‘All of man’s difficulties are caused by his
inability to sit quietly in a room by himself.’
Blaise Pascal, Pensées.
Sengai – Meditating Frog
The name, Buddha, is derived from an old Pali word, budh, meaning “to awake, know, perceive.” The Buddha is therefore someone who is “awakened” – he has woken up to, and lives in harmony with, the fundamental realities of existence. Within Buddhism there are many methods of awakening based on the Buddha’s own experiential enquiry into the conditions of existence – especially impermanence. These methods include many forms of meditation, of which zazen (sitting meditation) and the various kinds of mindfulness practice are examples.
Here is something said by Basil Girbau, the hermit of Montserrat:‘You are here. What more do you want? You breathe. Your heart beats. Why does yesterday matter? Why does tomorrow matter? You are here. So laugh, laugh until you burst. You have what is essential. You don’t need more or less.’ (JD version)
What is mindfulness?
We could define mindfulness as: awareness of the procession of experiences that happen to us from moment-to-moment without added commentary or judgment; or, as an enhanced awareness of the present moment – free of automatic thoughts, emotional reactions or daydreaming; or, as paying attention to everything that goes on in our embodied mind, without judgment or commentary. It is all of these things, and more.
Often we live on auto-pilot, only half-aware or not aware at all, of what we are thinking, feeling and doing. To be mindful is to gently turn off the auto-pilot and to become more fully aware.
OBSERVE – SUSPEND JUDGMENT – ACCEPT – LET GO
Fukushima b.1933 Enso – watch touch & bite
Much of the time we are prey to obsessive habits of thought, feeling, mood and behaviour – an endlessly churning process that is out of our control. We can think of this as our washing-machine mind. A moment of mindful awareness is a moment of regaining control in a gentle and subtle way. It is also a moment of releasing tension, of calmness and letting go. The motor that powers the washing-machine mind is mostly desire in all its forms: desire for success, wealth, happiness, love, respect, past and future. These desires are insatiable and take us away from the very things we need, that is: being alive to the present, calmness, ease, well-being and a sense of freedom and space. While we are caught in the churning of the washing-machine mode of existence, these more peaceful qualities seem endlessly out of reach. The constantly churning process of chasing after our thoughts and desires, and being chased by them in turn, and the agitation of mind and body that ensues, is very tiring. Again we are only half aware of this underlying fatigue. Paradoxically it is often only when we develop mindfulness that we really see and understand how exhausted we have been. But with that realisation comes the possibility of doing something to remedy the situation. Becoming mindful and letting go of the constant agitation of the washing-machine leaves us feeling less tired, fresher and freer. Life seems to become tastier and we feel less jaded.
Fr Christopher Jamison, the ex-abbot of Worth Abbey (a Benedictine monastery in West Sussex) leads retreats for lay visitors. He places emphasis on watching the breath and says: ‘it is always a really big shock to people when you point out that the day that breathing stops, you will be dead’. So when we listen to our breathing, when we give it our full attention, we are attending to our life.
Breathing in and out, in and out – a catflap through which the currents of air and carbon dioxide come and go – the metronome that is the rhythmic backbone of our lives.
Watching the fishes in the stream
One of the many difficulties of the apparently simple act of zazen, is to be aware of the endless stream of perceptions, thoughts and feelings, without becoming attached to any one of them – attending to the stream but not grasping at the fishes in it. This is reminiscent of the methods of ancient Greek sceptics who argued that we should not become entangled in the divisive web of language which tends to pin down or define what is intangible and indefinable. The sceptics thought that as nothing could be said to have a fixed, independent or absolute existence, including human ideas and opinions, it was best to suspend judgement and belief, and not to become attached to either side of an argument. Similarly we could describe zazen as sitting in non-attached attention, being aware of the endless creative play of opposites and possibilities, without taking sides.
How do we observe our own experience?
In the excellent book, Speaking of Silence, Joseph Goldstein asks how are we to observe clearly our own experience? He points out that, ‘for the most part, we are so caught up and identified with various neurotic habit patterns of mind – thoughts, emotions, bodily tensions – that it is difficult to really look. We see life through the coloured glasses of our biases and preconceptions. So we need a discipline that allows us to examine and investigate what is taking place in a non-judgmental way.’ Goldstein’s particular discipline is vipassana – or insight meditation – which aspires to develop an awareness that is free of the influence of preconceptions and neurotic habits: ‘settling back into the moment. By being with whatever is happening, we cultivate a non-interfering, choiceless awareness.’ Sceptics argue for a similar strategy of observing clearly what is going on while at the same time suspending judgment – observing in a calm and dispassionate manner in order to gain understanding, not to arrive at a final definitive opinion but to continue with the open-ended process of enquiry.
Much of the time we easily become addicted to particular ways of thinking, feeling and behaving. We believe today what we believed yesterday only because we are in the habit of doing so. We hang on to the flimsiest of doctrines because we believed them in the past and we feel security in continuing to believe – sometimes even in the face of evidence which casts doubt over the truth of what we believe. Non-judgmental, in-the-moment attention (vipassana, mindfulness, zazen) can begin to dissolve the chains of habit – dissolving the threads of attachment and false needs that maintain and strengthen our habits and biases. With patience and a relaxed compassionate determination we can release ourselves from the bondage of always having to think, feel and act in the way that we have always done – enabling us to grow, to benefit from new experiences and knowledge, and to enjoy each present moment.
