This blog presents a challenge for me: in a way, I have to sell mindfulness practice to the reader knowing full well that mindfulness has no monetary value. In fact, I ended my last post by saying that mindfulness practice is pointless! Nothing could be more antithetical to the western ideal of a worthwhile endeavor. All the same no one would take the leap of faith required to begin a mindfulness practice for themselves if there weren’t at least a minimal amount of salesmanship involved in how the exercises are presented.
Trying to explain the benefits of mindfulness practice is akin to trying to focus on a star in the night sky: as soon as we gaze directly at the star it disappears from our vision; it is only with an unfocused and relaxed gaze that the star reappears. If we can blur our vision of ourselves and appreciate the gestalt of our self-hood then, and only then, can we begin to appreciate any semblance of a “result” from our mindfulness practice.
I began to notice the “benefits” of my own mindfulness practice after about four months of daily practice. The subtle nature of the change I experienced was akin to the feeling one gets when a melody haunts one’s mind but the name of the song is just beyond reach: close enough to taste but far enough off as to be beyond form. Even now, when I attempt to describe the change, the concept is so amorphous that no word or set of words adequately describes it. The closest I have come to approximating the change I experienced is to portray my mind as becoming “slippery.”
Our thoughts and emotions tend to get stuck like a driver unfamiliar with a roundabout, making seemingly endless circles in our minds. However, after investing months in regular practice thoughts begin to find their exit and leave the roundabout more quickly, sometimes without our even noticing it. I describe the new quality of my mind as being “slippery” because the passing of thoughts is more akin to a natural event than a willful action. We don’t so much as direct our thoughts to exit as much as the thoughts simply run their course and disappear. It is like the substratum of our mind has become slippery and the thoughts and emotions that had dug themselves in with such fervor months before were having more difficulty finding purchase.
This experience tends to extend beyond simple thoughts and emotions. Life events begin to slip through the practitioner’s mind as well. This statement likely provokes a very common objection from the dualistic reader: how do I gain a separation from my Self without floating off into the space of indifference? The Taoist, Buddhist, and Zen concept of no-self and the disentanglement from life events is very often misinterpreted as a disengagement from life: a retreating inward. Nothing could be further from the truth.
One’s life seems to unfold in a linear manner only because of the nature of memory and the frontal lobe. Memory produces a sense of the past while the frontal lobe, the planning part of the brain, produces a sense of the future. Neither the future nor past exist in a physical sense but only live in the metaphysical “reality” of one’s brain. It is true that a future moment does in fact manifest eventually in the present, but if one looks closer at the event one would be hard-pressed to find a moment in our physical experience that is not the present.
Let’s take the example of a phobia to illustrate this. Imagine that you have a profound phobia of shots at the doctor’s office. This phobia was likely created by a traumatic experience from your childhood that has now set up residence in your memory. The phobia is fueled by the ability to imagine a future in which you will receive another shot at the doctor’s office. The actual event of a receiving the shot might produce a moment of pain, but through the mind’s creation of past and future a five second shot can become an agonizing event that stretches over an indefinite series of present moments. We all go through this same process over and over again throughout our lives and in essence let our past and future-oriented mind create a “reality” that is more reflective of our state of mind than the world as it is.
The statement that past and future life events begin to slip through the practitioner’s mind can now be better understood to represent a refocusing into the present moment rather than a disengagement from life. We began to notice that we are more fully present, and that when an event had come to pass, it slid right off the surface of our mind. Rather than losing the joy of past moments we may begin to notice that we can perceive the joy in the present moment in a more equanimical fashion. The dull and painful experiences inevitable in this life may begin to appear more and more transparent as the light of the present moment shines through.
If I have over-indulged in selling mindfulness, you will have to forgive me. Rest assured: no matter your practice, the clouds will blot out the sun and soak the earth with rain from time to time just as the sun will shoo away the clouds when they are finished with their torrent. So don’t stare directly at the star of mindfulness, relax your gaze, let your vision blur, and appreciate its twinkling in your peripheral vision.