In his book Rainbow Painting, Tibetan Buddhist teacher Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche writes: “There are two types of mindfulness: deliberate and effortless.” We can use deliberate mindfulness as an initial practice leading to effortless mindfulness, or we can begin meditation training with effortless mindfulness. When we start with effortless mindfulness, we get all the benefits of deliberate mindfulness . . . and more.
Deliberate mindfulness is the basic form of mindfulness that many of us are familiar with. The Theravada Buddhist word for mindfulness (in the Pali language) is sati, often translated as “remembering.” Deliberate mindfulness requires us to use our attention to continuously return to the object of mindfulness—remembering and re-attending. The reason we cannot stay focused is not lack of willpower, but that the everyday mind we’re looking from is always moving and changing. We are actively recreating not only our focus but also “the focuser,” the separate sense of self located in conceptual thinking.
Effortless mindfulness is a simple yet more advanced form of mindfulness. Effortless mindfulness doesn’t mean that we don’t have to make an initial effort. We aren’t being asked to “try to be effortless”—which can be quite an effort! Instead, the adjective “effortless” refers to the discovery that there is a unique kind of awareness, awake awareness, that is naturally aware without our help or effort. This awareness is right here, right now, and equally available to each of us.
In the gradual path, which many meditative approaches offer, effortless mindfulness is considered a later stage practice, but it can be as easy for beginners to learn as deliberate mindfulness. Effortless mindfulness is somewhat like riding a bicycle on a gradual, downward-sloping road: once we learn to let go, trust and balance, we can coast without deliberately pedaling.
To practice deliberate mindfulness meditation, you usually need a special place—a meditation hall, retreat center, or quiet room—to observe your internal experience of thoughts, feelings, and sensations. Effortless mindfulness is done through small glimpses during the day, leading to an open-hearted presence that can be accessed with eyes open, whether at work or in relationships.
One way to begin effortless mindfulness is to open and rest in awake awareness. We move our focus from the contents of consciousness to the context—awareness itself. We can learn to unhook awareness from the everyday thinking mind and have awareness look back to, and through, the mindful meditator. When the meditator is looked for, none can be found. Instead, awake awareness is discovered to be already effortlessly aware. It’s similar to the difference between effortless breathing and deliberate breathing. Imagine having to remember every time you needed to take a breath. Noticing effortless mindfulness is like noticing that our breathing is happening by itself. When looking from awake awareness, we are effortlessly mindful.
Effortless mindfulness empowers us with the natural capability to be with our thoughts and emotions, without obsessive monitoring. This awake awareness is an infinite resource capable of coping with all difficult emotions. From effortless mindfulness, we have the ability to experience the arising of thoughts, feelings, emotions, and even subpersonalities from within and all around—without needing to identify with them, deny them, or project them onto others.
Like space itself, awake awareness can be neither increased nor diminished by any forms arising within its field. At first, effortless mindfulness is like a mirror that sees with clear wisdom and reflects without being overwhelmed or identified. Then, when effortless mindfulness is discovered to be embodied and open-hearted, we feel like a wave in the ocean of life.
Adapted from Shift into Freedom: The Science and Practice of Open-Hearted Awareness by Loch Kelly, published by Sounds True © 2015
For more, check out Tricycle’s online course on Effortless Mindfulness with Loch Kelly. In this 6-unit course, you’ll learn to go beyond basic mindfulness and discover an effortless awareness that is experiential, embodied, and boundless.