Sacred geometry

Aspects of Mindfulness (Part 2)

Date23rd April 2006
Retreat/SeriesMeditation Day


Okay, so to go a little further in our exploration of what mindfulness means and what its place is, a question, and a sort of very obvious question but very important question, is: why? Why bother practising mindfulness? And so, to see mindfulness actually in its place in the context of the practice as a whole. That takes quite some time, in my experience, for people to really get an understanding of what it is that they're doing, how it's all kind of hanging together, how it's working together. It's not something that's immediately obvious, and often it takes decades to really understand what practice is doing and how it's working.

To put it in a context, the most common way that the Buddha talked about practice was in terms of freedom from suffering, that that was the aspiration for practice. Most often, he said, "I teach one thing, and one thing only: suffering and the end of suffering." It's a completely compassionate response to the suffering that is present in human life. The whole orientation of practice is to freedom from unnecessary suffering. And the sort of varieties of suffering that a human being can experience are endless. I mean, from the range of utter, deep torment of being, and madness, and all kinds of grief, to just niggling discomfort, something just a bit not quite right. So the Dharma, the practice, addresses the whole range of that suffering. And also in its breadth. So we can suffer over all kinds of things. As I said before, we can suffer over our bodies, how they appear, how they feel, or the ageing process. Certainly around our emotions. In relationship, how much suffering is there? In our roles, in our work, in our self-image. It just goes on. There's this vast proliferation of possibility of suffering in our life. And this is what the Buddha says: "I teach freedom from all of that," freedom from all that's unnecessary in there.

Much of the time, a lot of the people that come to practice, this is really what's firing them, what's firing us. It's a sense of suffering in life, and a sense that it's possible to look at it, understand something about it, and be free -- if not completely, at least to a certain extent, or to a large extent. But at times, for some people, that's actually not the thing that's really firing practice. It's not the thing that's really got the heart on fire. And at times it's more a question of truth. The heart has a deep hunger for truth, for knowing what's real, for knowing what's true. This is something inbuilt in the human heart, something deep and precious. So at times, that's really the motivation for practice.

And that can be our, as I touched on earlier, our personal truth, understanding myself psychologically, understanding how my background, family upbringing, how that all influenced how I am and how I respond -- what's particular to me, the realm of personal truth. But more than that, the realm of what we might call universal truths. So Buddhists go on and on and on about impermanence and the unsatisfactoriness of the world and that sort of thing. All this is what we might call universal truths. They're the same for me, the same for you. They're the same for everyone. The fact of impermanence is just something woven into our experience of life. And it's a truth that the heart has to open to.

So there's personal truth. There's universal truth. There's what we might call ultimate truth, so an understanding of what the ultimate nature of ourselves and of things is, what the true nature of things is. Not something that can be put into language or easily defined, but the promise is that an opening to that brings the deepest and the most radical kind of freedom. But all these levels, we might say, of truth are important in our life. You can't ignore one, and just say, "Well, I'm just interested in the personal," or "I'm just interested in the ultimate."

There's freedom as a motivating factor, there's truth as a motivating factor. And I also feel that, at times, and certainly for some people for much of the time, what's a very deep motivating factor is the aspiration to love -- that we also have a sense, and sometimes it's a dim sense, that our hearts are capable of a love that we may only have glimpsed, something so deep and so boundless. And we yearn for that. Again, the Dharma is directed towards that possibility, as a very real and very living thing.

Freedom and truth and love is kind of where the whole path is heading, which to me sounds lovely and really beautiful. And the gift of the Buddha is his practicality in saying, "Okay, this is what you're looking for." What does a human being need? What does a human being need to question, to develop, to let go of in order that these possibilities, beautiful, deep possibilities open up? So, very pragmatic. He sort of, after his enlightenment he thought about, he spent six weeks in one place thinking about, "How is it that I could lead others, I could show others, what I've discovered? What would they need? What would they need to do and develop?"

And so he offered this eightfold path, which some of you may be familiar with -- the noble eightfold path. And without going into too much detail, it basically involves our whole life, involves a looking at, investigating, working with, questioning our views in life. How are we looking at life? What are our intentions? Are they intentions of kindness, of compassion, or of greed, of accumulation? Our livelihood, the kinds of ways we interact with people, our actions, and people, animal life, planet. All this, Right Action, you know. Are we looking at that? We can't expect to just come and meditate and be mindful and everything will just sail along fine, thank you very much, if all these other factors are not looked at.

Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Speech -- the way we're communicating with each other. There's a whole really vast and intricate arena for investigation. How are we communicating and listening with each other? You know, what is Right Effort in spiritual practice? What does that mean? And then the seventh factor of the path, Right Mindfulness -- so what we're talking about today and giving attention to the bodily life, to the feeling life, to the mental life and other aspects. And then finally, what we might call Right Depth of Meditation, Right Collectedness of Mind. And so, Right Mindfulness -- and the reason why I'm saying all this is that the Buddha offered this whole path, and we're talking about, today, mindfulness. And it's actually just one part of a much wider path, which accommodates, encapsulates our whole life. Our whole life is involved in the path, and this mindfulness is just one part of that.

As I think I said earlier, mindfulness, awareness, presence, being in the present moment, beautiful as that is, it's not the goal of the path. It's absolutely not the goal. It can't be. To have an aspiration to be mindful all the time is wonderful, but it's not actually the point of practice. I think it's probably impossible. Another way that sometimes I think mindfulness gets a little bit twisted maybe the wrong way is, sometimes we can -- either through hearing someone, or reading, or just from our own sense -- have an idea that what we're doing when we meditate is sitting down, becoming aware, and in this process sort of emptying out all the accumulation of stress and knottedness and garbage and old karma, and it's a matter of just emptying this out, and sitting through that difficult process, and gradually getting lighter and lighter and more and more purified. 'Exhausting our karma' that way, is one phrase. But this is not, the Buddha never taught this way. Never, ever said -- in fact, he ridiculed people who had that view. But it is quite a view that's fairly commonly held, and we can almost slip into sometimes without realizing it. That's not the function of mindfulness. Sometimes it is true that through practice, things -- could use the language -- they 'come up' from within and they're released. It's true. But there's actually more going on there than meets the eye. And that can never, ever be the primary function of practice.

Mindfulness is embedded, as I said, in this path, in this eightfold path. And it's a whole wide, deep path involving our whole being. And so partly, what's we could say 'embedded' in mindfulness, is our intentions in mindfulness. This word, mindfulness, is a word that found its way into the culture, and there are huge corporations giving workshops for their executives in mindfulness. The idea is how to relax a little bit, bring efficiency (because a certain amount of efficiency does come with presence, with attention), bring that efficiency into the workplace so that the profits can rise. And, you know, may be all very well, whatever, but that's not mindfulness in the sense of practice, because mindfulness in the sense of practice has within it, woven in, what the Buddha would call noble intention -- the intention for deep understanding, for freedom, and not just my freedom. Not just my freedom -- the freedom of all beings.

So the motivation, it's not really what we call spiritual practice of awareness, of attention, unless that motivation is fuelling it. Now, of course, when we come to practice, you can't expect to sit down for the first time and have this boundless aspiration to liberate all beings. It's not realistic. The motivation is something that transforms over time. I sometimes share that when I started practising about twenty, twenty-one years ago, I saw a poster in the college where I was at, and it said: "Meditation, something-something. Power of mind, clarity of mind." And I thought: "Great! I'll go along and get some of this -- it was for a class -- I'll go along and get some of this power of mind and clarity of mind, and then I'll be able to study more efficiently, and so that will leave more time for drinking." [laughter] Which at the time seemed to be the main purpose of university life. And then, over time, the motivation changes ... just a little bit. [laughter] But there's sort of more of a sense of actually practising genuinely, genuinely practising for other beings; that my freedom, my peace, my well-being is not any more important than that of others. And this is a transformation that should come with practice.

Just to recap something I touched on briefly earlier. When the Buddha talks about mindfulness, he's quite specific about what it is we need to be mindful of: mindfulness of the body and all its aspects. We don't have time to go into all of that today. Mindfulness of the emotional life. Mindfulness of the thinking life. Mindfulness of the presence or absence of certain qualities of mind, like love, like calmness, like equanimity. I'll go into this a little bit later on. So the mindfulness is, we're encouraged to give certain things extra attention, and really explore those things, because that's where the real suffering is wrapped up in.

