In the world of mindfulness education it can seem like there is a lot of negative emphasis placed on the thinking mind. Most of our mindfulness interventions are aimed at limiting and reducing stress responses due to negative thinking. It can even go to such extreams that some teachers even tell us not think at all. Over the last 2 months i have been working with the thinking mind in my meditation and i have come to the conclusion that thoughts ARE awareness.
Let me explain…
Over the last 3 years i have had an ongoing WAR ON THOUGHTS in my personal mindfulness and meditation practice. Not only has this constant effort caused a lot of resistance it has caused a lot of self doubt due to my lack progress. I have now come to the conclusion that constantly monitoring our thoughts is unnecessary and unnatural and any effort to do so will end in defeat because engagement with the thought process is as natural as breathing.
We can monitor our thoughts on command to a certain extent but spontaneous thoughts arise as we react to the world around us. For instance if i look at my watch i may instantly calculate how long it will take me to get to work. These spontaneous thoughts are so second nature that we don’t always observe them.
So here’s the thing….We don’t need to observe them anyway!
I have now realized that awareness is an ever present experience (except in deep sleep of if we are unconscious). That means our thoughts are apart of that awareness so they should not be fought against but embraced. It takes attention to think about stressful thought just like it takes attention to disengage and witness those same thoughts. So our mindfulness ability is still operating just on opposite spectrum’s.
Obviously we can use mindfulness to create distance from our thoughts and reduce stress. But when we approach deeper levels of practice one of the most important things is our attitude to thoughts not just the technical ability of mindfulness. Once we change our identity in relation to thinking our thoughts and story’s don’t define us. Maby the awareness behind thoughts is the defining element of who we are.
Over the last year my spiritual practise has become more realistic. In the past I often imagined that if I could get my mindfulness practise to a certain level then all my other problems would fall into place. Over the last year I have had many wake up calls that have challenged that idea.
For example my relationship has challenged me to address my own issue with intimacy. Difficult work relationships have challenged me to address my anger issues and in turn my masculinity. I am now coming to the realisation that mindful awareness is just another part of what it means to be a human being.
Presence awareness is just one of many relative truths of a human being. We posses other relative truths such as personality, sexuality, physicality, mentality, cultural settings and so on. We cant ignore or deny these parts of ourselves or else we are spiritually bypassing or in denial.
I have realized that every truth is relative and my role as a mindfulness educator and practitioner is to simply celebrate the unifying awareness we all posses and. Hopefully use that insight to create depth in other aspect of our humanity. But I do still find myself making the practise of mindfulness into a defence mechanism. Making the practise the answer to all my problems turning my spirituality into a security blanket which allows me to avoid deep issues I need to address.
In short we all have layers to our humanity just like an onion. Awareness being then centre and most intimate core of the onion and other aspect of our humanity begin the outer layers.
No layer is more important than the other.
We cant have a full onion without all of them.
It was 2.30 in the morning my girlfriend and I had booth drifted off to sleep when we hear bass tones seeping through our bedroom walls. At first I try to ignore the subs and evaporate into the slumber of sleep but the defuse thuds of the bass spike my anxiety and I feel sharp tingles in my chest and a slight debasing felling in my gut.
As I land in consciousness I now look over at my girlfriend who is fast asleep and im irritated that i have awoken to my own anxiety. As always there is a sense of feeling threatened by what this noise represents.
Who do they think they are! Don’t they know we’re sleeping! Despise clouds all my thoughts.
My unassuming house mate is playing some music after a late night shift. The music isn’t obnoxiously loud but the subs do the trick to wake me up. I struggle with my anxiety for a while “should I say something or not”. Finally the music stops and he goes to bed. Now im left not only unable to go to sleep and exhausted by the cortisol and adrenalin in my system but ashamed of myself that I didn’t get up and say something.
I try to control my breathing but my intention isn’t here, my thoughts are all over the place all I want to do is go to sleep, Or do i?
Its now 4.45 and iv kept myself awake for another 2 hours brooding over the situation. Out of exhaustion I tell myself “lets just sleep” and in a flash I reply to myself BUT I DONT WANT TO! I finally realise my anxiety didn’t happen to me, I had a choice in my anxiety it was my response to the situation. Maybe out of old habits created when I was a child. Maybe I thought that drowning myself in anxiety, I could change or effect the situation. Deep down I didn’t want to calm down because I thought my anxiety was serving me in that situation.
