Sacred geometry

Aspects of Mindfulness (Part 1)

Date23rd April 2006
Retreat/SeriesMeditation Day


A very warm welcome to everyone. Welcome to Gaia House, and welcome also to this one-day retreat. So some of you are familiar faces I know, and have been practising quite a while. Some of you are new. I would like to actually take a theme for the day, and that theme is the quality of mindfulness. So this is a word that's in our culture already, and I'd like to just unpack and explore that a little bit in the context of the sitting and walking practice that we'll be doing.

This tradition of Insight Meditation comes out of the Buddhist traditions, and the Buddha was someone who discovered a way to freedom in life, discovered a way free of unnecessary suffering, and that's all he really claimed. Out of compassion, he wanted to offer that same possibility for all of us. So he offered a path, a path of practice. I'll talk a bit more about this later. But central to the path, one of the fundamental aspects of the path is this quality of mindfulness. It's a really key and basic aspect of the path. Mindfulness is something, in a way, something very simple. It's an extremely simple quality, and yet there are also other aspects, other dimensions to it. It's quite a rich word. There are many facets to it. Today, I want to uncover some of that, of what it might mean.

In a way, mindfulness is based on the human capacity to pay attention. Now, all animals can pay attention, but humans have this quite extraordinary capacity of really being able to refine attention and develop it as a skill. Out of that attention, that attention to our life, we have the basis then for investigating our life. We can pay attention, and then we can investigate our life. We can look at our life and draw close to it, learn from it.

So mindfulness and attention, they're very bound up together. Human beings also have this capacity to what we might call 'self-reflexive' consciousness. We can be aware that we are aware. This is something that's unique to human beings. We can know when we're paying attention, when we're aware, and know when we're not. There's something very precious about that, because it means then that we can -- this is why we can develop this capacity of awareness.

Mindfulness, awareness, attention -- these are all words that are somewhat interchangeable. And this quality of mindfulness is indispensable to the path. Without mindfulness, there's no path. There's no development. The path doesn't rest on anything. Having said that, it's not the whole of the path. So sometimes, we might get the impression from reading or from listening that all we have to do is be there, be aware, and that's it. That's the goal of the path. But the Buddha never said that.

Mindfulness is a tool. It's a tool for understanding, for discovering our freedom. So the goal of the path is not awareness. It's not being in the moment. That's just one beautiful aspect of the path, one tool that we have at our disposal.

Why is this important? Why is this so important? Often, and often without even realizing it, we're moving through life with a whole bag, a whole huge baggage of ideas, images, conceptions, preconceptions, projections, thoughts and beliefs about ourselves, about life, about others. And mindfulness is that quality, actually we begin to pay attention to our life, the actual fact of our life -- not to our ideas about life, not to our projections. What is it, what is my life actually? In this movement towards freedom from suffering, the place of uncovering what is real is really a fundamental part. Can't be free of something if we don't understand it, if we're not in contact with what life is.

And we may have a feeling -- and it may be a strong feeling; it may be a sneaking feeling -- that in a way, we're not fully alive. So there's almost a little bit of sleepwalking going on. This may be something that nags at the heart. We're just not quite fully present to life. That's a deep question. Is it okay for me to go through life and feel like I'm sleepwalking a little bit through my existence? Or does just the thought of that, the possibility of that, does that disturb us? And I think it should. Mindfulness is a lot about this coming alive to our life.

The Buddha talks about this mindfulness, and he's quite specific about what it is that we need to pay attention to if we're interested in freedom, if we're interested in relieving ourselves from suffering. So human beings, we can pay attention to all kinds of things. I could go through my life paying attention to, "How can I make the most money? How can I impress/win friends and influence people?", or whatever it is. And the Buddha's saying, "Okay, but if you're interested in freedom, if you're interested in peace and freeing yourself from suffering, there are some things, there are some areas of life that really need attention."

So he talks about -- I'll talk more about this later on -- giving attention to our body, our bodily life. Our feeling life, the life of our mind, thought, emotion. These are all areas that need -- we need to draw close to them with a very kind attention, and explore them, and understand these areas, because these are the areas that we tend to get stuck and suffer. We get stuck around the body, and illness in the body, and how the body looks: am I handsome, am I pretty, am I not? And the body gets old and gets sick, and we will suffer around that, unless we really bring mindfulness there in a very open way and really draw close very deeply to the life of the body. And similarly with the emotional life. How much peace do we have with the emotional life? How much understanding do we have with the emotional life? Or the mental life, the thinking life. So there's a reason: the Buddha says pay attention to these things, because these are the fundamental areas where we get stuck and suffer as human beings. That's the human condition. It's not just me or you that has this particular problem. It's part of being human. And these are the areas we need to look at. These are the areas we need to bring mindfulness to.

And it also includes, the practice of mindfulness includes bringing attention, bringing this quality of mindfulness, uncovering, beginning to see what our particular patterns of behaviour are. So I tend to react a certain way in a certain situation -- beginning to see all this. What are my patterns of thought, of belief? What are my patterns of speech? Can I really investigate my own particular constellations, the way I particularly tie myself up in knots? I need to understand all that, as well as understand what my strengths are. Bringing mindfulness to our life is not just a matter of uncovering all one's faults and all the places where one could really improve; also knowing one's strengths, one's beauty.

