Friday, March 23, 2012

With It

What is the practical meaning of mindfulness? Does the term help us practice?

This came up briefly in yesterday's post, but we quickly got pulled off into discussing Thich Nhat Hanh, Brad Warner, and all the stuff we make up around spiritual teachers. So now let's get back to this word, mindfulness.

This English word has become popular mostly thanks to the works of Thich Nhat Hanh and Jon Kabat-Zinn. It is often presented as the English term for samma-sati, a stage towards Buddhist enlightenment. Thich Nhat Hanh is a Buddhist monk and zen master from Viet Nam who has written many popular books about meditation as an awareness practice, and he uses the word mindfulness to point at an intimate awareness. Jon Kabat-Zinn was a student of Zen Master Seung Sahn who integrated meditation with yoga and western psychology and applied them toward stress, anxiety, and pain. He has also written several popular books and has helped popularize the therapeutic benefits of meditation.

We need words to describe awareness and attention, but there is a caveat to this mindfulness business. Who is being mindful of what, and how are they separate? In the post that caused such a kerfluffle, Brad Warner explained the problem nicely:

They'd look at [a sunrise] and say, "Gosh. I'm not mindful enough. I'm not concentrated enough. Because when I look at a sunrise, I just shade my eyes so that I can get through this traffic jam on West Market Street without running over any of the kids from Our Lady of the Elms. Sunrises kind of annoy me. They give me a headache. I better get more concentrated and more mindful so that I can be more like Thich Nhat Hanh and let the beauty of the sunrise be revealed to me."

In other words, the concept of "mindfulness" gets in the way of the sunrise. It becomes a big obstacle between what we think of as our self and what we think of as the sunrise. And we make our efforts to try to overcome the obstacle we've placed in our own way. Most of the time I hear or read the word "mindfulness" it sounds to me like an obstacle.
This is the inherent danger of cognitive teaching: the words and concepts become bludgeons with which we hammer ourselves and our practice. ("Checking mind," Zen Master Seung Sahn called it.) And we do not limit this punishment to ourselves. Mindfulness is also a wonderful tool for judging other people and scolding them. At Cambridge Zen Center we had a running joke that the word mindful was mainly used as a "spiritual" way of scolding housemates, as at one house meeting after another we would listen to folks asking that people be mindful about this and that.

Elizabeth Yuin Hamilton shares an anecdote from a zen retreat that offers beautiful teaching about real mindfulness, as opposed to an idea about mindfulness:

One day at lunch, peanut butter appeared. Someone must have told Soen Roshi that this was an American Zen tradition, since earlier meals consisted of pickles, tea, white rice, and no condiments. Meals were silent, so when a fellow at the end of the table gesticulated, trying to get the peanut butter to come his way, no one noticed – we were too busy concentrating! Finally Soen Roshi bellowed, "How can you talk about seeing the Dharrrrma (the teachings of reality) if you can't see to pass the peanut butter?" That jolted us temporarily out of the myopic view that concentration alone would wake us up...

Yes. It is elementary and yet, until our greed for "spirituality" or "enlightenment" is sufficiently tired, we need to return to the elementary again and again: this is about relationship (at least, until dualism is extinguished), not a myopic self-satisfaction. One can walk around breathing from the belly and enjoying the sunshine and imagining themselves at one with all of Indra's net, and completely fail to notice an old woman wanting help across the street. What kind of enlightenment is that?

During my first year in front of an elementary school classroom, I was frequently visited by an instructional leader at the school who would watch me teach and give me feedback. A phrase he used very often was "being with it," and with it referred to being highly alert and awake, having a sense of what's going on in the room even when your back is turned. This is partly about classroom management -- are the kids passing notes or something when you're not looking? It is, ultimately, about whether the students are learning. It takes years of attentive practice to absorb various instructional methods and be able to adapt and flow freely, so that the students are actually learning and most of the classroom time is spent on that instead of discipline and business.

He would even say "with-itness," which I enjoyed because it sounded a lot like witness.

The colloquial understanding of that phrase is the point, not the words. With it? What is it? No, no. Now the fifth graders are passing notes behind your back while you're trying to be "with it." *Smack!* Let that go. Stay with them. For now, that's what life is.

With it, in other words, is simply about wisdom. The difference between concentration and praj├▒a. "Becoming one with the universe" is a beautiful Buddhisty way of referring to being with it. Use either one, but either way, may we please manifest it.

[Photo: Easy to miss.]

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