Goldstein offers an amusing and illuminating example of his own attachment to a particular habit of feeling – an aversion he had for cats. He is in conversation with a group of Christians and Buddhists and it is worth quoting in full what he has to say. He lived for a while in India ‘in a small brick and thatch hut. Instead of a door, only a piece of canvas hung over the entrance. Every day I sat inside, doing my meditation practice. One morning a cat came walking into my hut, hopped up onto my lap, and sat down. At the time I had a general aversion to cats; I didn’t relate well to them. So when this cat came in, I immediately picked it up and threw it out the door. It came right back in, and sat down on my lap. I picked it up and threw it out again. Now, those of you who are familiar with cats probably know how persevering they can be. I must have been sitting there for two hours, tossing out the cat. And the whole time I was getting more and more angry at this cat for disturbing my meditation. Finally the cat forced me to surrender. There was nothing else to do. It came in, sat down on my lap, and I let it sit there. Fifteen seconds later, the cat got up and walked out the door. (Laughter) That cat was the Buddha coming to visit.’
As Goldstein says, ‘the more we resist, the more we feed what we’re resisting.’ Feeding an aversion is as disturbing to our peace of mind as feeding an attachment. Over-reacting to difficult situations usually makes the situation worse. Becoming irritated by the chatter of people in the room next door while we are trying to sit in peaceful silence suggests we are attached to the idea of peaceful silence rather than actually experiencing the calming effect of being aware without reacting to or adding to the awareness. We can be averse to the chatter and react as we have in the past, or we can observe, accept and let go of it and find that, like the cat, the chatter is no longer an issue. Of course, we may also be able to ask those who are talking to speak more quietly or to move elsewhere. It is possible they may be less stubborn and intransigent than Goldstein’s cat. Considerate and decisive action in some situations may be as effective as mindful acceptance.
Thich Nhat Hanh encourages us to bring mindfulness to bear on the simplest of everyday activities: ‘Washing the dishes is at the same time a means to an end and an end – that is, not only do we do the dishes in order to have clean dishes, we also do the dishes to live fully in each moment while washing them’. Going about our day-to-day mundane affairs can be enormously enriched, transformed into sacredness, if we do things for their own sake – so long as we are really present when we do them. Sitting just to sit, walking just to walk, sweeping just to sweep – having no other purpose or aim other than to do what we are doing – this is a glorious form of aimlessness. Going nowhere we are always here. In this mode of being we don’t sit, walk or sweep to attain any goal, we do these things mindfully yet aimlessly. In focusing on the moment we are mindful rather than mindless, we are awake rather than asleep, alive rather than going through the motions of living. Being here we are no longer somewhere else.
Contemplation and self-transformation; mindfulness and compassion
Father Timko, an Orthodox Christian priest, describes theoria, or contemplation, as ‘watching, observing, simply looking. It is an interior looking of the mind, paying attention without any expectations … in such a state the self is dissolved.’ Somehow, by the simple act of watching the mind in a dispassionate way, the restlessness of the mind gives way to restful calm and the self seems to be transformed, becoming less insistent, rigid and separate from the world. A more fluid, open and porous self comes into play – a self that overflows or dissolves the ego. The ego, that manifestation of self through which selfishness, egocentricity and craving flows, is reinforced by attachment, by habit and by compulsive mental thought and chatter. When we sit in silence and observe the mind without commentary or judgment, we release the mind from attachment, habit and compulsion – in a very gentle, gradual, yet persistent way. Father Timko adds: ‘When the mind is restless and jumps all over the place, the tendency is to try and trap it with some technique. But … by contemplating, by simply watching, the mind naturally becomes quiet and stills itself.’
The Tibetan Buddhist teacher, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, talks about theoria as mindful awareness in the following way: ‘You simply pay attention to your breath, as you breathe in and out, and to every detail in your mind, whether it is a thought-pattern of aggression, passion, or ignorance, or just insignificant mental chatter …[it].. also means paying attention to the details of every action, for example, to the way you extend your hand to reach for a glass.’ Trungpa describes how this simple process of calm attentiveness develops compassion: ‘You are not just paying attention, but you are also aware of your own pain and pleasure, and you develop sympathy and friendship for yourself. From that you are able to understand, or at least see, the pain and suffering of others, and you begin to develop a tremendous sense of sympathy for others.’ The dissolution of the ego-self, as described by Father Timko, changes our orientation to the world and to others. We encounter the world about us, and its inhabitants, as our kith and kin, as relatives. Our more porous, contemplative, mindful self does not feel cut off from the world, but is rather interwoven with the world and with others. Our sense of self and mind is expanded and less clearly bounded by egocentric patterns of thought and behaviour. Compassion arises, alongside empathy and fellow-feeling, because the boundaries between us and them are no longer so clear-cut, it is no longer so obvious where I end and my neighbour begins.
Letting-go of past and future
Dogen’s view is that when we sit in mindful attention we enter the present most fully. If we are in the present then future and past are here right now. Therefore we can let go of any goal (which is about the future) including the goal to seek enlightenment or nirvana (or heaven or universal bliss or peace). To practice zazen is to realise we are enlightened.
In the Fukan Zazengi Dogen writes: “ Put aside all involvements and suspend all affairs. Do not think ‘good’ and ‘bad’. Do not judge true or false….. Have no designs on becoming a Buddha…. Think of not thinking.” [Jiyu Kennett translation]
Living on auto-pilot
Often we live on auto-pilot, only half-aware of what we are thinking, feeling and doing. We think, feel and do things automatically, responding to existence with deeply engrained patterns of mental, emotional and physical behaviour – reactive habits of which we are only partially aware, if we notice them at all. To be mindful is to turn off the auto-pilot and to gently take over the controls of our life and to be more fully aware and more fully alive.
Nam June Paik TV Buddha No X 74-82