MIndful Awareness: The Precision of Openness
We speak a lot about letting go. “I’ve got to let go.” “You should let that go.” “I’m letting go of letting go.” But, at the same time, we talk about mindfulness or holding to the present. “I’m mindful of the moment.” “I’m mindful of my life”. “I’m doing a mindfulness retreat.”
Ah. And what did you learn on your retreat?
“I learned to be mindful of letting go.”
But, what does any of that mean? How do we let go and pay attention at the same time? And while we’re at it, how can you pay attention to moments that are rapidly slipping by, without holding on? Grasping and fixation seem posited as twin evils in the church of mindfulness. But, how do we pay attention without grasping on to something?
How can we be here now, when it is gone by the time we get there?
Developing mindfulness and learning to let go are only contradictions to the programmed, conceptual part of our mind. It is the mind with which we create value judgements that allow us to communicate with the world. However, in doing so we also build an identification upon these concepts creating a “Me”construct, which is a compendium of conceptual ideas with no inherent substance. They are simply labels used to identify ourselves to social ecosystems. These concepts reduce the complexity of reality into a two-dimensional flatland of opposites. Good and Bad. Right and Wrong. Heaven and Hell. And while that may make for great rock n roll, or action adventure comics, these dualities fail profoundly as an assessment of reality. To the open, relaxed mind trained in meditation, it becomes apparent that good and bad are just points indicating a spectrum. In fact, they are really just points in an infinite array of possibilities.
In meditation practice we actually do ‘let go’ in order ‘hold to’ the moment. We let go of our personal identification and its attendant gripping in order to rest the mind on the moment. By taming the mind with meditation practice, we slow down assumptive and presumptive mental processing. At the same time, we increase our objective awareness and begin to see the steps beneath the assumption. This fellow is a good man, and will make a great president. But, if we relax into this assumption, we may see that we don’t know this person at all. We may see that our assessment is colored by our fear of certain beliefs he stands against. We may see that our assessment is persuaded by societal pressures. When we relax beneath the labeling process, we can see the energetic exchange below. Relaxing may be a more accurate designation for letting go. Wze may see that much of our thinking on the subject is prejudiced by fear and, in fact, we have little knowledge of either the person, or the office. By relaxing, we loosen the fear based grip. We can look more deeply and objectively at the situation. We might even go beyond thinking and feel into the situation. Far from eliminating or eradicating the moment, we are opening to the moment. With meditation, we relax past designations and loosen the grip of our our identification in order to access the moment more objectively.
Problems arise when people either believe their assumption of reality or go to the other extreme and believe they are letting go of the moment itself. This is the linear mind of opposites. There is this and that. We are either believing our superficial mental designations, or letting go of the moment into a blank space. In meditation theory, we talk about the middle way. In our flatland way of believing the surfaces, we think it’s either gorge or purge. We believe that a middle way is a small theoretical point on a line of opposites. In truth, the middle way is the spectrum of possibility available in the moment. The middle way is multidimensional and those dimensions become more apparent as we relax further into the moment. We are letting go of mental judgements in order to fully realize the moment. Meditation can be seen as a process of training the mind to ‘open to’ rather than ‘close down on’ an object.
Mindfulness: Agency in the Moment
Mindfulness meditation is using an object of mindfulness to stabilize the mind. Mindfulness in action is being able to hold the mind to an object in space or a moment in time (actually, the same thing). With mindfulness training, we are incrementally letting go of panic induced gripping in order to see beyond the constrictions of fear. Gripping is how we attempt to control an uncontrollable world. We grip onto each moment and then conflate a number of feelings, thoughts, memories hopes and fears into a very handy label in an attempt to control our experience. Hence, we would rather be miserable by our own hand, than open up to possibilities which may lead us to being miserable. However, we simply cannot control life by griping to it. We defeat the purpose and actually destroy life by gripping to it. A mind without mindful attention like being in a stuffy room. And meditation is like opening the window. Gripping to that moment is like slamming the window shut in order to keep the fresh air in.
And then when the air is once again stale we will become miserable remembering what we once had. We will imagine a time when there will once again be fresh. We will be lost in the past and the future, we will scheme and cajole, bargain and manipulate, daydream and regret. We will scurry into a cycle of schemes each triggered by the other. We will do any number of things, except open the window.
Until we it happen again randomly, on its own. This is likely, because the window represents our natural inquisitiveness. And, the space beyond the window, our very life. Whether we know it or not, we are naturally present in that life. But, although life is always out there, and the fresh air is limitless, when we forget we are alive in our life, we are effectively shutting it out. We are preferring the laundry in the closet to the trees, mountains and the rivers outside. So, windows open naturally all the time. Only, each time we ascribe a meaning to this and credit the book we read, the person we loved, or drug we ingested, we again shut the window. We confuse the ‘finger pointing to the moon’ with the actual moon. We will lose the object to the method and surely the window will shut again. Then we may hate the book. We may toss the book across the room. And, in a borderline show of swinging opposites, switch our drugs and throw our lover out the door, as well.
And, when we open the door to throw them out, and the fresh air gets in, we may mistake that again. It’s a common rookie error to blame the messenger. We’ll be at the bar and everyone we buy drinks will agree, all we had to do was get a new book. But, maybe someone who doesn’t drink will risk suggesting a way of giving up the control game in order to gain access to our life. They may suggest an actual path to discovery, rather than a placebo or panacea. A way of giving up control and gaining agency in our life. There are those darned opposites again. Giving up control, but gaining agency in our life. We may actually learn about the window and our tendency to look at easy surfaces instead of the complexity of truth. We may learn how to open the window for ourselves.
