Mindfulness in Daily Life
Transcribed and Lightly Edited from a Talk by Gil Fronsdal 2/13/08
Question: My mind drifts a lot with my eyes shut, it’s easier to focus with my eyes open, I’ve been trying to do a little bit of both during sessions. Is this good… bad?
Gil: Either is fine, whatever works best for you. Some people teach this practice with keeping the eyes open or half-open not looking at anything in particular. I know for me it’s been better at times keeping them open. Whatever works best for you is fine. Chances are as a person gets more concentrated or still, it works a little better to be able to reduce the sensory input that comes through the eyes. You can get quite concentrated with the eyes open, but the more concentrated you get, it’s natural to close your eyes and get more absorbed in the focus of concentration. If you are listening to a sound in the distance, it’s natural to close your eyes to listen to a faint sound in the distance.
For some people the instructions I’m giving here these last five weeks can seem like a lot to keep track of and a lot of doing. It can seem as if the instructions are prescriptive, that I’m prescribing what you’re supposed to do. “I have to keep track of all these things in my body, my breath, my feelings, my thoughts, my attitude now. Give me a break! All this stuff! There’s all this doing!” The instructions are not meant to be so much prescriptive; they’re meant more to be descriptive. Meaning that if you’re present, these are the areas of your life that you will tend to notice. It is up to you to understand it. It’s up to you to be open and to be really here. Then you will notice your breath, your body, your feelings, your thoughts and hopefully your attitude as well as the mind.
The classic Buddhist description for a human being or the metaphor for a human being is a one-room house. The one room house has five windows and a door. In Buddhism there are six sense doors: the five sense doors we have in the West and then Buddhism posits a sixth sense door which is a sense door that perceives what goes on in our minds, our thoughts. The house has five windows and a door. Imagine that in the middle of the house there is an easy chair and you’re sitting there. You are sitting there quite relaxed and at ease; nothing to do, nothing to get, nothing to be, just sitting there. The windows are open and the door is open. Coming in front of the door is a stray cat. It peeks its head in the door and then goes away. A bird lands in the windowsill, looks at you and flies away. A squirrel runs across the door and you see the deer in the yard or something. Various animals come and go. The neighbors walk by. They all come and go.
You could stay in your easy chair and just watch what comes to the door. Or you could get up and follow something out into the yard. Or you can get up and peer out the door; “What’s out there?” You can get involved with what’s out there. The instructions for meditation is to just stay in your easy chair and let things simply appear at whatever door or window they appear in. Let them be there. Notice them when they’re there and when they go away, let them go. The emphasis is on being at ease. You’re not trying to accomplish anything; you’re not trying to force your meditation to become anything, but staying at ease and allowing things just to occur in an easy way.
All kinds of things will happen. There will be a sound outside, let the sound come to you; you don’t have to go to it. An itch will occur, let the itch arise. You don’t have to do anything about it, just let it be there, be present for it, see it when it’s there. A thought arises, just be aware of the thought. A sensation in your body arises, be there for that. The trick is to try to stay in your easy chair. Some people can’t stay there. They are so restless or so eager to fix things or do things or accomplish things that they’ll get up and get engaged. Some people have other strategies: they just turn the chair around and face the wall. They don’t want to deal with anything, even what comes through the door. The idea is to stay present. When something is at the door or window, be really present for it, take it in, allow it to be there, offer your presence to it. When it goes away, let it go away.
The analogy of sitting in an easy chair doesn’t work so well if the mind is really scattered, if the mind is wandering off in thought all the time. You need to have some kind of stability in order to stay in that easy chair. That’s why we use the breath as the foundation of meditation practice. One of the functions of the breath is to create stability and help the mind calm down and help the mind not be so scattered running around after all these thoughts. It may take a while for the mind to calm down. Once the mind has calmed down, you metaphorically take the easy chair and allow things to arise and pass as they wish.
In our tradition, we call this choiceless awareness. You don’t choose what arises, you don’t choose what you pay attention to, once you’re here and present you allow, choicelessly, whatever arises to be there. You’re not in conflict with anything. You’re not trying to manipulate anything or hold on to anything; just letting things be. In that radical letting-things-be, you let yourself be. Many people don’t have much experience with letting themselves just be. We’re always trying to fix ourselves or improve ourselves or defend ourselves or whatever. Just be. Then the meditation practice unfolds and deepens with that sense of beingness.