But generally, the general statement is, "Be present whatever you're doing. Wherever you are, whatever you're doing, can there be that aliveness of presence there?" And when we begin to practise that way, when we invite this quality of presence, of attention, into our lives more and more, we find that to live mindfully, to live with presence is actually a very restful way of being, very relaxing way of being. Usually, we're off thinking about tomorrow, yesterday, what he said, what she said, what they didn't say, what I said, something, something, something, worrying, and the mind has no rest. We're never really being nourished by the present moment, by the life, the mystery of the present moment.

And we discover that to bring ourselves and bring this aliveness into the present moment is actually something that gradually becomes a very restful way of being. Less entangled, less caught up, less dragged around. Now, that's not to say that the practice of mindfulness doesn't involve effort. I mean, it certainly does, and as I said before, we're going against the momentum of our habit of inattention. So it really does involve effort and hard work sometimes. And it also very much -- and there's no real getting around this -- mindfulness practice involves opening to the difficult, finding the willingness, the courage, the inner resources to open to what's difficult in life. And that could be with the body.

When there's pain in the body, the encouragement of meditative practice is to open to that, to turn towards that, instead of just immediately taking a pill or shifting, or shifting the posture, or fleeing the fact of having a body, which includes the fact of pain. The encouragement is to open to it, slowly, gradually -- with kindness; there's nothing of any machismo here. It's just about exploring with kindness what's difficult. The body is difficult sometimes. The heart certainly is difficult sometimes. The mind is often difficult, often problematic. And to explore that, to open to it. And what's difficult between people or in one's life situation. All this, it's impossible, there's no human being who lives a life that runs its course without periods of difficulty, often great difficulty. Part of practice is sometimes practising with what's only a little bit difficult, just as much as we can. And through that, gaining the strength, the confidence, the inner resources to open more and more to what is difficult. And life does present us with what's difficult and very rarely at a time that's convenient. So practice is something that strengthens our ability to open to what's difficult.

And yet, still, generally, to live mindfully, to live with awareness, is a relaxing and restful way of being. It's also what we might call energizing or enlivening. So often we live in this way, pulled by thought or dragged into tomorrow, or yesterday, or worries, or concerns or distractions. And there's so much in the culture, in our lives that's there specifically, deliberately to distract us. We get caught in thought, and caught in distraction. To practise mindfulness gradually begins to remove -- in a way, we could say, to wash some of that dullness from the senses. Often people, when they come on retreat or when they've been practising for a while, the grass really does look greener. The sky really does look bluer. Food really does taste more. The sort of accumulated dullness coating our senses begins to be let go of, released. And there is an aliveness that comes there, a brightness that comes.

With this comes another -- what we could say -- another level or dimension of satisfaction in life, another level and dimension of fulfilment in life, and a sense of connection with life. We pay attention to breathing, to walking, to the hands washing the dishes, to eating, to whatever it is, to listening, and in that connection, that coming close, this bare attention that I was talking about earlier, we begin to feel really connected to life, and there's a preciousness in that.

And we begin to really have a sense that I know that when I come to the end of my life and I'm lying on my deathbed I will feel that I have lived. And it won't be because I've gone scuba diving off the Moroccan coast or bungee jumping off the Eiffel Tower or whatever. It will be just because the simple things, I've touched really deeply. They've gone in and they've touched the heart really deeply. I feel connected to life. And what we could say, perhaps, in the sort of modern social era, often what people are suffering from is a kind of disconnection from life. It's almost as if everything's -- I remember as a teenager feeling as if everything was just almost through a glass, not quite being in touch with life. And there's a pain in that, whether we are aware of it or not. There's a deep pain in that, this disconnection. So one of the main functions of mindfulness is really to connect us with, to make us intimate with life. And we grow to love that connection. We grow to love the fulfilment that comes though being connected often with the ordinary, and we feel we belong to life. And that's a priceless feeling.

So as we practise, and either if it's in the context of a longer retreat or sometimes in a short time or in our daily practice over time, one of the things that happens, and I feel it's a very important part of practice, an important function of mindfulness, is there's a sensitizing of the being. The whole being, the mind, the heart, the body becomes more and more sensitive. There's a sort of refinement of the being. And this can have its beautiful aspects and its challenging aspects. So the body, often, for practitioners becomes more sensitive. We become aware of sensations, movements of energy, that we weren't previously aware of. Some of it's great. Some of it's "mm," not so great. And yet this is the willingness of mindfulness, to open to all. What is it to be alive? What is it to be a human being? And some of that sensitivity involves opening up to expressions of energy in the body that are not in the realm of what's normally encountered without practice. So the body is actually changing, and things are opening, channels are opening, energy is opening in the body.

