The previous week’s talk can be found here: https://hoikaha.org/sunday-online-talk-1-200322/
Mindfulness, Awareness, and Gathering the Mind
Last time we gathered, we talked about how there is pain & suffering in the world. Kaka happens and there’s nothing we can do about that. And there is pain and suffering that come from our strong desire or aversion for things, as well as from ignoring things we feel that don’t concern us or deserve our attention.
We also talked about how all belief systems say “return to Source” during times of pain and suffering. Source – the unnamable, indescribable intelligence & consciousness of all that is – also called Basic Goodness (good before the duality of good and bad came into being), Buddha Nature, Christ Consciousness, Aloha, and Peaceful Abiding. Peaceful Abiding describes our mind in its natural resting state: open, fresh, alert, aware, and pure. Primordially pure.
Finally, we talked about how there is a way to touch into Source, Basic Goodness, Peaceful Abiding: shamatha-vipasshana meditation; also called mindfulness-awareness meditation.
Today, I’ll be talking about mindfulness, awareness, and gathering the mind.
Just as mind is naturally open, fresh, and clear, we naturally have mindfulness. Mindfulness isn’t something we need to “add” to our mind; it’s an inherent capacity that we all have.
Mindfulness has three qualities: 1) familiarity, 2) remembering, and 3) non-distraction.
In meditation, we use mindfulness to become familiar with the mind’s natural stability. We may not be sure what the breath even is, let alone recognize a thought – distractions and storylines pull us in every direction. After some practice, though, we can recognize we’re thinking, gently bring our attention back to the breath, and – voila! – we’re in the present moment.
In the beginning stage of our practice, way more time is lost in thought but the milliseconds of present moment intrigue us. Becoming familiar with those moments of the inherent stability of our mind keeps us coming back to the breath. Once we get into the movement and rhythm of the breath, the present moment and the breath become very familiar.
Our distractions and discursiveness are no longer quite so seductive and we remember what we’re doing in the present moment: we’re holding our mind to the breath. This synchronizes body and mind. If we’re lost in thought, we’ve forgotten that we’re meditating.
Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche: “In beginning meditation, we experience the movement of the wild mind. As we develop mindfulness, becoming familiar with the breath and remembering to return, we finally settle into this continuous state of not forgetting. It takes regular practice. Before, the mind was scattered. As it stabilizes, its natural aspects arise. It has more energy to be where it is – which is mindfulness – and to know what it is doing – which is awareness. The stability becomes a foundation for building strength.”
This strength is apparent in non-distraction. As we get stronger in mindfulness – placing the mind on the breath – it stays and we develop non-distraction. It’s hard to imagine when we’re just learning to meditate that, if we stick to our practice on a daily basis, our mind’s tendency to “fly like a horse out of the gate” will disappear.
Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche: “The mind’s stability and strength will shine though any potential distraction or discursiveness. It sees, it hears, it smells, it things, it feels – but it no longer chases wildly after these perceptions. It no longer jumps around.”
Awareness is the capacity for the mind to know what is going on in the present. There are levels of awareness. Sheshin (literally: presently knowing) is non-judgmental awareness of our present experience: “my mind feels like this, my body feels like this, there are lots of thoughts, mind keeps going back to one storyline, I am perceiving such and such, etc.”
This is a very simple, ordinary quality of our mind and it is natural to consciousness. In meditation, we are learning to recognize this awareness that knows the present. We are strengthening this awareness through practice. Ultimately, we are learning to rest in this awareness – the natural state of our mind.
In shamatha vipasshana, our breath is the object of mindfulness. Following the breath gives the conceptual mind something to satisfy its need to do something. When it loses its purpose of following the breath and takes us instead on some mental adventure, we use awareness to know that that has happened, then we can bring our attention gently back to the breath.
Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche: ” The good news is that mindfulness and awareness are intrinsic aspects of the mind – not something foreign that we are trying to bring in. Mindfulness is what we use to hold our mind to any object – the breath, a rock, a banana – and awareness is the intelligence that tells us what we’re doing. Awareness is what tells us that the phone is ringing. When we answer the telephone, it’s mindfulness that holds us to the voice at the other end long enough to know that our mother is calling. So, in meditating properly, we’re strengthening aspects of the mind that are already there. It’s like working out. In developing mindfulness and awareness, the mind begins to feel its strength and its ability to simply be present.”
Mindfulness and awareness are our two main tools as meditators. They allow us to “gather the mind.” Ordinarily, our mind is scattered and dispersed, like a single light that is diffused throughout a large space.
Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche: “Gathering the mind is a gradual process. We can imagine the mind’s activity as circles of light radiating outward. Peaceful abiding is like taking the dispersed light and gathering it into ourselves. As we gather it closer, it grows brighter.
The outermost circle represents our daily life. As we move in toward the center, we work with different levels of thoughts – from gross to subtle. The light grows gradually more focused. The middle of the circle represents the fortitude and clarity that underlie the wildness of our scattered mind.”
Emotions, and each of the rings of concentric circles, are the display of Basic Goodness, primoridal purity. They are ultimately part of our human richness and do not need to be rejected. We’re not trying to eliminate emotions, fantasies, subtle thoughts, etc. We are not trying to just “stay” in the center of the circles. Rather, we are learning to mindfully embrace the full range of our human experience. We are learning to work with whatever arises with a sense of confidence, intelligence, and loving kindness. ALL of the concentric circles are Basic Goodness.
One way we work with strong emotions and overwhelming thoughts is called “touch and go.”
Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche: “As an individual you relate with what is happening around you. We could use the phrase “touch and go.” You touch or contact the experience of actually being there, then you let go. That touch-and-go process applies to your awareness of your breath and also to your awareness of day-to-day living. Touch is the sense of existence, that you are who you are…The go part is that you do not hang on to that. You do not sustain your sense of being, but you let go of it…
Touch is not simply the general awareness of being. It also applies to mindfulness of your individual states of mind. That is, your mental state of aggression or lust also has to be touched. Such states have to be acknowledged. However, you do not just acknowledge them and push them off. You need to look at them without supppression or shying away…In shamatha, you don’t just sign off. You acknowledge what is happening and you look at it…
It is possible to twist the logic, and relate to meditating and coming back to the breath as a way of avoiding problems, but such avoidance is itself a problem…You might thingk that you don’t have to pay attention to all those little embarrassments that happen in your life; instead, you could regard them as unimportant and come back tot he breath. However, in doing so, you are patching over your problems…It is important to look at those embarrassments then then come back to the breath.”
So, if the mind wanders into difficult emotions, images, or feelings, we first touch or acknowledge this energy. Only after touching, do we let go. Touch does not mean analyze. We are not thinking about these emotions and energies. Rather, we lightly touch and acknowledge that something difficult has arisen, and then we let go and return to just being and breathing.
Touch brings a further sense of gentleness and humanity. Letting go helps us not get stuck or hooked by the emotion. We need both the touch and the go.
At any point during our practice session, especially if there are difficult emotions or physical pains, we can always take a fresh start. We can relax, let go, and begin with a sense of innocence or freshness. Each moment is an opportunity for freshness. This is another helpful way to work with emotions. There is always more room, more space, more freshness.
In the process of moving through these various concentric circles, we learn more about our mind and emotions and we learn to gather the power and strength of our inherent mindfulness. This gives us increasing confidence that we know how to work with our life, fantasies, discursive thoughts, subtle thoughts, etc. We can have a personal experience of the basic workability of our mind, even if this is just a glimpse. This confidence is very precious and inherent as a human being.