So, let’s try it. Take a meditative posture. It is just a metaphor that you sit back in an easy chair. You’re supposed to take a good, alert posture for this. Part of the reason for that is that in the long term, you can actually get more relaxed in your body if you have an upright posture than you can if you lean against the easy chair. It is counterintuitive, but it’s the case. Be a little bit careful with your posture. Notice your spine and let your spine be a little bit straighter, more alert and upright than maybe you would have it. Some people find it help to wiggle or rock back and forth a little bit when they first sit down to help settle into your body, be connected to your body.
And because after a busy day people’s minds are often scattered, preoccupied, there’s a number of things we can do to help us arrive here and now. And one of those things is to take a few long slow deep breaths, using the big in-breaths as a way of connecting to yourself physically. As you exhale more fully, relax, let go. As you exhale, settle in to your body, settle into your seat or chair. One of the things we’re trying to do is have our mind and body be at the same place at the same time. If you’re thinking about earlier today or what’s happening tomorrow, into fantasyland, and your mind we say is elsewhere, not here where the body is. You can’t bring your body to the past or the future, what we can do is bring the mind here into the body so they are coordinated, they are working together. Mind and body in the same place at the same time. Then letting yourself breathe normally. It can be helpful to scan through your body to see if there are any obvious places you can soften or relax. You can soften your belly, so the belly hangs forward. Some people find it helpful to soften around the shoulders and the shoulder blades. If there is any holding in the area of the heart, you can soften around that. Some people carry tension in their face, their jaw, their forehead. Relax it if you can. If you can’t relax it, maybe you can soften around it.
Keeping your spine upright, see if from the inside you can set yourself at ease. Set yourself at ease in your body. At least be easy with any discomfort there is in the body. Let yourself be at ease in your mind. If you are uneasy in some way, try to ease up. Hold it lightly, the discomforts of your mind.
Then connect to your breathing. Notice how your body experiences breathing. See if you can hang in there. Tracking one breath after another. Allowing the breathing to help settle you, quiet you, bringing you into the present. When the mind wanders off in thought, gently bring it back to the breathing. Begin again with mindfulness of breathing. Like a small flat rock, slowly sinks into the water to the bottom of the lake. Let yourself ride or watch the breathing. As if it’s a little rock that’s letting you settle — into the floor of your being. Here and now.
Being with your breathing, offering your breathing the kind of presence that you would give to a good friend. When you’re listening to someone carefully. Really present.
Continue to stay with your breathing. When some other experience becomes compelling or arises strongly, see if you can stay in your easy chair, and allow it to arise at the door or the window. Let it be there. Be present for it, however long it wants to stay, be present. When it goes away, let it go. Sound of traffic arises, gets strong, it comes into your awareness, note it, be aware of it, let it go. Sensations of your body, feelings and emotions. Certain thoughts might arise and become obvious in awareness. Stay in your easy chair, don’t get involved in the thoughts. Just know that they are there. Let go of them if it’s easy. See if you can stay at ease with whatever is going on. Be aware. Be present for what is.
If you find yourself drifting in thought, notice how different it feels to have been drifting in thought compared to knowing it clearly, being present for that. Whenever you can, keep coming back to presence, to awareness, to what is. In the middle of it all, breathing in mindfully, breathing out mindfully.
Notice how you are. The quality of your mind. See if you can notice a difference between letting the mind be whatever way it is, your attitude whatever way it happens to be, without awareness, versus really being present and knowing this is how it is. Being mindful.
The suggestion is that life unfolds a lot better, certainly with a lot less stress, but also with a lot more sense of freedom and wisdom, if we start being present for our life in a careful way. And that is what meditation is trying to help us do: to be really present, rather than the mind carrying us away in all kinds of ways, to be really present for our breath. Breathing has a very profound spiritual aspect to it the more we can get connected to our breathing. To be present for our body, to be in our body, connected to our body, to be connected or present for our emotional life, connected, but not entangled. To be present for it, to be present for our cognitive life, the thinking we have and not entangled with it, but present, but not engaged. Breath, body, emotions, thoughts, the state of the mind, that’s what we’ve covered these first five weeks of the course. The question is how to go further with this. Is it more than just being present?
There are two primary ways to go further after you have the basic idea of what the practice is. Practice it in daily life and develop more concentration or stability together with the mindfulness.
In daily life the metaphor or analogy of the easy chair works a little bit, but it also fails in that it suggests that someone practicing mindfulness is kind of passive, just sits there and lets life happen. You’re not going to sit in easy chairs as you go about your life. Mindfulness is about being easy, being open, being present to what’s here, not being caught, not being stressed by things. It’s not withdrawal. It’s actually allowing us to connect more fully with our life, to be present for our life. I like the word “contact” or “connectedness”. That we’re connected like when we bring two hands together, they’re connected, but they’re not entangled, not tied up with each other. Like if I were to interlace my fingers together, they’re connected, they have contact. I could have my hands apart and not feel the contact. The presence of mindfulness has a quality of being really present, almost like you’re making contact with whatever the experience is, even if you’re present listening to someone else talk, you’re not necessarily touching them physically, but you’re there in some way that you’re really there, present for that. Your mind isn’t wandering off in to thoughts, planning what you’re going to say next or caught up in judging them, you’re just there, fully there, present.