On some level I chose to be in pain.
Falling asleep while meditating is a big challenge and this could arise for a few reasons. Maby its because generally our society is very time poor and the only time we get to ourselves is late in the evening or very early in the morning. It could also be due to the fact that when we meditate it can be the only time of the day except for sleep that we deeply relax without any stimulation.
I dont know….But when my clients ask me how to stop themselves from falling asleep while meditating my emediate answer is ‘how much intention do you have to stay awake’?
I feel this answer touches on a deeper issue that plays out in the falling asleep scenario. Meditation is a very externally passive habit add the element of relaxation to the mix and it can even be a getaway of its own. But keeping true to our intentions and aims for our practice encourages our will power to stay strong. For example keeping our attention on the breath while in the midst of very difficult emotions or remaining present while cloaked in drowsiness as we feel ourselves nodding in and out of sleep.
In a nut shell ITS OK TO FEEL SLEEPY or for the mind to be running around in circles. But how long we persevere with our practice when our focus is depleted and our mental state is not ideal depends on our intention. I label it INTENTION here but we could also call it WILL POWER or DETERMINATION or even DRIVE.
When we are beginning our mindfulness practice it can initially seem like all we are aware of is just how bizzy our mind is. It can even seem like we just arrive at thinking without even noticing the begging or end to our thoughts and this can be very stressful.
What a lot of people don’t understand is that this is a natural and necessary part of the process. We begin to get a picture of the landscape of our mind and what our triggers are that create heavy thought streams. They could related to financial well being, relationships, personal development or our children. Once we get a realistic understanding of how engaged with thinking we are we can put our expectations in context which affords us better options when working with the mind.
For example when we notice we have had a knot in our stomach for 45 minutes because we have been worrying about work deadlines. This is a win because we have had a small but important moment of mindfulness that is letting us know just how long we have been stressing for.
I can hear you think ‘Ye ok Coco but so what! im still stressed!
Ok then let me give you the analogy of weight lifting…..
In the last few sets when those reps are excruciatingly painful we make a large percentage of our gains by tearing the the muscle fibers and its much the same with highly stressful situations. Even if you only have 2 seconds of a mindful moment in the midst of a very stressful experience these are huge gains to be had. Before too long we will be able to maintain our attention and regulate our emotions in these situations.
A lot of people find it easy to practice mindfulness in relative comfort but when the shit hits the fan those who have done the work will notice the results.
Two Monks walk into a bar and sit down to order sake ( they are Japanese Zen Buddhist monks who have been known to have a sip now and then).
The 1st monk turns to the other and asks ‘so why do you meditate?’
The 2nd one looks at him and replies ‘to get into the present moment’
The 1st monk then laughs and says ‘where else can you be?’
Now think to yourself….
Can you ever really be anywhere but right here right now? Is the present moment something we get into or is it an ever present experience we acknowledge.
A lot of my clients make the common mistake of assuming that mindfulness is about relaxation. Or that mindfulness meditations are relaxation techniques. Although relaxation is a by product of mindfulness practice it is not the main intention. Obviously most people come to mindfulness to learn how to calm down and relax. But this common misconception can create a lot of barriers to our practice.
We practice mindfulness to create acceptance and non judgement around our experience and this helps with our particularly difficult emotions. The reason we practice acceptance and non judgment is because the alternative to this is resistance and denial. These emotions take us away from our pure conscious state in the form of our awareness being 100 % engaged in our thinking and stressful emotions. So the natural by product of objectifying our emotions and thoughts is a reduction in stress and higher levels of well-being. This is the opposite to distraction, a lot of us use distraction to self regulate our emotion whether is zoning out on Facebook or using drugs or alcohol to drown out our dissatisfaction of our lives.
Mindfulness embraces these difficult moods and attitudes and moves us towards acceptance in our lives. Sometimes when we practice mindfulness and meditation it can feel like we are opening our closet full of skeletons. Some people even report feeling more stressed after practicing mindfulness however this is natural in the initial stages of our practice. If we have not payed attention internally before its only natural that when we do our feelings will seem amplified.
So stay strong with the practice as you’re efforts will pay off and relaxation and well-being will be the effect of the cause which is changing you’re relationship to you’re thinking mind and emotions.
