With a worried look on her face she asked me: “What did I do wrong?”
A lady I met in Sri Lanka decided she wanted to develop her meditation practice in daily life. She firmly resolved to bring more mindfulness into ordinary day-to-day activities. So she set out to go shopping mindfully.
She did everything very mindfully, took her car keys mindfully, walked to the car mindfully, got in the car mindfully, drove down to the shops mindfully, went around the supermarket selecting her groceries mindfully, and got to the check-out and paid for them mindfully, and was just walking back to her car mindfully to mindfully drive off, when a man from the store came running after her:
“Madam! Madam! You forgot your shopping!”
When she told me about this she seemed very troubled. She asked me: “What did I do wrong?”
This is from a letter I wrote to her:
It sounds to me as though you’ve been trying too hard to be mindful. We get an idea of what mindfulness is and we try to force things to accord with our idea, rather than feel our way into this question of “what is mindfulness?” We take the image of mindfulness and try to force our experience to accord with the image we have. The forcefulness of this trying causes the mind to contract. When the mind contracts we become less mindful rather than more, and things seem to go wrong.
But how can we not make mistakes, when we start from a disposition of ignorance? How else can we learn about ignorance except by gradually realising how we have been going wrong all this time?
Somehow out of ignorance wisdom has to grow. The choice of image used by the Lord Buddha in this connection is no accident: the pure beautiful lotus grows in the mud, grows out of the water and stands above it unsullied.
Wisdom can grow out of ignorance – we mustn’t be afraid of making mistakes. It is the mud that we learn from. We all have enough mud, but most people don’t use it like you are doing – for growing lotuses.
It is very easy to feel intimidated by the injunction to be mindful – “you’ve got to be mindful”. This injunction can make us feel anxious, because we don’t really know what that means, what it involves. So we read Dhamma books about mindfulness or we listen to impressive teachers talking about mindfulness and we get hold of ideas about it.
As long as you view others as experts (people or books) this will undermine your attempts to learn. It is OK to ask for help and guidance from others but be careful not to give away too much of your power. If you make others the experts and make yourself the know-nothing, you have immediately invested too much in them.
When you receive guidance, let it in. But consider: ‘Does it fit me?’, ‘Does it ring true?’, ‘Does this feel right?’ Quietly take what feels right and work with it. Don’t take it all, especially that which doesn’t feel right to you. Receive it gracefully (like receiving a host’s food) but just eat the nourishing parts. Leave the parts aside that don’t agree with you. Maybe you’ll appreciate them later, who knows? Or maybe this expert is not right 100% of the time, or is not tuned into you sufficiently to get a sense of what might help you. In this way you don’t surrender your discernment.
Anxiety and uncertainty
When we invest a lot in other people’s expertise, it gives us a feeling of certainty, it dispels the anxiety of not-knowing. But it is a forced certainty. We’re grasping tight onto someone else’s idea. It is not the relaxed quietness of our own inner confidence. Our anxiety may appear to go away, but we’ve really just suppressed it. When we loosen our grip on the second-hand certainty (that is not ours) the anxiety re-emerges. In order to move forward we need to open to this not-knowing , to this anxiety and allow it to be there as part of our reality.
When we start to allow anxiety and uncertainty some room to be present in our experience, we start to find them everywhere. So much of what we do is a reaction against anxiety. We cannot bear it. It’s like having a small container that quickly fills us up to bursting point – we seem to have no room within ourselves. We feel oppressed by it
Anxiety — Unpleasant feeling — Wanting to get rid of it — Subtle panic — Search for ways of getting rid of it — Grasping at idea/ ideal — Attempts to control — Forceful intervention — Tension — Frustration — more anxiety — More attempts to control.
Trying to control things comes from a lack of understanding of the working of awareness. We are in the business of cultivating and growing awareness (not controlling and trying for a fixed result), so that awareness itself will bring its own mysterious unanticipated solutions. So we magnify awareness and trust it to work its magic. The fertiliser for this is interest, which is like sunlight for a plant and the work of cultivation is investigation (reading the inner book).
Then: Anxiety — Unpleasant feeling — questioning: What is this? (interest + investigation)— Recognition — “aha! This is anxiety.” — Locating the feeling — Allowing it space to be there –
(This is “building the container” – this is where determination is useful to hold yourself steady with the feeling). Anxiety may increase as it has space to unfold into. (It may have been triggering old unresolved past associations which are still to be released.)
—- Allowing whatever wishes-to-come-into-being, to do so —- Letting go of resistance to what IS. (Not making a drama out of what is present, interpreting or trying too hard to understand and not demanding that it leave.) This attitude is like holding the door open: “you can leave whenever you like” – not trying to make it stay or to boot it out. — Leads to “sensitive receptivity”. When the anxiety fades out this “sensitive receptivity” remains – alert, interested, responsive, appreciative, waiting for the next experience. In this way anxiety can be used as a friend. It can take you to receptivity – it is a call for attention on the feeling level. Follow it through with awareness and watch it unfold its mysteries.
