The Practice of Mindfulness
“Mindfulness is the aware, balanced acceptance of the present experience. It isn’t more complicated that that.” Sylvia Boorstein
Right Mindfulness is one of the elements of the eight-fold path (the fourth noble truth of Buddhism) and a cornerstone of Buddhist Practice. The word “Buddha” means “awakened one”, and it implies, that most of us are sleepwalkers, living in illusion, unaware of the true reality that exists before our clouded eyes.
But it also means that we are capable of awakening, this very moment, and capable, in the same moment, of apprehending our true nature. All that we need to do is to remove the dust from our eyes and be fully aware of the present moment.
What are you thinking? What are you thinking right now? Are you focused on the words on the page? Are you wondering what you’ll be having for dinner tonight? Is your mind wandering? Are you worried about work? Are you daydreaming? Are you feeling restless? Are you planning for tomorrow? Regardless of what you may be thinking or feeling at the present moment, one thing is sure: you are thinking. You are thinking because your brain has been designed that way. Your brain is a non-stop thinking machine. Most of the time, we are not aware of this process, we are busy living our lives, busy doing, busily distracted, but when we slow down, when we are quiet, when we stop for a moment, we become aware of this continuous monologue that is the ongoing soundtrack to our life. And that is a very useful thing, because we can begin to understand how our mind works and, more importantly how we can make it work for us instead of working against us.
Awareness is the context in which we think and feel, but it is a context that we cannot locate, we cannot grasp. It is the environment of our thinking and feeling self, but which we cannot see, in the same way that a fish cannot ‘see’ the water, nor a bird ‘see’ the air. Zen master Dogen said: “When a fish swims, it swims on and on, and there is no end to the water. When a bird flies, it flies on and on, and there is no end to the sky. There was never a fish that swam out of the water or a bird that flew out of the sky. When they need just a little water or sky, they use just a little; when they need a lot, they use a lot. Thus, they use all of it in every moment, and in every place they have perfect freedom. Yet if there were a bird that first wanted to examine the size of the sky, or a fish that first wanted to examine the extent of the water, and then tried to fly or swim, it would never find its way. When we find where we are at this moment, then practice follows, and this is the realization of the truth. For the place, the way, is neither large nor small, neither self nor other. It has never existed before, and it is not coming into existence now. It simply is as it is.”
Adyashanti, a Buddhist meditation teacher talks about the art of meditation as giving up the idea of yourself as the meditator and coming to allow everything to be exactly as it is, without our having to change anything, including ourselves.
One of the ways that we can cultivate mindfulness is through the regular practice of meditation. According to Joan Borysenko, Ph.D., a pioneer in the field of mind/body medicine, meditation can be broadly defined as any activity that keeps the attention pleasantly anchored in the present moment. When the mind is calm and focused in the present, it is neither reacting to memories from the past nor being preoccupied with plans for the future, two major sources of chronic stress known to impact health. “Meditation,” says Dr. Borysenko, “helps to keep us from identifying with the ‘movies of the mind.”
Jon Kabat-Zinn is Professor of Medicine Emeritus and founding director of the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. He teaches mindfulness meditation as a technique to help people cope with stress, anxiety, pain and illness.
Mindfulness meditation is also the foundation for mindfulness- based cognitive therapy (MBCT), which has been used successfully to treat depression by helping individuals to accept their thinking rather than reacting to it.
How do you practice meditation. The following website gives a very simple and practical instruction for meditation. http://altmedicine.about.com/cs/mindbody/a/Meditation.htm
While a number of meditation practices focus on the counting of the breath or developing a focal point for our attention, the single most important part of meditation (and the most difficult) is to learn to relax. It’s also important to understand that meditation or mindfulness, as Borysenko indicated is not restricted to sitting alone.
The Nobel Prize nominee, Vietnamese Buddhist Master Thich Nhat Hanh talks about “mindful eating” and his teaching of the eating of an orange: “I often teach ‘orange meditation’ to my students.
We spend time sitting together, each enjoying an orange. Placing the orange on the palm of our hand, we look at it while breathing in and out, so that the orange becomes a reality. If we are not here, totally present, the orange isn’t here either. There are some people who eat an orange but don’t really eat it. They eat their sorrow, fear, anger, past, and future. They are not really present, with body and mind united. When you practice mindful breathing, you become truly present. If you are here, life is also here. The orange is the ambassador of life. When you look at the orange, you discover that it is nothing less than fruit growing, turning yellow, becoming orange, the acid becoming sugar. The orange tree took time to create this masterpiece. When you are truly here, contemplating the orange, breathing and smiling, the orange becomes a miracle. It is enough to bring you a lot of happiness. You peel the orange, smell it, take a section, and put it in your mouth mindfully, fully aware of the juice on your tongue. This is eating an orange in mindfulness. It makes the miracle of life possible. It makes joy possible.”
Mindfulness has the capacity to focus our attention on what is – not on what we wish things to be or imagine them to be, but on what is really happening in the here and now.
To be mindful is to be in the present moment, focused on the here and now, allowing things to be, just as they are, without judging, without interpreting, without evaluating.
Remove the dust from your eyes: see, feel, smell, taste and touch. Wake up and become alive to the truth. As the teacher Baba Ram Dass said in the title of his 1971 classic manual on spiritual transformation: Remember, Be Here Now!
Miles Murphy works in the field of learning and professional development. An independent scholar, he has a wide range of interests including the humanities of East and West. He is a devotee of Buddhism and a t’ai chi ch’uan enthusiast. His poetry and other writings endeavour to poke about in the rich soil and empty sky of the human condition. Miles can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. This article cannot be re-published without permission.