Mindfulness, is a buddhist term embraced by western psychology and is now a modernised term for practicing awareness of experience in the present moment or a ‘state of presence’. In the buddhist context it develops self knowledge and wisdom to achieve enlightenment and be free of suffering. In western therapeutic modalities it is used to deal with mental illness, anxiety and stress. The last sixty years it has been researched and recognised as an approach for various effective therapeutic uses, in addition to general wellbeing, performance enhancement and spiritual awakening.
The deeper art of mindfulness is in training the mind to let go of identifying with projections of self. Projections of self may be through identification with outward appearances, circumstances and material things. More primary are inner projections of identification with thoughts, emotions and bodily experience. These ever changing aspects of experiencing the world as individuals can take us on cycles of ups and downs that seem to have a life of their own. Many people’s sense of self and the world, moods and states, perceptions and opinions are reflected in their mental narrative and emotional state as an overall accumulative effect as well as acutely during intense moments. Identifying with them is considered to be the source of suffering by ancient teachings. Training our mind enables us to get beyond our projections of self, deeper into authentic states of inner equilibrium and self realisation, beyond thought and emotion and into the more stable background of consciousness from which mental activity arises.
The inner projections above are the primary ways we really get locked into egocentric identity and loose our ability to be consistently in the drivers seat when it comes to thoughts (most of which are repetitive and predictable yet filter our experiences enormously), emotions (which can really influence our perception independently thoughts and beliefs or collaboratively with them, cause us to be reactive instead of proactive, and forget ourselves when they arise intensely). Body image and inner body experience can also become part of a self-perpetual loop. Emotions, thoughts and bodily experience become illusory when based on our conditioned programming and expectations, we cannot separate them from our sense of who we are. Our personal experience of thoughts and beliefs becomes its own evidence of the reality of those same conditioned beliefs and views thus reinforcing them. The psycho-physical landscape of how we hold ourselves in body and form in the world reveals where we are balanced and life affirming. Alternatively our stress patterns will reflect imbalance, a divided mind identified with positive and negative thoughts and beliefs spliting our identity from our true state of Being.
When we are identifying with these three primary inner projections, they cease to be useful tools for embodying, expressing and sharing our true presence in the world. Instead they become a tool of the ego and in the guise of ‘adaption’, ‘protection’ and ‘self image’ and become the substance of what ‘ego’ does to separate us from a true sense of connection and oneness with life and consciousness. Ego hinders us because it involves identifying with aspects of our life and selves that have no inherent existence of themselves. Ego identification is investing our experience of self in the things and self-created images we give meaning to, rather than identification in the source of where that meaning and purpose truly comes from, our true self as pure consciousness and life.
So how do we best practice ‘mindfulness’ in a way that disengages us from this false identification? Can we be more fully and consistently in a unified state, harmonising mind, body and emotion with our true nature and values? Can we spend more time in qualitative creative and insightful states rather than mundane and habitual ruts of thinking? Is it realistic to be consistently in this space of alignment at the right place at the right time? What further aspects of life experience open up to us when spiritually mature in this way?
Mindfulness is in principle so simple, it can easily be disregarded by ego consciousness. Not only that, it can be very difficult to break old habits and so requires consistent practice, consciously with will and effort until it becomes second nature. Even then, we must be on guard when it comes to egocentric states that take us back into identification with conditioned patterns and suffering. The ego seems to resist being put in its place once we have invested in it for security, success, survival or happiness. In truth, the ego can do nothing of its own because it is our creation, our own projection of ourselves.
Practice and Application of Mindfulness
Essentially, basic mindful meditation is a practice in stillness for what is also required in action to live in a true state of presence. It is being able to subjectively surrender our complete experience in the moment to the consciousness from which it arises. It is allowing ourselves to be still, present and unified in a presence or spaciousness of being. This state is found, and not manufactured, often using breath or another single focus as a way there. We can observe each thought, feeling and data input as it arises or presents itself. Initially, many associated thoughts and feelings are are noticed like a cascade effect of ceaseless mind activity. Things can seem to get busier before they settle if we are not used to this shift.
With practice of stillness, presence and observation, these associated thoughts and feelings diminish until we experience some space between arising thoughts and observed sensations. Eventually we realise they occur in our consciousness, and we are in fact the space of consciousness in which it all occurs. It is not about understanding this intellectually, but being in it fully and subjectively. With that experiential realisation it becomes much easier to get into the zone quickly and more easily maintain it while we go about our day of tasks and communications. Thinking and feeling becomes more balanced, even minded, yet even more rich and far reaching with more choice.
Enormous changes occur once this happens, this shift and new sense of inner freedom and wellbeing continues to provide greater depth, awareness and insight based on personal realisation and experience that goes deeper than our words and mind narratives can conceive. Love, receptivity and connectedness can be enriched on new levels. This space is not vacuous but full of subtlety.
With practice, the most opportune time to apply mindfulness is during highly positively or negatively charged experiences. Mindfulness is not just a neutral or numb state, although can be easier to attain in a neutral state t first. Relaxing mind and body during ‘charged’ times, and embracing each thought and feeling as a projection of who we are, help flex the muscle of consciousness and awareness. These times offer high energy that intensifies and expands our state of presence. When ego identified, we tend to energise projected thoughts, feelings or egocentric needs relevant to the time, loosing ourselves in intense moments, sensations or role playing. With mindfulness we can embrace the same content from a deepening and expanding consciousness with alignment in our true state of being and transform the energy from reactivity into a personal victory of higher consciousness and conscious action.
It is sometimes useful, while witnessing these times of highly positive or negative experiences, to affirm simply and briefly within yourself “I am not my thoughts”, “I am not my feelings”, “I am not my body”. Then simply be, observing what is going on within and without before we speak, decide or act. The content (thoughts, feelings, perceptions) are still there to be experienced even more deeply but without attachment, aversion or the dislocation of identification with them. No matter how bad or how wonderful our thoughts and feelings are as they arise, our true being is an immensely greater field and reality from which they arise. Embracing really strong thoughts and sensations in this conscious state of presence enables greater joy, true insight and reality of being.
Practices like Taiji, qigong, meditation and yoga help us to disengage from identification with our inner projections. Actually doing anything you enjoy with complete attention can be effective for many people in sport, business, or hobbies like working in the garden. The advantages of taiji, qigong or yoga is that they create a space to feel every part of the body and breath consciously and fully while relaxing the nervous system and mind. They are designed and developed over the ages to balance the mind and body energy specifically. Golf, relaxed rowing or gardening for example, can offer similar states but not necessarily cultivate the focus and quality of the conscious state depending on the intention and experience of the doer. Likewise, we see in the orient, zen walking and raking, flower arranging, calligraphy and painting done as a sacred discipline in special settings along with martial art applications like archery or taiji sword. With intentional practice, intent and setting are important combined with controlled and relaxed activities done in a state of still mind, synchronised movement and breath.
Activities that are too sedate or too stimulating to mind, body or both may not be as effective to develop the mindful state. The above are active ways to utilise inner body experience to take one out of the thinking narratives of mind. Yoga teaches one to release resistance, discomfort and disturbance by relaxing and breathing into it with acceptance and allow it to transform without having to process or ‘do’ anything with it. The light of pure awareness or consciousness itself is transformative and unifying. So it is with all things in life. This is why some non-action techniques of sitting meditation or sivasana (corpse pose in yoga) are considered as both the most simple and advanced techniques of practice. What activity incorporating these principles would make an enriching part of your daily practice?
Photo by Barnsjukhuset on Visual Hunt / CC BY