So to our behaviour, to our thought, to our speech, to our intentions. What are our intentions in any situation? This is quite a subtle level of awareness. I'm approaching a conversation -- what am I looking for? What am I trying to get? What's my intention? Is it an intention of kindness, of compassion, or am I trying to get something? There's no judgment here; it's just painting a picture of what's in the realm of mindfulness.

I think it's from old Greek philosophy: know thyself. This is a journey that actually goes on throughout our lives. It's not that we ever reach a final resting place, where there's nothing more to discover about our particular personality. And that's a big part of mindfulness, know thyself, but not our assumptions about ourselves. So "I am an angry person. I am a fearful person. I am this," this is all what I said before, in the realm of beliefs, thoughts, assumptions, views, opinions, da-da-da-da-da. The mindfulness is actually knowing oneself in a very alive, ongoing way, very open way. And as I said, it's never-ending, but it's certainly not the whole of the path, just this knowledge of one's particular personality, and particular strengths and weaknesses, particular ways. It's part of the path, but only part of the path.

Okay, so let's go a little bit into more detail. What is mindfulness? What is it? So it's a word that has found its way into our culture. But what is it? So just to say very simply at first: we could say mindfulness is being present for life. It's just being present. We know when we're there, and there's a quality of aliveness in the moment, a quality of "I'm present to life." Being in the present moment. Being right here, right now. These are all sort of, you know, meditation jargon phrases that have also found their way into the culture. But this is also a good way of thinking about it: it's just being present.

When we talk about mindfulness in meditation -- so we can talk about mindfulness in daily life: am I present when I'm washing up, washing dishes in the sink? Am I present when I'm talking to someone? And we can talk about mindfulness certainly in meditation: am I present in the meditation? But I think it's very common for anyone relatively new to meditation, or even for those who've been practising quite a while, to have the assumption, sometimes conscious, sometimes not conscious, that meditation, mindfulness meditation, is about getting rid of thought. So somehow I'm supposed to sit down and banish all these hurricanes of thoughts that are through my mind, and sit there, and if I'm not doing that, I'm not meditating.

So this is not a helpful view, and not the right view. It's not about getting rid of thought. Rather, we could say, mindfulness is that quality which knows what's in the mind. Okay? So it's a different thing. It's not about getting rid of something in the mind, getting rid of thought. It's just knowing what's in the mind. I'm mindful that there's thought going on. It's a different thing. Knowing what's in awareness. So it might be in the mind: there's thought going on, there's fear going on, there's joy going on. It might be in the body: there's pain going on, there are sensations of sitting going on. Whatever it is. It might be in the senses: there's seeing, there's tasting, touching, listening. So mindfulness is that quality -- one of the aspects, we can say it's what knows, it knows what's in awareness. That's all. It's not getting rid of anything. It just knows what's in awareness. It's very simple. If there's thinking in the mind -- either in meditation or not in meditation -- mindfulness knows there's thinking. That's it. It just knows there's thinking. If there's no thinking sometimes in very deep states of meditation, there's no thinking, and mindfulness knows there's no thinking. If the mind is calm, mindfulness knows, "Ah, calmness." If the mind is agitated, mindfulness knows, "Agitation."

So it's just this -- even as I say it, can you hear the spaciousness in that? What a relief! I just have to know. I just have to know what's going own. That's one hugely important aspect of mindfulness, just knowing what's in awareness. But as I said, mindfulness is one of these words that has a lot of aspects to it, a lot of dimensions. So that's one aspect, knowing what's in awareness.

Second aspect, and actually, in a way, the one the Buddha used more commonly, is mindfulness, the meaning is keeping something in mind. So could be the breath -- and today we'll be exploring breath meditation. Just keeping the breath in mind. Or could be keeping the body sensations in mind. Taking one thing and just returning the mind over and over to that, so it can explore it. It could be keeping listening in mind, hearing, sound. Could be our emotional -- what's going on in the emotions? And just holding that in mindfulness, keeping it there.

So keeping something in mind is another meaning of the word mindfulness, and there are two reasons for that. One is, when we are able to stay with something and hold it, hold it in consciousness, hold it steady, then the mind, the awareness, can draw near to that and begin to understand it better, begin to investigate it.

For example, with our feeling life, when we can just be present with that, we can begin to see what's going on in there, begin to draw close and begin to understand at a little bit deeper level, instead of feeling like we're just the victim of something that we don't really understand. So this quality of keeping something in mind, the first reason is so that we can investigate. Huge importance of the power of deep investigation in our lives. So keeping something in mind for investigation.

But secondly, keeping something in mind for the purposes of calmness, of calming the mind, calming the heart. This is such a precious skill, because, you know, our lives are basically over-busy and frenetic, most of us, and we get entangled in all sorts of things. When we reflect on the kind of skills that it's possible for a human being to have, you only need to open the Guinness Book of Records to look at all the amazingly irrelevant things [laughs] a human being can develop a skill at. And it's wonderful, and it's part of the awesome diversity of human life. But if we think about what's really, really, really worth developing in this life, if I get some skill, some art at calming the mind, that's really beneficial. That's really valuable to me and to others.

