Category Archives: Right Mindfulness

What is Mindfulness?

laos buddha-curt firestone

Photo credit: Curt Firestone

Through the regular practice of meditation — insight, vipassana or mindfulness — we cultivate the ability to stay present with whatever is going on in our experience. It is not an escape from the difficulties of daily life. It is practice in skillfully relating to whatever arises in our experience with more compassion, spaciousness, awareness and kindness.

Next week I will be sharing effective concentration practices to cultivate mindfulness. But for now, let’s look at what mindfulness is, and what it is not.

Mindfulness is being in the moment, noticing what is present, using all our senses. It’s also noticing any desire for things to be different or to get more of whatever we are experiencing. When thoughts and emotions rustle through, as they will, we notice them without getting lost in them. If we discover we have been lost in thought, we gently return our attention to the breath.

With mindfulness when we notice a recurring pattern of thought, we can pose a question — Is this true? for example — and then be fully present for the answer when it comes.

Mindfulness is not viewing things from a lofty remote location as an observer, separate from life. It is instead continuously cultivating boundless awareness, holding all that arises in our experience with great compassion, being fully present in this body-mind, grateful for the opportunity to be alive in this form.

With mindfulness we don’t make anything ‘other’ or ‘enemy’ So we are not pushing away, blaming or punishing any aspect of self, or making anyone person or situation a scapegoat for the challenges we are facing in this moment. What presents itself as either/or can be investigated more closely to reveal it’s both/and nature. With mindfulness we open again and again to these kinds of possibilities. We discover the most skillful way to deal with antagonism is to engulf it in the power of infinite loving-kindness. When we slip into the pattern of other-making, we feel stuck in the sludge of fear that drags us down and causes us to be blind to the true nature of life.

We see how in every moment we are given the option to make skillful choices, by staying present, anchoring our awareness in physical sensation. We are powerful beyond measure when we are living mindfully. We can be responsive rather than reactive. We can dance with all that arises rather than let it keep us on the sidelines or engaged in a battle. We see that every moment is a pivotal point of power, where we can act on our truest intention with wise effort, or we can go mindless and fall into habitual behavior, driven by fear.

Mindfulness is not something we have to struggle for or chase after. It arises of its own accord through dedicated meditation practice that is rooted in wise intention and wise effort.

As we cultivate mindfulness in our sitting practice and in our daily lives, we feel some release of fear-based tension. Or at least we notice the presence of tension, which is an excellent place to start.

With mindfulness life doesn’t get ‘perfect’. But difficulties become more permeable, and we see bridges and networks revealed where we thought there were only walls. 

With mindfulness thoughts have enough space to not be constantly in conflict. And there’s room for the ‘I don’t know’ mind to hold all life with reverence and awe.

With mindfulness we can appreciate this gift of life, in whatever form it has taken, through whatever experiences we find ourselves in. The comparing mind is seen as just a fear-based pattern that softens and dissolves as we continue to practice.

Mindfulness also softens and releases the ‘if only’ mindset that had us trapped in the belief that causes and conditions are the source of our happiness, when in fact joy arises simply out of being present, aware and compassionate with ourselves and all beings.

Mindfulness is quite a life-enriching benefit to come out of spending minutes a day in meditation practice! It costs nothing. And the list of health benefits is long and scientifically proven.

As you practice, let go of expectations, but note growing awareness, growing compassion and growing sense of aliveness.

As with the other aspects of the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path, I have given a number of dharma talks over the years, and you can check out their companion posts for further understanding.  and

Eightfold Path: Right Mindfulness

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.