Life tends to unfold a lot less stressful, with much greater ease when we are present for our life as we go about it. A big part of deepening mindfulness meditation practice is to begin applying or doing that practice in daily life as well. Not limiting it to meditation. In fact, we say that the line between the mind when it meditates and the mind when it’s going about its life is an arbitrary line. There is no real difference – it’s the same mind. As we start discovering a higher quality of mind through meditation, then it becomes natural to have that higher quality of mind or relaxed mind, be present in daily life as well. Then bring that same mindfulness practice to daily life. Be present for our lives. Pay attention to what’s going on, here and now.
Now there are a variety of ways this could be done, but to give you a little example of how this could be done, a practical way: some people have found it very helpful to put stickers on different places in the house like on the phone or the light switches or on drawers, door handles, different places. When they see those stickers, those dots, they say “Oh! Pay attention. What’s going on right now?”
Or some people when their phone rings. Some people’s attitude towards the phone ringing is that it is important to answer the phone as soon as possible, the fewer rings, the better. I don’t know why. A mindful approach would be “Let it ring” for a few times. People aren’t going to hang up after three or four rings. Let it ring and take two or three rings to be present, check in with yourself. How are you right then? What’s happening here and now? How are you feeling? What are your concerns? When you have a better sense of who you are when you enter into the conversation with someone on the phone, you’ll be more connected to yourself and thereby more connected with them. Find out what’s going on.
For a long time, I used doorframes as my mindfulness cue, reminder. Whenever I walked through a doorframe I was walking into a new space. I would use the doorframe. “Oh, what’s happening?” Sometimes I would pay attention to what was happening with me and I would be surprised, “Oh! I didn’t know I was rushing, I didn’t know I was feeling that way.” I didn’t know I was not paying attention. Sometimes I would pay attention to the room I was walking in to “What’s happening here, what’s going on?” Some people use different things as cues, as reminders. Bring yourself into the present moment and notice what’s happening here.
Another thing that people have used when they’re driving a lot is traffic lights. When you’re waiting for the light to turn green. Nothing has to happen, but now there are people on phones, so there are important things happening, but if you’re not on the phone, then be present with what’s going on, how are you feeling? What’s happening? Notice. Practice noticing, practice mindfulness. You don’t get deeply calm, but you just notice. Probably what you will find is that if you notice what is happening, your life will start getting richer and you will take more responsibility, you will reclaim your life, take more responsibility for how you want to be in your life. Too many live their life without taking any healthy responsibility or choice about how they want to be. They’re just kind of rushing and doing this and that and letting the mind drive the show. If you stop and pay attention you have a chance to make some choices. So you’re driving your car, you stop at the red light and you find yourself really impatient for the light to turn green. Is that how you want to live your life? By being present you can ask yourself that question. If your answer is “yes”, then go be impatient (but not near me when you drive). Maybe you say, “This is not how I want to live my life.” What difference does it make, how does it help things while I’m waiting for the light to turn green? Maybe I can breathe deeply and relax for these few seconds.
As we bring more presence we have more choice. As we have more choice we can look and make choices that are wiser, better for how we want to live our lives, how we want to engage with things.
Some people like to practice mindfulness in conversation. There is a lot to be discovered about yourself if you pay attention to how you are in conversation. One thing to discover maybe with some people is how little they really listen. Listening sometimes is considered a synonym with mindfulness. The qualities you need to really listen well are the same qualities needed to be mindful well. So you may experiment in a conversation with people to be in more of a listening mode, be a good listener as opposed to a good speaker. Do you notice that you interrupt? Do you notice that your opinion is more important than what you’re hearing? What’s going on there?
Mindfulness and speech can also be looking a little bit about being present enough to have some sense occasionally of why you are saying what you are going to say. Why do you say that? A lot of people speak without ever questioning why they’re going to say what they’re going to say. “I’m going to say it! It’s important!” For example, “I had dinner today at the absolutely best Chinese restaurant”. Why am I saying that? Why would I say that? It could be because I’m enthusiastic about the good food and I’m overdoing it by saying “the best”, exaggerating a little bit. Who knows if it is the best? Or it could be that I want to impress you with what a great choice in restaurants I made. By saying that it is the best is like “look at me, I had a good time”. It is saying something about me, not just about the food. Maybe that is a silly example, but why do we say what we say?
