Every now and again, it is useful to remind ourselves what mindful meditation is and also, maybe, what it isn’t. So here is my list of the main features of being mindful.
According to Chogyam Trungpa, the Tibetan teacher and author of Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism: ‘The main point of meditation is to get to know ourselves – our minds, our behaviour, our being.’ Of course, the purpose of mindful meditation is also to alleviate avoidable suffering and to develop wellbeing in ourselves and in all beings. When we are mindful, we are calmly transforming dukkha, suffering, into sukha, wellbeing – peaceful and positive living.
When we are mindful, we have an opportunity to see into the nature of things – to recognise how everything in the universe is impermanent and endlessly changing; how everything is interdependent and subject to causality.
When we are mindful, we pay attention without commentary or judgment – we let go of preconceptions, abstractions and habits of thought and feeling – in order to appreciate the concrete actuality of being-here. Words, theories, opinions and beliefs are set aside in order to appreciate the miracle of being alive at this moment. In this way we change our relationship with our experience. By letting-go and letting-be, we step back from our tendency to cling to what is happening and to be dragged around by thoughts, feelings and sensations. We become aware of being aware – observing a thought for what it is – a pulse of chemical and electrical energy in our body. This helps to free us from our thoughts, feelings and sensations, rather than to be controlled or dominated by them.
The practice of mindful attention involves re-orientating our ‘self’ away from clinging and wanting, and towards letting-go and being-here – a shift from acquisitiveness and dissatisfaction to being present and appreciating who we are and how the world is. This means really looking, listening, paying attention and appreciating what is happening within and around us. Really appreciating what we are doing or have done. Doing this with an open mind, without labelling it good or bad, successful or unsuccessful – just experiencing this life for what it is. Listening to the music of everyday life and the poetry of people chatting; noticing the beauty of the world around us – from the scent of a rose to the vibrant hubbub of a big city; from the glory of a sunset to the humdrum activity of brushing our teeth. There is always something to appreciate and be grateful for.
Mindful meditation is another way of cultivating and honing the art of creative being – just sitting quietly, watching your mind and what is going on around you without reacting out of habit, without making judgments or commenting on what is happening – just being present, alive to what is going on. Learning how to notice, appreciate and let go. An old Zen saying goes like this: Sitting quietly, doing nothing, Spring comes, and the grass grows all by itself. Or, as it is September: Sitting quietly, doing nothing, Autumn comes, and the leaves fall all by themselves. Being present in this way, is to be open to the flow of life – to be in touch with the suchness of life – the concrete rather than the abstract. This is why Zen is often referred to as a teaching that is not based on words and theories – it is about experiencing, rather than speculating – about being who you are, where you are, rather than wishing you were someone else in some other place.
In terms of Zen, being mindful is a creative, appreciative practice. To be mindful is to be using your ‘Beginner’s Mind,’ or ‘Don’t-know Mind,’ or ‘Zen Mind’ – paying close attention and ‘minding’ what you’re doing – doing it with care, but playfully, without looking for reward or success. Doing it just to do it. Enjoying what you’re doing, savouring the experience. Watching your creativity as it unfolds.
In the process of mindful meditation, we develop awareness and concentration – learning to let go rather than to hang on – without commenting or making judgments. To be mindful is also to appreciate what we do from moment-to-moment. When we can be at ease with each passing moment, we are at ease with ourselves and with the world. This is good for our wellbeing and enables us to act kindly and wisely.
When we appreciate something for what it is we value it and care for it. So, to be mindful is also ‘to mind’ – to care – to look after what we experience and appreciate. It is a simple practice – though not always easy. It can be challenging, and it requires patience and concentration. It is a gentle art that anyone can learn. We can be mindful anytime, anywhere – enabling us to appreciate all aspects of life more fully. This means, recognising the sadness around us as well as the happiness, the conflict as well as the peace, the bad as well as the good, the pain as well as the beauty and enjoyment. To appreciate these positive and negative features of life means we pay equal attention to them – experiencing them with clarity and compassionate objectivity. In this way we can celebrate the good and try to do something about the bad. Mindful appreciation is empowering – enabling us to act with care and understanding, and to be balanced and calm even in the midst of turmoil and difficulty.
So, practice mindful appreciation – realise your own creative nature. Enjoy what is good and beautiful and work to change what is not.
Trungpa, Chogyam. 1973. Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism. London: Shambhala.