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The Naturals & The Traditions, Mindfulness
A Course in Meditation

by Theodore K. Phelps © 2007
-from Chapter 10, "Traditions of Meditative Growth" pp. 286-290

Web readers please note: this text is offered for your information, not as a replacement for a course of instruction. The text is directly excerpted from the book and certain references do not make sense out of context.

 

Meditation and Mindfulness

An evening in the bookstore spent reading books on meditation will almost certainly include the word mindfulness. It has become one of the most widely used terms in the West to define the meditative mentality. The term applies to specific types of meditation and also to a values-based attention to what is happening, both within oneself and in the surroundings. In my terms, it arises from the "Learning" (Number Two) intention, the one that actively intends to understand what is.

Mindfulness, like concentration, is both a characteristic of practice and the fruit of practice. Whereas concentration refers to a keen, penetrating awareness of a single chosen object (and thrives on the Number One intention) mindfulness refers to a fluid, open awareness of the many objects and conditions that present themselves in the "here and now." All forms of awareness must filter and select in order to remain coherent. Mindful awareness filters and selects based on consciously chosen values.

This kind of attention is important to any journey of self-discovery and growth. The value of living mindfully is so obvious it almost hurts to restate it, yet we seem to need reminders of it every day. This need has led to the development of formal mindfulness practices. Whether reciting a scripture or washing a breakfast bowl, one aims at that which is true and present and important, here and now.

Shunryu Suzuki (1904-1971), one of the foremost modern teachers of meditation in the Zen tradition, said we usually run around trying to catch two birds with one stone and, not concentrating on any one thing, catch nothing at all. To fix that, he says, we must avoid attachment to actions, and when we act, do it with the entire body and mind. "You should do it completely, like a good bonfire. You should not be a smoky fire. You should burn yourself completely" (Suzuki 1970:62).

This "burning yourself completely" often means focusing better on the physical aspects of whatever you happen to be doing, such as washing a bowl in the sink. A mindfulness practice would ask us to put full attention on the bowl, the oatmeal particles stuck to it, the smell of the soap, etc. That is a practice. But the state of being mindful, as opposed to a practice to achieve that state, opens several layers of awareness at once. Attention only to the physical events misses the values and the meaning that are also present. Meaning lies a layer or two deeper than the soap and oatmeal. Living mindfully extends beyond the actions a video camera would record; it embraces subtle, private domains of intention, desire, values, and opinions and subtle public domains of social relationships, priorities, and ethics.

I like to illustrate the difference between practicing mindfulness and being mindful with two contrasting scenes. Picture two people trying to do the right thing. One is a monk washing his breakfast bowl silently in the wood stove-heated water in a rustic kitchen in a snowy mountain monastery. He’s trying to think of nothing but removing the remnants of oatmeal from the bowl. The second is a mother in a clean, suburban kitchen washing her child’s plastic bowl. As she washes the bowl, she is thinking about her neighbor’s daughter’s marital problems.

Which of these people is doing a mindfulness practice? Of course, it’s the monk; the mother’s mind is wandering next-door, poking into her neighbor’s soap opera. But which is being more mindful? To answer that, we need to look in a layer, beyond the video cameras. Let’s peek in there...

 


As the monk washes the bowl, he can hear the sounds coming from the yard just outside the door behind him. There, a child who has come with his parents on a first weekend retreat is taunting the monastery dog. The dog is making a low, intense growl punctuated by sharp yelps. The boy is laughing at this and shouting at the dog. The monk hears these sounds but lets them pass as he focuses intently on the bowl in the cooling soapy water. He thinks that someone else will handle the boy and dog. Soon, another monk does go into the yard and brings the boy inside, explaining that the dog has been sick and needs a rest. A scratch on the boy’s leg is examined, and he is taken to the bathroom to clean it. The breakfast bowls have been carefully washed—most mindfully—but the monk has missed some important social and ethical factors that were right there in his back yard. Meanwhile…

As the mother washes the bowl, she thinks about her neighbor who will be arriving in a few minutes. The neighbor just called asking to borrow some children’s supplies because her daughter is coming with her two children for what could become a lengthy stay. The mother is mentally preparing a box of helpful things, one of which is the bowl being washed. She has turned off the TV so that she can attend to this task. She washes the bowl half-mindedly amidst mental images of her neighbor’s house and the cramped quarters for the daughter and children. She mentally scans her attic for children’s toys. This bowl washer’s mind is everywhere but in the kitchen sink—not a traditional case of mindfulness. Yet, this mind is open to a wide range of the most important elements in her complex, layered environment. It is a full mind, situated well for making good choices of lasting value.

The choices that please us years later are the ones that have met our highest values. Often these include compassion and intimacy. Life is not a stack of clean breakfast bowls. But it’s not a sink of dirty dishes, either. Having access to a good set of written values is critical. Good ones endure beyond this month, this year, this house, this job. Pulling these values off the page and putting them to work in the service of life takes mindfulness.

The meditative function is not a mindfulness practice. As you know, it is a natural process that arises under certain conditions. For the most part, practicing mindfulness requires the "Learning" (Number Two) intention, the watching and observing, listening, pondering, and understanding intention. The meditative function can coexist with that intention during a sitting, but it prefers the openness of "Receiving" (Number Three). So, do the Naturals have anything to do with mindfulness? Not always as a direct practice, but definitely as a process for becoming a mindful person outside of meditation. We watched this develop in the journey of enlightenment (Chapter 9), starting in Phase 2. The nature of awareness is clearly far more important than a habit of watchful observation. Developing a "bigger" mind, and eventually a "wetter" mind, is the way to a truly mindful mind. These kinds of changes in consciousness are the goal of most meditation traditions, and the Naturals are naturals at it.

 

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