Mindfulness and thoughtfulness have a close relationship in fact so close that we often mistake mindfulness for thoughtfulness. We hear people throwing around the word mindfulness a lot, ‘Be mindful of this’ and ‘be mindful of that’. What they are trying to say is be thoughtful of this and be thoughtful of that.
Words can take on different meanings for different people for example, to be conscious could mean an intellectual awareness for one person but could have a spiritual connotation for another person. The word mindfulness is no different. The word is traditionally associated with being observant with our conscious awareness meaning the wakefulness and aliveness of being conscious is used with intention to focus on our experiences. The generalized understanding is being thoughtful of our issues and considerate of others and their issues.
So where does thoughtfulness fit into mindfulness? Well the first thing we need to understand is that thoughtfulness is a by product of mindfulness.
It is our conscious awareness that observes whats is going on in the mind and externally. Then having perceived our present moment experience we get to discern how we are going to react. We get to inquire into why we feel a certain way or why someone is behaving a certain way and this is thoughtfulness. Thoughtfulness is the next logical step after mindfulness in the chain of receiving information and basing our responses from what we have just perceived.
Mindfulness has its roots in non duality which is a teaching of universal oneness that under pins many spiritual teachings specifically In the east. The idea of non duality is that we are all connected not only with each other but with the cosmos at large. In fact in non duality when we say we are all connected in this is meant quite literally. Meaning that not only are you one with all forms and objects around you. You are also one with everything that can’t be sensed with the five senses. The reason for this is because we are all the one unified consciousness. experiencing this reality from different vantage points i.e different people, species etc.
So in order to discover you’re essential nature as all inclusive consciousness what would you need to do? Well nothing really as you would already be it right? Why would there be any reason to look for it? In fact many non dual teachers say that there is nothing to do at all.
So why doesn’t it feel that way? and how does non duality tie into mindfulness?
Well first of all bringing you’re attention to this present moment is essential if you are to realize that you are pure awareness. Because it re-introduces us to our true identity which is awareness, keep in mind this doesn’t mean that our awareness ever went anywhere. Our engagement in thoughts, emotions and identifying with our mental persona creates a contrast in awareness. For example we can’t really exist in the past or future without a time machine to take us there. So when we do it is always in the mind and this is just thinking and not our reality right now. To get out of this contrast we must bring our attention to this moment. As this is were our life is really being lived.
Mindfulness is an action to bring us closer to ourselves as consciousness, which simply put is who we are right now! and our sense of aliveness in this moment. Without this realization mindfulness could arguably be simply put as mundane training in focus and conscientiousness.
Is mindfulness traditionally Buddhist?
If we are looking at the origins of mindfulness from a western secular stand point it could seem this way. Many different clinical and psychological modalities have sprouted up within the last 30 years. All using mindfulness as a fundamental element to their processes. The list of Acronyms keeps growing with every new hybrid of western psychology and mindfulness these include MBSR, MBCT ACT, MIBCT, ect. All these disciplines acknowledge Buddhism as their reference and inspiration in which they draw their mindfulness practices from.
These modalities also acknowledge mindfulness as a stand alone practice dislocating it from its Buddhist context. This does have many benefits as it doesn’t ask practitioners to buy into any belief systems such as karma or Samara or call on people to change there religious beliefs. This dislocation adds a human element to the practice calling on participants to inquire into their own experience and intuition for evidence of the efficacy of these practices.
On the other hand these western hybrids of psychology and traditional Buddhist meditation. Have been criticized for taking the practice of mindfulness out of context and not fully integrating other Buddhist ideas that without them don’t create the full picture of mindfulness. Many argue that the appropriation of this Buddhist meditative practice in the West leaves a lot to be desired. And that more work needs to be done to responsibly integrate Buddhist ideas into western psychological mindfulness hybrids.
But who said mindfulness is exclusively Buddhist anyway?
Ofcoarse we can literally trace the translation of the word mindfulness back to Pali Sanskrit which is of buddist origins. But does that make Buddhism the authority on awarness or attention?
I know from my own back ground I discovered mindfulness from Chinese philosophical Daoism and in practicing Qi gong. I also study Advaita Vedanta a branch of Hinduism where present moment awareness is stressed as mans unified connection to each other and the universe. These teachings both pre date Buddhism and point to their core practices as being awareness in the present moment.
Although some argue that Buddhist mindfulness is not only present moment attention but the discernment of what is happening. I would say that it is a branch of mindfulness as many other traditions point to the present moment as a fundamental element to their teachings.