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  • Liz Dawes

What Mindfulness is and is Not

A fascinating talk by Joseph Goldstein


This talk, by Joseph Goldstein, from November 19, 2014 at the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society, Shrewsbury, MA, starts with a brief guided meditation and a transcription from 23.15 minutes into the talk is below.


(From 23.15) Asked to describe is a couple of words of what mindfulness is. And I thought for a moment and it felt to me like being asked today in just a few words..what is art? What is love? Not so easy. because mindfulness, even though is a simple and even prosaic word …the word in english doesn't have the cache of words like wisdom or love or compassion..the very words imply their richness…mindfulness lands a bit like a dud..not a sexy word..but the mind state it relates to…the mind state it cultivates in its practice is hugely rich…and hugely nuanced.


Tonight, I’d like to talk a bit , to explore the nuances of what it is and in some cases what it isn't and things that can be mistaken for mindfulness.


.A very common response to the question “What is Mindfulness? might be: Well, its living in the present moment..it's being in the present.

A pretty good beginning…during meditation, we are very much aware of how much of the time we are lost in thoughts of the past or lost in thoughts of the future…and very little time is actually spent in the moment..because of this proliferation of thoughts.


So its living in the moment..not being so lost in thoughts of the future, or the past.

But this is not quite enough. Mindfulness means something more than just living in the moment. Example: dogs eg a black Labrador. They are living in the present….they're not lost in the past or lost the future. They are right there in the present moment. But based on my astute observation of them..they don't look all that mindful…they're just being led around..mostly by their nose..very much in the present …but not really mindful. So mindfulness has to mean something more than just being in the present or we would all just be practising what I call “black lab consciousness” …so we’re not doing that.


Portuguese poet named Fernando Pessoa ..came across one of his poems..the title was very interesting..the title is Live You Say in the Present …first few lines of the poem..live you say in the present ..live only in the present. But I don't want the present ..I want reality.


Interesting take on things. How do we come to a deeper reality than simply living in the present…so we are not confined by this black lab consciousness…there has to be something more, something bigger …a further dimension to mindfulness.


It is living in the present but what we need in addition, we need a certain observing power of the mind …so that as we know what’s happening, we know that we are knowing . And this is something black labs do not seem to have.


So maybe mindfulness is this observing power of the mind. We are getting closer. In our meditation practice, we talk about: observe what’s happening. ..observe the thoughts, observe the breath

Eg a woman had recently been on a cruise and in her room, there was a map of the ship and an arrow pointing saying you are here. And that became her mantra for the whole cruise…wherever she was, she would remind herself…you are here. So thats a kind of observing power of the mind…not simply being here…but knowing we are here. So that’s another dimension.

Another way of understanding what this observing power of the mind is ..as opposed to simply being present …is an experience we all have many times…experiencing the difference between being lost in a thought and being aware that we are thinking. This happens a lot in meditation. It happens a lot that thoughts are happening and if we are not aware, we are not mindful, we are carried along on the trains of association..so we are in the thought process and one can also say we are present in the thought process…but we don't know that we are thinking …so the observing power of mind gives us that extra perspective …as thoughts are there or emotions or images or mind states -the observing power of mind knows that we are knowing them . This opens up the possibility of huge arenas of investigation through the observing power of mind, we can really start investigating different aspects of the reality that Pessoa was talking about…I don't want the present…I want reality. This is one little example of this and really our whole practice is about discovering what it is we learn from this observing power of mind ..it’s not that we are doing it for its own sake but we are doing it for the wisdom that can emerge from it.


So one simple example is of tremendous interest to me (JG)…when we are observing the thought process…the thought is there and we know we are thinking …a very interesting question to hold and consider and hold in those moments… is the question …what is a thought? Not what is the thought saying…which is what we usually do. Usually our relationship to thought has almost always to do with its content..we are either lost in it or we like it or we don't like it or there is strong emotions involved in it…but it is always about the content of it . When we are observing thinking, we can drop down a level and really look in to the very nature of thought…what is it as a phenomenon?.


So the reason this is so interesting to me…that when are unaware of thought …we are just carried away in the trains of association…which takes up a large part of our lives ….the thoughts we have have tremendous power…they are conditioning our minds, conditioning our actions, thoughts come ..go there, go here, do this, do that …we are the slaves of thoughts. Sometimes, i think of thoughts as the little dictators of the mind…they are just driving our lives. Now what is extraordinary about observing the nature of thought, not its content …thoughts are happening and we are observing them..and we are really looking into the nature of thought…what do we find? That the thought in and of itself is little more than nothing …its just this little wisp of an energy blip in the mind…as a phenomenon..now isn't this remarkable that this process that engages a huge part of our lives when unnoticed runs our lives and when they are noticed, we see that there is not much there at all. In the seeing of this , it opens up a tremendous doorway of freedom in our lives because if we have really seen clearly into the essentially empty nature of thought then as the different content presents itself there is much more space to exercise some wise discernment …is this thought worth following? Or not worth following? We are not so identified, we are not so locked ion, we are not so imprisoned by the thoughts in the mind. So our lives get much, much simpler , more spacious .


