The Heart of Mindfulness

The Heart of Mindfulness

“Mindfulness” refers to a particular kind of meditation practice, as well as a particular state of awareness.  But it also refers to the skill of “keeping in mind” or remembering, and for a long time, that may be its most important meaning as we struggle to unlock its potential.

Remembering what?

We have been given the capacity for attention, the directional viewfinder of awareness itself, and because what we are aware of shapes our reality, attention is precious.  Like a compass, mindful attention can help us find our way back to ourselves in the midst of turbulence while moving into the experience of Now.  We have been given attention, but almost immediately we forget!  So in the beginning, and for a long time after, we need to remember to use what is given.

When we do remember to pay attention – intimately – to our inner and outer experience, we also need to learn how to fully accept and let go.  The path toward becoming whole, becoming fully human, is to continually develop equanimity in the face of all we experience, the good, the bad, and the uneventful.  Then we might see that our awareness is always there, in the background, like the boundless blue sky that is always there no matter the weather, if we look far enough.  That awareness, when it’s related to the whole range of my human experience through mindful attention, is called presence.

When I am more present, I might be moved by perennial questions: Who am I?   Why are we here?  What way shall I live?  When these questions are alight in us, we are empowered to set out to find our path.

Can Mindfulness Become a Habit?

In one of my classes last year a very perceptive student asked this question: can mindfulnes become a habit?

She asked it sheepishly, as if she were treading into fuzzy territory.  My answer?

Yes and no.  Fuzzy as it gets!

There are many prominent teachers who use the word "habit" in describing what comes from consistent practice of mindfulness meditation.  And, of course, there are habits that skilfully support one's values, aims, and actions, and there are those that don't.  But although the act of bringing oneself to practice mindfulness can be supported by habit, the state of mindful awareness itself cannot become habitual.  Let me say that again:

You cannot phone-in mindful awareness.

Just as there are several dimensions to 'mindfulness' (a particular collection of exercises; the act of remembering; a state of awarenesss), so, too, are there multiple definitions of 'habit' (images of The Flying Nun come to mind). Because we're concerned primarily with qualities of awareness in this conversation, here is the definition that seems most apropo:

"habit: an acquired mode of behavior that has become nearly or completely involuntary."                                  (Merriam-Websters 2013)

It is true that we can create skillful meditation practice habits.  I can cultivate a habit of practicing sitting meditation every morning after a cup of coffee.  I can nurture the habit of reflecting each morning on how to bring mindfulness into my day.  I can invite the habit of choosing to eat my weekly dinner with my dad with mindfulness.  Here neuroscience paints a clear picture: neurons that fire together, wire together.  By repeating the timing and associations of these activities and paring them with efforts of directed attention, 'good' habits are formed.

How is that different from mindful awareness itself being a habit?

From living a life that includes meditation, we see with experience that higher states of awareness are rarely involuntary, though that can happen (think: moments of crisis, physical danger, shocking news, falling in love, etc.). For most of us, most of the time, it is our ordinary states of awareness that are habitual; in, fact, research shows that our default state of awareness is mind wandering.  Anything beyound that requires either an outside stimulus or an inner, voluntary action.  To expand our often narrow field of awareness, it takes something intentional, like sitting still for twenty minutes, letting go of control, and watching very closely.  It's something akin to swimming against the stream.  However, once the effort to attend is let go of, the current (habitual ways of being) sweep us away again.

The relationship of meditation skill to mindful awareness is similar to what a musician achieves through practice. They rehearse a piece of music until it is memorized and 'in the body'; when it comes time to perform, there is an aspect of technique that is involuntary and habitual (body position, finger movements, keeping time, etc.), but the life of the music is brought about by an opening to feeling.  This can only be accomplished through a voluntary awareness of what arises in the experience of playing the music, moment by moment.

Could you imagine Dizzy Gillespie blowing his trumpet habitually?  Phoning it in?

Similarly, in the practice of mindfulness, I can create habits that reduce the obstacles, distractions, and contradictions that threaten practice so that there is less resistance to arriving 'on the cushion'.  After a while, engaging practice gets easier.  But the act of opening to awareness itself?  This requires my being fully awake to what I'm aware of in the moment, and the inevitable, immediate reactions that follow, which tend to narrow my awareness as I become identified with what's going on rather than observing it intimately. This can only be voluntary.  

That's why we often hear in various teachings that in each moment there is the possibility of choice: I can become gently aware of my being in whatever condition I find myself, notice the reactions with kindness, and open further to remain aware of all that follows in my immediate experience.  But it's a living, dynamic, fragile choice, not a habit.  When I know this through experience, I may have many more moments of music in my mindfulness.