Friday, October 29, 2010

What's Mindfulness Got to Do, Got to Do With it?

A few days ago, Trevor had a post on mindfulness I enjoyed. Mindfulness has become one of those spiritual words that has entered the popular culture, been applied to almost anything, and now is virtually meaningless. It's been really interesting to be studying the Anapanasati Sutra - mindfulness of breathing - under these circumstances. Trevor writes:

I don't practice mindfulness. That is, I don't practice mindfulness in the way we often talk about it. One does the laundry or sweeps the floor, or answers the phone, or types a blog entry, and one says, "I should do this mindfully." This gives you another thing to do, maybe even two more things to do. First, there's the task at hand, and then there is the task of bringing mindfulness to the task, and then there is some ideal state of "doing things mindfully," which - according to some folks - means you're smiling at your breath, or something like that.

I've noticed this adding on experience at times while working with verses from the tetrads of the sutra. This afternoon, I sat with the phrase "gladdening the mind," saying it to myself as I breathed in and out. Basically, I found that I would ride it with the breath for a few rounds, and then go silent, watching what was there. A few minutes would go by, and then I'd say it again a few times and then go silent. What I found was that if I went beyond saying the phrase to myself more than a few times, it felt forced and contrived. Added on. However, I found that once I had done the pattern I just described a few times, then out of the silence, the phrase just started coming now and then. In other words, once I let go of trying to focus on "gladdening the mind," it came up on it's own.

This is where I find a certain rub in formal practice. There seems to be a need at times for a bit of effort to turn yourself in the "right direction." And yet, I'm guessing that a lot of the time, we fail to let go of that efforting, and think that it's all about maintaining such activities.

Trevor continues along similar lines:

This makes me wonder, Is it helpful for us to suggest that someone do something "with mindfulness"? I've often found that to be a confusing instruction. I remember visiting a communal house here in Austin, where a group of young people live and practice together. The gate of their fence had a sign on it that read something like, "Please enter mindfully." And I thought to myself, Well, crap! I was doing OK until you told me to 'enter mindfully'! I was just walking through the gate, and now I'm all self-conscious! Well, that might sound angry when you're reading it, but I wasn't angry, just a little confused. I think that's when I started thinking a little more critically about how we talk about the practice of mindfulness.

I have two reactions to this example he brings up. The first is that it's interesting from a practice standpoint to examine what happens in these kinds of moments. This "enter mindfully" sign triggers a self focus for Trevor. I'd imagine it might for many of us. So, what's that about exactly?

Secondly, though, I think the instruction that's trying to be given by the sign here isn't clear. Just how does one "enter mindfully"? Screw pat answers, and consider it for real the next time you enter a door or gate. Every entry point is different, and thus a single approach isn't going to fly.

I think this, for me, is one of the main troubles with all this talk about "mindfulness." It tends to be pre-packaged. And kind of lifeless in a certain way.


Anonymous said...

To me mindfulness is just being aware of what your doing. The opposite is a kind of sleep walking. No big deal. But being mindful sure cuts into a lot of ignorance....of course that is where most suffering of our own making arises.

Daniel @ Campinas said...

I think Anon sid it: Awareness. It's like driving a car. Your eyes are front, but you glace in the rearview mirror, you glance at the side mirrors. You are mostly worried with what is ahead, but you are still aware of you mirrors and what is going on around you.

Dalai Grandma said...

Yes. I think of awareness, or paying attention to what I'm doing.