I was introduced to the practice of mindfulness by S. N. Goenka in 1974, a few weeks after being ordained as a novice monk. Together with a group of young Tibetan monks and Western students of Buddhism, I attended a silent ten-day Vipassana retreat in Dharamsala, India.
During the first three days we cultivated mindfulness of breathing by focusing on the sensation of the breath as it passes over the upper lip. After a while the fugitive passage of inhalations and exhalations consolidated into a stable point of sensation at the center of the lip. This point then became the exclusive focus of the meditation.
In becoming more concentrated, I started seeing flashes of colored lights and patterns in my mind. They did not last long, and we were advised to pay them no attention. By the end of the three days, I had settled into an unprecedented state of focused attention, which I could sustain for several minutes at a time without distraction.
On day four, we moved our focus from the upper lip to a point at the top of the head. From there we carefully expanded our attention to the rest of the scalp, the face, the ears, the neck, until we reached the torso. Then we slowly continued through the rest of the body, along each arm and leg in turn, until we reached the tips of our toes. Once this downward scan was complete, we repeated the procedure in reverse until we returned to the top of the head. We spent each meditation session “sweeping” the body from head to foot and back again.
At first, my experience was patchy. Some parts of the body buzzed, tingled, vibrated, and pulsed, while other parts felt almost completely insensate. As I persisted with the exercise—it was all we did for several hours each day—the dead zones began to come alive until I felt my entire body as one single mass of quivering sensations.
In a deep, reassuring voice, Mr. Goenka instructed us to pay attention to the range of pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral feelings associated with these sensations. A pain in the knee breaks down into physical reactions triggered by the stress on the joint due to sitting cross-legged for long periods and a subjective feeling of that condition as unpleasant. In refining mindfulness, one learns to differentiate between physical sensations or sounds and how one feels about them, thereby enabling one to dwell in a keenly responsive but less reactive state of mind.
Mr. Goenka told us to notice how even the most stubborn sensations and feelings came and went. I found that if I probed deeply into a piercing pain in the knee, at a certain point it would “switch” from being something solid and unpleasant into a rapidly vibrating pattern of sensations that no longer hurt as much. I realized that what I experienced at any given moment was co-created by the physical processes of my body and the way I was conditioned to interpret and react to them. I remember a time when I was seated cross-legged outside on the grass between meditation sessions in an ecstatic, silent, openhearted awareness while the gusts of wind rising from the plains of the Punjab below Dharamsala seemed to blow through me. The sense of a separate world “out there” being observed by a detached subject “in here” began to break down.
All this took place more than forty years ago, but its impact remains with me today. It was my initiation into mindfulness, which has been the basis of my contemplative life ever since. Far more than just a technique, mindfulness offered me a new sensibility on life as a whole, an entirely other perspective on how to be a practicing human in the world.
My Tibetan Buddhist education and training during the two years before the retreat had been an ideal preparation for this practice. I was used to spending much of each day cross-legged on the floor, so long hours of sitting meditation did not trouble me. My daily reflections and studies—on the preciousness of human life, the imminence of death, renunciation, existential commitment, an altruistic resolve, and emptiness—provided a fertile soil of value and meaning for mindful awareness to take root in. I had thought deeply about impermanence and selflessness. Now I was experiencing them viscerally. I found myself part of the living fabric of human experience into which I was inseparably woven yet was at the same time free to examine and explore. Mindfulness, I discovered, was not an aloof, detached regard. Its practice served to sculpt and shape the inner contours of my solitude.
Nor was the idea of mindfulness new to me. For many months I had been studying Shantideva’s Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life. The entire fifth chapter of this 8th-century Indian Buddhist text is devoted to the practice of mindful awareness.
Mr. Goenka provided the tools to turn Shantideva’s teachings on mindfulness into a felt reality, while Shantideva’s reflections provided an ethical dimension for Mr. Goenka’s contemplative practice. “If the elephant of my mind,” wrote Shantideva, “is firmly bound on all sides by the rope of mindfulness, all fears will cease to exist and all virtues will come into my hand.” The purpose of mindfulness is not just to be more aware of the breath, bodily sensations, and feelings. For Shantideva it means to be constantly mindful of one’s ethical aspirations. Mindfulness is compared to the gatekeeper at the doorway of the mind and senses, alert to any impulse that threatens to divert you from your goals and undermine you.
