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Over the last little while, two Dharma friends raised an interesting question: “why should I be mindful, when I can use my minds imaginative capacity to spend time, figuratively, outside of my present circumstances? Why should I put effort into being aware and mindful in the moment, when it is unpleasant here in this moment?”
First, we humans are living in a pretty tenuous position in which forces way stronger than us are acting upon us all the time. Think: gravity; tectonic, volcanic and tidal forces; market forces; people with a strong desire and the means to control the lives of others.
We live in a world where, despite our collective efforts, we have not yet been able to change the basic fact of us being soft and squishy in a world that is bigger and stronger than we are. My teacher taught that a Buddhist should attempt to leave the world a better place than they found it and I fully support this idea. And, realistically, our ability to change externalities is quite limited. Sometimes the unpleasantness that we encounter is unavoidable.
What can we do then? We can turn our attention to what our minds are doing. I have heard it said that to encourage the attitude, in the face of some injustice, of looking at what our minds are doing is a form of blaming the victim. That what we really should do is redouble our efforts to get people to not treat each other in a beastly way. But really the two things, looking at our minds and working to improve the world, are not mutually exclusive.
Given that I have to live with my own mind pretty much 24-7 and given the limited success, despite our regular and concerted efforts over the last 50 or so thousand years, to collectively change outward circumstance to suit ourselves (one way or another), I am glad to have found a way that I can work with and improve my own direct experience, my own mind.
Mindfulness, or awareness in the present moment, is one aspect, one tool in the tool box, of working with the mind within the context of practicing the Dharma. This should be emphasized: as another of my wise teachers put it, mindfulness is not enlightenment; mindfulness is not the end of practice. Mindfulness is like walking into a darkened room and turning on the light: it just enables us to see what is there.
Being with “what is” in the present moment is bigger than simple mindfulness. Doing zazen in the present moment, although simple in itself, is much bigger than simple mindfulness.
When we turn on the light of mindfulness, we become aware of what is actually going on in our minds. When I look at my own mind, the honest awareness can arise: I have made choices and I am living out the consequences of my past actions and choices. Yes, there is also the presence of the consequence of many external influences, but among the things present in my honest awareness, are the consequences of my own choices, good and bad and neutral. These consequences, it turns out, are often the most important influence on how I experience the present moment.
This is a critical awareness; it is critical to take responsibility for my own choice. To give up that responsibility by putting the blame for my present feelings on external forces is to give away my power to effect change on the condition of my own mind.
When we turn our awareness to what is going on in our minds, we might notice that we feel despair, grief, outrage or frustration. We might notice that we feel any of a whole host of things; this noticing is just the beginning. One of the possible courses of action is to, effectively, turn out the light. We can go off into some fantasy about how we would like things to be. Usually, for many of us, we are, to some degree or other, skilled at this. (Daydreaming?) Of course in extreme cases this is called dissociation and may lead down some pretty unpleasant paths.
For many of us, we find ourselves exploring mindfulness and meditation because we have experience with the limitations and negative consequences of trying to distract ourselves from seeing what is actually going on in our minds, trying to separate ourselves from the experience of our own mind. In other words, it is likely that if we are reading this, we already have some idea of why it is helpful to be aware and mindful in the present moment.
We come to meditation and mindfulness, the attempt to be present with “what is” in the moment, because we would like to heal the despair, fear, grief and frustration that we feel in our own minds, feelings that are only temporarily affected by changing external circumstances. These are feelings and mental states that can be healed if we take the time to attend to them and do not try to cover them up.
So, recognizing the limited effectiveness of distraction, we go forward with our mindful awareness. But how we go forward or how we bear our mindful awareness is really important. Of course, what we do with what we find in meditation is the subject of a vast literature, so, for this article it seems good to just make a few points about our tone or attitude to mindful awareness.
It doesn’t really help to let loose our inner fascist on the project of being in the moment. Our inner fascist is that part of ourselves that can see so clearly what is wrong and then implements its plan to force correctness onto ourselves. Our inner fascist is about as effective inwardly in helping our minds as it is in bringing actual help to the world. Forcing ourselves or others, no matter how righteous our views or intentions rarely leads to lasting good.
So the first thing after making the determination to work on being mindfully present in this moment is to bring a bit of kindness and compassion to the feelings we encounter in our minds. The wish to help ourselves in a kind and wise way is at the root of who we actually are and is at the root of how we can effect actual change in ourselves.
Mostly it is enough to be with what arises in our experience and to simply allow it to pass away without interference. But this tone of kindness toward ourselves can make a big difference, especially when we begin to recognize that we cannot escape the consequences of our own choices.
Also, an attitude of friendly curiosity about what is happening in our experience is very helpful; the “hmm, wonder why I am so pissed off right now, that’s interesting?” Or, “I have always just assumed that my inner fascist is just the way that I am, but maybe I don’t have to be that way?” (Part of taking responsibility is recognizing that, along with our many good qualities, we have a great capacity for misinterpreting the meaning of what we encounter both in the world and in our own mind; being still and mindful allows for the possibility of the arising of different ways of seeing and understanding.) The attitude of friendliness is important; after all, we do have to live with ourselves and to befriend whatever negativity we might find in ourselves can go a long way towards helping with the healing of our pain and grief.
And finally, a bit of patience is really helpful here. Patience is of value in its own right but is also an expression of our basic compassionate intent and can really be helpful in allowing ourselves to just live with ourselves as we are. We may not be able to quickly change the way things are, but we can learn to work with them and find peace within ourselves as we work to make the world we find, a little bit better both inwardly and outwardly.