In our emerging post-New Age period, ‘mindfulness’ has become an accepted term expressing a counter reaction that reflects the general dissatisfaction with what our modern world offers us as ‘values’, and by focusing on one’s inner being, has become a popular technique for ‘transcending’ this onerous reality. So, what do we generally mean when we use the term ‘mindfulness’? Wikipedia describes it as follows:
‘Mindfulness is the practice of purposely bringing one’s attention to the present-moment experience without evaluation, a skill one develops through meditation or other training. Though definitions and techniques of mindfulness are wide-ranging, Buddhist traditions explain what constitutes mindfulness, such as how past, present and future moments arise and cease as momentary sense impressions and mental phenomena. …’
Many of those who are drawn to the idea of mindfulness, share a common starting point – they experience our modern way of life as full of constant tensions and stresses that they wish to escape. There are others who use the practice as a potential remedy for chronic pain for instance, or to address deep seated fears or phobias and other psychological or emotional imbalances. Still others see mindfulness as a spiritual practice that can ‘purify’ and raise them to a higher state of consciousness. And in our search for these ‘solutions and outcomes’, we have turned to the past to help us find answers for the present, and thus have embraced the Buddhist tradition of mindfulness that offers a way of using the mind to restore order and balance within ourselves.
But in this essay, we would like to focus on those who seek a true spiritual outcome, and therefore will assume that whoever is drawn to this practice, also harbours the desire for the result to be permanent. In other words, to permanently replace disharmony with harmony, chaos with order, tension with calmness, and to experience the higher aspects of Freedom, Love and Peace.
But the technique of mindfulness, the aim of ‘remaining in the present’, begins with the assumption that the mind is our controlling factor, and as such, can intelligently ‘steer’ our destiny? After all, the techniques of ‘meditation and other training’ imply that the mind can ‘control the ship and guide it to a safe harbor’. It just needs to learn the skills of captaincy.
Mindfulness also speaks of ‘silence’, meaning that if the mind can bring the thoughts under control, a level of ‘stillness’ can be obtained, and that inner ‘quiet’ will automatically replace any disharmony. So in practicing mindfulness, we are seeking a permanent inner change that moves us from a perceived negative extreme to its opposite.
And if we are to fully comprehend the qualities of mindfulness, we must also seek an answer to the question: If we manage to bring about ‘stillness’ through this practice, what does this mean for the lessons that we are supposed to learn from the experiences of chaos? Does the decision to ‘escape’ our chaotic inner state, imply that we also know the direction to take to reach this alternate destination, and that in fact we have learnt all there is to learn from our current life experiences? Is mindfulness then, a ‘get out of jail free card’?
Lao Tzu, the Chinese philosopher from around five thousand years ago, said of mankind: ‘Man’s greatest ill lies in not knowing that he knows not!’ A statement that quite poignantly points to man’s ignorance. So, when we approach the idea of being ‘mindful’ as a spiritual practice, how then should we understand its interplay with ‘ignorance’?
If we investigate the Universal Teachings from throughout history, we will find them agreeing on a number of fundamental truths: man was once divine, but at some point, fell from Grace, and as a consequence is now tied to matter, to the cycle of life and death, to impermanence, transcience and mortality. Hence, when compared to his original divine state, man is now considered as living in delusion and ignorance.
If we accept these fundamental premises, then we must apply that same logic to every level of man’s expression, including that of the mind. If the mind is truly ‘maya’, delusion, as so many philosophies assert, then can we create something real and permanent (true inner silence), with something that is considered a delusion? If our ignorance is so intrinsic to our being, if the mind is truly ‘unreal’, then logic tells us that using the mind to guide the exercise of mindfulness, can only produce an outcome commensurate with the input – delusion!
It is not disputed that the practice of mindfulness can alter the pattern of thoughts, and this new ‘expression’ of thinking can feel calm, quiet and harmonious, even bringing physical benefits. The thoughts are controlled and therefore lack the elements of disharmony and imbalance. So what is wrong with that? Surely this is better than the chaotic wanderings of the thoughts through negativity, criticism and vitriol, let alone dealing with the intense emotions that can come into play as a result.
But if we can’t be positive or in control all of the time, surely being ‘still’ is a desirable alternative, and definitely a ‘safer’ way to navigate through life? Of course, but is this permanent, is it a process that is the natural expression of a true inner spiritual change?
