Mindfulness is the Buddhist practice of turning the awareness to the present moment. The present moment is here defined, paradoxically, as your immediate space and its physical sensations of sounds, tastes and sights. It excludes, therefore, memories of the past and imaginings of the future.
When beginning meditation, we may be instructed to focus the awareness upon some object like a candle flame or the breath. Mindfulness extends this practice into daily life with the instruction to give full attention to whatever is being done at the moment.
Those practicing mindfulness know that thought regularly intrudes upon any attempt to stay in the moment. When this happens, the initial instruction is to turn the awareness back to whatever task was at hand. The intent, however, is not to suppress thought but to establish the immediate moment as a control group with which to explore thought.
A control group is a group separated from another group we wish to observe and test. In mindfulness, the control group is the immediate moment. The group we wish to test is our inner maps, or the thoughts and beliefs we have of reality and our self. This testing is done by continually comparing what we think is happening to what is actually happening (i.e., in the control group).
A preliminary step in establishing mindfulness is to separate the control group from the thoughts to be studied. This simply means developing an initial level of discrimination so you see a difference between what you actual experience and what you think about the experience. The latter is something superimposed onto actual events and is often laden with emotions and beliefs. I call this superimposition a secondary map.
An example of a secondary map is where a person views the world as an angry place when, in fact, there are no angry people around. A person with such a map is often not aware his map is false so may go about avoiding people and being defensive. If this person were to take up the practice of mindfulness, however, he would assign himself the task of checking his secondary map against the control group of the immediate moment. And, finding no actual hostility, he would eventually conclude his inner map were false.
The belief in the reality of our secondary maps is quite strong and may take some time to dispel. This belief is delusion in the Buddhist sense of a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of reality. Mindfulness ends delusion by developing your power to discriminate between delusion and reality; between the false and the true.
Delusion ends when through the consistent comparison of our inner maps to the immediate moment we see that what we “think” about our self and the world is not really our self or the world, at all. This is why mindfulness is said to be a power that brings clear comprehension and leads to wisdom, calmness and liberating discernment.
In previous posts I noted that the left side of the brain uses words to give the world form, an ability of the brain that has long been used by artists. A painter, for example, may deftly apply colors of emerald green and umber to a white canvas that only suggests an appearance but she knows the viewer’s brain will see it as a “tree”, even if she may not know that this is done with words.
The above two impressionist paintings illustrate how the brain creates form out of the formless.
Claude Monet’s* “Autumn Effect at Argtenteuil,” (shown first above) is seen as trees that are reflected in water with a village and clouds in the background. If, however, the right side of the painting were to be covered, the brain would be hard pressed to interpret the orange oils as trees.
In Lilla Cabot Perry’s* “Suraga Bay, Azaleas” (second picture) it’s clear that the blue in the middle is a “mountain” only because we call it a mountain.
In their art, these impressionists used the brain’s ability to assign names and details to create form where there otherwise was none. But this ability is not limited to the museum. The brain does this on a continuous basis in every day life.
In my own experience, while walking yesterday, I noticed that the blue at the end of the street, like the blue in Perry’s painting, was a mountain because I called it a mountain. I noticed that details at the end of a hedge that I couldn’t actually see, were being superimposed by my imagination, which took the details of the branches right beside me and “painted” them in further ahead. And far down the street where my senses reported a black square with two lights, my brain was busily labeling this as the headlights of a car. And when I came across something I did not recognize, my brain sought vainly to give it a name, so practiced was it in naming things.
Ordinarily, I do not question the names given my perceptions. Like everyone else, I accept the reality of what I see on a day-to-day basis. I accept the reality of my primary, inner map. However, all of us have secondary maps on which we have written other words like, “danger,” “threat,” “irritating,” “good” or “bad.” These words reflect evaluations of things as they relate to us, evaluations often made in childhood that have never been questioned.
If, with practice, we can see how the brain uses words on our primary maps to give the world form and meaning, we can then begin to transfer that knowledge to the words we’ve written on our secondary maps to see how we’ve made the world “dangerous”, “irritating” or “bad”. Then we may begin to see that what threatened us in the past is now merely a word we’ve superimposed on the world. And words, to paraphrase the child’s saying, “can never hurt us.”
* Note: clicking on the names of either painting will open a new window at the original site of the painting.
In Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor’s book, “My Stroke of Insight,” we learn that the right side of the brain experiences the physical world as a sea of light and sound. It is not difficult to imagine how a newborn upon first encountering this world must give this energetic sea boundaries and edges, if it is to make sense of the world into which it was born. The left side of the brain, the language side, provides this as the infant gains mastery of language and the word.And it is through the word that the infant comes to know the world as stable and solid.
The certainty of the adult world comes from the inner maps drawn in childhood. Names placed on our inner maps make the world seem fixed.Lines drawn around primal sensations make the world seem solid. However, not all adults perceive the world as rigid and solid.The artist owes much of her ability to create new forms and new works of art because of her ability to see the world with both sides of the brain.
A Buddhist phrase for the fluidic world is dependent origination or dependent arising.
Dependent origination, as used here, refers to the notion that there is no independent or permanent self, and that everything exists in relation to everything else. To paraphrase Dr. Bolte Talyor, “the energy of everything blends together.”It does not take much to see the parallels between dependent origination and how the right side of the brain perceives the world, as described by Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor.
Meditation allows us to deconstruct our maps so we can see the world of dependent origination. However, one does not have to spend years in meditation to begin to see this world and how words have limited our perceptions.
Try this exercise.Take a moment to investigate the rooms where you live.Notice the color of the walls in particular.Then, when you get up in the night, go back into these rooms and find one that is dimly lit.A room with a night-light is most favorable for this exercise.
In the darkness, walls take on many shades of grey but notice that in your mind you still think of them as colored. Yellow walls, for example, take on the appearance of light greys but you still imagine them as yellow. Notice how other items that are nothing more than blobs of grey and black are also identified and given form by your words.
This exercise shows how the left side of your brain has so organized the world that you no longer see its endless variety. It shows that the sea of energy you perceived as a child has taken on permanent form with permanent colors. Your world has become fixed and solid because of your words.
You can extrapolate this exercise to see other ways that the left side of the brain uses words to limit your world and your self.Note, however, that this is a two edged sword as positive words are just as limiting as negative ones.And many a person, from the artist, to the saint, to the “free-thinker,” has found that the world does not want us to give up our words and the false sense of security they bestow.Yet, the door to freedom lies in putting aside our inner maps and transcending the word.
Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor’s book, “My Stroke of Insight,” provides insight into the brain’s central role in drawing the primary map of the self.
In 1996 Dr. Bolte Taylor suffered a stroke on the side of her brain that controls language, rational thought and time-oriented thought. Although the left side was severely damaged, the “now” oriented, unitary right side still functioned. In her book she reports on her experience of right brain functioning and her eight-year recovery from the stroke.
Dr. Bolte Taylor reported that when the left side of her brain shut down she could no longer perceive things as existing separately from any other thing. Without boundaries or edges she could not distinguish where one object began and another ended. “Instead,” she writes, “the energy of everything blended together.”
In this sea of energy Dr. Bolte Taylor no longer felt herself to be a single, solid self. It was then she realized that for all her life, “I really had been a figment of my own imagination!”
From these brief excerpts it is not difficult to imagine a time when our newborn brains experienced the world as Dr. Bolte Taylor described. In that pristine world the self is not yet drawn and the world is experienced as a pulsating, energetic sea of sounds, feelings and electromagnetic radiation. It is out of this sea that the left and right side of the brain map out a world of form that the adult knows as his or her self and reality. Yet, as Dr. Bolte Taylor noted, that map exists only in the imagination.
The self may be thought of as a map drawn to guide you through life and your relationships. This self is not the real you any more than a map is the city, town or country it represents. Yet the vast majority of us believe we are our maps. Buddhist practice is designed to dispel this false belief and awaken us to our true nature.
We typically have more than one map representing the self but here I am only concerned with two. The first draws with relative accuracy our inner landscape as it is. It is a landscape mapped through a process of denying and affirming parts of our basic human nature and experience. Some examples of what may be included on this map are our cultural values, religious beliefs and family mores. Others may be more specific to our person such as how intelligent, athletic or talented we are.
When denial or approval is brought about through fear or coercion it may leave us with unresolved fears, false beliefs and aspects our nature that we then seek to avoid. To do this we draw a secondary map that distorts our inner landscape. This map leads us away from our discomfort zones that then become “holes” in our consciousness we do not wish to explore.
