By Molly, GGY 2019. See the full blog at https://mollyshaefox.wixsite.com/buddhism
We spend so much of our lives being distracted with constant and random thoughts and emotions. Most of us are not usually paying attention to what we are doing or saying at any given moment. How often do you mindlessly eat a whole meal or drive home from work and you can’t even remember how much you ate or how you got home? I know this happens to me all the time. We spend a lot of our time lamenting the past and anticipating the future. On any given day, we are semiconscious at best. It scares me to think about how much time I have just been functioning on autopilot, going through the motions of my routine, so far from being present and aware.
This is where mindfulness comes into play. Our thoughts are the most powerful things we’ve got, so why is it that we don’t take time really observe their patterns and presence in our body? If our thoughts dictate our reality, then doesn’t it make sense to be a little more intentional with our beliefs? One of the guiding principles of Buddhism is awareness, and practicing mindfulness and meditation is the first step to discovering ultimate awareness. To notice thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations as they happen. To try to attend to the present moment with equanimity. It is a practice of how to just notice what is going on in your head and be ok with whatever that may be.
For most of us, the reasons we are not present are because there are things in our lives that we don’t want to be present to. We must learn to give ourselves plenty of patience and compassion. Let yourself be curious about what exactly is going on in your brain and in your body. The benefits of practicing mindfulness are out of this world, for everyone, not just people following the Buddhist Way.
First I will define the difference between mindfulness and meditation, and attention and awareness. These terms often get substituted for each other, when in fact they do have different meanings.
MINDFULNESS VS MEDITATION
Mindfulness: the practice of attending to the present moment with equanimity.
Meditation: the practice of contemplating or concentrating on any given thing, for instance your breath or a mantra.
ATTENTION VS AWARENESS
Attention: Our attention is simply where we choose to focus our minds. Like a spotlight.
Awareness: Our awareness is the sum of all the experiences that our minds are taking in at any given moment in time.
If attention is a spotlight, then awareness would be the stage.
My Relationship to Mindfulness
Although I have always had some idea of what meditation was, I can admit now that my view was always pretty skewed. Calling me a “skeptic” would have been an understatement. However, after my friend pulled me by the hand into mindfulness class one day my junior year of high school, the deep depression I was in for months immediately left my body. As much as I wish I could describe how this happened, this exact experience is extremely hard for me to articulate in any sense that sounds “believable” (especially for people who are as skeptical as I used to be about the power of attending to your breath for fifteen minutes a day). I was desperate for a different way to feel more grounded to earth, and to find more space and separation with the emotions that had suffocated me for so long. I joined a guided meditation group that met once a week. I had no idea that this was going to quite literally change the way I live my life. During the next few months I was able to build a foundation to my mindfulness practice alongside one of my best friends and soon-to-be mindfulness mentor, Adam Ortman.
During my meditation practices, I started relating to my emotions, thoughts, and physical sensations in a completely welcoming, friendly, and curious way. I was able to slowly start weaving out the judgement, the negativity, and the pressure aroused by any given situation. For instance, I got rear-ended by a fast car sometime after I established my meditation practice, and as a result, I was able to be completely calm during this experience. Of course I was shocked, but I subconsciously was greeting this rush of thoughts and emotions with so much more space and so much less attachment. I was able to create a separation from the thoughts in my emotions and the physical sensation it brought. My hands were shaking, but I was able to separate the physical feeling of them shaking from the emotion of being nervous. This created a space for me to relate to these sensations with a lot less attachment. That these feelings are not in fact who I am, they are just something that come and go, and if I don’t attach to them, they will eventually leave.
Although I was only intentionally practicing mindfulness a couple times a week, the mindset I created while in meditation slowly crept into the rest of my day. This new way of relating to my experience more as an observer continues to benefit me everyday. I no longer have huge mood swings caused by outside influences. This means that after a car accident, I am less shaken up, and after I hear great news, I feel a little less ecstatic, but not in a bad way. Although the initial emotions that come up may feel the same, the way I started relating to them completely shifted. I have been able to not attach to any one feeling for too long. I used to fixate myself on either moments in the past or in the future, so much so that I lost all sense of what it meant to just live presently. I defined everything by relating it to either the past or the future, instead of just letting it happen right now.
Below is a quote from one of my conversations with Adam Ortman. This little blurb is extremely useful to explaining the power of mindfulness, apart from being religious.
“Our attention is a very powerful faculty. So what we pay attention to, how we pay attention to things. Our bodies and brains are always responding to our attention. So the basic idea behind meditation is that we can train our minds. We can lay the groundwork for certain habits that will serve us in the long run. Whatever their intention is about their lives, whether they intend to be somebody who is more patient, more present in their relationships, or who doesn’t sweat the small stuff, we always experience this disjuncture between our intention for how we are and this underlying shadow of habits that actually decide how we are. The underlying sense of meditation or mindfulness is that we can actually practice the process of carrying forward our intentions. Not only in the moment, but we can start to shift our whole being to more naturally align with those intentions. Yes, it takes some training. Meditation is a training just like picking up piano or running a marathon- it’s a training. And nobody expects to play Chopin after three days of lessons on the piano. I think a lot of people give up on mindfulness or meditation because they get distracted. It’s like giving up on running because you get winded. It takes a lot of forgiveness, understanding, and patience in the process.”
