Last week I went to a practice day at the Buddhist society with Ajahn Vimokkha, a Thai meditation teacher. He had a very clear and fun way of teaching and I’ll share a little of it here with you.
He started by emphasising that mindfulness is the act of having a clear intention to pay attention to whatever is here right now. He then emphasised that as we pay attention to this present moment experience, awareness arises – the clear knowing that we know whatever it is we are attending to right now: we know how our body feels, we know what we are thinking, and we know how we feel.
He spoke of mindfulness as being like the father, and awareness as being like the mother. Mindfulness brings focus and a clear intention, it creates order and a boundary. Awareness notices what is here from the heart, is kind and takes care of the mind and body. With mindfulness and awareness both in place, he said, the son – our sense of self – does not go wandering but stays at home, in the heart. Without mindfulness and awareness the son goes off into distraction and unwholesome behaviour.
His whole emphasis was on coming back to the body, coming home into the sense of our physical sensations. Shifting from the ‘office’ – our head, into the ‘home’ – our heart. In this way it reminded me of how mindfulness is sometimes described as heartfulness. The risk of talking of mindfulness is that we associate the mind with the brain. We then think that being mindful means we pay attention from our head. Heartfulness really captures more of what mindfulness is about. It is a clear and focused attending to what is here in our field of perception – thoughts, feelings and physical sensations – felt from the heart.
Looking from the head we risk having a cold observation and try to find solutions to the problem of feeling sad, anxious or worried. Looking from the heart, we bring kindness and compassion to ourselves.
It’s like the difference between finding a child crying and asking them what the problem is and then telling them to sort themselves out, pull themselves together, or giving them a solution. Instead, heartfulness is like holding the child and letting them know it is ok for them to feel what they are feeling, that they are ok, that you’re there for them, you see that they are sad and you will support them without telling them they should not be sad.
As we pay attention in this way it brings us into a clear seeing of things as they are, and as the monk emphasised this connects us to the pure nature of mind, the mind that is before thought and activity, that is itself peace. This teaching of the ‘pure nature of mind’ is what has appealed to me since I first learnt to meditate. It is as if we were holding a bowl of water and looking at how the water slops from side to side as the bowl trembles in our hand. But the nature of the water, when the bowl is set down on a firm surface, is to return to stillness. In the same way as we bring the clear intention to sit and be present from the heart and awareness arises we are then able to rest into a sense of ease and pleasure, and as this ease and pleasure deepens we start to experience the natural stillness of our being. In the Christian and Judaic tradition it is described as “I am that I am”, or simply “I am”. Not I have been or I will be, simply I am – pure presences, here, this moment that is outside of time.
Buddhist mindfulness practice is intended to enable us to have a direct experience of this “I am” – at first having to sit with the chaos of ‘radio me’ as thoughts and self-view battle to keep alive the illusion of being an identity. But as you sit, there can be moments of letting go into a state of clear awareness of being the knowing, a knowing that doe not identify with any identity but just is a clear seeing. These moments may be brief, lasting a few seconds, like the sun briefly shining through thick cloud before the cloud merges together again to once more obscure the clear light. This seeing is from the heart and is not an intellectual experience. Hence learning to practice mindfulness as ‘heartfulness’, seeing our experience clearly from an embodied sense of being present in the chest rather than focusing from the head is a great way to open to the possibility of seeing the true nature of mind as the clouds of worry, anxiety and self-importance part to let through the clear light of “I am”.