“Mindfulness, as we know, is a word that has been absorbed now into our culture. I think it’s so important to appreciate the depth and the nuances of what mindfulness can offer to us in terms of waking up,” says meditation teacher Christina Feldman. In Tricycle’s online course, “The Seven Factors of Awakening,” Feldman and Jaya Rudgard discuss these very nuances. Read an excerpt from the course below and learn more about Tricycle’s online courses here.
Mindfulness Is Familiar
The root meaning of the word sati is remembering or recollecting. In a sense, when we practice this, we’re coming to our senses. We’re becoming present to the immediacy of our experience, and doing this is the on switch for the whole cascade of the awakening factors to follow.
What are we remembering? We’re remembering the present moment. We’re remembering that we’re here, that we’re now. And we’re also remembering the context of that which we know about the teachings, about what’s useful to remember, and the context of our intentions. So sati is often accompanied by another word, sampajanna, which means all-round knowing, or knowing the context in which things are happening.
Inclined Toward Liberation
Sati as an awakening factor includes an intention toward liberation. We’re not simply learning to relax—although that’s a very valuable effect of engaging with this practice. We’re actually moving toward liberation, or freedom. Mindfulness has also been described as the path to the “deathless.” It’s a step-by-step practice that takes us in the direction of unbinding: freedom from the afflictive habits and patterns that trap us in suffering. In this way it’s also a gateway into the experience of peace.
Another way to look at mindfulness is to know directly what’s happening as it’s happening, a certain quality of attentiveness to the present moment. This requires a relaxed sense of presence. We can’t sustain attentiveness if it’s not a relaxed attention. Sometimes it’s useful to think of qualities in terms of what they’re not, and our attentiveness to the present moment is not a kind of hypervigilance, but a relaxed form of presence.
Mindfulness is also inherently respectful and caring. It’s attuned and it’s an embodied sense of attentiveness. Actually, the use of the word mindfulness may obscure the fact that there’s actually an engagement of the heart and the whole body in the knowing of this moment.
One of the many images of mindfulness in the suttas that I like comes in the discourse on mindfulness of breathing. It likens the attention of mindfulness to being the sort of attention that a skilled woodturner would apply to the turning of his wood, knowing exactly the quality of movement that he’s making. Or maybe in more modern terms, we might think of a potter. There’s a sense of appreciativeness, sensitivity, and really contacting and feeling out what’s happening in the present moment that is captured in that image. In other words, if you were a skilled craftsman working your craft, what is the quality of attentiveness that you bring to that?
Mindfulness is also appropriate to the situation at hand. Sometimes our mindfulness will be more relaxed; sometimes it needs to be a little bit more sharp and on point. Another beautiful image is that of the cowherd tending the cows. In a situation where there are no crops for the cows to trample on, the cowherd can just sit back and watch what’s happening in a relaxed manner. But sometimes something needs a little bit more direct intervention, and then we get up and do something about it. The cowherd would have to actually jump up and stop the cows from trampling the crops. At the same time, when we notice our mind straying into territory where some more direct intervention is needed, then mindfulness becomes more active and engaged. For example, I might simply be aware of the sounds happening around me in the room, and then something might come and jump to my attention that really distracts me, and I want to leap up and do something about it. Mindfulness can have this restraining quality where rather than have a knee jerk reaction to what’s happening, we actually have the choice to ask, “Is this something that really needs a response right now? Or is it something that I can just allow to be and allow to go?” This is what mindfulness offers: the choice point between acting on habit and responding appropriately to a given situation.
Mindfulness monitors and balances the qualities in the mind. When we know that there is a lot of energy in the mind, we can pay more attention to calming factors in the mind. When we notice that we’re becoming dull, we can actually choose to sharpen up our attention. In this way, mindfulness monitors and oversees the activities of the mind in our practice and can rebalance them accordingly. We can also be aware of the comings and goings of mindfulness itself. One of the ways we’re invited to practice mindfulness of these mind states is to notice their presence and their absence and to notice the conditions that support their arising and the conditions that support their waning. It’s this aspect of appropriate attention. To be aware even of the comings and goings of mindfulness itself is excellent mindfulness practice. And at any moment, we can just take a pause and recollect where we are and reengage with this quality of sati and remembering.
When the Buddha speaks about the bojjhanga, or the awakening factors, he speaks about also developing this quality of mindfulness to know when it is appropriate to cultivate any one of the awakening factors. If there is restlessness, this is not the right time to be cultivating investigation. It’s the time to be cultivating calm. If there is dullness, this is the time to be cultivating more investigation. But he says it is always an appropriate moment to cultivate mindfulness because mindfulness really has the effect of illuminating the moment.
If you think about a walk you might regularly do in your life, perhaps it might be a walk to your car or to the bus stop or a walk in the park, you know what it’s like to take part in that walk when you’re lost in preoccupations, obsessions, distraction. You can return home and realize you haven’t been touched by anything. It’s almost a lost moment. You’re also aware that when you take that same walk in an intentional way, inhabiting the body and present, you are touched by the world around you and the world within you. Mindfulness has this effect of almost illuminating the moment and awakening the world around us. We truly come to our senses so that we can be touched and so that we can respond.
One of those nuances of mindfulness is just developing the capacity to simply know what is happening within us and around us. And that sounds so easy, but it is not. So much of our knowing is filtered through interpretations, memories, associations, likes and dislikes. There’s a remarkable calming that comes from simply knowing a thought as a thought, a sound as a sound, a sight as a sight. In many ways, I think this dimension of mindfulness is actually one of the most transformative because it is the place where we step out of the eye of the storm, so to speak, and almost begin to develop a dialogue and relationship with what is being experienced inwardly and outwardly. We actually step out of identifying with what is being experienced as being me or who I am or a self-definition.
Another dimension of mindfulness that is deeply important is protective awareness: that we learn what it means to be a wise gatekeeper within our own hearts and our own minds. There’s a very big difference between protective awareness and defensive awareness. The former is not about shutting the world out or being life-denying. It is actually engaging in the quality of discernment inwardly: of knowing what leads to distress and the end of distress, what leads toward and away from freedom, what leads to affliction of myself or of others and what leads to the end of affliction. Discernment in Buddhist psychology is the bridging factor between mindfulness and appropriate response. It’s not about judgment. It’s having the discernment to know what it is useful to cultivate and what it is not useful.
In the suttas, the image of the wise gatekeeper standing at the gates of the city is used, knowing what to welcome in and what to acknowledge but not to entertain or feed. We need to know at different times in our day what element of mindfulness is really helpful to us. Is it protective awareness? Is it investigative awareness? Is it about learning to reframe our perceptions? Or is it learning to draw on the extended family of mindfulness: of kindness, compassion, and joyfulness?
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