“When walking, walk. When eating, eat.”
— Zen proverb
I love a good food analogy, so here goes. While you may find your mind is often like Forrest Gump’s proverbial box of chocolates, the process of Mindfulness Meditation is more like a layer cake. Full of luscious surprise and discovery.
The first layer of the ‘cake’ of Mindfulness Meditation is simply being here and now. It’s not at all difficult. We all can be mindful, and often. My dog is mindful, I’d say. She just lives in the moment, responding to the current urge in her to rest, eat, or play. She is simply here and now. But is that all there is to mindfulness?
Let’s step down another layer to a capacity we have as humans, which is to know when we’re being mindful. Whereas my dog is simply here and now, I’m not sure how much consciousness she has about her state. We, as humans, have the capacity to observe our state, to know that we’re being here and now. It’s quality called awareness, and this is the key to start to ‘re-condition’ our mind’s tendency to run off, well, like an untrained puppy.
One of the biggest blockers I hear when people start to practice Mindfulness Meditation is that they can’t stop thoughts from coming, therefore they’re not doing it right, or therefore they can’t meditate.
This is where I cue in with “but don’t worry about that!” Unruly, intrusive, subtle, long-winded, anxious, happy, tired, busy thoughts are going to come, especially when you begin practicing. It’s part of what our minds have been conditioned to do, and this conditioning runs deep. A deeply ingrained habit takes time to shift, and so we keep practicing.
What I encourage is the recognition that this sudden awareness of having slipped into thought IS mindfulness, is a moment of knowing that we have moved off our target. It’s a moment to celebrate. We learn to ‘begin again’ over and over in Mindfulness Meditation, and each time we begin again we break a little more of that deep conditioning to wander endlessly down the paths of busy thought.
Over time, we start to recognise that our thoughts have a subtle way of ‘pulling us off centre’ – we may notice that we gravitate towards thoughts that give a sense of pleasure and we reject or react negatively to thoughts that give a sense of pain or displeasure. Bingo! In this next layer of Mindfulness Meditation we start to develop clarity around how easily we can be tossed back and forth on the sea of our likes and dislikes, continually fending off the yuck and clinging like mad to the yum.
Here is adventure, because this is where personal experimentation can come into the picture. I observe my thoughts arising, and suddenly see I am moving into a craving or clinging mode, I feel the gut draw towards this particular thought stream, and understand my desire WITHOUT HAVING TO ACT ON IT. Likewise with unpleasant thoughts or sensations, I can see how much I want to end those difficulties now. Yet I can hold steady, for this moment, I can choose to observe and understand.
This layer of Mindfulness also illuminates how no experience lasts for long – I may feel the urge to shift my position because my knee is getting sore, for instance. But if I sit here just a few moments longer to really observe this sensation in my knee, be with it here and now, I often find it shifts to something more comfortable. I don’t need to immediately react against this difficulty, and in the ‘being with’, I can make a very conscious choice. Sometimes that means moving, and sometimes it doesn’t. It all just depends on the moment, not on my habitual reactions.
Mindfulness Meditation is also often called Insight Meditation. Through sitting and focussing, being with what is arising and knowing I am doing this, and observing the way my mind is judging my experience as good or bad, pleasant or unpleasant, I am stepping into a freedom, a liberation from the conditioned reactions of a lifetime.
The fruit of regular practice is to free ourself of unconscious, habitual, kneejerk urges which are all about finding comfort and avoiding pain. It’s to free ourselves from our limiting and deeply held habits of mind so that we can fully savour and enjoy this brilliant moment. Fear and pain no longer limit me, seeking pleasure no longer pulls me off centre. But there is joy and contentment in this state, a stable state that comes from a quieter mind, a more aware mind.
The foundational layer of this ‘cake’ of Mindfulness is a powerful sense of compassion, first of all for myself as I see the suffering I have put myself through by being held in the thrall of my mind. And compassion for my fellow humans who also deal with this unruly, untrained mind that leads to the pandemic of human suffering we know today. This layer is the foundation where we know our inherent goodness, spacious mind, and awake nature.
We get the opportunity to have our cake, and eat it too. Mindfully of course.
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