To be present for yourself and notice what your thoughts or feelings are, gives a lot of information, and sometimes that information will save you from a lot of mistakes. It’s said that it takes years to make a good friend and one sentence to lose the friendship. Be careful, be present, and make wise choices.
Some people find it very helpful to extend mindfulness to daily life because it helps keep their life calmer, more peaceful. Some people choose particular activities to bring more mindfulness to. Some people like to drive mindfully. That is a quality time to be with yourself. Turn off the radio and turn off the cell phone for sure. This is quality time to be present. It is probably helpful for the drivers around you too.
Some people find something as simple as, if you’re driving to work, for example, and you have to walk from the parking lot to the place of work, park a little bit further away perhaps. Use the walk from your car to your office as a place to practice walking meditation, walking mindfulness, being present, as opposed to letting the mind have free reign to rush ahead to the day, what needs to happen and all that. Be present. So that when you arrive at work you are more likely to be more present with what’s happening and therefore make wiser choices, rather than getting caught up in it all right away.
Some people find it nice to choose different activities for different weeks that they’re going to focus on practicing mindfulness in daily life. Washing dishes: “OK, whenever I’m washing dishes this week, I’m going to be present.” If the mind wanders away, it wanders away. I come back and am really there with the experience of being with the dishes and myself. Or another way might be cleaning. “Whenever I clean my house I’m going to be really present.” Some people find it nice to do it when they eat. Some people find it nice to at least once a week to eat alone, in silence so you can really practice being present for your eating. It’s a whole different world. For some people there are a lot of complicated emotions around eating. If you can really stop and be silent and be present, take your time when you eat, a lot of that can unravel and become clear. It might be shopping; it might be all kinds of things you might choose. If you choose different things over different weeks then after you’ve done it for a week, then it becomes a little bit like second nature. It becomes a little bit like a habit or you’re a little bit more familiar with that domain. Slowly over the years with different activities your daily life becomes richer, more full, you have a deeper connection with all the different things you do. Then that feeds back to your meditation. You continue doing your daily meditation practice. The more you practice mindfulness in daily life, the stronger your meditation practice becomes, and the more it supports it. That’s very nice.
That’s one whole way to develop mindfulness: practice applied to daily life, not just meditation. The other way, is to develop a stronger concentration so that when you’re mindful of something you’re not just mindful in some simple way or mindful in a kind of normal way, but you actually have a mind that is really still and it has a real ability to focus and be present in a really careful way. Probably you know the difference between someone who is vaguely present for you and someone who is really, really present for you, connected and there for you, really focused. Sometimes some of the depth of what mindfulness can do for you comes when you have a real focus, are really here. Sometimes we say that concentration provides the three legs of the tripod for mindfulness. Mindfulness is the telescope that looks and concentration is the tripod that gives the stability to the telescope so you can see really clearly. If you try to hold a big telescope to look at a star it doesn’t work very well. You have to have it on a tripod. Concentration provides the stability.
How do we develop more concentration, have more stability to go along with the mindfulness? One way is the regularity of practice. Probably one of the most important things is just practicing every day, day in and day out. The first few years I practiced I didn’t meditate on Sunday. I took a day off. That’s because when I was introduced to meditation it was at the San Francisco Zen Center and they meditated a lot there, no one ever explained to me why, but they didn’t meditate on Sunday. I took that as an example, so I didn’t meditate on Sunday (now I meditate on Sunday), but to have the regularity of six days a week. The mind benefits from regularity. It is like a little kid, a 3-year old or a 2-year old and having a regular schedule really helps the kid. They are more likely to do what you want and not act out. The mind is like a little kid sometimes. To have that regularity helps the mind, supports the mind. And you say, “No, I want to do this and that, this is important”. But your mind is really like a 2-year old. A 2-year old mind really does well with regularity. So do it regularly. That’s one aspect.
