Category Archives: Wise 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

Wise Mindfulness, the Gift of Meditation

When I really began to have a regular practice of meditation, I noticed a shift in my awareness as I started to sense more deeply my surroundings and perceive the nature of my thoughts and emotions. While driving, I saw how I would get frustrated by the lack of manners or even common sense of fellow drivers, how easily I would get unsettled, letting their action throw me into a mental tizzy. My regular drive to and from home went by a hospital, and it seemed there were even more unskillful drivers there. One day it dawned on me that the person who had just cut me off in their big hurry was probably rushing to the hospital because his wife was giving birth or his father was dying. This recognition created a sense of compassion within me that had not been there before. I had both given birth at that hospital and had sat at my mother’s deathbed there. I knew how mindless I can be, especially when distraught. (In retrospect I am shocked that I even got behind the wheel, but we tend to see our cars as extensions of our bodies, not as the potentially fatal metal projectiles we so casually hurl through space.)

That recognition shifted something within me. It didn’t take long before I understood that drivers anywhere could be going through anything. I remember thinking that someone could be driving extra slowly because they have a wedding cake in the backseat. I began to allow for the possibility that there was a lot going on in the lives of other drivers. So instead of getting upset with them, their unskillfulness activated a sense of compassion and a desire to send them metta, loving-kindness.

Mindfulness and Meditation
In the past decade the word ‘mindfulness’ has become associated with Jon Kabat Zinn’s Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, and to a degree ‘mindfulness’ has been used instead of ‘meditation.’ But the two words are not interchangeable. Meditation is a practice done in all spiritual traditions in one form or another. Jon Kabat Zinn studied in the Vipassana Buddhist tradition, so it’s not surprising that his program teaches a similar form: with eyes closed, sitting, focused on the physical sensation of the breath.

So then why didn’t he just call it meditation? At the time the word was too associated with religious practice for those in the scientific and medical communities he was working with to feel comfortable, so he called it mindfulness and proved its value to the point that it is taught in hospitals, schools and prisons. Since then the word ‘meditation’ has been better understood, that it is not inherently religious and can certainly include secular practice, so you might hear or read a news story about meditation being taught in schools (with a resulting ‘15% increase in math test scores’ I just read in one article) and there is no concern that people will think religion is being taught in school. It is a simple practice anyone can do at any age.

Mindfulness is what arises out of the regular practice of meditation: an ability to be present, noticing with what American poet Mary Oliver calls ‘convivial’ attention. She is describing her attention as she is out in nature opening her creative mind to write, but it perfectly applies to mindfulness because it is alert, non-judgmental, friendly but not sticky.

The regular practice of meditation leads to mindfulness, and mindfulness has so many benefits that we continue to meditate regularly. On the rare occasion when I have gone a few weeks without meditating, I see how mindfulness begins to slip away, and with it creativity, compassion, peace of mind, skillfulness in relationships and a sense of gratitude for being alive. So meditation is a lifelong practice for me, the first thing I do every morning. I teach it to share the value of it, but also to remind myself to keep meditating. How easy it is to forget that it is definitely worth putting in the regular time training the mind to return to the present moment again and again with great compassion.

Meditation is the practice that naturally brings about mindfulness, but we can also ‘practice’ mindfulness throughout the day, whatever we are doing. When we are driving and we come to a stop light, we can think of it as a reminder to pause our thinking-planning-worrying and focus on the experience of driving, feeling our hands on the wheel, being alert. One student in class said that she is currently taking a California state online refresher driving course and that the main focus of the course is on being mindful, present and focused on the task at hand. Makes sense!

In line at the grocery store, instead of being impatient to get done and on our way, we can practice being mindful, not just noticing what is going on but noticing with compassion. We can question our assumption that we are in a hurry, that we don’t have time to ‘wait’ — oh, how we hate that word! So let’s not ‘wait’! Instead let’s be present and mindful and enjoy this moment of humanity. Here are a few other creative ways to be present in that line:

  • If you enjoy looking at paintings, see the painting before you — the bright colors, the figures, the contrasts and values.
  • If you read novels, in this situation there are a whole cast of characters, each with enough life experience to fill many novels, people just like you with all their worries and concerns. You don’t need to make up stories about them, only to understand that there are stories there, each one creating the causes and conditions which influence their actions, just as yours do.
  • Sense gratitude as you stand there with your basket full of bounty you are able to afford.

There are SO many ways we can experience any moment. Why choose the one that has us irritated and complaining? Why not take the opportunity to be kind, to smile, to wish someone well? Isn’t that the world you’d rather live in? Well it’s not some other place. It’s right here if you choose to notice it and participate with loving-kindness.

This moment, just as it is, is the one and only gift we are given. How we relate to it, what we do with it, sets the pattern of our lives.

