Mindfulness is the first element of SOUL Meditation.
Mindfulness is so intricately associated with meditation that it is very difficult to understand it clearly without actually meditating.
Simply stated, mindfulness means ‘being aware’ or ‘being present’ or ‘presence of mind.’ It is the ‘awareness’ of the phenomenon (of body or mind or consciousness) occurring at the present moment. It is opposite to unawareness, forgetfulness, confusion, instability, wandering or drifting away in thoughts or being carried away by thought, etc. It should not be confused with worldly-minded attentiveness or focusing ability.
There are various levels of mindfulness, ranging from ‘bare attention’ to ‘awareness.’ Bare attention means simply paying attention to something. Awareness means ‘established mindfulness’ which is not just being attentive or perceptive or reflective or contemplative. It is a combination of all that and much more, which altogether, results in the arising of wisdom about the experience. Established mindfulness can be thus stated as ‘minding’ the experience in its ‘totality.’
In order to arouse, develop and establish in mindfulness, it is necessary to practice the contemplation of all phenomena related to body, mind and consciousness. In other words, it is necessary to observe and contemplate upon ‘everything’ that we experience – our breath, postures, body parts, feelings, moods, emotions, thoughts, states of consciousness, mental objects, laws of nature, realities of existence, etc. Especially, the meditators need to consider these attributes of established mindfulness whenever it is mulled over.
Let us now understand what it really means to be mindful.
When a meditator says he is mindful of his breath, he should mean that he is paying ‘attention’ to his breath, ‘observing’ it as it moves, ‘reflecting’ upon its movement, ‘contemplating’ its’ changing and impersonal nature, and then becoming ‘aware’ of it as a bodily-phenomenon-that-is-impermanent-and-impersonal.
Similarly, when a meditator says he is mindful about his feeling, he should mean that he is paying ‘attention’ to his feeling, ‘observing’ it as it changes, ‘reflecting’ upon or perceiving its quality (as painful or pleasant, joy or sorrow), ‘contemplating’ it’s changing and impersonal nature, and then becoming ‘aware’ of it as a mental-phenomenon-that-is impermanent-and-impersonal.
When a meditator says he is mindful about greed, he should mean that he is paying ‘attention’ to his state of consciousness, ‘observing’ it as it comes and goes, ‘reflecting’ upon its unwholesome quality (greediness), ‘contemplating’ it’s changing and impersonal nature, and then becoming ‘aware’ of it as an unwholesome- consciousness-that-is-impermanent-and-impersonal.
When a meditator says he is mindful about craving and aversion, he should mean that he is paying ‘attention’ to the presence of craving and aversion in consciousness; he should mean that he is observing, reflecting and contemplating upon its impermanent and impersonal nature, and also upon how it was aroused, how it can be overcome, and how it may not arise in future, thereby becoming ‘aware’ of the totality of its nature as an unwholesome-impermanent-impersonal-mental-formation.
In this way, a meditator should become mindful of everything that he experiences.
Memory and Mindfulness
Mindfulness, in a way, arises out of the memory of real nature of our existence. It is like remembering who we really are. It is like becoming ‘aware’ of ourselves. Having understood that, one should not confuse mindfulness with memory. Mindfulness is that mental phenomenon which ‘facilitates’ the functioning of memory. It is that which ‘awakens’ the memory. Without mindfulness, memory cannot function properly. To this extent, mindfulness is related to memory.
Memory could be wholesome or unwholesome. Mindfulness, on the other hand, is inherently wholesome by its own nature. Mindfulness is intrinsically good in its ethical quality. It is always wholesome, under any circumstance, and it always arises with a bunch of other wholesome mental elements. In fact, mindfulness is present in every single wholesome consciousness that arises in our embodiment. It is not just limited to ‘spiritual’ or ‘meditative/absorptive’ kind of consciousness, but all kinds of wholesome consciousness.
Mindfulness is the foundation of a good mind. Therefore, the practice of mindfulness is meant for developing a Good (Wholesome) Mind and not just the memory. It is meant for making us ‘aware’ of our true nature.
Let us now discuss how mindfulness makes us aware of ourselves.
First of all, we must understand that mindfulness has to be developed to its full capacity, meaning, it has to become an established mindfulness so that it can assist us in becoming aware of ourselves. Through ardent and diligent practice, it has to grow from ‘bare attention’ to 'awareness' as described in teh following example. Note that, in this example, breath is considered as a meditation subject.
Stage 1: Elementary mindfulness (Bare Attention): Paying attention to natural breathing
Stage 2: Mindfulness: Paying attention to breath as it moves in and out of nostrils, bringing back the attention to breath if mind wanders away, feeling its touch in the nostrils and remembering the whole phenomenon as ‘breath.’