In time, and perhaps more importantly, we will learn that we have been the one closing the window all along. The fact is, open windows are frightening. Anything can get in and close off our life again. And so we will seal the window shut ourselves just to have control. We will throw the lover out, in order to get a jump on them dumping us. We’ll stay in and read a book. An old book, of course. a nice musty one. New books all disappoint. They are not like they were back in the day. They are definitely not what they could be. We might sit a while and imagine the book we will write someday. It will be a book much like the way they used to be. And, WE WILL BE IN CONTROL.
Lucky for us, as the of fresh air of the outside life is our natural state, eventually some neighbor’s kid will toss a rock through the window. Or, maybe after repeated disappointments, at some point, it will click. We can learn how to open the window on our own. We can learn why we close it sometimes, but we can develop along a progressive path toward opening the windows more and more. And then, once the windows are open enough, we can enjoy closing them now and gain, as a respite from life. But we know it’s our decision. We have agency, and we have gained that, by giving up control. We can’t gain access to the mind by controlling it. We gain access by working with it. We can’t gain access to the moment by clamping onit. We gain access by opening to it. And when we’ve done that enough, we can choose to close off for a while. It can be our choice.
Awareness: Access to Life.
When we can train the mind to ‘rest’ in moments without gripping, we gain a deeper access to life. In time that resting mind allows us to naturally activate a different kind of memory. WE connect the dots – not conceptually – but in experience. Our ability to access the timeline of experience grows, and we actually increase the awareness of now. Now becomes a larger – and less defined – arena. In this way, non gripping mindfulness allows us to let go into a larger field of awareness. Instead of a pinpoint designation, “now” becomes a larger field of possibility, history and potential. Sakyong Mipham translates this as “Presently Knowing”. We are presently knowing our life when we are resting in the present, not carried away in judgments of good or bad, pulled by this and that. We may be aware of references from past experience, or a view of our future, but it is all regarded in the present, without conflating it into the personalized miniature of projection.
We have trained the mind to see what is, and trained our emotions and body to allow us the contentment to relax all gripping. With meditation, we train the mind to open to the moment and rest there long enough to let go into an awareness of life.
Mindfulness is the tool by which we open TO an event, rather than close in ON the event. Thus letting go and resting on are complimentary, and necessary components of the path to awakening. During the path of meditation, we train ourselves to let go of its stages even as we render them into language to better track the process. We come to understand that labels are provisional titles pointing to deeper interpenetrations of experience. In this sense, as it clarifies itself, meditation practice uncovers a fundamental truth below our conditioned existence. In order to see beyond the limitations of delineation and gain a deeper, more organic connection to life, we train the mind to loosen its grip and feel below the labels. As the mind naturally becomes more present, and more comfortable with its experience, we gain an internal confidence in ‘not knowing’ and a willingness to lean in and investigate further. Eventually, we relax our grip on this and that. Which is to say, we release our grip on separating ourselves and everything else. Apparent logical discrepancies become complementary and reality becomes unified and possible.
In the seminal manual on meditation “Turning The Mind Into An Ally”, Sakyong Mipham refers to ‘resting’ the mind on an object. Of course, “resting” is itself a conflation and a designation. But it is more subtle and energetically accurate in terms of opening to and contacting the object. The more we grip, the more the object changes and the less we actually see the object. Complicating this our personal evaluations and judgements further confuse the process. When I say resting is more energetically accurate to mindfulness, I mean it is closer to what the mind does in order to see an object clearly. It is inquisitive. It opens to the object without preempting experience with assumption. Therefore, rather than ‘focus’ the mind on the breath, Sakyong Mipham urges students to ‘rest’ the mind on the breath, and to open to the experience of breathing. This points the mind toward looking beyond the conceptual index and into an actual felt sense of a purer access to reality.
When we rest the mind repeatedly on an object, gently training the mind to return again and again to present experience, we develop the confidence to further relax the grip of our personal identification and its attendant histories and associations. The process is like raising a child, I suppose. The more our personal agenda comes into play, the more the child resists and the less accurately we see the child. This engenders a certain panic that increases our identification and gripping. We begin to conflate a miraculous human being into a limited dimensional thing, a “child”, a “daughter”, a “son” that belongs to us. And while those designations are provisionally accurate, they evoke all sorts of assumptions that may have little to do with an actual person. This becomes particularly complicated when we say “my” daughter. We automatically assign personal judgements and assume patterns of behavior. Much of it is well intended, but sometimes the more we love, the more we fear. And, the more it we are instigated by fear, the greater our tendency is to panic and grip. The more panic and grip the less awareness we have. Expectation is the death of accuracy. When we expect a living, changing, dynamic being to remain faithful to our provisional designations for their lives, we rob them of self-agency and the confidence needed to live an independent life.
But does this mean we just let the child “go” and refuse to guide them or protect them? This would not be a very mindful upbringing. The key is learning to ‘guide’ the process. We are not gripping out of personal panic and its attendant delusions of the ego, but are letting go into the process of ‘seeing’ who this person is, and how to help them open to their true potential. In this way, we are actually paying deeper attention who the child is, rather than preconceptions of what she should become. Because we are giving the child space to be, we can better understand and appreciate the child. In this way, instead of letting go, perhaps we are letting be. We are gaining distance in order to become closer. We are opening to life by resting our mind on the moment rather than stomping all over it, appropriating it, or truncating it into a label. Therefore, we discover that there is simply more to life than we can imagine. In fact, our imagination is limited in comparison to the true complexity of life. If we are open to discovery, we will use a gentle touch in our investigation, honoring both the perceiver and perceived in an increasingly informative exchange.
By doing this we are letting go of the “Me” construct and opening up to everything else.