There are many things to say about developing concentration, but the other way in which our tradition develops concentration with the practice is by doing retreats. It is kind of obvious maybe coming here, but we are really a kind of retreat culture kind of group, at least some of us. Most spiritual traditions have something like going on retreats; forty days in the desert or vision quests where the Native Americans went into the wilderness for a while by themselves. Going on retreat is an ancient thing in Buddhism. Spending time stepping out of your life as you normally live. You can get a better look at things. Sometimes you stay always in the midst of your life. You know you don’t see things clearly. That’s why some people go on vacation is to get out of their life and see things anew, get a new perspective, get fresh air, let things go a little bit. So we go on retreat and spend longer periods of time meditating. By meditating longer through the day it allows the mind to settle more and let go more of the everyday concerns that often keep us preoccupied. As those preoccupations fall away you can get concentrated and still and be really present. It is one of the great delights of life is to have all the preoccupations fall away. The mind is not inclined to think about the future, the past, other things, worries, ambitions, desires, and all that stuff. The mind finally comes to rest. Not in some kind of sleepy way, but it is luminously clear. It is here and it’s not going anywhere. It is such an amazing pleasure. I don’t know what to compare it to in order to have it make sense to some of you. What comes to mind is that you can go around, drive around here on the peninsula for weeks and months and not really notice the air quality. Then one day it’s crystal clear air and you can see the Mt. Hamilton range across the bay, see clearly, and it is such a delight, it is so great, so refreshing to have that clarity suddenly. You didn’t realize what you missed, you didn’t know you didn’t have it because you were so used to the smoggy air. So to be really present and not have the mind be murky or foggy or distracted is one of the great things of life. So that’s more likely to happen. It happens slowly over time if you practice everyday at home. It happens quicker and deeper when you go on retreat.
In our tradition we have a variety of retreats. Here at IMC for example, the shortest retreat we have is what is called a half-day retreat, which we do Wednesday mornings from 9:30 to 12:15. That works for some people. Then we have daylong retreats on Saturday that go from 9:00 to 4:30, sometimes they’re longer. Then we also have, in our wider Vipassana tradition we put on residential retreats. Some people go away for a weekend or for a week or for ten days, sometimes longer, a month. These meditation retreats that we put on are done in silence so there’s no talking during the retreat. Which for the novices is frightening. “How can I manage that? Why would I want to?” Sometimes it is kind of hard in the beginning, but almost always after ten days of silence, most people, novices, don’t want to give it up: “No, no, I have to talk? I don’t want to!”, whereas they went in kicking and screaming. It is so sweet.
Speech activates a lot of our concerns about how we are in relationship to other people, how other people see us, how I present myself, what I need to accomplish, and a lot of different things. It is very complicated, the whole social world we live in. By not engaging in speech for a length of time, it allows a lot of the social concerns and obsessions and neuroses to fall away. So it’s easier to settle into a deeper, quieter, more intimate place with ourselves.
We do the retreats in silence. We also try to do them with as minimal extra activity as possible. There’s a little bit of work you do everyday to help with the chores of the retreat center, but there is no television, no books, no journaling, you don’t play golf. You’re there and this is what you’re doing.
Some people do long retreats. The longest retreat I did like that was eight months and it was, I would say, it qualifies as the best time of my life, among the best times of my life. It is counter-intuitive, right? I didn’t have a clue what was on television those months. It was a pretty deprived life, but it was the best. I was so happy. I had more sustained happiness during that time of my life than probably any other time in my life, sustained joy and happiness and rapture and delight. Time went really fast. I couldn’t believe how fast it went and yet nothing was happening. Meditating, meditating, meditating. I’m not recommending necessarily that you go for a long time like that, but just to let you know that one of the ways of deepening this practice is to bring it to retreat. If you’re new to all this you don’t necessarily want to do it right away, but you start doing a regular practice. And probably if you do it regularly, after a while, at some point, you will feel at some time, “Oh yeah, I think I would like to do more of this. This feels right.” Then you might consider a retreat.
We couple mindfulness with concentration. Concentration allows us to see more deeply. Not just to have stillness of mind or greater clarity, but to see more deeply. One of the things that it helps us see through are the concepts we tend to use to interpret our life. Much of life is seen through concepts, ideas. Some of them are innocent enough and appropriate: the ideas of man or woman. But, for example, someone might see you through the concept of someone’s spouse if that’s the case. I know there are a number of spouses who don’t want to be seen as the spouse. “I’m not a spouse, I’m me!” That’s not how they want to be seen, they want to be seen as their own sake, not as someone’s spouse. So it’s very clear that they’re being seen through a concept. Probably all of you have had the experience of being seen through someone else’s concepts. Maybe they have you pegged from some past experience. Once, just once, you were a little bit irritated and that person happened to see you that day. Now they always relate to you as the angry one. “But, but, but!…..” There is a lot of pain in our society because of how people see each other through concepts, ideas, judgments and all that. And we see ourselves that way, through concepts and judgments. We have all these opinions of how things should be and we see things through the opinion of how things should be. Opinions, concepts, stories, the mind is a story-making, opinionated thing. Part of the function of mindfulness is to help us cut through all the concepts, all the “shoulds”, and all the interpretations so we can see what is really here.