“The thieves of unawareness,” he remarks, “follow upon the decline of mindfulness and rob you of your goodness.” They circle around “waiting for an opportunity” to break in and take possession of you. Mindfulness is a heightened attention that notices the very first stirring of reactive impulses and neurotic habits before they have a chance to take hold. “When, on the verge of acting, I see my mind is tainted,” Shantideva tells himself, “I should remain immobile, like a piece of wood.”
The piece of wood is a metaphor for equanimity, not indifference. Mindfulness is a balanced, reflective stance in which one notices the meanness or sarcasm that rises up in the mind while neither identifying with it nor rejecting it. One observes with interest what is happening without succumbing to either the urge to act on it or the guilty desire to ignore or suppress it. This entails a radical acceptance of who and what you are, where nothing is unworthy of being the object of such attention. You say “yes” to your life as it manifests, warts and all, with an ironic, compassionate regard. Through sustaining this nonreactive stance over time, mindful awareness becomes the basis for one’s ethical life.
Mindful awareness encompasses the entire project of human flourishing
This perspective is spelled out in the 14th-century Tibetan lama Thogme Zangpo’s commentary to Shantideva’s text. For Thogme Zangpo, mindfulness is “the recollection of all one aspires to let go of and realize,” while awareness is “knowing how to do that letting go and realizing.” Mindful awareness thus encompasses the entire project of human flourishing. To be mindful means to remember to let go of compulsive reactivity and realize a nonreactive way of life, while to be aware means to know how to refine the psychological, contemplative, philosophical, and ethical skills needed to achieve these goals.
Ever since the Vipassana retreat with Mr. Goenka and the study of Shantideva’s Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life, the contemplative and ethical dimensions of mindfulness have been inseparable for me. Mindful awareness both embeds my attention in the raw immediacy of experience and serves as the moral compass that guides my response to that experience. “What is the power of mindfulness?” asked Gotama more than a thousand years before Shantideva. “The noble practitioner is mindful: she is equipped with the keenest mindfulness and awareness; she remembers well and keeps in mind what has been said and done long ago.”
Wrong-minded people voice opinions,
as do truth-minded people too.
When an opinion is offered, the sage is not drawn
there’s nothing arid about the sage.
—Sutta Nipata 4.3
“I feel death,” says Michel de Montaigne, “continuously nipping at my throat and kidneys.” Montaigne knows that “each stumble of a horse, each falling of a tile, each slight pinprick” could be the harbinger of his end. To be able to die at peace, a philosopher needs to die to his attachments to the world. This, for Montaigne, is “true solitude,” where one’s thoughts and emotions are reined in and brought under control. “To prepare oneself for death is to prepare oneself for freedom. The one who has learned to die has unlearned to be a slave.”
To die to the world is far from straightforward. “People do not recognize the natural sickness of their mind,” says Montaigne, which does nothing but “ferret about in search of something, ceaselessly twisting, elaborating, and entangling itself in its own activity like a silkworm, until it suffocates there like ‘a mouse in pitch.’ ” We rush around in a compulsive flight from death. “Every moment,” he remarks, “it seems I am fleeing from myself.” No matter how many laws or precepts we use to fence the mind in, we still find it “garrulous and dissolute, escaping all constraints.” This flight is chaotic and aimless. There is “no madness or lunacy that cannot be produced in this turmoil. When the soul has no definite goal, it gets lost.”
Chronic dissatisfaction further drives this restlessness. “Nothing that we know and enjoy feels satisfying,” remarks Montaigne.
Since what is present fails to gratify us, we hanker after future things of which we know nothing. It is not that what is present is unable to gratify us, but we grasp it in a sick and uncontrolled way.
This strategy increases the dissatisfaction it seeks to dispel. For what we cling to turns out to be hollow and empty. “We clutch at everything,” he says, “but clasp nothing but wind.”