So all this comes from the observing power of the mind.

But this observing power of the mind is still not yet mindfulness. So this exploration keeps getting deeper. We need to be living in the present, but it’s more than living in the present. We need to be cultivating the observing power of the mind in order to investigate all the aspects of our experience , but mindfulness is more than just the observing power.

Because we can be observing experience and we often are through many different filters in the mind . We can be observing experience through the filter of desire ..we can be observing through the filter of anger..or aversion or through the filter of delusion where there is just a cloudiness. We are observing, we are in that mode but the observation is being conditioned by the particular mind state.


So just a few simple examples of this..when we are observing things through the filter of wanting or desiring …there is something I call, catalogue consciousness . Have you ever made the mistake of opening a catalogue? And then turning the pages waiting for something to want? It’s remarkable. No, no, nothing on this page, maybe I’ll want something on the next page …and it’s a rare person who can put the catalogue down before the last page..because maybe there will be something I want. So that whole time, we may be observing what were seeing but it is all through the filter of wanting…that’s not mindfulness. So mindfulness has to mean more than simply observing.


Another example: so this happened when I was practising at a monastery in Burma. I’d been there for quite a while, in intensive meditation and the whole body just felt open, a free flow of energy and light..felt pretty good. But there was one knot in the neck and I was observing it and being with it and I went to my teacher , and I was reporting my experience …you know everything is very open, theres a lot of light tingling, pleasant sensations but there is this one energy block in the neck. And I thought I was describing the experience objectively ..everything is open but there is this block. He pointed out; the very word, the very concept, block contained within it desire and aversion. Just by naming it and holding it as a block, it implied, I don't want this, I want it to open. Aversion to what’s present; wanting something else. And all that time, I thought I was being mindful of it because I was observing it and I hadn't noticed I was observing it through this filter of aversion to what was there and wanting something else.


So we begin to see the nuances of mindfulness; mindfulness means the observing power of the mind , that has to be there. But the mind that is free of desire and aversion and delusion. Mindfulness means we are seeing, we are with experience free of those filters. And so it takes a lot of practice and attention to really check to see what is the attitude in the mind with respect to the present experience and this is a very useful meditation technique in whatever way you are practising; periodically, and it can be reasonably frequently ..it can be very helpful to ask the question with whatever the present experience is…well what is the attitude in the mind now about this? So we are remembering to check in, we are remembering to look.

Just another little example of this. An ordinary kind of meditation…just sitting, feeling my breath…very ordinary, very simple, very basic ..just sitting feeling the breath. And then I remembered to ask this question: What is the attitude in my mind. And that’s not normally a question we would ask with respect to feeling the breath…it just seems like such an ordinary thing to do. But I asked that question; I was feeling the breath, I asked the question..what’s the attitude in my mind? And in the very moment of asking the question, I could feel a release. It wasn’t even from getting an answer. It was just from asking the question. And it made me realise, as I felt that (release), I realised that I even as I was simply feeling the breath, there was this subtle overlay of wanting, of expectation. I’m with the breath in order to get more concentrated…or in order to become calm. Its that “in order to” mind. So again, when that’s there, that’s not mindfulness. That’s being with the breath, seeing it through a filter of wanting, of desire. It can be that subtle.

So mindfulness is the observing power of mind, but its a particular kind of observing . This begins to bring us into the understanding of the ethical dimension of mindfulness. This is something that , as its becoming more widespread, this ethical dimension of it is sometimes lost or not talked about.


According to the Buddhist teachings, mindfulness is always a wholesome state of mind; its always skilful which means that in a moment of mindfulness, the mind is free of greed, its free of wanting, its free of aversion, its free of delusion. This is the tremendous purifying force of mindfulness in the mind. We are freeing the mind, we are de-conditioning, we are weakening these unskillful tendencies. And there is one teaching of the Buddha that is so obvious that for the most part, we overlook it or we don't pay attention to it. When he said..what we frequently think about or ponder or we could say, what is frequently arising in the mind…becomes the inclination of the mind So if we are frequently lost in the wanting mind or frequently lost in the aversive mind , its..I’m about to make a neuroscientific statement with I have checked with Judd beforehand, so I think I’m on safe ground..What happens through these different mind qualities or states is those particular neural pathways deepen, strengthened …either one of those, we are actually strengthening, we’re deepening those grooves …what we frequently think about, ponder on and practise…that becomes the inclination of the mind .