So what actually happens when we practice mindfulness? We can identify two primary attributes, two faculties that would be brought into activity during a meditative process: the imagination and the will. If the above state of ignorance is true, and we do not possess the inner intuitive knowledge of what an omnipresent state is like, in other words, what true stillness and silence are, then to practice ‘mindfulness’ we must fall back on our imagination to conjure up these images, and employ our will to try to bring them into manifestation.
When mindfulness therefore, asks us to empty our minds of chaotic thoughts and be aware only of the present, we have to ask: does our imagination know what true ‘emptiness’ means? Can it mean no thoughts! Are the mind and the thoughts two separate activities? If I have no thoughts, then to achieve this, my imagination is activated and an empty, black ‘space’ is generally what my mind perceives. But is that empty space truly empty, because there is still a part of me that is observing the ‘space’, observing the lack of uncontrolled thoughts. So is that observation in itself, a thought, a different level of awareness – am I conscious of what is happening in my mind, and can consciousness work in the absence of thoughts?
This is where we start to go round and round in circles, for with every supposed answer, we are confronted with yet another question. Is then the mind truly ‘maya’, unreal, delusion? No matter how successful we perceive this activity is within us, we are still confronted with the question of how the mind, that is considered as unable to grasp the true Reality, can be used to propel us towards a state of being that is neither understood nor comprehended.
It is natural for man to believe that to obtain the ‘spiritual’ we just have to remove that which is not spiritual, for we understand the non-spiritual all too readily. If I remove tension, I should obtain peace. If I remove disharmony, I should obtain balance. If I remove my chaotic thinking, I should obtain order, stillness and silence. Simple! But if I am truly ‘ignorant’, how do I know what these absolute values look like, or am I just caught in the delusion of ‘knowing’?
Now what is often forgotten when approaching the idea of mindfulness, is that it actually begins with the heart, not with the head. No individual will entertain the idea of practicing mindfulness if they have not firstly reached a maturity of life experience that gives them an unclouded insight into its true reality; an intuitive response to the impermanence, transience and suffering of this world; and secondly, they must possess a deep inner longing to transcend their current imperfect state; a stirring of the heart that can only be explained as a yearning to turn ones path in life towards absolute values, towards a true spiritual solution.
If an individual has gained that level of life experience where they possess a deep awareness of its fundamental imperfection, yet do not long to possess and clothe themselves with true spiritual values, then using the mind to achieve ‘stillness’ will be an effort made without an intuitive knowledge of the destination, and therefore open to speculation and fraught with error. Conversely, if an individual’s heart cannot find rest here in this life, and is filled with a longing to be lifted into a higher spiritual state, but their life experience has not yet achieved that level of maturity to give them true insight, then again, the minds’ attempts to find ‘stillness’ will not possess the intuitive guidance to attain the desired destination. It will lose its way.
We cannot forget, nor underestimate the role that karma plays in this whole scenario. When we posed the question about the role the experience of chaos plays in an individuals life, we were thinking of the interplay between ignorance and karma. Our life expression includes the law of karma. As far as we are aware, the aim of ‘mindfulness’ is not to escape or transcend karma, but nevertheless, karma is activated by our deeds, and using the mind and the will to bring about ‘stillness’, is an action, and therefore will elicit a karmic response. Can practicing mindfulness therefore, move us from ignorance into wisdom, or does karma become the toll-gate?
Yes, we can control and focus our thoughts. Yes, we can culture our thoughts from one form into another; from bad to good, from negative to positive, from chaos to calmness for instance. Yes, our minds can focus on creating stillness, but if this stillness does not pervade the very essence of our whole being, if it does not radiate from every atom of our being, is it then just a culture of our thoughts that gives us the illusion of stillness through the absence of uncontrolled thinking?
There will be many people for whom mindfulness has become a life-boat that has promised to save them from drowning in the turbulent seas of disharmony and confusion, and no one can disparage such efforts and responses. They are understandable and justifiable. If we recognise that we are ill, then we should seek a cure. But as with all illness, do we stop as soon as our efforts have removed the symptoms, or do we continue to seek the underlying causes, and therefore, a permanent cure?
It can help us if we also consider that one of the expressions of ignorance and delusion in man, is his readiness to accept a ‘solution’ to a problem without a complete understanding of the issue; as long as the ‘symptoms’ of the problem disappear he is usually happy.
Now, the person whose heart can no longer find any form of solace in this world; the person whose heart burns with a longing to not just find peace, but to be ‘one with that peace’, will find that just removing the ‘symptoms’, will not appease their longing; it will not satisfy nor nourish the desire to be lifted out of their inner world of suffering and sorrow. The fundamental illness of ignorance remains to inflict its pain upon such a heart; the pendulum of opposites will continue to swing between the poles of good and evil, no matter what state the mind achieves, and death will remain the wages of life, no matter how calm our thinking has become.
