Mindfulness, as a practice, means giving our full, open-hearted attentiveness to what is immediately occurring, physically and mentally, both within and around us.
By being more mindful we recognise and overcome the many ways in which we tend to get caught in rumination, distraction and resistance. Practising certain mindfulness-based techniques regularly, like formal mindfulness meditation practice, walking mindfully, loving-kindness meditation and so forth, will enable us to better respond to the stresses and strains of our daily lives as qualities of focus and attention, curiosity, openness and kindness take deeper root within our hearts and mind.
It is true that when we practise being mindful through the aide of these and related techniques we can contribute in a major way to shifting the auto-pilot setting away from one in which our minds feel constantly busy and scattered to one in which a relaxed, open and alert sense of presence can become the norm. In other words, to a mode where mindfulness is felt and lived as an increasingly natural way of being. These practices and techniques are the water that qualities of mindfulness – already present as seeds within our hearts and minds – need to grow. But it is a mistake to assume that these techniques are the summation of what mindfulness is. Like a healthy forest, our mindfulness practice also needs the nourishment of sunlight, soil and even the connection to other forest species in order to truly flourish. In future posts I will address the need for an ethical approach to mindfulness practice, which is the soil in which the seeds of mindfulness are nurtured, and the importance of community as a key support for mindfulness practice. In the remainder of this post, I want to point to something that is not often considered in modern mindfulness training – the orientation or the view we bring to our practice. Like the surrounding atmosphere, always there but not often acknowledged, we could think of the view as our unquestioned and conditioned assumptions about life that together make up the way in which we view the world and our place in it. The worldview we bring to our mindfulness training can have great impacts on our practice. If the sun remains hidden behind the clouds, the growth of mindful qualities will be inhibited. But with skilled guidance and dedicated reflection, the clouds of our habitual tendencies and assumptions will part allowing the sunshine of clear awareness to penetrate the soil and aid the growth of a healthy mindfulness practice.
So, to really understand mindfulness, I find it helpful to recognise it as an ancient practice that arose out of the world’s great wisdom traditions, which held a different worldview to what many of us hold in modern societies today. To the practitioners of old, the world was one in which body, mind and nature were viewed as a unified whole. All of life was seen to be interconnected and complete in each moment – everything being created, sustained, and supported by everything else. This view did not contradict the reality of diversity and individual uniqueness. Rather, it was understood that individual expression was only possible in relation to multiple causes and conditions. Just as a forest contains a multitude of unique specimens of flora and fauna, each of those specimens can only express its individuality due to its relationship with, and support from, the whole forest ecosystem. In modern times, understandings of this essential interconnectedness of life are now well-established within the scientific discipline of ecology.
When learning mindfulness it is important to consider this view of life as an integrated whole. Otherwise we run the risk of misconstruing mindfulness as nothing more than a technique to be used at times when we experience psychological distress. While it is a fundamental purpose of mindfulness to alleviate distress, we will not reap the full benefits that it can offer if we view it simply as a Band-Aid approach to be used once problems arise. Instead, mindfulness works by stemming the flow of fragmentation, distraction and mindlessness which provoke feelings of separation from the world. It is these feelings of separation that causes distress in the first instance. Remembering that life is essentially integrated in each moment serves as a reminder to pause and reorient ourselves to an appreciation of the fullness of life occurring here and now whenever we notice that we have become distracted and forgetful.
Of course, our ancestors lived with vulnerability as much as we do – more in some respects and less in others no doubt. This is the nature of life and where there is vulnerability there will always be cause for distress, turmoil and hardship. But this inherent vulnerability, such as it is due to the continuous flux of life, also allows the possibility for growth and unfolding. With the right blend of supportive conditions, the water, soil, and sunlight of practice, we can move beyond the idea that mindfulness is just a technique and towards a felt-sense recognition that mindfulness is the very act of turning up for life in all its integrated fullness and flux, moment by moment by moment.