In contemplative traditions, Mindfulness refers to paying specific attention to a moment, event or object within the context of meditative awareness. “Meditative awareness” differs with each application, but in the Shambhala Tradition, we see mindfulness as enabling “nowness”, or awareness of the environment around the singular moment. Meditation Master Chogyam Trungpa, referred to “Mindfulness / Awareness as a practice that balanced specific attention to a general sense of knowing. The relationship is reflexive. Being present in the general sense allows us to connect more readily to mindfulness, while being specifically mindful allows the mind to relax into awareness. Awareness places mindfulness in a contemplative context. As opposed to simply “paying attention” in the conventional sense, we are retraining the mind to pay attention, and then open to its environment. With mindful awareness we employ precise contact in order to gently relax into awareness, allowing intuition, mental clarity and the environment to inform our understanding.
MINDFULNESS and AWARENESS
Mindfulness is the awake (or, knowing) part of the mind that holds to an object and opens into a deeper awareness. For instance, when we look at something of interest, mindfulness holds it in our short term memory long enough for us to determine what it is. Awareness is the conscious environment (or clarifying space) around mindfulness that allows us to see the event in context. We are mindful of the breath, and we understand that this an important process for settling the mind. We are mindful of the notes we are playing, and aware of the reaction of those listening. We are mindful of the correct steps in our dance, while being aware enough not to step on our partner’s toes. Mindfulness is connection to the moment. Awareness is communication to the environment. Mindfulness is looking and awareness is seeing. Mindfulness is acceptance and awareness is understanding.
Mindfulness and awareness are symbiotic. When we are mindful of details we are connected to a greater sense of our life-environment. Awareness, in turn, allows us to know when to apply mindfulness. We are aware that we are not paying attention, so we remember to return to the present, tethering to the earth, by a practical application of mindfulness.
This is because mindfulness is NOT identified with the self and hence able to see, connect and expand into understanding its environment. Grasping, on the other hand, is fused with the self and therefore, likely to not see beyond self-interest and defensiveness. Instead of space being the reference point for clarity, our sense of me-ness becomes a fixed point for reactivity. Ironically, the more we solidify me-ness the more we actually abandon connection with ourselves. In a panic of losing our moorings, we fixate on that which we reflexively feel will bring happiness. The un-investigated mind will clutch for random straws, and in so doing, lose its compass. Once we dissociate from our innate wisdom and intuition, we abdicate authority over our life. Devoid of conscious volition, we become lost in the momentum of habit and mental patterning allowing the “winds of Karma” to blow us where they will.
Mindfulness is the moment we take back our life. It is the moment we wake up and remember our true nature and return from the dream into awareness of the present.
MINDFUL AWARENESS PRACTICE
Buddhist texts and tradition speak of a state of enlightenment where the mind simply finds its way to a stabilized openness. They refer to this experience as realizing NATURAL MIND. But, most practitioners of mindfulness travel a spectrum of awareness from being wakeful of the specific details and their meaning, to occlusion of many aspects of our experience, to overly reactive and defiled understanding, to simply reacting in blindness to external stimuli. This seems to speak to the stages of evolution. We drop from the apex of human consciousness, through primal mammalian reaction, to the binary options of our amoebic precursors. When we are threatened, we crawl back to the blindness of the swamp. From those murky depths, awake is a vague remembrance. But, as this is not our true nature, we will always be stirred and reminded. Once we remember, we can choose to take the assertive action of being mindful of whatever moment in which we awake. Mindfulness is the assertive application of waking up, and awareness is the recognition of our natural state. However, this takes re-training the mind away from its defensive tendencies, and this takes time, love and patience. We are literally changing lifetimes of avoidance patterning. Whether “lifetimes” refers literally to rebirth and reincarnation, or figuratively to programming inherited through evolution, there is a lot of work to do.
An important aspect of mindfulness then, is its practical application.