This is all part of what I mean by 'sensitizing.' There's a sensitivity and a subtlizing going on of the being -- physically, emotionally. So again, we become aware of perhaps shades of our emotional life that we weren't really aware of before. There's a sensitivity to what's going on in the heart, what's coming and going. And again, there may be openings to a range of emotion that's quite out of what might be ordinarily encountered without practice. This could be, and often is for some people, waterfalls of joy, for instance, or depths of peace. And it may also include opening to what's very difficult emotionally, so either grief from the past, or just sometimes the existential pain. One opens to the pain of others, of ourselves, something in life. And this is all part of a sensitizing and opening of the heart that comes with practice -- usually gradually, but sometimes in sort of jolts of suddenness. And it's part of what it is to deepen in mindfulness, part of what comes with mindfulness. And similarly, there's a sensitizing to the mental life. So we can become aware, where we weren't before, of all the shades of, for instance, intentionality in our interactions, as I touched on before. What are my hidden agendas in any situation?

This sensitivity, this deepening of sensitivity is a big part of what comes with mindfulness. And in a way, the mindfulness keeps pace with that sensitivity. So the sensitivity becomes, and mindfulness also becomes, more subtle, more sensitive. And it deepens. They deepen together.

One of the other aspects that comes organically out of the practice of mindfulness, hopefully, is -- it's hard to find the right word -- what we might call 'receptivity.' This is what I touched on a couple of times. It's a sort of opening to other ways of seeing and feeling life. The typical, ordinary is: humdrum, alarm clock goes, get out of bed, off to work, I'm here, you're there, I'm talking, you're listening. It's all very ordinary, and that's fine. In that very ordinariness, though, as I was talking about with the walking, with the breathing, there's a deep mystery present. It's just that there's something unfathomably deep and mysterious there. Part of, I think very much, the function of mindfulness is -- and it goes with the sensitivity -- there's something opening in the being, and again, usually slowly, usually gradually, sometimes barely perceptibly. The receptivity of the being is opening up. So the ordinary becomes extraordinary. And we don't need so much to pursue some escalated sense of something extraordinary or dramatic to get our sense of satisfaction, of fulfilment, to get a sense of excitement. There's something right there in the simplicity of the present moment that is deeply touching.

And that also includes meditation experiences. Important as they are -- and I do think they are important; some people gravitate more towards them than others -- but there can be hugely extraordinary experiences that open up in meditation. And yet, still the consciousness returns to a normal consciousness. And that's not to throw out what opens in meditation, but just to say: if on returning to the ordinary, if then the ordinary is not filled or a little bit more filled with something beautiful, something extraordinary, then these extraordinary states have not really done their job. And we can't stay there all the time. But this receptivity to mystery is a big part of what's important, I feel, in mindfulness practice.

The Buddha talks about basically paying attention to everything, in a nutshell. And so people who have been practising for a while, you try and practise this, and often, though, we are practising either on the cushion or off the cushion, and something doesn't feel fluid. We feel contracted, or stuck, or there's some difficulty that we're entangled with. It might be at that point to refine, or to go a little bit deeper into what mindfulness means, some of its aspects, and check: what's needed here? What's missing?

Sometimes when we feel a bit stuck, something's a bit contracted, we know we're being mindful, but somehow it's not helping, we can check a few things. The first thing is, if there's difficulty, do we actually recognize what's going on? Okay, this sounds kind of obvious, but sometimes there's just a sense of something being a problem, and we don't actually realize, "Oh, it's because ..." I remember someone telling me a while ago that they were feeling this discomfort, and they were actually talking in a store with someone, and they realized it was because they were still holding their shopping, and they had been standing there talking for however long, and it was heavy. So, very mundane. But just to recognize what's going on.

Mindfulness has this quality of recognizing. Or what's probably more common, and perhaps more important, is just to recognize: "Oh, there's grief going on," or "There's sadness going on," or "It's fear going on." Sometimes fear is running its loops and vibrating in the body, and we're not even aware that fear is going on, and we're reacting to it. So to recognize: what's going on? "Oh, it's fear. Oh, it's this." Recognition, very important aspect.

