For many years I practiced mindfulness meditation as a Buddhist monk. For hours each day I paid careful attention to the coming and going of my breath and to the sensations of my body as I sat. I became adept at noticing thoughts and feelings as they occurred and found myself feeling calmer, more spacious and more disengaged from the drama that had seemed to be my life. In time my customary anxiety diminished and a sense of ease and contentment enveloped me. My relationships improved, my mind settled down and my concentration deepened. Instead of worrying about the future or obsessing about the past, I lived increasingly in the moment, focused on doing the next task as carefully and mindfully as possible. From a nervous intellectual, I transformed into a paragon of patience, groundedness and equanimity. I was a completely different person.
Drawing on my enthusiasm for the practice, my years of experience, and the expert guidance I had received, I led meditation workshops and retreats for others and wrote a popular guidebook, Meditation for Dummies, which extols the benefits and teaches the particulars of mindfulness meditation. More recently, I authored and narrated two mindfulness-based digital programs, Mindfulness Meditation and Freedom from Stress, which make mindfulness accessible to a much wider audience.
But in the context in which I learned and practiced it, mindfulness was always a stepping-stone, not an end in itself, a skilful method for going beyond mindfulness to recognize the foundation out of which it arises. According to this tradition, the act of being mindful is a portal to a deeper, enduring awareness that can’t be manufactured or practiced. This deeper awareness is always functioning, whether we know it or not. Indeed, it’s our natural state of spontaneous presence, without which there would be no experience at all. Instead of cultivating it like a talent or strengthening it like a muscle, we just need to recognize and return to it.
In the beginning, mindfully shifting your attention again and again from thoughts and feelings to the sensations of the breath helps you counteract an old habit with a new one. Accustomed to fixating on the stories, fantasies, daydreams and memories that play out in your head, you’re now focusing instead on sensate experience, which is more immediate and more directly connected to the present moment. Over time this attentional shift brings you into a more harmonious relationship with your body and your bodily felt experience and entrains you to pay attention to what’s happening right now, rather than to your interpretation of what’s happening. Unlike thinking, direct sensation is a portal to the present, whereas thought generally transports you to an imaginary past or future. As your practice matures, you’re able to expand your awareness for extended periods of time to include the full range of sensations, both inside and outside your body, and eventually to include thoughts and feelings as well, without getting caught up in them.
At a certain point, however, the practice of mindfulness, as a particular state of mind that you need to keep “efforting” to maintain, can begin to seem laborious and mechanical, and you may find yourself longing for a more spontaneous, less strategic way of being present. When I was a monk, I became so focused on maintaining deliberate attention to my present-moment experience that I lost my natural ease of being and morphed into a kind of mindful automaton. No matter how beneficial, techniques can only take you so far, and the goal of mindfulness is not better and more concentrated mindfulness, but greater openness, spontaneity and authenticity. Buddha likened technique to a raft designed to take you to another shore. Once you arrive, you don’t need to carry the raft around on your head but can leave it behind on the bank.
When properly taught and practiced, mindfulness has a soft, gentle, spacious, compassionate quality, and a good teacher will guide you in gradually relaxing your effort, at least to some degree. Only our achievement-oriented conditioning tends to turn the practice into something obsessive. My work with people over the years has shown me that the habit of focusing on a future goal and regarding meditation not as an opportunity to be still, present and open to the moment right now, but rather as a task-oriented methodology for achieving some distant end, be it better health, greater concentration, or (ironically) peace of mind, runs deep and dies hard. This goal orientation defeats the very purpose of mindfulness, which is to invite you to be present for your experience without judgment, interpretation, or agenda. The growing buzz about mindfulness’ benefits and the impressive research results run the risk of turning mindfulness into another self-improvement scheme, another task on your endless list of things to do, rather than an opportunity to shift from doing and accomplishing to just being.
At a subtler level, the emphasis on the deliberate application of attention, while helpful at first, has a number of potential pitfalls and limitations. For one thing, it may gradually reinforce a new identity as a detached observer. Rather than breaking down the apparent barriers that separate you from others and the world around you, mindfulness may actually reinforce them by giving you the sense of being a separate witnessing ego, localized in the head, looking down mindfully on your experience and actions from above. Instead of inviting you to be more intimate with life and other people, mindfulness can become a kind of deliberate, habitual distancing that robs you of warmth and spontaneity and feeds the subject-object split. As one Zen master puts it, “If you are mindful, you are already creating a separation. When you walk, just walk. Let the walking walk. Let the talking talk. Let the eating eat, the sitting sit, the working work.”
This pitfall is a subtle one that even the most experienced meditators (indeed, especially the most experienced meditators) have difficulty recognizing. The key word here is “ego”: spacious awareness without fixation somehow morphs into a fixed witnessing position (ego) that perpetuates separateness. People who fall prey to this fixation may become proud of their detachment and be difficult to reach, even in intimate relationships, where they tend to withdraw from genuine, spontaneous interaction. The difference between spacious awareness and detached observation is crucial here but can be tricky to discern: Spacious awareness relaxes the sense of separation and fosters greater warmth and intimacy with what is; detached witnessing creates distance, aloofness, and a subtle (or not so subtle) aversion to what is.
As a Buddhist monk, I met many people who resorted to meditation as a refuge from life’s challenges, retreating to their meditation seat when the going got rough to follow their breath and calm their turbulent mind and heart. Unfortunately, they never took the next step and used the penetrating insight that meditation provides to investigate the root causes of their discomfort and angst. Indeed, some people become addicted to meditation—admittedly, as addictions go, not a bad one to have—and believe they can’t function without their daily fix of mindfulness.
Employed in this way, mindfulness just perpetuates your dependence on an altered state that needs to be constantly maintained, and it never really empowers you to experience abiding peace, freedom, spontaneity and authenticity, which is after all the ultimate promise of mindfulness. The direct approach I teach, based on the non-dual wisdom traditions of Zen, Dzogchen, and Advaita Vedanta, invites you to come to rest in your natural state of awakened awareness, which need not be cultivated and is always already present in the midst of everyday life.
Guided meditation: Resting in awareness
First, close your eyes for a few moments, then open them. After five seconds with your eyes open, practice being aware of the objects around you. Did this add anything to your experience, or were you already aware as soon as you opened your eyes?
Now close your eyes again, and take a few minutes to sit comfortably and shift your attention from your thinking mind to the coming and going of your breath. Instead of starting to practice your accustomed meditation technique, I’d like you to sit quietly and just let everything be the way it is. Don’t focus or manipulate your attention in any way, don’t try to be mindful, don’t do anything in particular; just let everything be, without trying to change or avoid or get rid of anything.
Ordinarily our attention tends to focus on thoughts, feelings, stories and the other objects of our experience, constantly shifting from object to object. If you practice mindfulness, you make an effort to bring more mindful attention to these objects. Instead, let go of this emphasis on objects and relax back into awareness itself. Rest as the open, unconditional awareness in which experiences come and go. This awareness is inherently silent, present and still; it doesn’t require any effort on your part, and it doesn’t do or cultivate anything, it simply welcomes what is just the way it is.
Let yourself rest as this silent, open, unconditional awareness or presence. No effort, no manipulation, no cultivation, no doing, just rest as awareness and let everything be as it is.