For a number of years, a few people in our area (Northern VA.) formed a Mindfulness Meditation sitting group where we meet a number times during the year for a night of meditation and a dharma talks. The group was lead by a Zen priest (Hai) who was ordained in Thich Nhat Hanh’s tradition. Here are some of my notes on these meeting and my interpretations and comments on our discussions. I present them as a reminder to myself and a gift to you if you find them of value.
Mindfulness is More than Awareness – December 2010 Meeting
The discussion started by looking at some of the literal translations of “mindfulness” from a few different language. Many of the words for describing this practice (from various cultures) contain meanings having to do with both awareness and remembering. I was reading a recently published book called “Rebel Buddha” and it seemed to say something similar to what Hai was talking about at our meeting. The author of this book mentioned that there were actually two components to the concept of mindfulness. The first one we are all familiar with and that is awareness. We have to be aware of what is taking place at the present moment (usually our breath). This awareness is also the prime activity of meditation. The second component associated with the translation of Mindfulness Meditation is having to do with remembering. When I first heard this it sounded a bit strange. What did remembering have to do with my meditation? But when I heard the full explanation of this and it made perfect sense. The remembering component of “mindfulness” has to do with remembering that you are not present while your trying to be mindful (instead you’re off on some thought, idea, the past, present, etc.). To successfully be mindful, you need to remember to check whether you are present or not. If you don’t have this remembering component, you will likely continue exploring the stories your mind serves up to you – never remembering to check where your mind is at and what it’s doing. Without this remembering capacity, you forget to return your awareness back to your breath or other object of your meditation. Therefore, mindfulness must have these two components (awareness and remembering) for it to function. At least that’s what I understood from this discussion.
The discussion then turned to the term “looking deeply”. I initiated this question for our group since many of Thich Nhat Hanh’s books referred to this state as a means of gaining deeper wisdom and insight into ideas and things. Hai said that the process of “looking deeply” was not an action that you perform or do. Instead, it was more like receiving something rather than doing something. The idea was put forth that “looking deeply” was more like experiencing or having a deep understanding of something that was not a function of your thinking mind. In other words you don’t “do it”, but rather you allow yourself to be open so that you can receive a deeper understanding. This appears to be more of a process that occurs all by itself rather, than something directed done by you.
Hai said that at least two key elements needed to be present for “looking deeply” to occur. First, you have to be mindful and second you have to be open. It was explained that the “being open” part was probably the most difficult to do since people aren’t generally truly open about things. To be open, you need to not see things in a predefined or established way. I interrupted this to mean that when you looked deeply, you did so in a way that did not project your impressions or ideas on the things that presented themselves to you – but rather, you see them without the limitations of your thoughts, feelings, or mental projections.
Hai mentioned that performing this “looking deeply” was not easy and there was no particular technique that could guarantee that you would be successful in experiencing this. I got the impression from what he said that being truly open was something that each of us must discover for ourselves, and that no technique or method could do this for us. Hai described his experience with this as just sitting and being “open “while noting his breath.” I took this to mean that it was like being ready to receive something – but not anticipating or desiring anything. Solutions to problems or an understanding of things would appear all by themselves. The impression that I got was appeared in this state was not coming up from the subconscious, but instead coming up from a deep source of knowledge of how things really are. The clarity and understanding of things that are revealed in this state are not based on thinking or reasoning. Instead, these insights come from somewhere beyond the cognitive mind and its preconceived ideas of what it considers reality. “Looking Deeply” is not something you do but rather something you experience by letting the mind “unfold” and “open” into a “softer” state of consciousness/awareness.
Hai gave a metaphorical example of looking at your hand. Comparing how looking at it when it is inches in front of your eyes, verses when it is two feet away from you. When it is up close, you are limited in what you can see. With a hand so close to your face, you cannot see as much of the background since it’s blocked out by the hand, and only the elements of your hand that are close to you are in focus – everything else fuzzy and obstructed by the hand. From this “up close” perspective, you cannot see the bigger picture of how the hand fits in the larger context of the things around it (i.e. its background, that its connected to an arm, etc.) When the hand is close to your eyes, its like the mind that has categorized and structured whatever it perceives, and that perception is limited. This limiting the viewpoint also limits any possibilities that might exist. This to me seems like a reflection of the ideas in Shzuki’s “Zen Mind, Beginners Mind” that is quoted below). The hand or mind that is viewed from a distance allows one to view it in a wider context and is thus not be confined or defined by some preconceived notion. The hand viewed farther away metaphorically represents a mind that can see more possibilities and opportunities than the hand viewed up close – again similar to Suzuki who said:
“In the beginners mind there are many possibilities, but in the experts mind there are few”
I interrupt this as saying that by looking too closely at a situation, you may miss the bigger picture and all its possibilities. You also may be miss context within the background of what your are thinking about (the object of your mindful contemplation). If your cognitive mind (which thinks it pretty well “knows it all”) considers itself an “expert”, then as Suzuki suggest, it will only come up with few possibilities. Something looking at things up close is good – sometimes looking at things from a distance is better or more appropriate for what you are trying to do. Being aware of your “awareness processing” seems to be a deeper level of awareness than just following the breath in meditation. At this level you start to “stand” in a completely different place – a place most people never enter.
Hai also mentioned that “looking deeply” was not something that you thought about. Looking at a table, you might see the sunshine that make the wood, the woodsman who cut the tree down, and all the things necessary to make the table. Thich Nhat Hah refers to this as the concept of “inter-being”. This activity is a cognitive-thinking practice which might seem like “looking deeply”, but Hai said that it is not. In this context it is just a mental activity. To know the table from a “looking deeply” perspective, you would have to know or experience the table in a way that seems more like a “gut level” understanding of its deeper nature. An understanding that is beyond simply thinking about it’s complexity by using rational and cognitive functions. It seems like “looking deeply” is a passive experiential thing coupled with a high level of awareness. It appears to be an understanding of something (concept, idea, problem, etc.) that comes to you when certain conditions of openness are present within you. Yet, it appears to be a condition that has somehow been “primed” to receive a deeper insight into the subject you are exploring. This is something you cannot force, or directly taught – but rather let unfold by surrendering to an openness of your mind. It seems to be a state of being present and mindful, but not focused on anything in particular.
I think this state is where great insight and discovery takes place. I wonder if a lot of the great discoveries, inventions, and works of art and music were “seeded” and “germinated” in this elusive state of consciousness. No one can be sure, but at least it is worth thinking about. After all, we all have pretty much the same mind when it comes to its structure and function – so the capacity of “looking deeply” is likely something we all can do !