sense of belonging.

But ideally, I think relationships should serve as a vehicle for each other’s emotional, psychological and spiritual growth. That is to say, there is a way to be with each other, to encourage and nurture each other in such a manner as to promote our development in these areas. A way to listen to and respect each other for what one thinks, feels and believes without trying to make the other be like us.

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