So What is Mindfulness?
We can enter the present moment, which is where spirituality begins, in two opposite ways. One is external, the other internal. If our external environment is “loud” enough, if sensory impact reaches a critical threshold, the stimulation can hurl us into our senses. This approach to nowness is the accidental and relative approach. People caught in natural disasters often give testimony to spiritual-level experiences.Veterans of war sometimes reflect with nostalgia about the horrific, yet magnificent, experience of being in combat. Survivors of hurricanes or earthquakes often give similar accounts of being thrown into reality. We get funneled into the moment, but it is a rugged way to get there. And it doesn’t last.
We can reach nowness in a more gentle, predictable, and stable way by approaching it from the other direction. Instead of stumbling into a loud external environment, we live with a quiet interior one. If our internal environment is “silent” enough, if discursive mind drops below a critical threshold, then any stimulation can bring us to our senses. We do not have to be an accidental buddha. We do not have to seek or wait for dramatic events; we can discover magic in every event. The mind of someone well trained on the spiritual path is so quiet that every moment is loud enough to bring him or her into the present. At the highest levels, spiritual adepts are permanently tuned into reality because they no longer tune out. They are never distracted. And they got that way because of their training in mindfulness.
Mindfulness is the practice of fastening the mind to nowness.The power of now is the power of mindfulness: having a mind-full-of-nowness. Mindfulness is the common ingredient in every form of meditation—it is what makes meditation. If we are focused and attentive in whatever we do, we transform that activity into meditation. When we bring undivided attention to whatever occurs, we discover a richness in life that is normally diluted by half-hearted attention.
There are two stages of mindfulness. The first is deliberate mindfulness. We have to make an effort to bring the scattered mind into the present; it does not happen on its own. There is a degree of hardship involved at this level because we are working against the current of the discursive mind. But as we progress in this training, mindfulness takes on momentum and starts to occur spontaneously. It becomes easier to place the mind in the moment, and the practice starts to carry us.
Instead of being constantly carried away by mindless thought, we find ourselves being carried into the moment by mindful awareness. This is the result of the second stage of effortless mindfulness. We become naturally present. The world suddenly comes alive when we are fully attentive to it. The world hasn’t changed, but our awareness of it has.
Studies have shown that long-term meditators literally perceive more of reality. They see more, feel more, taste more, hear more, and smell more because they are thinking less. When we are not preoccupied with thought, we can more readily occupy our senses. Seeing, feeling, tasting,hearing, and smelling more brings us to life—and it also brings us to others. It allows us to see more clearly what others need, to feel their pain, to hear their stories, and to more skillfully remove their suffering.
Mindfulness is also how we contact the sacred. The difference between experiencing the sacred or the profane is in the manner in which we make contact with reality. Profanity is mindless grasping; sacredness is mindful touching.
One demonstration of this in my experience has been learning about shrines. In my tradition we have shrines everywhere, and we are taught to relate to them with reverence. When I approached my first shrine, I brought a “do not touch” attitude to it. I walked up to it with hesitation and a touch of trepidation. A shrine is something holy, and I should keep my hands off. I discovered, however, that this attitude is completely backward.
What the shrine teaches is, “touch all things as you would touch me.” Treat everything with the same reverence and sacred outlook. It is a representation of the sacred and a teaching in how to contact it. In itself, mindfulness is nothing special. But it makes everything else special.
If you are interested in mindfulness meditation, I offer audio instruction on basic meditation on this site. I also teach programs regularly on meditation and how to stick with it. You can check out upcoming programs. Finally, in early 2014, I will be releasing two books on meditation. Sign up for my monthly newsletter to stay informed.