In class we discussed some of the practical benefits of mindfulness:

  • We are more skillful and less prone to accidents because accidents tend to happen when we aren’t paying attention.
  • We are much better able to listen to other people and to hear what they say without the filters of defensiveness. We are really listening, hearing the nuances. We are not busy formulating what we plan to say next to further push our own agenda or make points.
  • We eat with more appreciation and the ability to notice when we are full; and to recognize when our desire to eat something doesn’t spring from hunger. As an example, when I am being mindful I can notice that my sweet tooth is aptly named because the sensation is focused in my mouth. Since it is not my stomach that is egging me on to eat that piece of candy, I can find a way to sweeten the taste in my mouth, like sucking on a breath mint or brushing my teeth. Eating is the area where I have the greatest challenge to be mindful, so I celebrate even small mindful miracles.

We’ll continue the discussion next week, because there are so many benefits to being mindful and recognizing them helps us to be consistent in our practice of meditation. So stay tuned, and meditate!

Wise Mindfulness — the joy of being fully present

As you read these words, sense in to what is going on in this moment. Your eyes are activated. What else do you notice? Can you feel the pull of gravity as pressure on your seat or feet? What else? Pay attention to all your senses that anchor you in this moment.

Mindfulness is noticing what’s happening in this moment rather than getting lost in thought. The habituated mind is zoned out and often does things that are unskillful, acting on impulses and other murky motivations. The mind that is attuned to the moment uses all senses to register the various components that make up any given experience.
People think meditation is about getting rid of thoughts and they don’t feel this is possible for them, so they don’t think they could meditate. This is an unfortunate misunderstanding that keeps so many people from a natural healthy activity that makes such a difference in how we experience life.

In meditation, we don’t need to bother racing around trying to herd our thoughts. It would be like wrangling cats. An impossible task! Instead we create a quality of spaciousness in which the cats can play, but lo and behold they eventually settle down. If you pay attention you can see that there’s much more – and less – in this experience of spaciousness than just busy thoughts.

In the experience of being fully present in this moment, we may notice many sources of information coming through our various sensors. We can register ‘hot’ or ‘cold’ or ‘warm’ or ‘chilly’. We might notice a response to the temperature: pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. We might notice physical responses: sweat, chills, goose bumps; and the urge to put a sweater on or take one off. These are all going on all the time, but we have been on autopilot.  Now we take the time to really notice all these ‘automatic’ activities.

There is also pressure, the interaction of the force of gravity on our body, pressing it into the ground or the chair. When’s the last time you really noticed that sensation?
What are the other senses, and how do you experience them in this moment? Sounds? Textures? Odors? Light and dark? Color? A twinge, an itch, an ache? The breath drawing air, pulling it down, and then releasing it?

All of this is going on, and yet most of us are oblivious to it. We don’t pay attention these ongoing experiences because our minds are caught up in storytelling, problem solving, judging, planning, rewriting history, placing blame and wishing.  All of this is going on in our thoughts, yet we are rarely aware of it – rarely aware that we are having those same thoughts over and over and over again.

Have you ever spent a lot of time with someone, and find that they just keep repeating themselves? Yes? Well, they’re not the only ones. We each have interior monologues – maybe we don’t all voice them and bore other people with them – but if we pay attention to the ongoing brain chatter, we quickly find we’ve got a rather limited set of reruns on a continuous loop! What’s more, if we were to trade thoughts for a day with another person, we’d find that these thoughts would have very similar patterns. We explored this in the Five Aggregates and found that our thoughts and emotions are not who we are, they don’t make us unique. In fact, human thoughts and emotions are universal in their limited range of possible reactions to situations.

Given all this, why would we want to be mindful? No wonder we go on autopilot! Strangely though, paying attention, being in the moment, isn’t at all boring! Yes, there’s the noticing of patterns of thought, but then we see the judging of the patterns, and then we see the struggles. If we can bring metta, loving kindness, into the mix, then our active attention becomes Wise Mindfulness.

Without loving kindness, there will always be a struggle, maybe even a civil war inside. No wonder we suffer when we are constantly enduring and reenacting a battle of rude comments, harsh judgments, and hurt feelings.

Universal loving kindness is a tapped-in understanding that doesn’t make excuses, doesn’t provide justifications. It simply provides spaciousness and tenderness with which to hold all of what is going on.
How does a wise parent or grandparent or teacher handle a child having a temper tantrum? With attention and kindness; not indulgence, but a deep understanding of the nature of being human. Wise Mindfulness is this level of attention infused with universal loving-kindness.

With our cooking pot analogy, Wise Mindfulness is the contents of the pot, the soup or stew we are cooking up. Next week we’ll talk about the spoon that stirs the contents: Wise Concentration.

But until then give yourself every possible opportunity to experience Wise Mindfulness. Commit yourself to a regular sitting practice. Infuse mindfulness into regular activities, like walking the dog, exercising and doing household chores. Mindfully listen as a relative, friend or co-worker talks. Let go of any sense of a goal when you are running errands. The errands will still get done, but you will have been fully in the moment, experiencing this body moving through space with ease.