Eightfold Path: Right Mindfulness

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In the practice of meditation, we learn to continually bring our thoughts back to the present moment whenever we find them wandering. We learn to use our many senses to engage our minds in the moment. We tell ourselves, ‘Be Here Now.’

It is challenging to go against life-long habits of the mind where the past and the future have commanded central roles in our thinking process. The effort we exert to become aware of our habits and to bring our mind back to the moment may feel a bit strained, and the results are often fleeting. This can lead to frustration, but we remind ourselves that developing any new skill is challenging. We continue to meditate and to bring awareness into our daily lives because we find that we and those around us benefit from our increasing spaciousness of mind, even though we may only be able to bring our minds to the present moment a small percentage of the time.

Having learned about Right Effort in the post before last, we might now question whether we need to try quite so hard to be mindful. If practicing mindfulness is a task or a chore we add to our daily to do list, then it is neither Right Effort nor Right Mindfulness.

Thinking again about the challenge of developing a new skill, consider playing the piano for example: At first it is all about the position of our fingers on the keys. We do endless drills to let our fingers learn where they should rest and how far they should reach to play the notes. But if we stay with it long enough for our fingers to feel at home on the keys, keeping our focus on the mechanical aspects can get in our way. As we become more adept at fingering, we can relax and allow ourselves to sense into and open to the music itself.

And this is exactly how it is with being present. At first, yes, the practice may seem a bit mechanical, our reminders to ourselves a bit nagging. This is normal. But at a certain point — and when this happens is totally individual — there is a shift where we realize that we don’t need to tell ourselves to be in the moment, that the moment itself claims us. We are naturally interested in the moment, perhaps awed by it, as if each moment were a new painting or poem to really see or hear. This is not a chore! This is a delight! This is life unfolding, fresh in every moment!

(Perhaps this sounds like being high, but those who have ever done drugs see how paltry drugs are in comparison to this grounded sustainable sense of being fully present with life as it is. This is a high that supports our physical and mental well being, while drugs threaten both.)

So how do we know when this transition comes? Well, the same way we knew when we no longer needed training wheels on our first bicycle. Perhaps we just had a sense that the training wheels were getting in our way, inhibiting our natural ability to ride. The extra trappings started to feel clunky. The same can be true here. The trappings of extra efforting begin to feel clunky, unnecessary – extra baggage no longer needed.

But if we take them off too soon, we will fall back into the habit of dwelling in the past or future. So we need to be mindful of our needs and not strive to be rid of that which supports us in our practice.

Some clues to being ready are noticing that we are: Becoming more aware of sensations in the body and taking heed of the body’s messages about our emotional or mental states; discovering that certain situations cause us to be less mindful and finding ways to craft our lives more skillfully; giving up multi-tasking so that we can stay present with our experience; arranging our schedule so that we create quiet spaces between events for our own rest and renewal; finding skillful means to stay present in difficult situations and to not add fuel to the fire by falling into fear.

All of these incremental steps allow us to be more mindful more of the time. And so perhaps we can transition from so much efforting to be mindful to opening to the naturally arising mindfulness within us out of our growing love and gratitude for life. Perhaps instead of reminding ourselves to come back to the moment, we can ask ourselves, “Where is the beauty in this moment?” and really give ourselves over to experiencing our surroundings with fresh eyes and ears, inviting ourselves into the spacious joy, the celebration of this precious gift of life.

This is Right Mindfulness. When life itself is so very interesting, even in the most ordinary moments, that we find ourselves fully present for our lives, enjoying discovering the depths and multi-layered dimensions of being absolutely where we are, our attention needs no effort.

But we are human. We will, by our very nature, get tripped up by the past or the future, and by old habits rising up at times of turmoil. That’s when we can turn to the guideposts of the Eightfold Path. If we have wandered into suffering, we can look at the guideposts of the Path and question what is going on. The light cast by the guidepost of Right Mindfulness is often bright enough to guide us back, because so much of our suffering is caused by not being mindful. We dwell in the past, regretting, reminiscing, revising history, laying blame; and we dwell in the future, worrying, planning or fantasizing. In this state we are bound to be unskillful. We can’t end our suffering if we aren’t present for the only moment in which we have the power to do so: This one.

As we spend more and more time fully in the moment, we fall in love with each moment, welcoming it and bidding it adieu as we greet the next. We no longer hold out for the moments we used to think were the ‘good’ ones, where life is ‘perfect.’ No matter what our situation, even if we are in incredible pain, we can sense in to the richness of life.

When I presented this dharma talk a question came up that a lot of other people probably share:

“If we are always in the present how do we plan?”
Being in the present does not preclude planning. We set aside a block of time in which we are going to plan something and that is our focus. But that is very different from the persistent thread of planning and daydreaming that runs through our minds all day, distracting us from being fully present with our current experience. When planning is the experience we want to be present for, then that’s Right Mindfulness.

Let me know your thoughts on this.

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