Second aspect of mindfulness that you may want to check in with when things feel difficult is the quality of acceptance. So mindfulness, in one of its aspects, has this quality of accepting whatever is going on. Remember, I touched on before -- it just knows what's going on in the mind. There isn't that judgment of it. There isn't this "I want to get rid of." There isn't this pushing away. That's something else. The mindfulness itself is more like just openly holding what's present in the moment. It has a quality of acceptance in it.

That quality of acceptance is similar to the quality of kindness. Sometimes we're being mindful, but some part of us is actually gritting the teeth and wanting to push this thing away, or saying, "It can't be that. I don't want it to be that," whatever it is -- grief, anger, pain in the body. So this quality of acceptance: to just check, is that a piece that's missing if I'm having difficulty?

Recognition, acceptance. Third aspect to check for is what we call investigation. So I'll talk more about this later, but right now, what it means is sometimes we can be mindful. We know what's going on: "Yeah, it's okay it's going on, I guess." But we're a little bit removed from what's going on. Perhaps there's some difficulty in the body, or even with the breath. It's sort of, "Yeah, okay, it's coming in, it's coming out. There's some pain in the body. Okay, there's some fear, there's some grief." But a quality of investigation in this sense right now means that the attention really goes close and becomes intimate with the experience, investigates the texture of the experience. What's the texture of the sensations of the breath? Or if you're working with the body sensations, the texture of those sensations, what does it really feel like? That intimacy can be freeing and enlivening, and is often one of the pieces that might be missing. Just to check for that.

Recognition, acceptance, investigation. Fourth one is a little bit more subtle. It's what we might call non-identification. What does this mean? It means that typically, human beings, when something is going on, when there's a pain in the body, there's the thought, or the sense, even: "My pain, my body, my ..." anything, or "My thought." We have a thought that doesn't reflect so well on us, or a difficult thought, and the sense is 'mine.' And sometimes we're not even aware that that's going on. But mindfulness, that identification with saying 'me' or 'mine,' this body is 'me' or 'mine,' the sensations are 'me' or 'mine,' the emotional life is 'me' or 'mine,' that identification is actually something extra. It's very subtly and deeply embedded in our consciousness, but it's actually something extra. And mindfulness by itself doesn't add that. So sometimes it's possible to see that we're entangled because we're believing 'me' or 'mine' about something, and to gently -- sometimes it's possible; not always -- sometimes it's possible to disentangle the 'me' or the 'mine,' to not identify.

Recognition, acceptance, investigation, and non-identification. These are four things that you may want to check on in the course of practice, when it feels a bit entangled and a bit caught up. Which piece is missing? And conveniently that spells, it's an acronym: RAIN. Recognition, acceptance, investigation, non-identification. You can just, it's sort of a check, something to check out, what's missing.

When we talk about mindfulness, we use one word, but there are so many different aspects to it. I remember, years ago, I used to live in the States, and there was a meditation centre, and I took a weekly class on what's called the foundations of mindfulness. It lasted some two years, I think it was, every week. I can't remember. It was a long time. And one week, there were about thirty people in the class. Teacher said -- we were sitting in a circle -- to go round, and everyone say one or two words that defined what mindfulness meant to them. And what was interesting to me, that we went round, thirty or thirty-five people, and no two people said the same thing. These people had been practising a long time. Just to say how much, how many dimensions and aspects this word has, this practice has.

I remember someone using the word bodyfulness, and I thought that was very helpful. So this word mindfulness tends to -- we measure something from here up, and it's sort of the mind looking, the mind looking at everything, and there's a disembodiment, a detachment. But really the practice of mindfulness is an embodiment. The body is full of life, full of aliveness, full of connection. Bodyfulness. Openness. So these are words that can sometimes key us in to different aspects of the quality of mindfulness. Openness -- mindfulness is a very open quality. Spaciousness. Wakefulness, awake. Aliveness. Not being lost. Mindfulness, again, knows what's going on. I'm not lost in something. I know what's going on; even if it's difficult, I know. Presence. Being. Respect. So my bringing mindfulness to life is really to pay respect to life. All the things, as I said, that we take for granted -- what's so interesting about the breath? What's so interesting about walking? What's so interesting about doing the washing up? And to give life a really deep and wide respect, saying, "Actually, nothing in life is more sacred than anything else. Everything deserves attention, deserves the heart's presence."