So how does mindfulness play into Buddhism? Well, keep on reading.
The Presence of Mindfulness in Buddhism
It is widely recognized that the whole thrust of the Buddha’s teaching is to master the mind. Mindfulness is the very basis of fostering the awareness needed in order to master the mind. One of the eight principles in the Eightfold Path is Right Mindfulness. Some Buddhist followers refer to Right Mindfulness as the escalator to enlightenment; it really is that powerful. Meditation is the method Buddhists use to train in mindfulness.
So why is this so important to Buddhism?
The goal of being mindful is to be able to have a nonclinging, nonreactive, nonaversive, and undistorting experience moment to moment. If we are able to hold a relaxed, lucid, and present conscious awareness, then the Buddha believes that we are able to awaken from the subjective illusions we hold about life and experience true reality. Through mindfulness, we can have a deeper and more authentic relation to our human experience, all the ups and downs and unknowns. By constantly returning to the present moment, we give ourselves less time to get so caught up in fears and fantasies held in the past and the future. The more we let go of all that is not held in the present moment, we will be replenished with so much more mental and emotional energy. There is no doubt that unpleasant emotions will still come up from time to time, but with a foundation of mindfulness, we all will have much more space and clarity to be able to decide the best way to relate to that emotion.
By giving ourselves this mental space, our emotions lose so much the power they use to have. We begin to recognize that we are not our emotions, and that the idea of impermanence is utterly applicable. We have thousands of thoughts and emotions on a daily basis, and if we allow ourselves to sit back, notice what comes up when it comes up, and consciously choose to not engage in them, they will keep moving on just like everything else in this world.
To be- to just be- is the true nature of the Buddha. The Buddha teaches that this is the most natural state of mind and most fundamental state of being. It is how we can create and hold balance in our lives. How we can see things clearly, life as it is, not distorted in the many different lenses that get stuck in front of our eyes. In a meditation practice, we can peel off layers of our persona, our perceived sense of self. We can peel towards the center, looking to unmask our inner and outer selves. Introspection and intentional attention on our minds as they are, our senses as they are, our bodies as they are. We can see through our mental states, the lingering emotions that fog and tint our outlook on life. The miracle of meditation is the eventual ability to more fully experience and appreciate every moment of life in a completely effortless and non attached way. It is said that we have all the tools in any given moment to create happiness for ourselves, and this is something that I have been thinking about a lot. Even in the moments where I am suddenly overcome with negative, distracting emotions, I have to remind myself to take a step back. To zoom out of the lense I am subconsciously looking through, peel back the layers and just notice the way I am relating to my circumstances. Am I accidentally attached to a certain expectation? feeling? person? outcome? Did I act mindlessly and carelessly and in turn cause harm of some sort to either myself or others? Was my mind dwelling on something in the past or trying to predict the future? These are the types of questions that immediately flow through my head when I notice that something is off in myself. Most of the time, it comes back to some sort of attachment, especially one pertaining to the past or the future. So when I recognize this and bring myself back to the present, I am greeted with so much more space and freedom to just exist in this world joyfully, with no strings attached.
There are many, many different ways to incorporate mindfulness into your life, as most Buddhists make a large effort for. Laying, sitting, walking, eating, showering meditations are all valid. I personally like to spend about ten minutes before I fall asleep, as well as right when I wake up, to devote to some type of meditation. In the interviews with local monks in Nan, they consistently stated that their way of meditating consisted of just focusing on the breath. To sit and know you are sitting. To eat and know you are eating. To breath and know that you are breathing. To focus on the length of your natural breath, and perhaps playing around with elongating your inhalations and exhalations. The monks I inquired about meditation all recognized that there is no guide needed, no prompting in order to have an impactful meditation session. One monk specifically favored the action of counting your breaths as you breathe. Keep counting up, and every time you get distracted, to start back at zero. Once you get tired of counting, to then focus on the sensation of each individual breath. A meditation as simple as it gets. That does not mean that it is easier in any sense, though. Meditating is not about trying to keep a clear and focused mind for a very extended period of time. Instead, it is about sitting back, separating yourself from the stream of thoughts and emotions that arise; To be in a position where you can just observe the content in your brain without engaging in any of it. Building this foundation of mindfulness is a fundamental aspect of the Buddhist lifestyle, and it takes a lot of time and practice.
“We live in an illusion
And the appearance of things.
There is a reality.
We are that reality.
When you understand this,
You see that you are nothing.
And being nothing,
You are everything.
This is all.”