I want to demonstrate this for you in a way that maybe you will never forget and hopefully remember at the right time to save you a lot of grief. I need some things to demonstrate with [picks leaves from nearby plants]. Look at this. This is a leaf. It’s a leaf that’s what, about two inches long? It’s just a leaf. It is what it is. And we put a lot of store in Buddhism in just seeing things as they actually are in and of themselves. We call it sometimes the “thusness” or the “suchness” of something. See if you can just see the suchness of the leaf, the leaf in and of itself. Perhaps if you’re lucky you’re not comparing it to past leaves or future leaves or perfect leaves, just the leaf by itself. Then something very interesting can happen when I lift up another leaf and put it next to it. This leaf now in my left hand is what, five inches long? The first one was two inches. Now I can say something I couldn’t say before. Now I can say that the first leaf is the small leaf and the second leaf is the big leaf. Right? It’s pretty clear right? It’s not a difficult concept. But now watch the magic…… small, big, small, big, now watch the sleight of hand, how it works. I put this one down and pick this one up. This one is about one inch long, right? Now which one is the big one and which one is the little one? The one that was little before is now the big one, right? Isn’t that magic? Isn’t that amazing?
Things like big and small do not reside in things. Things are not inherently big or small. Things are big or small in relationship to what we compare them to, through comparisons. “Big” and “small” are concepts that we add to an experience. It’s not inherent in the experience itself. There are a lot of concepts like this that are not inherent, but are added. Often “good” and “bad” are added. It turns out that a lot of the ways in which human beings tend to suffer around their sense of self, about who they are, belong to the category of comparison, comparative concepts. “I’m not short enough. I’m not tall enough.” I lived in Japan for a while and I was too tall. I felt awkward. I know people who are short and they think, “I’m too short”.
When I was thirteen it was 1967 and some of you are old enough to remember this period….. Anyway, it was 1967 and that summer I was living in Italy, in a small provincial city in Italy. I had been living in California and I had the longest hair of any boy because long hair was the thing to do. And I was the only one with blue jeans in town. I was hip; I was ahead of the times; I was cool. I felt a certain kind of good energy about myself: cool, hip, energy. The only longhaired boy in town. Then I went back to Los Angeles at the end of the summer and I had missed a lot of what happened in the summer of ’67. When I got back to LA my friends in school all had much longer hair than I did and their blue jeans weren’t just blue jeans, they had figured out how to cut them up and sew them up and put them through the washing machine one hundred times and bleach them. Some of them actually put their blue jeans on the road so cars would drive over them. I just had blue jeans. So my sense of self diminished. All I did was cross the Atlantic and now I felt low down. I was pulling my hair in school to try to get it to grow faster. I felt really bad. My sense of vitality or deflation had to do with whom I was comparing myself to. “Is my nose too big; too small?” “Am I smart enough; am I not smart enough?” All this stuff!
What mindfulness can help us do is to see concepts for what they are; not buy in to them if they’re not useful, not be caught by them. It really helps if we’re concentrated and still so we can really have a penetrating ability in the mindfulness. Concentration really helps us drop below the concept level. It’s hard to do that sometimes if we’re just doing mindfulness without proper stillness of mind.
It’s very freeing to become free of all these concepts, all these comparisons and judgments and ideas and “shoulds” and “shouldn’ts.” It is really freeing and it creates a much higher quality of being, a much higher quality of life. It also gives a lot more choice about which concepts we choose to live by. Unless we’re mindful, some of these concepts appear to just be the way the universe was built. “I’m just a klutz. That’s the way the universe is built. This is the way things should be”. “People should always give me the right of way. Isn’t that how it should be?” Or whatever. We have all these concepts that we feel are inherent to the universe. But they’re not. They’re constructions of the mind. It’s very freeing to have the ability to cut through it.
Mindfulness coupled with concentration is one of the things that can help with the unfolding of what Buddhism calls wisdom, a deepening of wisdom. Wisdom happens when we cut through the concepts or see through them and understand the bigger picture of what’s going on. Does this make sense?
QUESTIONS AND COMMENTS
Student 1: I’m confused with the concept of “cut-through.”
Gil: It happens naturally. You don’t have to be looking or trying to cut through. If you get still enough and are present enough with what is, the mind will cut through by itself.