The secondary map represents a false self that keeps us from being in the moment and opening our hearts to others. Buddhist practice requires we examine these maps with awareness, especially where feelings of discomfort, pushing away and denial arise. These feelings point to the holes in our maps that we need to explore.
A word of caution, traumatic holes are highly charged, sensitive areas filled with pain, fear and shame. Secondary maps act as a safeguard to stop people from falling into these holes. It is not recommended that any traumatized person venture into these uncharted areas without a qualified teacher or therapist.
Though there be nothing to attain our human brains are unaccustomed to doing nothing, so we often end up sitting in practice looking for something to accomplish. Ironically, it is this seeking that needs to end if our practice is to be true.
Seeking can take many forms such as trying to grasp some subtle object of contemplation or have some uplifting experience. Less obvious is imagining there is some state where we have no problems and are totally at peace. Another that often goes unnoticed is using our practice to reinforce the stories we’ve been telling our selves, rather than seeing them as just stories.
Often these stories are used to mask or cover sensitive areas in our life. They direct our attention away from those areas which then become effective holes in the psyche.
Although some holes may be newly formed as a result of some sudden trauma, the majority were usually formed early in life. For instance, someone raised in an abusive environment may come to believe that all people are violent, so the story they tell is designed to avoid people and violence. To avoid the childhood pain another may tell a story of control, while another may place themselves in the role of a lifelong victim.
Many begin practice when their stories no longer protect them from the holes in their lives. But the life-long habit of telling these stories does not stop because practice has begun. In fact, the practice may be used to continue the story. The man who chose to avoid people, for instance, may adopt a practice that leads to meditation in isolation. The one who tells a story of control may use his or her practice to try and control painful thoughts and emotions. The victim story teller may develop a martyr complex. So the question arises, “How do I know my practice is true?”
Practice may be considered true if it brings you face to face with the holes in your life. That means becoming aware of your stories, letting them go and being willing to stand in the void that’s left.
If you’ve been telling a story that says people are inherently violent, then examine it closely and question it’s validity. Is there anyone who is actually like that around you right now? Or is that just a thought in your head that you’ve been replaying all your life?
If you’ve been telling a story that says you must maintain control, then ask what motivates your fear of losing control. Is it a real danger? Or is that danger only in your imagination?
If you’ve been telling yourself a story of victimization, then ask why you’ve placed yourself in that role? Do you believe you need to be taken care of? Do you think that asserting yourself will lead to some catastrophe? Whatever the answer, face it. Question its foundation in reality.
True practice takes a willingness to jump into holes that make you uncomfortable. It requires a leap into the unknown without any safety net to catch you. It means letting go of the boundaries that give the illusion of safety but are instead chains binding you.
True practice means following your own way until you come to the point where you see that even the self is nothing more than a story and you let it go, forgetting all about yourself. Until then, make your best effort just to continue your practice with your whole mind and body, without creating any new stories, then whatever you do will be true practice.
Many come to meditation to calm the emotions and control unruly thoughts. If the practice is allowed to deepen the realization dawns that the tide of emotions and the waves of thought never cease. The waves still lap upon the beach and the tides still cover the sand, even if there are fewer storms.
Peace of mind may then be sought through an attempt to calm the subconscious roots of the storms. Introspection and psychology then become the focus of study.For some this may be a necessary step but as the practice again deepens there comes a sense that the tree is only being pruned, leaving the roots of dissatisfaction untouched.
At this point there may be an intense study of literature that speaks of higher mind, true nature and meditation. The mind, still addicted to thinking, seeks some subtle as yet undiscovered key that will unlock the door. This may go on for years and some may die while still in the search.
One day the writing of a Sage may be found that says, “Stop the search! There is nothing to be attained.” Interestingly. This may arouse many more years of puzzling out as some other meaning is sought before the true meaning is comprehended, that there really is nothing to attain and nothing to find.
(This is actually a good thing for whatever can be attained can be lost.)
If the Sage’s words are truly understood the Seeker is faced with a dilemma. How does the search stop?And what is it that stops?
At some point another realization may dawn that from the first the Seeker was always told the search was hopeless.It was in part because of this that Siddhārtha Gautama upon becoming the Buddha, debated whether he should teach the Dharma.At about the same time Lao Tsu wrote in his Tao Te Ching that the Tao is beyond form, beyond sound and intangible.Lao Tsu therefore wrote that if you look for it, it cannot be seen.If you listen, it cannot be heard. And if you try to grasp, it cannot be held.
