by Wayne Ren-Cheng
I’ve encountered people new to, or just curious about Buddhism who ask, “To be mindful, what is my mind supposed to be full of?” This is a clear indication of a prevalent Western mind-set. In the West so much of how a person sees themselves as is tied up in what they know . . . or, in some cases what they think they know. Look at the popular games shows – Jeopardy, I Want to be a Millionaire, Do You Know More Than A Fifth Grader – that tie winning with what information a person holds in their memory, and how broad a range of subjects they have answers for. They exhibit a mind full of encompassing information. The persons who ask the question are seeing the word they are saying . . . mindful . . . as mind full. A mind full of what? A legitimate question considering the culture and time of the person asking.
The answer I give tends to cause confusion. “Actually your mind should be mostly empty.”
“But how can an empty mind be mindful?”
And the reply is, “You’ve got it.”
In order for you to mindful you can’t let a whirlwind of thoughts and information dominate your head. The whistling in your ears and the swirling of letters and numbers in front of your eyes will blind you to whatever is going on in each moment. To be mindful you’ve got to be ‘mind mostly empty’. That isn’t to say a mind without thought because that isn’t possible. You are a human, a biological machine with a brain whose main function is to think and it is really difficult to make that thinking slow down . . . much less stop. And, you don’t want it to stop. That should only happen when you are dead. You want it to make better choices as to what to think about so that meaningless thoughts don’t arise . . . so that there is more space, some emptiness is there.
Think about the computer, pad or phone you’re sitting at right now. You don’t want it’s active memory full do you? You know that if that is full its “brain” won’t be able to process the stuff you want it to do in that moment. It’ll lag, slow down and maybe even crash. Its processor will be so busy you might get kicked out of Second Life and miss that moment. You only want to be running programs that have value in that moment.
The brain is biological computer, a fantastic one no doubt, but it has limitations. A mind too full doesn’t allow space for processing the moment, and for responding to the moment. It is more likely to react spontaneously based on past situations, rather than in a way that will encompass the unique moment you find yourself in presently. It’ll choose to rely on what was corrective for an old situation. It will miss the significance of the present moment.
There are three aspects of mindfulness that will lead you to an encompassing and corrective state of being. States of being that will allow you to be in the moment, and respond more appropriately in each moment.
Mindfulness of Bodymind is the key to the realization of mindfulness as a moment-to-moment mental state. It is mindfulness that begins with a meditation practice. Meditation leads you to uncovering how you are and how you want to be. Mindfulness of habits and dispositions, knowledge and ignorance will open avenues of improvement that will make you a more effective social self. You first come to recognize how your bodymind reacts to situation whether they are stressful, joyful, fearful or just ordinary. You learn to know through your breathing and posture whether anger or calm, fear or courage are arising in your bodymind. The breath is an honest indication of how the bodymind responds to situations and experiences. Heavy breathing may be the result of exertion passing the limits of the body or of the arising of anxiety or fear. Relaxed posture may indicate contentment or laziness; arms crossed over chest might indicate fear or mistrust. Communication, speaking and body language is directly influenced by how mindful we are of bodymind. This allows you to better choose an appropriate way to think and act.
Recognizing how the bodymind is (Mindfulness of Bodymind) you engage in Mindfulness of Practice to take the actions needed to realize positive change. To reach the goal of how we imagine ourselves and world could be takes action and that is what is expected in an engaged Buddhist practice. It empowers us with the truth that emotions are not feelings. Emotions like anger and joy we can find control over. Feelings like hot and cold you can learn to endure (to a point because a hot stove will still burn and dry ice will still do the same). You must be mindful that practice is a 24/7/365 commitment for lasting encompassing and corrective effects. Mindfulness of Practice is just as it sounds. Every moment is an opportunity for you to practice. You must be mindful of what can hinder your achievement and what practices will counter them – unnatural attachment/bodymind meditation, anger/compassion, laziness/posture and light, worry/breathing, doubt/study and ask. Making mistakes is also a factor in Mindfulness of Practice. They are opportunities to learn through experience. Practice is just that, you keep trying in order to become better.
The body and mind are meant to work as a holistic unit. Mindfulness of Bodymind develops mindfulness of how you are, Mindfulness of Practice is actions taken to make positive, lasting changes. Engaging in a regular committed meditation practice encompasses the bodymind and opens up the path to the corrective actions necessary to do, and be better. The calm and contentment the arises from understanding yourself is a powerful tool when practicing generosity, morals, tolerance and wisdom off the cushion.
The verification of the effectiveness of Mindfulness of Bodymind and Mindfulness of Practice can be experienced through engagement with Mindfulness of Karmic Causality. Awareness that everything you do matters, that what others do matters, and that what the Universe does matters leads logically to you maintaining mindfulness your actions, the only ones you can truly control. It is also crucial that you develop awareness that there are events, situations and experiences whose arising you can’t control and focus efforts on how you react to them, and in some cases how to subtract them from your life. You are just part of the causal process of the Universe. You learn that you can promote more positive occurrences through your own positive actions and you can choose to engage with those people and activities that seek to do the same. When, at the end of a sangha meeting I recite the sharing of merit: Showing our gratitude and generosity, practicing the way of awareness which gives rise to benefits without limit, we vow to share these benefits of our practice, service, and gifts with all beings. Let us be reminded that a life of engagement and compassion is supremely important. Time swiftly passes by and opportunity is lost. Each of us should strive to become aware of our connectedness to others, and not squander the gift of realizing the wisdom of engaging the Dharma, it is a call to be mindful of all actions taken. This is the most important consideration in engaging mindfulness.
In the beginning these states of mindfulness – Mindfulness of Bodymind, Practice and Karmic Causality – will seem to take up a lot of brain space. With the passage of time and with experience they become a natural part of how you think and act, spontaneous ways of being that arise from practice. Your mindfulness will encompass each moment and you’ll experience those moments as they are, not as the past or future might color them. Because the brain won’t be lagging with useless and meaningless thought you’ll experience the beauty and suffering of human existence more fully. How you are and how you choose to be will encompass your being, and you’ll become a corrective force in the causal Universe.