Mindfulness is one of the cornerstones of Buddhist thought. In order to realize your enlightenment, you must see it just as it is, through direct experience unfiltered by emotion or judgement. What’s really interesting to me about this is that it’s possible to have these moments where everything seems to click and you have this epiphany about yourself, or the world, or the nature of reality whether or not you’re Buddhist. That to me, is the realization; a small taste of enlightenment that arises when you’re fully engaged in that moment.
For Buddhists, those moments aren’t necessarily goals; they’re more signposts that tell us where we are in our practice. Mindfulness is not a state that we achieve and then do no more work with. It is a habit, a way of living, an action that we perform every moment of every day.
So Right Mindfulness is the sustained effort required to take the things we’ve learned so far and use it to clear away the cobwebs in front of our eyes, so to speak. So much of our daily experience is filtered through the lenses of our emotions, our judgements, our aversions and attachments. When we realize exactly what those are, and how they distort the reality we see them through, we have a better chance of recognizing, accepting, and eventually letting go of them.
Mindfulness is primarily cultivated through meditation — the act of simply sitting with ourselves and being present with what arises. I think that there is often a misunderstanding about the “goal” of meditation, and I’m pretty sure I haven’t done the greatest job of describing it before. But here’s what it means to me, and what I get out of it.
Mindfulness meditation is a way of checking in with yourself, noticing the patterns of your own thoughts and feelings. This can often be very difficult — there are notions and emotions that we don’t like to confront for various reasons, after all — but sitting with them can teach us patience, compassion and empathy that we can then bring out of the meditation space and into the rest of our lives. Eventually, as you become more familiar with the ways you think and feel, you may find yourself detaching from them — and with that, a newfound ability to examine what arises with interest and tenderness.
That detached, amiable curiosity is a wonderful friend. With it, you can follow difficult emotions down to the root. You can shake loose these very deep emotions that may prevent you from engaging with something fully; that, too, is difficult work. I’ve often found hypocrisies within myself that make me feel ashamed, uncertain and like an all-around terrible person.
But you keep sitting. You allow these thoughts and feelings to spend time with you; you watch them dissolve after a time. And the more you do it, the longer you sit, the more you realize how ephemeral these emotional states and thoughts are. The pain in your shoulders arises, then fades. The embarrassment of that really stupid thing you said eases into amusement, then acceptance. Your mind begins to exhaust itself of the memories and thoughts and emotions that constantly bombard you. It begins to get easier to return to your breath, to focus on the simple physical act of inhaling and exhaling.
What mindfulness meditation has given me is the ability to see myself as separate from the emotions and sensations that arise within me, and the chance to step back to examine them before acting. Granted, it doesn’t always happen that way, but I feel a lot better about how I handle difficult situations in the moment on my better days.
Mindfulness meditation gives us direct experience into the impermanence of our existence. The things we think flit into our brain, and will just as happily flit out again if we don’t hold on to them. The emotions that come with them rise as well, and remain with us for a time, but fade again; they just might use a longer timetable. The physical sensation that often accompanies emotion will rise and fade as well, and even though these might feel longest and be the most difficult to sit with, eventually we see that they are impermanent too. Beneath all of these — thought, emotion, physical sensation — something separate persists. Our heartbeat. Our breath. It is a constant that we can use to remind ourselves of the fleeting nature of other things, that we are not what we think or feel, that we do not have to follow those things into immediate action.
For someone like me, who has let his emotions get him into trouble so often in the past, this feels wonderful. I still get depressed. I still wrestle with anxiety. I still have tremendous trouble with focus. But the more I meditate, the more mindful I become of the way these states feel and pass; the more mindful I become, the more I am able to see the truth of things beyond the filters of that emotion; the clearer I can see things, the better able I am to recognize what is needed at any given time and respond in turn. Being mindful is how we can move past the things that make us angry to recognize the reason they exist. We can acknowledge our anger, recognize its presence, but allow it to have no bearing on our reaction if it’s not needed. Mindfulness isn’t denying what arises — it’s quite the opposite. We hold it, give it its proper perspective, and then move on with clear eyes.
So many Zen koans are calls for this mindfulness. “What is Zen?” asked a monk to his teacher while they were shopping. “Three pounds of flax,” the master replied. No matter what you’re doing — meditating, chanting, or relieving your bowels — Zen calls for full, clear engagement with it. Practice doesn’t end when we leave the meditation space. Meditation is rehearsal for the rest of our day. Right Mindfulness is the spoke on the wheel of the path that lets us do that.