We might also use the word heartfulness. Sometimes, and it's actually quite common -- less so now -- but I remember in more the early years of the Dharma coming to the West, sort of in the eighties, that there was quite an emphasis in the teaching on being very ... it really was a mind practice. Lots of very precise attention. And that really does have its place in practice -- the ability of the mind to be very precise about what's going on and very microscopic, even. But where's the heart in that? It can be, and it is for some people, that too much emphasis on that kind of precision means that the heart aspect begins to get left out. What would that mean, to be in the present moment with heartfulness? I feel that a full practice of mindfulness very much means heartfulness too. And that's a whole exploration: what does that mean?

So all of that, what I've just described, is, in a way, one side of what we might call a spectrum of mindfulness. And it's what we might call the passive aspect. It's mindfulness in its character of just being open to what is, being with what is, being open to what is, receiving the present moment, not wanting to change anything, very passive. Oftentimes that's the way mindfulness gets talked about. And we can get a sense that the practice is just about that -- it's just about opening, seeing, receiving, being with what is. Hugely beneficial and necessary and beautiful way of practising, but not at all the whole of the path.

So there's a spectrum, we might say, of being completely open and receiving on one end. And on the other end, of mindfulness being something that's quite involved, and making choices in what's going on. Not passive, but active. It's a spectrum, and a full practice explores the range of the spectrum. Doesn't just sit on one side or the other and let it be.

What's this other side, this more active side, that we hear about less, I think? It involves understanding, the journey of understanding what it is that leads to happiness, what it is that leads to my happiness, and what it is that leads to suffering. The Buddha put huge emphasis on exploring this, on really making this a very alive questioning and discovery in our life. So we're bombarded by messages, culturally, socially, advertising, media, da-da-da-da-da, about what we need to be happy. And sometimes as practitioners, we pay lip service: "Yeah, I know, but what I really need is ...", you know, and then a string of other qualities. But to really know deep down, to investigate, actually where does happiness come from? Where does suffering come from? And the Buddha says it's dependent on what are the qualities in my mind and heart. When there's, for instance, love there, friendliness, there's happiness there. Do we know that connection so deep that we can't be convinced otherwise?

When there's irritability there, there's unhappiness there. When there's anger there, sometimes there's this seduction of anger and the feeling of release of it, but generally speaking, anger -- although it's quite complicated -- is something that brings with it unhappiness. Are we clear about that? When there's greed there, there's actually unhappiness. When there's a preoccupation with accumulation, brings unhappiness. When there's patience, there's happiness. When there's equanimity, calmness, collectedness of mind, these are precious qualities of mind and heart that bring with them happiness. And this investigation is really a huge investigation. What is it that leads to happiness? What is it that is really leading to my suffering? So it's not just this passive aspect of mindfulness. Mindfulness is very involved in understanding, in the present moment, what might be lacking. If there's a quality of being mindful, but there's also all this added self-judgment going on, probably kindness is lacking. Mindfulness notices that, and then cultivates kindness in the moment. Or dullness -- cultivate energy in the moment. Or impatience -- what would it be to invite, to cultivate patience?

There's an activity, an involvement in a very skilful and wise way with the present moment. In the present moment, recognizing what we need, but also over years developing qualities like patience, like equanimity, like love and compassion, like the depth of calmness. This is a huge part of practice. It's not just about opening and being in the present moment. It's about really investigating what we need to cultivate, and cultivating it, actually doing it.

There's this passive side and there's this active side. The active side has the cultivation as being very important, and it also has, as part of the active side, what we might call the factor of investigation. So this is also really, really important. It's not enough to just sit there and be in the present moment and the loveliness of that or the difficulty of that, even. What does it mean in the Dharma sense to investigate? So again, we investigate, as I said, in the morning, we investigate our particular difficulties, our particular personality. What is this self that I find myself with? And what is it in a more sort of existential sense, this self? Not myself, different from your self, but this -- we all seem to have selves, and what is that? Is it something real? So this deep investigation of what it is to be alive. How is it that suffering comes about, and how can we be free? We begin to investigate life. We begin to investigate reality and truth.

And I said earlier, looking at these questions of impermanence, looking at the question of whether it is that anything can really satisfy me in itself. Looking at the question of how it is that suffering arises. Looking at this whole question of ego and self, how that's a problem, how it gets built up and entangled in the world. And how it is that we can be free of that.