So its not like we are going through our life experience and everything is just as it is in the moment and it has no repercussions, we are actually cultivating in one way or another the patterns and inclinations of our lives. So here we begin to see that mindfulness …this is not just a hobby. This is our life we are talking about and the quality of our life. And what patterns of thought and feeling and mind state are we inclining our minds towards?


Are we developing or deepening patterns of anger, of aversion of desire or wanting of love or compassion of kindness? Every time we practise one of these qualities we are deepening that groove, that pathway . So it’s essential…I see the practice of mindfulness ..I was going to say it’s as essential as eating but maybe it’s not quite that basic …we would survive without it but unless we are paying attention to our minds , to the qualities in the mind as we are going through our lives, we will simply be acting out and strengthening all the habit patterns of our conditioning and some undoubtedly are skilful and wholesome but there are a lot that are not and unless we practise mindfulness , unless we are paying attention, we do not have any possibility of observing what’s going and actually making choices. An American monk, in the Thai ForestTradition and who brought that tradition to the West, he had a very pointed teaching..he said our practice is not to follow our hearts but to train our heart. There’s a big difference there because so much in our culture encourages us to follow your heart and it sounds good and we respond to that…yeah, I’ll follow my heart …but..once we take a look at our hearts, we see there’s a whole mix of qualities unless you happen to be a saint…with a totally purified heart. It’s not just about following our heart because there’s lots of beautiful qualities but there are some that are not so beautiful. So we want to train the heart ..through mindfulness…when we really begin to pay attention to observe what’s happening, without the filters of wanting or aversion or delusion ..then we can begin to see what’s there and actually to make wiser choices.


We could choose, we can choose , we really need to choose the skilful states of heart and mind that are going to bring happiness to ourselves and happiness to others . We can choose to practice kindness . The Dalai Llama a gave a great teaching on this…he said..Practise kindness whenever possible. It is always possible. Just that. Would that be a great way to go through the day? To have that really in our minds and heart so that we are being mindful both of that intention and mindful enough to see when are not practising kindness Oh yes, this is a moment to hold back We can do this hugely in the whole arena of speech. In our daily lives, we speak a lot. How often are we paying attention to the motivation behind our speech?


Another little pithy instruction that the Buddha gave..with huge consequences..this is with regard to speech . He said especially in speaking about other people …which for some reason we seem to enjoy a lot. He said..Always speak in a way that brings people together rather than that which causes divisiveness . Just think what a change that would be? If that became our guideline for speech Always speak in a way that brings people together rather than causes divisiveness . Practise kindness whenever possible . Its always possible.


A few weeks ago, this is just another story of intentionality..I happened to be in a department store . And I was at the check out counter and this older guy..he looked older than me …I don't really know but lets just say he was in in his eighties…I’m not exactly sure how old he was. He was just in front of me and he was checking out and the sales clerk got his package together and just in a very perfunctory way said: Have a nice day..you know ..as people often will. And without missing a beat, it was just so remarkable..so the sales clerk said have a nice day and he said: I intend to. I loved it! It’s like he just didn’t buy into have a nice day and you too. But it was a real statement about his intention on how to live. Have a nice day. I intend to.


So through mindfulness we begin to see that in ourselves we all have an inner remote and we can change channels. If we are mindful enough to see what channel is playing in the mind and to know and this is one of the meanings of mindfulness is to remember or to call to mind what is skilful, what is not skilful, what is wholesome, what is not wholesome . What leads to peace, what leads to suffering. So part of mindfulness, and this is the richness of it. We need to learn through study but also more importantly through our own experience to learn and to remember to call to mind oh no, this mind state is not skilful ..this is just strengthening wanting or anger or whatever it may be. Or we see a moment of genuine kindness ..of love or of compassion. We recognise this is a skilful state, this should be cultivated . And so it’s mindfulness that gives its this power to choose and this is an ethical understanding ..suffusing awareness , suffusing mindfulness. It becomes the foundation then for the choices we are making


A friend of mine was leading mindfulness training in California. It was a 6 week program for 2nd graders. So that itself is pretty remarkable and after the 6 weeks, they had these young yogis, these young meditators evaluate the programme and talk about what their experience of mindfulness was . So this is some of their comments …


So just a quick recap. So mindfulness. It is living in the present but it is more than living in the present. It is the observing power in the mind but it is more than simply the observing power in the mind. It is observing with skilful attitude in the mind. It is observing without the filter of greed, of wanting of aversion of delusion . And checking the attitude of the mind so that when those are present, we actually now they are present and become mindful of them. So this is what makes possible the discovery, and the training of our hearts, of our lives..


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