Student 1 continued:
Gil: There’s nothing wrong with analyzing and breaking things apart, but most people do too much of that and it keeps their mind agitated and busy manipulating. Generally, for most people, practice unfolds better if we step out of the fixing mode or trying to make something mode or the looking and analyzing mode and just try to be fully present. If you’re present, things will unfold. The natural unfolding of things tends to be better for people. Also, one of the interesting things that happens with that is that if you’re analyzing or you’re trying to fix or cut though, it’s subtly or grossly reinforces the notion that you’re in charge: your ego, your small self. There is actually something much more profound that can happen when we let go of the usual identity of us in charge. You actually go deeper in meditation and deeper into the world of wisdom and freedom when you don’t always feel like you’re at the controls and it’s all up to you. Make sense?
Are there any other questions? Protests? Your mind will protest some of these things for sure. “What do you mean let go of shoulds? The shoulds should be there!”
Student 2: The analogy of the house, I’m sitting on the comfort chair and the squirrel shows up and sometimes the squirrel shows up and I’m distracted with a certain thought and a few minutes pass by before I get back. “Wow, there I was thinking about something else”. I catch myself, I bring myself back to the breath, I see the squirrel, but I feel bad for the time that I lost because 20 minutes is just 20 minutes and now there is 12 minutes left. It is interesting that I’ve been doing this regularly, 20 minutes in the morning and 20 minutes in the evening since January and I intend to continue this way. But the meditation is getting more boring because of that game I’m playing: being hard on myself. I’m just wondering if you have some techniques or suggestions for how to just…….
Gil: Good question. No moment of mindfulness is ever wasted. It is always good. If you wander away for twenty minutes and then you came back for a moment, that moment is great. It is better to celebrate that moment than follow that moment with “Oh, no! I was lost again!” It is very interesting: the first moment when you notice your mind had been away for twenty minutes, that first moment is usually suffering-free, judgment-free, but our judgment tends to be that [finger snap] fast. That first moment is quite pure and what we like to do is extend the purity of that moment; have that moment get longer before we add the judgment to it. But what it sounds like to me is that you’re treating the squirrel as a squirrel coming to a window but somehow your mind, what your mind does is something much more …. It is somehow outside the scope of the meditation.
To say it in a different way: your mind wandering away is just another squirrel at a different window. Your judging it as being bad is just a different kind of squirrel at a different window. All we have is stuff appearing in windows. Rather than saying that you shouldn’t be judging, say “Oh, look! Look at that squirrel! It has a judgment flavor, this is what judgment is like. Can I be present for judgment? Gil tells me to be present for judgment; OK, I’ve never really been present for judgment before. I’ve always had an antagonistic relationship with it or I’ve believed it. It ran the show, but I’m being asked to just be present for what it is like to be judging. I get to study what it is like to be judgmental. Wow, it feels this way in my jaws, it feels this way in my shoulders, my brain feels contracted now, the speed of my thoughts is going faster, there is a fear that is connected to my judgment. Wow! There’s a lot of stuff! I didn’t know there was so much going on!”
What we try to do, whenever we can, is rather than leaving something off the stage to fester we invite everything on to the stage of mindfulness. To say it in a different way: whatever is bothering us we turn around and look at that. My guess is that you haven’t done that. You’re trying to cope with it and deal with it and come back and be with the one squirrel and not really turning around and looking at the mind that wanders away, look at the mind that judges. Is this making sense to you? Do you think you can do that turning and include that as part of the mindfulness?
Student 2: I want to try to. The only thing that comes to mind still unanswered is the question of that voice that catches myself going “Oy, I just wandered, I forgot to focus on the breath, I forgot to be aware of the now, I went off the to the future or to plan or to memory.” Sometimes it catches up after six minutes instead of right away, which is where I’d like it to be.
Gil: It takes time. It’s called a practice. Two things: one is how you are with yourself when you notice the mind has drifted off; that’s a really profound place of deep practice, important practice. The tendency for a lot of people is to have all their attitudes and judgments about themselves and how they should be successful, accomplished and all that come into play there. For you to work with that and find a compassionate way to be with yourself, more accepting, an easier way to be with all that could have an implication not only for meditation, but even outside of meditation. The fact that you had been gone for 12 minutes doesn’t really matter. It matters when you wake up that you engage with how you are, what’s going on; when you wake up and all this judgment kicks in. I really want to repeat that it is a very significant place to pay attention to, and just be glad you have the chance. If you do that, slowly, you will probably find yourself becoming more mindful more often, sooner, not drifting off.