Calmness, stillness, silence are all desirable, and in essence, necessary attributes that positively support our journey through life. They are qualities that are attributed to a higher spiritual life, and therefore seen as essential. The question however remains – does practicing ‘mindfulness’, driven by the mind, cure, or does it only alleviate the symptoms?
Man is a being of duality. He is mortal, and born of this nature, and therefore is fundamentally one with the laws of life and death. But he also carries within himself, the elements of divinity, though they may be dormant and principally inactive. It is this divinity however, that stirs the heart, that longs to express itself. It is this divinity that causes our world and its limits to be reflected in the mirror of this longing, and therefore gives us insight into our own ‘maya’. It is this divinity that causes us to seek a union with absolute values; it is the impulse driving the mind to understand, comprehend, and to action – hence to fullness of mind!
Yet, the same Universal Teachings that tell us about the illusion of our minds, also tell us that a union of soul and spirit, and therefore an end to suffering, can only come through the practice of ‘non-being’, through ‘losing one’s life’, from ‘emptying’ oneself. They also talk of, ‘not my will, but thy will …’! Have we now come to a paradox? Surely non-being also means an absence of chaotic thinking, and how am I to attain this if I do not exercise my will upon my thoughts to direct them towards silence? Is mindfulness then, just another delusion?
No! But to approach an understanding of the essence of mindfulness as a spiritual practice, we need to firstly understand that true mindfulness is not simply a practice that can achieve its objective through a decision of the mind or act of the will, but follows a path of growth involving the whole being, that starts with the experiences of life. It is said that our consciousness is always a reflection of our inner state of life, and therefore it is the vicissitudes of our outer life that constantly grind the lens of self-awareness, sharpening its focus and giving us a heightened ability to observe ourselves. Mindfulness is thus born.
From this, the mind learns to stand in objective observation– observing without judgement, without criticism, without reaction – in complete ‘non-being’. If we succeed in entering this state of impartial observation, then the minds’ objectivity gradually demystifies the fog of ignorance, thus penetrating to the truth of its own reality, which speaks through an ever-deepening insight. And as this insight evolves, so does our self-awareness, no longer reflecting the impulses of emotion that previously clouded it with unfulfilled desires. Mindfulness begins to leave its infancy behind.
Simultaneously, the consciousness becomes increasingly aware of the voice of the divine element within, whose echoes stir the heart with a longing for a union with absolute values. The mind, in its search for completeness, is drawn along by this longing, shaping its thoughts to refine and attune them to the intuitions that begin to guide it. Thus the longing of the heart, and the insights of the mind, draw together towards a balanced, harmonious unity. Mindfulness enters into adolescence, displaying a deeper maturity.
As the mind grows in the awareness of its own ignorance and limitations, it strengthens its foundations in the depths of humility, thereby losing its life of chaos and disharmony. A true inner silence develops, and we learn that the stillness of the mind is not found in the control or absence of thoughts, but in the thoughts devoid of ‘self’. And in this new awareness, the mind becomes conscious of the purifying light of sacrifice; the need to serve rather than receive, to renounce rather than attain.
The mindful person therefore enters his life into the conviction of self-sacrifice; he does not seek control, does not desire to be other than who he is, but allows the trajectory of the moment to flow without resistance – he begins to leave behind the impulses of the ‘self’. To the balance of the head and the heart are added the harmony of action; the hands begin to reflect the same direction as the mind and the heart. The new elements of thinking, and the ever-growing longing for the spiritual, is lived through our daily actions. Mindfulness leaves its adolescence, and the adulthood of completeness begins to bloom.
The mindful person then immerses himself in the impersonal, while he seeks the primordial; he gathers but does not possess; he experiences but does not engage; he thirsts for the purity of the absolute, while he no longer drinks from the fountain of imperfection; he stands in the world while no longer of the world.
Mindfulness does not wish to escape the imperfections of this life, but rather is nourished by the impulse to connect to a higher reality. It has become the door hewn out of the granite of delusion, carved by the hammer blows of life’s sorrows, and guided by the chisel of insight. Mindfulness has become fully mature.
The whole being has then been transmuted through its insight, longing, and perseverance, and true fulness of mind radiates as a result. True mindfulness then, does not seek harmony, stillness and balance, but has become the open expression of these values that reflect the light of a new state of Soul. Such a person does not practice ‘mindfulness’, but is ‘mindfulness’!