We can use the application of mind that holds to an object, to gently REST on an object, repeatedly, in order to stabilize the mind. Then we can train the aspect of mind that compound information, to OPEN into stages of awareness. The training is to assert knowing and then let go of the tendency to grip. This takes precision and gentleness. Bravery and compassion.
Mindfulness alone will bring numerous benefits to wellness, such as stress reduction and attention enhancement. Mindfulness practice demonstrably increases our ability to concentrate, reduces cortisol, and engenders confidence born of paying attention to the practical aspects of life. It also allows us to gain tangible access to the present moment, by learning to become mindful of the body, the breath, or aspects of our present experience. In the Tibetan Buddhist traditions, we also incorporate mindfulness of the felt senses and the physical reality of our being, which enables a comprehensive understanding of the present.
But, mindfulness alone is a bit dry and uncompromising. Awareness expands into the world, our spirit, and our process of self discovery. Awareness gives mindfulness a container to find meaning, and as it is a bridge to connecting us to our world, offers inspiration in our everyday life. It becomes easier to practice if we are becoming more aware of life, and gaining more access to our experience.
In any case, daily practice is training the mind to “PLACE” itself on the point of contact. This is known as developing precision. We are paying acute attention to the moment. However, this “precision” can be aggressive if not tempered by the gentleness of acceptance. Aggression – even in subtle applications like competition or self-improvement – is counterproductive as it is likely to engender resistance, evasion or defensive reaction. Gentle precision is open and non=invasive, while being accurate and on point. So, we refer to placing the mind, gently and precisely on the object.
Awareness, which is the successive stage of expanding understanding, is achieved by training the mind to “REST” with the experience long enough to boycott patterned reaction and remain awake to the actual experience. This is best achieved if our precision is applied with gentleness. Gentleness allows the mind to expand naturally into awareness without triggering the defensive reactions of our base programing. This is not easy. Again we are working against mountains of defensive and evasive training. So, the daily practice is training in resting the mind on openness by gently returning from evasion or defensiveness in the mind, back to practical contact with the breath in the body.
So, the practice is to gently and decisively contact the object of meditation and then rest there in body spirit and mind. Awareness comes from that. It can’t be manufactured. But mindfulness creates the ground for the mind to settle and allow awareness to dawn. The “practice” is applying the precision of mindfulness to the breath and relaxing into a deeper body and heart connection to our understanding. When, as will happen, the moment of conditioned mind causes griping, evasion or aversion, we train to 1) notice, 2) release ourselves gently from the grip, 3) fall back to contact with the breath and 4) deepen our connection to the present.
In this way, we are repeatedly breaking the momentum of the conditioned mental stream. This creates a distance between us and our thinking by de-fusing our identity from 0ur thoughts. We begin to see the patterns of our thinking more clearly when we boycott being immersed in thoughts. In fact, we will begin to see and advance “echo” of the thinking as it occurs, or is about to occur. Sakyong Mipham refers to this process of mind as the “spy” who is on the lookout for gripping mind. Thus awareness of our process begins to dawn. Very naturally we believe less about who we are, and begin to see HOW we are. In this way, we can learn to work with how we are.
THE IMPORTANCE OF PRECISION
Ideally, mindfulness “practice” is the act of replacing secondary, or tertiary automatic functions of mind with an inquisitiveness that allows the mind to rest with, or open to, the event of perception. Which is to say, rather than being consumed by our past experience and carried away on a flood of feelings and information not necessarily germane to the moment, we release this grasping tendency and return to the moment of contact. This takes great precision. We are training the mind to be awake.
In practical reality, these successive functions of the mind happen very quickly. So, in meditation practice, we catch the drift well past the event. What we are usually letting go of may not be the initial moment of grasping, but the fixation and thought immersion that follows. However, if we are dedicated to the process, we will begin to calm the mind, releasing if from the exhausting preponderance of thought that obscures our connection to the present. In time, the practice of mindfulness helps slow down the process so that we can begin to FEEL the moments that lead to grasping. Working with that moment, we begin to see that in these subtle sub-moments, that we are actually CHOOSING to grasp. And hence, when we are choosing to check out into distraction or fixation.