Though they both knew few would understand the Way both Buddha and Lao Tsu did leave a record for the Seeker to follow.Since then, others have done the same.Dogen said, “Just sit and do nothing.”Hakuin gave koans to occupy the searching mind knowing full well there was no answer to them.
Since all Sages know there is nothing to attain, they also know no method could help attain it.Still.They had faith that some would recognize the essence of “nothing to attain”.So they did their best to point the way.
If the Sages of old have done anything it was to tell the Seeker what not to do.Do not sit in meditation looking for something.Thoughts and feelings will arise but do not grasp onto them no matter how profound they may seem. Cease any effort to understand, conceptualize or feel your way through it.Ignore visions and miraculous works.Do not even hold your own self dearly but be ready to drop off mind and body.
If you let go of everything and hold onto nothing the search will stop.You will discover that all along there was nothing to attain.
As 2013 ends and 2014 begins, many of us turn our thoughts to how we can make this planet better for our family, neighbors and the succeeding generations.Daily meditation, such as that found in Buddhism and Zen, is one way that should not be overlooked.
Unfortunately, daily meditation is not always possible with today’s hectic pace where jobs and family often take up much of our time.Daily life, however, can be made the foundation of our practice if we strive to give every task our full attention. Our practice then becomes one of staying focused on what we are doing in the moment.
If you make life your daily practice the first thing you’ll notice is that we spend most of our days on automatic.We tend to think the same thoughts and behave the same way with little variation.These habitual patterns are, in fact, a form of relative unconsciousness in which we live and act through most of our life.
Staying focused counteracts the habitual unconscious state and allows you to stay in the moment and experience its joys.I still remember many of my bike rides of years past because I stayed alert to my surroundings.Images of eagles and ponds are still fresh in my mind.The feel of the rubber handles have not left me, or my body’s aches as I rode in the August heat.Later, at times when things were stressful, I would recall these moments to ease my mind.
Staying focused on the moment can create better memories but what, you may ask, of the one’s we’d rather forget. Do we really want vivid memories of pain and suffering?This question brings us back to that first posed above, “How we can make this planet better.”
Buddha told us that we all suffer and by attaining enlightenment we end suffering.What is sometimes overlooked here is that our mutual suffering connects us to each other and to our humanity.By closing to our own personal suffering we deny our humanity and prolong the global resistance to change that such denial creates.
Staying in the moment creates a common ground upon which we can see the suffering of all as our own suffering. The pain of loss is found to be the same in us as it is in any other.Grief, although expressed differently in different cultures, is the same grief we might feel.Illness we’ve known bridges us to those whose illnesses are more pronounced.Suffering in others is found to be the pain we felt, the pain we will one day feel or the pain our loved ones feel.
Staying in the moment and giving our full attention to any task at hand has the potential to open us to each other with responses that are well chosen and compassionate.We may not make the world better at the stroke of midnight.But we can add to its improvement on a daily basis by making life our daily meditation.
A thought arises and, out of habit, I identify it as me, not me or a stray that is none of the above.I encounter someone new and automatically respond in ways that I identify as “me”.I tell myself stories, replaying them like a broken record.All these habits, how long have they been going on?
Have I not been like a man who sees his foot jump when his knee is tapped and exclaims, “I am that!”
It is said that only after we’ve let go of the habitual self do we come to know how deluded we have been.That the self we believed in is nothing but an illusion that masked our true nature.
Our true nature is completely beyond anything we could possible conceive.It is not just the absence of any thing.It is also the absence of that absence.It is not just the absence of any existence.It is the absence of non-existence, as well!
Where the western mind would call this nothingness, the Buddhists call it emptiness.But even these descriptions create another mask to wear, another delusion.In fact, even trying to drop the mask is yet another mask of one who drops illusion.
The more you think about finding your true nature, the more impossible and hopeless it becomes.Every new thought, every new strategy, every new attempt only creates another mask.Yet seekers of the way continue to search for a way to open the Door.Never quite realizing that it is not the Key of Knowledge that opens the Door, but the empty space into which it is inserted.
Bodhi-mind is the name given to a mind in which an aspiration to attain enlightenment has been awakened.The Star of Bethlehem represents this mind.But that light, which leads us to Christ Consciousness or Buddha Mind, is always with us, shining brighter than a thousand supernovae.It is, in fact, our own true nature not yet recognized.