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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
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...