When we train the mind to actually rest on the moment of choosing grasping, fixing or distraction we are in charge of a fundamental choice point in our lives. We are also very close to opening to the moment of clear perception, or direct contact with our life. However, because of the amount of training we have given the mind in grasping and fixating, a training sadly supported by society and our lives, we may not stay in synchronization with these choice points very long. So, mindfulness practice implies some heavy lifting. The more we train the mind to rest in the present in our practice, the more the mind will be inclined to remain in a relative sense of “presence” in everyday life. The more we encourage the mind to remain present in life, the easier precision in our practice becomes.
But, precision can seem invasive to the mind. It can make us very claustrophobic. And, as the process of holding the mind to an object is so close energetically to grasping (only nanoseconds away), it is important to learn to FEEL our way into the process with great care.
THE IMPORTANCE OF GENTLENESS
The practice of meditation allows us to unwind the ever tightening reasonings of the mind. Each time we boycott thinking, we train the mind to release its grasping. The work of a meditator is to simply rest the mind on an object without the extremes of fixation, or distraction. This takes a dedication to precision, that is infused with gentleness. This is so much more effective than an assertive application of mindfulness, which militaristically holds the mind in place and lies dangerously close to the aggression of clinging and fixation.
Should we employ gentleness and receptivity to our mindfulness practice, we find that rather than holding on to an object, we are opening to it. Eventually, instead of the cloud of conceptuality that surrounds the present, we have trained the mind to allow a space of awareness. When we drift off, we find there is no where to go. We reduce the distance between there and here. We increase the possibilities of here. So, mind easily – and gently – settles into body, sensations and feelings. When we are relaxed in body, mind and spirit, we can actually rest the mind in place.
In most traditions, a neutral object is selected specifically to diminish potential psychological investment and its attendant grasping and fixation. Like many, I use the breath as the object of meditation, as it is reliably neutral, boring and mundane. Ironically, our breath is one of the most intimate, amazing and important functions in our life. While simple breathing may seem boring to a mind conditioned to keep us off balance by searching for and acquisitioning objects it finds provoking, deep attention to the breath ultimately frees the natural flow of the mind.
In order to find this deep synchronicity, the mind must settle. The body is a perfect tool for this. The FELT connection to the body connects us to the earth. As we FEEL our way in to a somatic experience of the breathing, we calm the frightened animal mind and are able to rest into our body, and through the breath, into a direct experience of the present.
YIN AND YANG MIND
Mindful Awareness employs two processes: an active placement and a receptive understanding. While it is important to place the mind with precision, if we employ gentleness, we can also enable the mind to receive the attendant information. The process is that the mind goes to a place and asks the local authorities for an update. Then that information is brought back to headquarters. In the case of conditioned unexamined mental processes, the mind is telling the outpost what it expects to hear, and then filters the information to suit an agenda based on past occurrences. In this regard, the information is seriously compromised.
With Mindful Awareness, we are training the mind to FEEL into situations and RECEIVE information more clearly. We are employing what in Daoist culture is referred to as “YANG” and “Yin” principles of mind. When we are employing Yang mind, we are actively placing the mind. If we do this aggressively, we are moving with too much force to remain aware. But, with gentle application of Yang assertion, we can position the mind to open into Yin mind. Yin mind allows the unimpeded flow of information into awareness.
Yang mind tells us what to do, where to go. Yin mind tells us how we feel, and releases an intuitive sense into our awareness. The combination allows a greater understanding of our experience.
Conventionally, we are always telling ourselves what to do, where to go, what to think. We are placed at the front of our brains pushing ourselves into the next compartment. If we don’t wake up to this process, we will disengage from the present, and live a life one step behind our intentions, constantly trying to catch up. With Mindful Awareness we are trying to find deep synchronicity with the present. In this way, Yin mind – which aligns with awareness – opens us to the environment and reminds us to reconnect to the earth of our mindful experience. Once we reconnect, we can open into our felt experience.