So mindfulness comes with very definite agendas -- these agendas of understanding happiness, letting go of suffering, understanding life in certain ways. It's not only in its passive, agendaless aspect; it also really, really does have an agenda. There's an agenda to practice. That's why someone who just, for instance, plays a sport very mindfully -- you get into the flow zone or whatever it's called, being in the flow zone, and there's complete presence there, complete being in the moment, and it feels wonderful. Or playing a musical instrument or whatever it is. That's not actually a complete spiritual practice, because there isn't this other agenda going on, about understanding, about investigating. It's not enough just to be in the zone.

Mindfulness does have an agenda, and we shouldn't shy away from that. Another agenda -- or rather, filling out one of these things more that mindfulness has -- is investigating what it is that supports any experience, so particularly experiences of suffering. I remember some time ago going in to see someone where they were working. We were just sort of chatting briefly. I wasn't in a teaching relationship with this person, so they were just telling me that, I think, work was quite difficult. But the main thing was, there was some difficulty going on in their relationship with their boyfriend. They explained in a little detail some of the problems that were going on. And they explained, and they were a practitioner, too, and then they said, they said to me, "Oh, well, I just need to open to it all. I just need to open to the difficulty and accept it and be with it." And the sense was, "I know I'm supposed to do that, and it really, you know, is difficult, but that's really what needs to be done." And my sense was -- and I didn't say anything, partly because I had to be somewhere else, and partly because I wasn't in a teaching relationship -- but that's actually not what needed to be done. It wasn't a matter of just opening, to keep opening to pain blindly and blindly.

What needed to be done was to look at the whole structure of thoughts, beliefs, views, expectations, moods -- all the factors, reactions, that were coming in to build and feed this situation of suffering. It wasn't a question of just opening to the difficulty of it and just accepting that. There was, I mean, what she told me -- I won't go into detail, but -- she told me there was all kinds of stuff in terms of unspoken reactions, beliefs, assumptions, etc., what I said before, that were not examined to see how they came together to feed this situation. Some examination of that, and some saying, "Oh, I see, I'm assuming this, and that's probably not true," or "I'm expecting this, and maybe that's not the most helpful thing," or "They're expecting," or whatever it is. We could talk about the deepest agenda of mindfulness being this investigation of what supports suffering.

Now, that sounds at one level quite mundane, but it actually has really deep levels to it. Everything comes together -- moods, thoughts, views, attention, all kinds of hidden beliefs -- and they create suffering.

How does suffering originate? There are always factors that support suffering, and part of the agenda of mindfulness, the deepest agenda of mindfulness, is unravelling those factors that support suffering. And on an even deeper level (and this is completely counterintuitive), any experience, not only suffering, is what the Buddha would call 'compounded' this way. It's built by all kinds of hidden factors in the mind -- any experience at all. That means any sound, any body sensation, any sight, any thought, any emotion, the actual experience of it is something that is compounded, fabricated, comes together. And the deep agenda of mindfulness is to see that, see how any experience is built, how it originates, how it's compounded.

Part of that, if we're just seeing suffering, is what needs changing. So in the example of my friend, it's, "Oh, if I change the way I'm speaking or the way I'm listening to the boyfriend or the expectations, that may ease the situation." But at the deeper level, in terms of understanding the very nature of experience itself, which is a whole even deeper level, even mindfulness itself, even the watcher is something that's built. We don't see this going on. This is very subtle. But there is nothing outside of the realm of this agenda of mindfulness to look at and unravel, unravel how it's being built. So the sense of any experience, the sense of anything watching any experience, the sense of watching itself. Sometimes we think, "Well, there's just awareness, and it's natural, and it's sort of a fundamental substratum of existence -- mindfulness, awareness, consciousness, watching," but actually, even that is something built. And the agenda of mindfulness is to unravel that too. We're talking about the deepest, deepest sort of agenda of mindfulness.

I just want to say something at the end, too, finally, about mindfulness and its relationship to love. As I mentioned earlier, it can be, sometimes, for some people, that there's too much of an emphasis on this precision of noting, the precision of the mind. Where is the heartfulness? But I do feel that, if someone is practising in a full way, that one of the signs of deep practice is kindness. So sometimes, you know we kind of think, "Oh, someone who is really spiritual, really practising a long time, maybe they're sort of radiant, or they glow in the dark or something." But actually, the real sign, I feel, of a deep practice, of a practice that's gone deep, is kindness. There's something in the heart that begins to change, and there's the unlocking of the flow of kindness. And perhaps I might even go so far to say that if that doesn't begin to be opened, usually over time in practice, over years, something is a little off in the practice, and something needs addressing, something needs looking at.