Stage 3:Mindfulness with Understanding: Paying attention to breath, observing its movement, feeling its touch, feeling the coolness of inward breath and warmth of outward breath, realizing that breath is arising and passing away, then reflecting and contemplating on its changing nature and thus understanding breath’s ‘impermanent’ nature.
Stage 4:Mindfulness as ‘Awareness’ : Experiencing Stage 3 and then reflecting and contemplating on the origin of breath and understanding that it is bound with body and that it is a ‘bodily phenomenon’; reflecting and contemplating on the one who is breathing (the Breath-taker) and understanding that it is really the body that is breathing and not the self, understanding that it is the ‘awareness’ of this breathing that was mistaken as the breath taker. In this way understanding breathing as bodily phenomenon having an impersonal nature, understanding that there is no Breath-taker.
Stage 5: Mindfulness as pure awareness and wisdom (egolessness): Followed by Stage 4, experientially understanding the breath as ‘an impermanent and impersonal bodily phenomenon;’ just being aware of this to the extent necessary with purified equanimity, simply abiding in this understanding (pure awareness) without clinging to anything in the world, i.e. without a sense of being mindful or being aware or being a knower.
At Stage 3 and beyond, there is seeing, wakefulness, vision, knowing or understanding; therefore, at these stages, mindfulness is always coupled with clear-comprehension (wise-attention). At Stage 3 and beyond, mindfulness cannot occur without clear-comprehension. Mindfulness faculty ‘sees’ and clear-comprehension faculty ‘knows.’ Because of mindfulness, a meditator sees arising and passing away of breath, and because of clear-comprehension, a meditator understands that the arising and passing away is the nature of impermanence. Thus, ‘Seeing’ and ‘knowing’ together bring about the understanding of the impermanent nature of breath. Similarly, ‘Seeing’ and ‘knowing’ together bring about the understanding of the impersonal nature of breath. ‘Seeing’ and ‘knowing’ aspects of mindfulness are therefore the ‘spiritual feet’ without which, walking on the path to self-knowledge is not possible.
Concentration vs. Mindfulness
Mindfulness and concentration are different mental phenomena. Even though they are very closely related and used freely to denote a meditation activity, mindfulness is distinct from concentration in many ways. A few subtle differences between them, as given below should be understood to avoid the confusion between the two.
Concentration is much harder to practice than mindfulness. I personally feel so becase concentration is an active and exclusive meditation requiring some
effort in focusing (activity) and in eliminating distractions (exclusivity).
Mindfulness, on the other hand, is somewhat effortless. It only requires mindfulness of what is happening at the present moment.
Notwithstanding, it is important to understand that, for an effective meditation, mindfulness and concentration are both necessary. They both play an equally important role in meditation. The key is to utilize their uniqueness (as clarified in above table) whenever and wherever necessary, so that meditation practices result in wholesome mental development. For example, when one is feeling restless and agitated, one should practice concentration-meditation. When one is not able to remain in the present moment due to rolling of thoughts, one should practice mindfulness-meditation. Basically, in any meditation, both concentration and mindfulness should be functional; however, one of them should play a dominating role depending upon mental conditions and the skill of a meditator.
Earlier, I said that concentration is much harder to practice than mindfulness. This does not mean concentration should not be practiced or should be avoided. Concentration practices are as important as mindfulness practices. Therefore, if one finds it difficult to concentrate, one should skillfully implement mindfulness into the concentration practice to make it easier. Whenever one is distracted and not able to focus, it is best not to try harder or to increase efforts in focusing. Instead, one should simply become mindful of distractions and let them come and go. Then, using mindfulness, one should gently bring back the focus on the meditation subject. In this way, one should use mindfulness and concentration for supporting each other.
In the initial stages of concentration practices, Stage-3-Mindfulness is adequate, however, for higher levels of concentration (mental absorptions), Stage-4-Stage-5-Mindfulness becomes necessary. It is so, because, if equanimous mindfulness (Stage-5-Mindfulness) is not present, the meditator gets stuck in savoring the immense delight and bliss that is generated by concentration of higher levels. In this way, mindfulness also makes concentration a rightful-concentration.
A Perfect Tool for
Developing Mental-Powers and Eradicating Weaknesses
In my opinion, in general, mindfulness is more fundamental and critical than concentration because mindfulness actually ‘begins’ and ‘guarantees’ mental development which ultimately leads to perfection. Concentration alone cannot do that. Let me explain how.
