It’s the essence of the contemplative path and the key to transforming our lives. In this teaching from his book, A Heart Full of Peace, Insight Meditation teacher Joseph Goldstein describes this simple yet profound expression of our mind’s natural awareness.
Mindfulness is the key to the present moment. Without it we cannot see the world clearly, and we simply stay lost in the wanderings of our minds. Tulku Urgyen, a great Tibetan Dzogchen master of the last century, said, “There is one thing we always need, and that is the watchman named mindfulness—the guard who is always on the lookout for when we get carried away by mindlessness.”
Mindfulness is the quality and power of mind that is deeply aware of what’s happening—without commentary and without interference. It is like a mirror that simply reflects whatever comes before it. It serves us in the humblest ways, keeping us connected to brushing our teeth or having a cup of tea.
Mindfulness also keeps us connected to the people around us, so we don’t just rush by them in the busyness of our lives. The Dalai Lama is an example of someone who beautifully embodies this quality of caring attention. After one conference in Arizona, His Holiness requested that all the employees of the hotel gather in the lobby, so that he could greet each one of them before he left for his next engagement.
Mindfulness is the basis for wise action. When we see clearly what is happening in the moment, wisdom can direct our choices and actions, rather than old habits simply playing out our patterns of conditioning. And on the highest level, the Buddha spoke of mindfulness as the direct path to enlightenment: “This is the direct path for the purification of beings, for the overcoming of sorrow and lamentation, for the disappearing of pain and grief, for the attainment of the Way, for the realization of nirvana.”
I began to practice meditation when I was in the Peace Corps in Thailand. At the time I was very enthusiastic about philosophical discussion. When I first went to visit Buddhist monks, I arrived with a copy of Spinoza’s Ethics in my hand, thinking to engage them in debate. Then I started going to discussion groups for Westerners, held at one of the temples in Bangkok. I was so persistent in my questions that other people actually stopped coming to the groups. Finally, perhaps out of desperation, one of the monks said, “Why don’t you start meditating?”
I didn’t know anything about meditation at the time, and I became excited by the prospect of what I saw as an exotic Eastern practice. I gathered all the paraphernalia together, sat myself down on a cushion—and then set my alarm clock for five minutes. Surprisingly, something important happened even in those few minutes. For the first time, I realized there was a way to look inward: there was a path for exploring the nature of my mind.
This realization is a turning point in everyone’s spiritual life. We reach a certain point in our lives when something connects, and we acknowledge to ourselves, “Yes, I can do this.” All of this was so new and interesting to me that, for a while, I’d invite my friends over to watch me meditate. Of course, they didn’t often come back.
The Practice of Mindfulness
We can start the practice of mindfulness meditation with the simple observation and feeling of each breath. Breathing in, we know we’re breathing in; breathing out, we know we’re breathing out. It’s very simple, but not easy. After just a few breaths, we hop on trains of association, getting lost in plans, memories, judgments, and fantasies. Sometimes it seems like we’re in a movie theater where the film changes every few minutes. Our minds are like that. We wouldn’t stay in a theater where the movies changed so rapidly, but what can we do about our own internal screening room?
This habit of wandering mind is very strong, even when our reveries aren’t pleasant and, perhaps, aren’t even true. As Mark Twain put it, “Some of the worst things in my life never happened.” We need to train our minds, coming back again and again to the breath and simply beginning again.
As our minds slowly steady, we begin to experience some inner calm and peace. From this place of greater stillness, we feel our bodies more directly and begin to open to both the pleasant and unpleasant sensations that might arise. At first, we may resist unpleasant feelings, but generally they don’t last that long. They are there for a while, we feel them, they’re unpleasant—and then they’re gone and something else comes along. And even if they come up repeatedly, over a period of time, we begin to see their impermanent, insubstantial nature and to be less afraid of feeling them.
A further part of the training is becoming aware of our thoughts and emotions, those pervasive mental activities that so condition our minds, our bodies, and our lives. Have you ever stopped to consider what a thought is—not the content but the very nature of thought itself? Few people really explore the question, “What is a thought?” What is this phenomenon that occurs so many times a day, to which we pay so little attention?
Not being aware of the thoughts that arise in our mind, nor of the very nature of thought itself, allows thoughts to then dominate our lives. Telling us to do this, say that, go here, go there, thoughts often drive us like we’re they’re servants.
Once, when I was teaching in Boulder, Colorado, I was sitting quite comfortably in my apartment. Thoughts were coming and going, when one arose in my mind that said, “Oh, a pizza would be nice.” I wasn’t even particularly hungry, but this thought lifted me out of the chair, took me out the door, down the stairs, into the car, over to the pizza place, back into the car, up the stairs, and into my apartment, where I finally sat back down to eat the pizza. What drove that whole sequence of activity? Just a thought in my mind.
Obviously, there is nothing wrong with going out for pizza. What does merit our attention, though, is how much of our lives is driven by thoughts. Unnoticed, they have great power. But when we pay attention, when we observe thoughts as they arise and pass away, we begin to see their essentially empty nature. They arise as little energy bubbles in the mind, rather than as reified expressions of a self.
Just as there was no all-powerful wizard behind the curtain in The Wizard of Oz, the only power our thoughts have is the power we give them. All thoughts come and go. We can learn to be mindful of them and not be carried away by the wanderings of our mind. With mindfulness, we can exercise wise discernment: “Yes, I will act on this one; no, I’ll let that one go.”