After you’ve worked through the judgment thing and you’re more at ease and more compassionate about the fact that you’ve wandered off, then you can also turn it around and look at what is the mind like that keeps drifting off. You might find that there is a lot of tension in your mind. You can actually feel it physically sometimes. Rather than just letting go of your thoughts and ideas you come back to the breath. What you need to do is spend a little bit of time softening the tension or pressure that is almost physical that is there with the thinking brain. The thinking brain is like a muscle, the thinking muscle. If anger, sadness, pressure or tension is the fuel, the factory, for thinking, then you can let go of thoughts forever and the factory just produces more thoughts. Once the judgment is fixed, judgment and negative thinking about all this has fallen away, then you want to have the chance to see what’s going on with this thinking muscle. Emotionally, physically, tension-wise and then be present for that. As you’re present for that, you’re present. Then it settles and with time it’s not going to be such a big obstacle.
What I’m saying isn’t easy to do. It’s really easy to be a teacher. It’s easy to say “This is how you do it”, it’s not so easy to do this practice, in fact. I’d be delighted to talk to you further about this if you try and make an effort and engage with this. I’d like to hear how it goes and if you have further questions I’d be happy to engage them.
The cliché is that mindfulness is really easy, what’s hard is to remember to do it.
Student 3: For me, it is very easy to lose concentration with my exhale.
Gil: You can be present for your inhale, but with the exhale the mind wanders away? That is a great observation. Most people will have some phase of breathing that is more clear than another phase. Sometimes it is the in breath that is more clear and sometimes it is the out breath that is more clear. If some part or phase of breathing is not so clear, that is the more likely place the mind is going to wander off. That is probably what you will find if you pay attention. So if you know you have that pattern, then when you get to the beginning of the out breath you want to remind yourself “hang in there ‘til the end” and then the in breath comes and you can go with that. So that’s helpful. There are a few people occasionally who have trouble with the out breath because the out breath is a kind of letting go, letting go of control. For some people it is very difficult to let go of control. They get afraid so they don’t want to breathe out all the way. I don’t know if something like that is going on for you. Most people have less awareness of their out breath, it is less clear, than the in breath; that is the most common pattern. If you know that pattern, then you can make amends and remember to stay present longer every time you breathe out.
Student 3: Thank you. I’m a Leo and I want to be in control of everything, always. That’s a really good tip to remind myself to let go.
Gil: Sometimes if you get really calm in meditation there can be a long gap between the out breath and the in breath or between the in breath and the out breath. Since there is a gap, the mind is not connected and the idle mind will get in trouble. It is important to notice that there is a long gap and to remember to stay present. It’s a little bit complicated for this class, but one of the instructions is that if there is a long gap at the end of the out breath go feel something tangible in your body during the gap, like the hands touching or the knees touching the mat or something. Just something that is tactile, tangible, contact point. So you’re connected to something physical; so you’re not letting the mind think whatever it wants. When the in breath begins then you start again with the in breath.
Student 4: When we did the exercise you said, “Be present, be here with mind and body”. So what I was doing was inhaling and saying “this is the mind” and exhaling and then I could feel my body. I had a couple of moments where I was, “Wow, it feels beautiful”, but then [flying away sound]. Then I thought, “OK, it’s not working, but that’s OK”. I had a root canal done and there is a lot of pressure and pain so I was thinking “OK, pain, pain, pain.” I tried, but it didn’t come back. The question I have is: when you say not judging yourself, but kind of becoming passive. I was not judging myself, not being with my mind and body, but how do I know that I’m not just being passive and letting my mind run and it’s all in vain?
Gil: I’m not sure you paid attention. You look around. Look at it. I’m not sure there is a simple way, it is a more complicated way. You’re asking how do you know when your mind is not so present and is wandering away? Either you know, or you don’t know. If you don’t know, then you don’t have any problem. But maybe this is a better answer: a lot of it comes with practice. The more you practice, the more your awareness gets stronger and stronger and you notice more stuff and you’re more present with things and you’re more at peace with things. One of the things that is very, very helpful with being more present for your mind is to be more present for your body. The more you’re embodied, the more you are in your body, the easier it is to work with your mind. It’s counter-intuitive, most people think they should go directly to their mind, but be more in your body. So when I said “have your mind and your body in the same place” it was kind of like where your attention is. Your attention needs to be with your body. Bring your attention and your body together as opposed to letting your attention wander off into yesterday and tomorrow.
RETURN TO TALK
I want to say a couple more words and then I can stay behind for other questions people have. Just a couple of simple things: One is to welcome you to IMC those of you who are new here for this course and to say that we have no membership at IMC. No formal membership. Anybody who wants to be a member is a member. You’re welcome to be a part of this community in any kind of way you want. By design we made the place informal so it’s easy to come and go. Come if it works, go if it doesn’t. There are all kinds of different programs we have throughout the week and year. You’re welcome to come to any of it you’d like. By now you understand that everything we do here is offered freely so that makes it really easy to come. If you’d like to be a part of our community, then you are. There is no other way than that. Please come.