Concentration is attention focused exclusively on one thing. It strengthens and stabilises the mind and brings order and clarity. A mind that lacks the capacity to concentrate tends to be scattered and restless, but a mind locked onto one thing to the exclusion of all else can become narrow, rigid and inflexible. There are great blessings to be had from practising concentration, but there can be some pitfalls.
Concentration practices can bring blissful, peaceful states, but the mind may not be developing wisdom. Problems are suppressed but not overcome. When the mind returns to normal the problems reappear. Sometimes people who are keen to develop concentration practices become intolerant and easily irritated, since all distractions are seen as obstacles. So it is a matter of balance. Concentration can bring stability and calm, but then these things can be used to help investigate things to look carefully at what is happening.
Mindfulness is a broader kind of awareness than the fixed-focus of concentration. Another way to say it is fluid ‘presence of mind’, awareness of ‘just the right thing at the right time’ as in driving a car. There is a motoring offence in Britain called “driving without due care and attention”. If we think of this as unmindfulness, then mindfulness is ‘having due care and attention’ – a kind of appropriate attentiveness. If you drive with no concentration you get easily distracted by some interesting thing on the side of the road (crash). Too much concentration – and the mind gets too fixed on one thing.
Mindfulness is fluid presence of mind. It is not necessarily fixed on one object. (But it can be appropriate to hold attention on one object, as in sitting meditation.) It generally contains interest and investigation, and constant monitoring and readjustment. How? I cannot tell you exactly – experiment and find out for yourself. If you can drive a car, you already know it.
Sampajjañña is all-round awareness. It is sometimes called clear comprehension, but this is not descriptive enough. Someone with Sampajjañña is someone who maintains an awareness of the overall context within which an experience is taking place: e.g. the route one is following on a journey.
You have to be prepared to attend to things which may not yet be present in awareness. For example: remembering to look out for a landmark, or keeping an eye on the time, remembering where you parked the car, remembering to pick up the groceries you just paid for. This quality lifts you out of the immediacy of experience (which can be quite absorbing – tending to pull you into concentration) into the overview – ‘what’s happening now?’ It helps you make adjustments here and there, monitors results, learns from mistakes, integrates new information and updates your view of the situation (we tend to get fixed views of what are in reality fluid things)
Awareness is always present. Even when you are day dreaming, awareness is absorbed in the dream. It is only not present when anaesthetised in hospital. It’s even present in sleep. So we are cultivating, strengthening and beautifying a quality we already have. Awareness of what IS. If the old habit to try and force things arises, busy thinking comes up.
So – what to do? Recognise that this is the habit of trying. Well, what should I do then? – Can you feel the anxiety of not knowing what to do? Recognise the habit, the anxiety, the desire to get rid of it, the tendency to judge, the search for a strategy and so on. All these things are also a part of what IS. Simply that. Judgement? (Oh. I shouldn’t judge) (Oh, that’s judging the judgement).
OK, let it be. Let it all be a complete, confusing mess, floating in awareness. Let it float and settle in whatever way it wishes. This way we are strengthening awareness, not trying to manipulate the contents of it. Awareness when it is open, allowing, not stuck to anything is free, resilient, expansive and blissful.
Awareness — Questioning — Recognition — Interest — Investigation — Containment — Letting go.
Things to do:
Relax, experiment (interest + investigation), read your inner book. Make mistakes, (go on, be daring) and learn. Ask: ‘What was that?’, ‘Where am I tripping myself up?’ Use your determination to resist being intimidated by anxiety, to press forward into the unknown in your investigation and to not be in a hurry to make other people the expert (books or teachers).
In meditation, let go of images of how you want it to be, or how you think it should be. Make room for the mystery of it, for the unknown. Give yourself permission to let it all fall apart sometimes and keep watching where it comes to rest. Then the sun of awareness may break through the clouds of activity on its own (you didn’t do it) and bathe everything in light for a while. If you let it, this will keep happening more and more and your trust in the power of awareness will deepen.
When it seems right bring in more focus (just in the same way as when driving a car, you know when to brake or change gear – how do you know that?). You don’t do it from memory – the knowledge comes from your awareness and appreciation of the present situation. Experiment. Try something and watch the result.
If the mind wants to wander for a while, let it. Better it wanders now and you relax and allow yourself space to feel settled, than you force it, fail and feel frustrated. Sometimes it’s hopeless. So what? Keep going. Clouds cover the sun for a moment but do not destroy it. If you can’t see the sun, it doesn’t mean it’s gone away. The wise person understands this and does not add to confusion. Is it so hard, or are you making it difficult through wanting?
When you are relaxed, interested, alert, receptive, open, not judging, open to the mystery, life will unfold before you within and without, awareness will grow, egotism will wane and you will feel blessed.
And you probably will not forget your groceries!
Ajahn Vipassi 1999
Ajahn Vipassi is now Alan Lewis . Kindly contributed to Zen Moments by the author
The One-Minute Meditator: Relieving Stress and Finding Meaning in Everyday Life
By Bill Birchard, David A. Nichol
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