Montaigne suggests that nature distracts us from ourselves “so as not to discourage us.” To divert our attention, it has “very cleverly projected the activity of our gaze outward so that we are swept forward on its current.” This is why “to turn the course of our life back toward us is a painful move.” It is hard work to swim against the stream. It creates turbulence, like “when the sea, pushed back onto itself, churns in confusion.”
Montaigne compares himself to “a vessel that disintegrates, splits apart, leaks, and shirks its duty to itself. It needs to be knocked together and tightened up with some good strokes of a mallet.” Such reform cannot be done piecemeal. It requires a continual training of the soul. “Recover your mind and your will, which are busying themselves elsewhere,” he urges. “You are draining away and scattering yourself. Concentrate yourself; hold yourself back. You are being betrayed, dissipated, robbed.”
“It is a tricky business,” he acknowledges, “to follow so meandering a course as that of our mind, to penetrate its opaque depths and hidden recesses, to discern and stop so many subtle shifts in its movements.” This is impossible without rigorous self-governance. To rein in its compulsive wandering, “no beast more justly needs to be given blinkers to keep its gaze focused on what lies before its feet.” It requires that you learn how to “keep yourself settled, straight, inflexible, without movement or agitation.” “Others,” he comments, “study themselves in order to advance and elevate their mind: I seek to humble it and lay it down to rest.”
“The procedure that works well for me,” says Montaigne, is this: “With very little effort I stop the first movement of my emotions, and let go of whatever has started to weigh me down before it carries me off.” By “spying closely on the effects and circumstances of the passions that govern me,” he has learned to detect “the tiny breezes that brush against me and murmur inside me, as forerunners of the storm.” Seeing them approach lets him “slow down a little the frenzy of their charge.” Experience has taught him that without knowing how to “close the door against your emotions, you will never chase them out once they have gained entry.”
To succeed in examining and managing one’s life is, for Montaigne, to have accomplished the “greatest task of all.” It is not easy, but with practice you can tame the mind. Rarely does anyone attempt, let alone succeed in, this endeavor. Montaigne considers himself unusual in this regard: “Never has someone prepared himself to leave the world more simply and totally, or detached himself from it more completely than I strive to do.”
Montaigne follows Plato’s “middle road” between “hatred of pain and love of pleasure,” and instructs himself to “contemplate both pain and pleasure with an equally calm gaze.” To live this way, you need to jettison even the guidelines and pointers that have brought you to this point. “Most people get it wrong,” he explains:
Of course one can proceed more easily by sticking to the side of the road, whose curb serves as a limit and a guide, than by following the wide and open middle way. Yes, it is far easier to proceed by artificial than by natural means, but it is far less noble too and held in less esteem. The soul’s greatness lies not so much in reaching lofty heights and making progress as in knowing and respecting its range.
One needs to cultivate an intuitive sense of balance and orientation that is responsive to the demands of each moment. “I want death to find me planting my cabbages,” he says, “worrying about neither it nor my imperfect garden.”
TATE MODERN, LONDON,
I am in a large public art gallery. People are milling around and talking in hushed voices. Behind me is a life-size standing figure that looks like a man encased in lead. On entering the room, I recognized it as a work of the British artist Antony Gormley. The figure leans slightly backward, its arms and legs splayed, its barely discernible features gazing skyward. Called Untitled (for Francis), it evokes the moment St. Francis of Assisi received the stigmata, as portrayed in a late-15th- century painting by Giovanni Bellini.
With my back to the ecstatic saint, I gaze at the only other work in the room. It is a five-foot-square abstract painting called Faraway Love by the American artist Agnes Martin. It consists of horizontal lines: five thin bands of white and four wider bands of pale blue. The bands are rectangles of different widths, their borders marked by hand-drawn pencil lines.
The paint is applied as a wash. The artist’s fingerprints are visible in places. The bottom blue band bears the seemingly accidental mark of a thin streak of blue pigment.
Agnes Martin maintained that her paintings were complete only when they evoked in the viewer the same quality that inspired her to paint them. As I peer at this work, I do not experience love, either close or far away. I am restless and uncertain as I try to make sense of what I am seeing. Nothing on the canvas holds my attention. I find myself distracted and bored. Perhaps my guilty obligation to appreciate Faraway Love undermines the innocent openness of heart required to experience love.
