[Main photo by Hartwig HKD]
It’s common when introducing modern mindfulness to describe the practices as Buddhist in origin, but applied within a scientific rather than religious frame. Whilst he did develop many new ideas, Gautama Buddha also drew from philosophies and practices already existing in India; mindfulness being one of them.
Alongside the development of Buddhism, another school of spiritual thought developed in India, called Advaita Vedanta. Many practitioners of Vedanta believe that meditation isn’t useful and instead solely practice what we could consider to be the purest form of mindfulness, namely that of being mindful of every moment as we go through our normal daily lives.
The philosopher Ken Wilbur describes meditation as being a science – the scientific study of our own internal experience. And we are the only person who can study that experience.
We’ve been given one random human being to study in all its detail – ourselves. How do we react in this situation, or that situation? How do we feel? Do we feel one thing, and say another? What thoughts arise? Where did we learn this response? How do we judge our own actions?
As mindfulness practitioners, we are not supposed to be peaceful and happy at all times – I’ve had to point that out to an awful lot of people who have completed courses, and always to their great relief!
Our aim is not to try to change who we are, or fix ourselves, but to simply observe. We observe all our emotions, and greet them with acceptance. We start to notice that so called positive emotions come and go, and that so called negative emotions come and go. We notice that the same happens with everyone we know. That this is just reality. This is simply being human. We learn that, as I expressed in a previous article – it’s OK not to be OK. It’s just a part of normal life.
Neither are we trying to stop thinking. In fact it’s impossible! It’s very likely that in many of our meditations our thoughts will slow drastically, and we may have periods were there is no thought… but then thought arises. It’s simply the nature of our minds. And sometimes we just can’t switch off our minds either, and guess what? That doesn’t make the meditation a failure. In fact going back to our scientific study of ourselves… we’ve just learned something about ourselves: namely that sometimes our minds just won’t shut up!
In fact the practise of mindfulness is so incredibly simple, it’s sometimes too profound for our brain to grasp!
So if that’s the practise of mindfulness, what’s the point of practising when I want to be calmer, more peaceful and I want my brain to shut up?
Well because, that is all a side-effect of practising mindfulness, but it is not the practise itself. And for those of us who aren’t pursuing a spiritual goal, that side-effect is the primary reason that we practise.
We could put in terms of the Buddhist concept of “firing the second arrow”, or “throwing the second dart”. If we hurt our hand, we feel pain and it isn’t fun. If we then create a drama around it, and go into a poor me story in our heads such as “it’s terrible, bad things always happen to me, I’m such an idiot” – we’ve created an extra layer of suffering inside ourselves. We’ve got the pain in our hands, and now we’ve got this story of pain in our heads too. This is “firing the second arrow”. If instead we accept the pain in our hands, it still hurts and we may wince, but we are not adding to our suffering through our thinking.
So if you are practising mindfulness, and you keep getting distracted by thought, watch how you then fire the second arrow. Watch how you judge the meditation as a failure, and get frustrated or feel bad. Watch how this only increases your thinking. Congratulations – you’ve just learned something else about yourself!
…And after maybe 20 times of doing this, you don’t feel the need to criticise yourself any more. You simply accept that thought is arising and that’s just what thought does.
Raised in a society that is always teaching us to do, and to achieve, it’s difficult for us to grasp this idea; this profound simplicity. So we go on more courses, and read more books, looking for the answers. These can be very useful. They can give us a framework to better see what is going on within us… and that is all I do as a teacher. I point out to you, what is already there for you to see. But it’s not my pointing that’s important, and it’s not this profound simplicity that I’m hoping you’ll understand. What it’s important is what is there now… and now… and now… and now.
“To look at the moon, it is necessary to gaze beyond the finger, right?” – Zen teaching
Here’s a meditation for you on this theme, from my Sunday Live series. Join us every Sunday at 7 for more.