Do not make yourself into anything.
Do not be a meditator.
Do not become enlightened.
When you sit, let it be.
When you walk, let it be.
Grasp at nothing.
If you haven’t wept deeply,
you haven’t begun to meditate.Ajahn Chah, Thai Forest Monk (1918-1992)
I first read this quote some years ago but it was only recently that I came across this version with the final sentence: “If you haven’t wept deeply, you haven’t begun to meditate.” I was reminded of this quote on visiting the monastery where I used to live last weekend. One of the monks was talking about the importance of listening into our bodies and opening to our emotions as a source of wisdom, rather than having an intellectual understanding of our experience. Reading the first part of the quote is inspiring, but it may support the sort of view I had when I started to meditate that I needed to escape from what I was feeling, as if there was some basic true identity that could press emergency release and be blasted out in the life shuttle of Enlightenment from the mother ship of ego, suddenly floating free and blissful in the enormity of space.
What this quote above and the monk’s teaching at the weekend emphasise is that practice is about turning in and feeling fully: letting go through embracing, the core koan of our practice! A koan is a Japanese Zen teaching phrase that is seemingly contradictory, such as “what is the sound of one hand clapping?” or “what moves – the flag or the wind?”. The koan is known only when the rational mind finally surrenders and stops trying to make any logical sense of it. In the same way the logical mind tends to think in black and white: reject what is not wanted, then I’ll feel good. Hold onto what makes me feel good so I feel even better.
This tendency of the mind to grasp at, or reject, thoughts about the past or the future or the present moment and to fall into a sense of an identity that seems fixed and real for the time it is there, but evaporates like a mist to be replaced by another identity and then another as the day progresses is the basis of Ajahn Chah’s teaching above: mindfulness is the art of resting into that gentle allowing and knowing that notices without attaching or rejecting. But as well as this noticing it is also a knowing that fully participates in the experience and fully feels what is there, whilst not getting lost in it or rejecting it. In this sense the awareness that arise from mindfulness practice has been described as a participant-observer, as opposed to the dissociated observer that looks on from a distance. This is an important distinction, as the tendency to associate mindfulness with looking on from a distance only adds to our separation from being fully present in our life.
This may in part be due to the use of the word mindfulness to describe this way of being. We associate mind with the brain and so think of mindfulness as looking down from our head or from a discrete intelligence that is separate from what is being observed. Perhaps it helps if we look at the Buddhist word for mind, chitta, which means both mind and heart. So we could as easily talk of heartfulness instead of mindfulness. In this practice we are learning to hold all of our experience in an open heart, that observes and feels and witnesses.
The awareness that arises from the practice of mindfulness was described by the Buddha as “the middle way”. It is the middle way between the extremes of grasping and rejection, between wanting to exist forever as an identity (grasping onto what we are enjoying) and wanting not to exist (resisting an experience and wanting it to be over). Mindfulness has been described as the art of feeling an emotion without being the emotion: feeling sad without being sad, feeling happy without grasping at happiness and wanting it to last forever, but instead enjoying it as it arises and allowing it to pass as another emotion arises to be held. Or bringing compassion to a difficult emotion as it arises to be greeted by awareness at the door of perception. In this way we come fully into being alive in the present moment, rather than dwelling in thoughts about the past or anticipating the future or not wanting the present moment to be as it is.
These thoughts about past and future often arise unwilled by conscious thought and a Harvard study found that we spend around 47% of our time is spent in distracted thinking. This means nearly half of our waking life is spent not being present or fully awake. If we are spending half of our life caught in such unproductive thinking patterns it’s not surprising we can experience a sense of frustration, sadness and worry! It’s almost as if the thoughts are thinking themselves and we are just swept along in the flood!
From popular ideas about meditation it would be easy to think that mindfulness is about switching off – stopping these unwanted thoughts through a deliberate effort of will to silence the mind and find peace. After all if it is these thoughts that make us feel bad then surely we need to stop them to feel good? This is the ‘doing mode’ approach to the dilemma: trying to fix the problem by an act of will. The ‘being mode’ approach is to open to what is there, to hold it with curiosity, to feel into it and allow without getting swept away in the thought. As we start to meditate we may feel discouraged when, a few minutes in, we’re beset by thoughts and distraction. Then the mind starts its commentary – “this is impossible”, “I can’t stop thinking – this isn’t working”, “I’m no good at this”, “Perhaps if I go away to a monastery I’ll do it but not in my busy life”. And so we tick it off as something we tried but that didn’t work.
Whilst we may have moments of the mind being still and calm as we meditate the main value of mindfulness practice is the ability to learn to be present despite the busyness of the mind rather than mindfulness being a means of stopping thought: thus mindfulness is the ability to be present with our mind as it is, not how we think it should be. This may mean mindfully attending to the breath whilst also being aware of a busy, worried or anxious mind.
My teacher Ajahn Sumedho would often comment, the thought “I don’t want any thoughts” is simply adding another thought into the already busy mind! The paradox is that a practice intended to bring peace actually just creates another self-identity: the one wanting to be a calm meditator! And so we sit with thoughts like: “I hope I can get calm”, “when will I be peacefull”, “I was peaceful in my last sit I hope I have that experience again”……Instead through mindfulness we learn to bring non-judgemental attention to what is here right now: noticing thought but then avoiding the duality of getting pulled in to it or rejecting it. In this way mindfulness practice is more about embracing what is there and holding it in the heart of awareness. It is not a process of dissociating and rising above thoughts and feelings but of being fully present to them, to how it feels in the body to experience them and to witness how they arise, stay a while and then pass away, which may open us to a deep sense of peace that isn’t dependant on silence or absence of thoughts but that can exist within the busyness of mental activity. It’s like finding the calm eye in the middle of the hurricane when one had spent one’s life trying to stop the hurricane.
The eye of the hurricane: knowing
As you engage with this mindful presence there can be a sense of ‘knowing’ that is a gentle witnessing of what is there. This witness is not separate from what is there, but fully engaged, just as the awareness that arises whilst you pay attention to the sensations in your toes as you do the body scan is not a separate witness, but comes into being as a result of meeting the sensations. In this way we shift beyond the duality of observer and observed when there is simply a unified experience of sensation and that which knows the sensation. In the same way with thoughts, when we shift from an idea of a separate intelligence that is looking on at all these thoughts and instead know that our sense of identity is arising from witnessing the thoughts as they arise there can be a subtle sense of calm that arises. The knowing itself is calm, even if what it knows is busy and distracted thoughts.
A traditional teaching metaphor for thoughts in meditation is that they are like clouds in the sky. When we think we need to get rid of thoughts to be calm it is like the sky thinking it needs to get rid of the clouds in order to be the sky. The sky always has the nature to be clear and untouched by whatever storm is blowing through it. In the same way this capacity to know is always present, always clear, but by focusing on the clouds of thought we are like the sky that has forgotten itself and instead thinks it is the storm clouds. The sky does not need to destroy the clouds to feel its open spacious and clear nature, so in the same way we do not need to destroy thoughts to rest into our own clear, open and calm capacity to be present, to be the knowing.
I look forward to exploring this together again this Monday.