When mindfulness is established through ardent and diligent practice it gives rise to a sense of ‘mental mastery.’ We begin to feel we are in control of the mind. We begin to feel we know our own mind. This sense of mental mastery ‘awakens’ the mind to its own ultimate potential. We start realizing what our minds can do. We start thinking about extraordinary and supramundane things. We no longer fall prey to mundane aspects of our existence. Instead, we start pursuing flawlessness, aptness, righteousness, excellence, greatness, etc. In this way, mindfulness wakes up and stirs up the mind to attain perfection, meaning, it makes the mind prone to perfection. Established mindfulness also guarantees mental perfection just as an entry into the river-stream guarantees ‘one-way’ journey towards the ocean, its final destination. Here, river-stream symbolizes the spiritual path and the ocean symbolizes the state of mental perfection. Any spiritual path which begins with the practice of mindfulness is destined to culminate into the state of mental perfection. Therefore, I like to call established mindfulness as the ‘mental-power.’
Established mindfulness also assists in awakening all the other six mental powers that are necessary for developing mental perfection. These are: Wholesome Thoughtfulness, Vigor, Rapture, Tranquility, Concentration, and Equanimity.
(See the Slide)
As you can see in the slide, concentration is one of the mental powers. It is mindfulness which actually awakens concentration and, as we have discussed earlier, it also makes concentration a rightful or wholesome concentration.
Mindfulness or concentration alone cannot bring about mental perfection unless it is combined with other six mental powers. However, one has to understand that it is mindfulness which serves as a cause and a foundation for the arising and development of these mental powers. Mindfulness also serves as a cause and a foundation for the removal of all the eight mental-weaknesses (Greed, Superstitiousness & Suspicion, Sloth and Torpor, Restlessness and Worry, and Hatred) that specifically hinder the development of mental powers. Let us now see how this happens.
Due to its ability to safeguard and restrain the senses, mindfulness naturally leads to the removal of sensual desires or greed. Removal of sense desires frees the mind for the investigation and discrimination of laws of nature (Thinking and Thoughtfulness) because of which, we can determine what is wholesome and what is not, what is good and what is not, what is reality and what is not, what is the law of nature and what is not. As the investigation and discrimination practice matures, it develops mental clarity, understanding, faith and commitment, which leads to the eradication of false beliefs, wrong views, skeptical doubt (Superstitiousness & Suspicion) about the practice being undertaken and about the supremacy of the laws of nature. The matured elements of Thinking and Thoughtfulness coupled with mindfulness about the received benefits result in the arousal of energy (Vigor) which is required for diligence and continuation of the spiritual practice. The aroused energy coupled with mental clarity, understanding, faith and commitment eventually leads to the removal of mental sluggishness, dullness, unwieldiness, mental sickness, etc (Sloth and Torpor).
When sloth and torpor is removed, and when there is vigor coupled with mindfulness and concentration, we experience Happiness/joy/delight/bliss (Rapture). The natural outcome of this happiness/joy/delight/bliss is balanced effort, contentment, physical comfort, etc which results in peacefulness and coolness (Tranquility). When tranquility matures, it leads to refinement in virtuous conduct, improved concentration and deeper knowledge of the reality. All these conditions eventually lead to the removal of mental agitation, turmoil, remorse, regrets, etc (Restlessness and Worry). Tranquility always leads to improved concentration because it makes mind happy and frees it from distraction and ‘aversion.’
When concentration develops due to a happy state of mind and when it is coupled with mindfulness, it leads to the development of ‘equanimity,’ the ultimate mental-power. In this way, mindfulness plays a foundational role in removing the eight mental-weaknesses and awakening and establishing the seven mental-powers. It is hopefully very clear now that, even though mindfulness cannot single-handedly develop the mind in its totality, it is foundational and vital for total mental development.
Based on the discussion so far, it must be sounding like the practice of mindfulness should become the ‘essential’ or ‘innermost’ spiritual practice. It is true. In fact, that is why, many of the SOUL Meditations are primarily the practices of mindfulness.
Mindfulness is not just an incredible spiritual practice but also a universal mental remedy. Many mundane mental problems can be solved effectively by its practice. For example, forgetfulness, emotional vulnerability, addiction to food, drinks and intoxicants, high or low self-esteem, etc can be cured by the practice of mindfulness. Mindfulness also serves as a balancing element between various mental faculties. For example, if mindfulness is present, faith and vigor/energy does not result into extremism. If mindfulness is present, concentration does not result into idleness or boredom. In this way, mindfulness serves as a great mental leader, like a prime minister in the King’s good ministry.
The element of mindfulness acts like an anchor for spiritual seekers. It becomes their best refuge, their island resort, their last home! It is a refuge because it protects and restrains the mind, and exerts the mind whenever and wherever necessary. It is an island resort because it develops the mind wholesomely to such an extent that mind becomes ‘independent of’ and ‘unattached to’ anything in the world, like a beautiful island in a vast blue ocean. It is the last home for a meditator, because, when it is present, there is no need to search for a place to anchor, to rest and to let-go.