So we hold something in mind, we keep something in mind for the benefit of investigation and for the benefit of calmness. Little bit deeper, take apart this word mindfulness: it has two aspects which the Buddha really emphasized very clearly. The first is what's called bare attention. So b-a-r-e, not the big, furry animal. Bare attention means when we're -- for instance, with the breath -- when we're mindful of the breath, or mindful of listening, touching on what I was saying before, instead of layering it with this thick coating of concepts and images and likes and dislikes and this and that, we're actually drawing close, in a very intimate way, a very direct way, to the bare actuality of our experience. It's incredibly simple. So what does the breath actually feel like? I'm not imagining anything about it. I'm not adding anything to it. It's just the raw, simple, bare experience of my life. When I'm listening to sound, does it take me off somewhere else? Do I imagine, "Oh, that's this or that kind of bird," or what it looks like, or am I just present with the sound? This is actually quite uncommon. A part of the practice of mindfulness is to keep coming back with this beautiful simplicity of attention, just to touch life in its most elemental aspects. That's bare attention.

The second aspect is what the Buddha called clear comprehension. So this is similar to knowing what's in the mind. How many times have we, you know, we're in our apartment or house, and we have to go into the kitchen for something, and by the time we get there, we've forgotten what it is what we came in for? This is very human. We lose track of what it is that we're doing and why we're doing it. So the Buddha says when you're walking, know you're walking. When you're listening, know you're listening. It's this, am I connected with what's going on, with an awareness of what I'm doing? So with the breath, do I know that I'm breathing, when we're meditating on the breath? First, do I know that I'm breathing? Do I know it's an in-breath now? That's clear comprehension. It's an out-breath -- clear comprehension. It's the space between breaths -- clear comprehension. And it can be with anything, not just the breath, of course.

These two aspects, bare attention and clear comprehension, together they are something very grounding. They really give our life a grounding in actuality, in experience, in simplicity. And again, these are qualities that are a little bit hard to come by nowadays. You know, we live lives that are divorced from nature, often, divorced from our bodies, divorced from often social connections, even. And there's a way that this bare attention and clear comprehension really ground our lives, ground our bodies in life, in experience, in actuality.

So all of that is a practice. It's not that somewhere you hear it or read about it and, "Right, okay. That's that, done and finished." It's really a practice, which means that both on the cushion, in periods of formal meditation, and off the cushion, we need to practise cultivating this quality of mindfulness. Unfortunately, human beings have a sort of tendency, ingrained tendency, to not be very mindful. For some reason, we're not particularly in love with being in the present moment. We tend to want to just drift off, past, future, whatever. And so it needs practice, the same as any skill or art or craft needs practice.

The first, in a way, we could say the first insight, the first realization that we have when we come to practice is: "Wow, I really have a habit of inattention. I really have a habit of not being very present with what's going on." And again, this is part of the human condition. And not to judge that. Just to see this, to see it is already an insight. I'm seeing something about the nature of the mind.

And so we see that: the mind drifts, and we return. We return to the intention to pay attention, to be mindful. And we do that, we bring the attention back countless times, an infinite number of times, over and over and over -- without judgment. This is quite a tricky one, even often for people who have been practising a long time. Mindfulness does not have a judgmental attachment to its programme. It just sees what's going on. The judgment is coming later.

So not necessary to judge. The mind will move, and then we bring, we just notice that and bring the attention back without judging. Now, there may be a pattern of judging, but that's okay. Can we just actually know, "Okay, there's judging going on"? Not feed that loop, feed that tape. Just, "Okay," and you just come back. It also takes an enormous amount of patience to do that, because the mind will wander. Absolutely it will wander. It will wander countless times in one sitting, and it's really okay. We notice and we bring it back. So what we're developing is this quality of attention. We're also developing non-judgmentalism. We're letting go, usually gradually, usually slowly, of our habit of judging. So every time we just come back and we're not feeding that judging, "Oh, the mind's been off. That's okay," we're actually developing not only mindfulness, but non-judgmentalism. And we're also developing patience. It's important to see there's more than one thing going on here. It's not just developing mindfulness and that's all that matters. There are other factors, other qualities that are being developed, and they are, too, very important, hugely important.

Often we sit down, and the mind is off, and we think, "I can't meditate. I'm not doing it right." But there's no such thing as "I can't meditate." So just to see that and just to bring the mind back, even if it just stays for, you know, about a third of a nanosecond -- it's okay. You're doing it. That pulling the mind back is meditation. One of the things that's being developed there is a kind of muscle in the mind. Pulling, pulling. And this pulling the mind in, reining the mind back, bringing the mind back, actually develops a muscle in the mind. The mind gains in power, gains in brightness. So not to think that one can't do it, because the very seeing that we're off and bringing it back, over and over, is what practice is.

Sacred geometry
Sacred geometry