And we may wonder, "Well, why is it that the practice of mindfulness, of being present, bringing attention, why does that lead to kindness?" It's not an obvious link, I don't think. Partly, it has to do with what I talked about before, this aspect of acceptance in mindfulness. That aspect of acceptance is very open, non-judgmental, and it's sort of fundamental to the quality of mindfulness, in its more passive aspect, certainly. And if you think about a friend coming to you in difficulty, in hurt, or any time, what they need, what's a trademark quality of friendship, is this aspect of acceptance. That's something that's part of love. When we practise that over and over through mindfulness, accepting the present moment, good, bad, or indifferent, accepting the experience, that quality of acceptance begins to get woven into the fabric of our hearts and minds. And the quality of kindness is very, very related to that. And it can begin to become a habit in the heart, a habit of acceptance, a habit of kindness, instead of a habit of pushing away what we don't like.

As we practise mindfulness, generally, slowly, there is less entanglement with our experience. Usually something happens, and we get all confused and knotted in there with it. Gradually, mindfulness opens up space in awareness, so we become less entangled in things. And in the less entanglement, there's space for happiness to come, space for well-being to literally well up in the being. And usually it's a gradual process, gradual process. But it can be, gradually, that there comes to be enough happiness inwardly. We feel we have enough happiness. And then it's almost like it overflows, and we don't feel like we need to guard that or preserve, and we are more open to others, because we feel we have enough. We don't feel like we need to hold on, that we're beggars.

When we open deeply, as the mindfulness practice deepens, we do open in receptivity. I was talking about this before. We do, we are touched by life, in an often very simple but very deep way, and touched by our existence, by the mystery of our existence, touched by consciousness itself, the fact that we can be aware -- there's something amazing. And we're touched by the particulars, the uniqueness of every person, certainly, the diversity. The uniqueness of every moment. No two moments are ever the same. This infinite diversity of experience begins to really touch itself. Something in the heart just opens at that touch.

Not only are we opening to particulars, but we also begin to open to a sense of interconnectedness. That becomes, as mindfulness deepens, that becomes just more and more obvious. The sense that, yeah, we're unique, but we're also completely not separate. And nothing in life, nothing in life is in any way disconnected or separate from anything else. That sense of interconnectedness, as well as the awesomeness of the diversity, together, both of those fuel love in the heart. When there's a sense of interconnectedness, of connection, of oneness, how can there not be love? When there's a sense of the beauty of the diversity, also, how can there not be love?

And we become less preoccupied. Paradoxically, this journey of what might look like complete self-obsession, to come here for a day, or a week, or a month, or a year, and just look inward at one's experience -- it's like, completely self-obsessed, it seems. And yet, out of that somehow comes this release from self-obsession, this release from self-preoccupation. Our being is not caught up with ego, with our self so much. And there's a natural loosening and opening of the care, of the warmth to all of life and all beings.

Just finally: at the deepest level, or at a deep level, what happens organically as part of the mindfulness, typical reaction to experience is to push away what we don't like and pull towards us what we do like. As the mindfulness deepens, that pushing and pulling begins to be relaxed, begins to soften, and we let go of that pushing and pulling. In that letting go, the letting go of the clinging and the grasping, a whole new way of being in the world begins to open up, a whole new sense of life begins to open up.

In that openness that comes as we let go of clinging, the natural letting go of clinging that comes with mindfulness as it deepens, effortlessly as part of that opening, there's love. It's just part of a natural movement. There's a kind of innocence there, because we're not relating to our experience, to ourselves, to others, to the present moment with any kind of violence of pushing or pulling. There's a relaxing at subtler and subtler levels of that, and it's a completely non-violent way of being, which in a way, we could say reveals love naturally.

All of this is a very real possibility for us, very real possibility for practice. We talk about mindfulness, and this is really where it leads. And this is not just an abstract sort of theory; it's something that's very real, very possible for everyone. Something that can really radically alter the heart and the heart's perception of life.

Sacred geometry
Sacred geometry