What is Mindfulness? It is nothing. Complete nothingness. It is being with the silence into which sounds arise, and the stillness that movement springs from.
It is being aware and observing our perceptions as they arise and pass away; rather than being swept along with the content of our thoughts, the pull of our senses, our conditioned reactions to external events and the words and actions of others’.
In a mindful state we are aligned with that which is experiencing rather than identifying with the experience or emotion itself. For example, we can observe the sensations in our body we associate with anger and make a choice about the best course of action. Rather than acting out or blaming we might choose to give our self compassion and reassurance – or see what may be learned by examining our feelings in response to another.
Silence and stillness have been around for far longer than anything else we know and they are all pervasive – and yet trying to describe or get a hold on ‘nothing’ is illusive.
As soon as we grab for it or have the thought that we’ve got it – it’s lost.
Mindfulness is only available in the present moment. It is being with whatever is happening – we can do it easily enough if we are watching our favourite tv programme – we can hear our name being called and allow it to be merely a vibration that enters and exits our perception. In our time of highly sophisticated entertainment opportunities something has to be particularly stimulating or absorbing for us to bother to give it our full attention.
When we do find we can take time out of our busy schedules to experience the wonder of a sun set or work of art, it is in silence and stillness that we can absorb an impression that remains with us for a life-time.
In David Brazier’s book – Zen Therapy he says: “Most people miss out on most of their life. It passes by while they are doing something else. We get to work having traversed a number of interesting and even dangerous events – manoeuvring through traffic for instance, hardly having been present for any part of the journey. The mind was not there. It had gone off on some other business, planning, dreaming, reminding, self-soothing or whatever. Mindfulness is to harmonise the mind with the body – not the other way around. Generally when we go somewhere the mind arrives before the body. In mindfulness practice the mind stays where the body is.”
Meditation is a means of developing mindfulness. Generally the feeling of the breath in the body is used as a point of focus. By consistently bringing the attention back to an object you are strengthening the ability to remain present and aware.
Allowing ourselves to just be and observe is not something that is readily undertaken by Western society. It doesn’t seem to fit with our idea that the busier and more occupied every moment is the better. We like to ‘do’. Setting aside a time and space to practice meditation is an opportunity to develop the capacity to just ‘be’.
Mark Esptein MD in the book Going to pieces without falling apart says: “The Buddhist way of working with the mind has profound implications for how we as individuals think about change. In western theories, the hope is always that emotions can be healed, that if character is developed or the trauma resolved that the background feelings will diminish. If we can make the ego stronger the expectation is that emptiness will go away. In Buddhism the approach is reversed. Focus on the emptiness; the dissatisfactions and the feelings of imperfection and the character will get stronger. Learn how to tolerate nothing and your mind will be at rest. Psychotherapy tends to focus on the personal melodrama, exploring its origins and trying to clean up its mess. Buddhism instead, seeks to purify the insight of emptiness.”
I will conclude with a line from Yalom’s Gift of Therapy: “The question of meaning in life is, as the Buddha taught, not edifying. One must, immerse oneself into the river of life and let the question drift away.”
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Zen Therapy – David Brazier – Constable, 1995
Going to pieces without falling apart – Mark Epstein MD – Broadway, 1999
The Gift of Therapy- Irvin D Yalom – Piatkus, 2001
Recommended Further Reading
Where ever you go, there you are – Jon Kabat Zinn – Piatkus, 1994
Mindfulness based cognitive therapy for depression – Segal, Williams & Teasdale – Guildford, 2002
Comfortable with uncertainty – Pema Chodron – Shambhala, 2002