For twenty years Agnes Martin worked in New York and New Mexico as an obscure artist of figurative, landscape, and semiabstract painting. During this period, she routinely burned most of her work. One day in her early fifties she found herself thinking of the innocence of trees, and a grid of fine vertical lines and pale horizontal bands appeared in her mind. She painted what she saw and titled it The Tree.
For the remaining forty years of her life, nearly all her paintings would be squares divided by abstract bands of color wash and penciled lines. Her method was simple and inflexible. She would wait for moments of inspiration in which a tiny square image appeared in her mind. She would scale this up mathematically to the size of the canvas and then reproduce it exactly. She insisted that these paintings transcended the concrete world of sense experience. They were expressions of pure abstract emotion, such as innocence, perfection, benevolence, happiness, and love.
“I paint with my back to the world,” she told an interviewer in 1997. She had no interest in what others might think of what she was doing. She denied that these almost featureless works had anything to do with the prairies of Canada, where she was born, or the deserts of New Mexico, where she lived. Nor was she trying to represent the feelings that inspired her. By becoming a selfless channel for inspiration, she sought to reveal them. Since her paintings originated in inspiration, she refused to take any credit for the finished works. She accepted only the blame for their failure.
Agnes Martin pursued her art with the single-minded dedication of an ascetic. She believed that you have to get rid of everything in life that interferes with your primary inspiration and vision. If this alienates your family and friends, then so be it. For her, ideas, calculations, and ambitions obscure the “sublime, absolute perfection” of life that is present each moment. And the very worst thing you can think of when you are working is yourself. For as soon as the dragon of pride rears its fiery head, she observed, you start making mistakes.
“The best things in life,” said Agnes, “happen to you when you’re alone.” She never married, lived with a partner, or had children. Solitude was the site of her inspiration. She spent months by herself driving around North America in a camper van. For nearly a decade, she settled on the Portales mesa above the New Mexico town of Cuba, without electricity or telephone. The nearest neighbor was six miles away. “A mystic and a solitary person,” she wrote, “are the same.” Her religion was just “solitude and independence for a free mind.”
For years Agnes practiced meditation twenty minutes twice a day in order to still her mind for inspiration. At the age of 85, she declared in a video interview that she no longer meditated, because she had learned to stop thinking. “Now,” she said,
I don’t think of anything. Nothing goes through my mind. I don’t have any ideas myself and I don’t believe anybody else’s, so that leaves me a clear mind. Gosh, yes, an empty mind, so that when something comes into it you can see it.
The video shows her at work: an old woman with close-cropped hair, a paint-brush in one hand, waddling patiently between the table with her dish of paint and the canvas mounted against a studio wall. She addresses the interviewer with emphatic, chuckling enthusiasm. Her eyes sparkle from a kind, wrinkled face. Now and again they seem to flash with a glint of almost feral wariness. Agnes Martin fought to realize her artistic vision in a male-dominated art world, in a society prejudiced against and frightened of her homosexuality and schizophrenia.
Martin’s work has been said to have “the quality of a religious utterance, almost a form of prayer.” Agnes inhabited that indefinable space between artistic practice and ascetic practice. Her paintings are infused with the quiet, spacious spirituality of Taoism, Zen, and the Native American culture of New Mexico. To fully appreciate Faraway Love, I suspect, you would need to contemplate it over time, ideally alone and in silence.
Antony Gormley, whose figure Untitled (for Francis) stood behind me as I reflected on Faraway Love, was raised a Catholic and grew up in England. In his early twenties he traveled to India, where he spent three years studying Buddhism. He regards the first ten-day Vipassana retreat he attended with S. N. Goenka in Dalhousie in 1972 as “the single most important experience of my life.” In conversation with the art historian Ernst Gombrich in 1995, he described how meditating on “the sensation of being in a body” became a tool he then transferred to making sculpture. He insists that his sculptures do not represent the body but reveal the space the body inhabits. Meditation would also have helped him remain still and calm enough while he had his own body cast for works such as Untitled (for Francis). Imagine the solitude of the naked artist wrapped in cling film and two layers of plaster and jute cloth, breathing through straws.