(We have been exploring the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path, choosing to use the word ‘spacious’ instead of the common translation of ‘right’ or ‘wise’ to see how it affects our understanding.)
Ah, mindfulness! Now here’s a word that doesn’t create an oxymoron when you add ‘spacious’ to it. It’s a natural! It just feels like mindfulness would be spacious. But what do we mean by mindfulness? How is it different from View or Concentration?
Last week I drew an illustration of the cooking pot analogy, and said that Spacious Mindfulness is like the simple syrup you create by heating up sugar and water until what was once opaque becomes clear, stirred by the spoon of Spacious Concentration practice.
Mindfulness is the nature of consciousness when it becomes clear and spacious, alert, attentive, present and relaxed. It is the collected consciousness held by Spacious View, the deep understanding that we are not isolated but integral to the cohesive web of being.
Thus we are aware that what we say and do impacts our experience and the experience of all around us and beyond through a rippling effect, as unconscious unskillfulness has the capacity to multiply exponentially in all interactions.
This awareness doesn’t make us afraid to speak or act, but it makes us present with the experience. Our speech and actions arise as skillful form out of spaciousness. When we speak or act unskillfully we can see it and see the associative fear-based patterns that cause suffering to us and others. We accept what arises, even the pain that arises, as passing phenomena.
Since this state of awareness is not the cultural norm, we meditate to develop the awareness and the skills to stay present, to feel that interconnection, and to cultivate loving kindness for all beings, including ourselves.
So mindfulness is central to what we are about in our practice and in our lives. Spacious mindfulness can be a spontaneous state of grace or it can be cultivated by meditation practitioners. The Eightfold Path guides us and grounds us in wisdom, concentration and virtue practices so that we may cultivate this awareness in our lives and live mindfully, able to deal skillfully with all that arises in our experience.
What is this skillfulness? We’ll discuss it in more detail when we explore Spacious Action, Speech and Livelihood, but since the word could be used in other ways, I want to take a moment to define it in the context of our practice.
An attorney, for example, might think of skillfulness as the ability to win a trial. This would be a different kind of skillfulness than we are talking about. Skillful in the Buddhist sense is not cunning or clever. It is not skillful to ‘get away with something,’ or ‘get the upper hand’ or even ‘win.’
But apparently attorneys are also beginning to recognize that these are not necessarily the most useful skills with which to represent their clients. In the California Bar Journal, January 2011, Diane Curtis writes: “[Charles] Halpern says one of the skills that meditation can provide lawyers — ‘which I view as a crucial professional skill’ — is the capacity to listen. ‘So many lawyers, by training, are always thinking ahead, specifically thinking about what they’re going to say. As lawyers we’re trained to do that, questioning a witness, interviewing a client. I think that’s a very important skill—thinking ahead—but it’s also an important skill to listen fully, be present.’ ”
It seems we are as a species just beginning to get loose of that vestigial fear I talked about a few weeks back, the one left over from when we had predators, before we took that fear and turned it on each other. Or at least we are beginning to be able to see it for what it is, and that is a huge leap in consciousness, even if we are still caught up in the fear that keeps us seeing ourselves as isolated beings bent on survival of the fittest. This is a world view that has truly outlived its usefulness. Together we are making the shift into a more spacious world view. And much of this transition is thanks to meditation, now being practiced in all kinds of unlikely places, like an Alabama prison where full blown intensive meditation retreats create the very real possibility that the incarcerated are much less likely to commit crimes when they get out of confinement. Meditation benefits us all in ways we didn’t even realize!
Without the clarifying benefits of meditation, most of us see survival of the fittest as the only view that makes any sense. We see the world, we see how it’s set up, we see how the game is played, and we know for a fact that there is the enemy and he is not us. From our tense fearful stance that takes the natural flow of the universe – the wave, as described in quantum physics – and sees only the particles, the separation instead of the union. Through meditation we see both the particle and the wave. We can shift from the finite to the infinite view at will, and we benefit by our ability to do so.
Spacious Mindfulness is held in Spacious View, the infinite understanding of the universe as one pulsing being instead of a hodgepodge collection of solid parts jumbled together in some cosmic tumble dryer, banging and clashing against each other.
How is mindfulness different from view? Spacious View shapes our perception of our experience. Mindfulness is the clarifying of our murky consciousness. Held in Spacious View, stirred by the focus of Spacious Concentration, consciousness is able to collect and cultivate awareness. As we meditate we begin to see our own thoughts and emotions, recognize and release the belief that they define us, question and soften previously unquestioned judgments and assumptions about ourselves and the world around us. This clarification process expands our ability to feel compassion because it melts the assumed barriers between peoples. When we see someone in difficulty, instead of thinking, “There but for the grace of God go I,” we think “There go I,” for we know that person is not separate from us in Spacious View.
How is mindfulness different from concentration? Concentration is the practice of centering. In our cooking pot analogy it is the spoon that stirs our consciousness, creating a vortex that creates space for focusing our attention. All our cares and concerns can whirl around us, still present but a blur that we cannot lock into as we sit in the still point of center.
Mindfulness is clarity. With that clarity comes a release of any sense of urgency or impatience. We have time to notice all of what is arising in our experience. And in that noticing we may hear in our thoughts a question or a multiplicity of questions, that may have been rattling around in our thoughts for ever so long, but now we actually hear them. I have been giving a speech lately called ‘For the Asking’ about how the world is awash in a sea of answers, but we need to make space to notice our naturally arising questions. We might assume they are rhetorical, but if we really notice them and then give sufficient attention, we discover they aren’t rhetorical at all, that the answers are there when our mind clears sufficiently to see them. This is the Buddhist tradition of inquiry, also a part of Spacious Mindfulness. In the speech I talk about the question that teacher Mark Coleman posed to our class at Spirit Rock years ago: “What is it that’s holding you in bondage?” and the huge life-enhancing journey that was launched for me because of that question. Read the post on this exploration.
If we have a question rattling around in our brains but we think of it more as an ongoing state of things rather than a question – all the ‘why me’s’ and the ‘who am I to think I could do such and such’ and the ‘how did I get myself into this mess?’ – then these questions become abrasive bits that wear us down. But really they are questions! When we make space for them, we begin to hear them with fresh ears. We see them and all their associative memories, the ground from which they arise, and we can attend to them with compassion and using our natural curiosity and our new-found patience and focus we investigate the answers.
The answers do come. With our receptors fully open, we will hear them. Without expectation of what form the answers will take, we open to them. And we discover things we’d never imagined, as if we were delving into trunks in the basement: old assumptions and beliefs about the way things are, that when held up to the light of day and our own common sense crumble to dust and free us.
If we have been crying ‘Why me?’ perhaps the answer arises in the form of noticing causes and conditions that led to the circumstance in question. Or with spaciousness of mind we see that when we look around with compassion we begin to notice that everyone has some load to bear, that it’s not just us.
If we have been asking, “Who am I to do such and such?” we see the history of the question, perhaps handed down from generation to generation, and we imagine handing it down to the next generation, this sense that we are not enough, this chopping ourselves down before someone else does it for us, and perhaps this clarity provides an answer that frees us from this bondage of believing that we have less right than others to pursue our dreams. So we notice the questions and allow for the answers to arise in the stillness, answers that resonate and are not readymade ways to shush the questions and shut down the process.
So Spacious Mindfulness begins with clarifying the mind, and inquiry is the skillful form that arises from that spacious clarity.