May 30, 2007
Looking into our fetters — and finding freedom
As we practice meditation it’s inevitable that we’ll outgrow some of our initial understandings, and sometimes an aspect of practice that at first seemed straightforward is revealed to be richer and more textured than we’d assumed.
For me, mindfulness at first seemed clear enough; one simply notices one’s actions and one’s experience. A person who is being mindful remembers where he has left his car keys, while a person (maybe the same person) who is being unmindful may not even remember where he parked the car. We know we’re angry when we’re angry, and we know we’re content when we’re content. It’s that simple — or so it may seem.
A few years ago my understanding of mindfulness started to undergo a shift. Mindfulness is no longer simply knowing what one is experiencing, or remembering where one has put things, but is richer and more multifaceted than that. As my practice has evolved there are four aspects of mindfulness that I’ve particularly come to appreciate: acceptance, curiosity, lovingkindness, and insight.
Acceptance leads to integration and wholeness. By “acceptance” I mean being with one’s experience without reacting, without experiencing craving or aversion towards it, without experiencing elation or despondency. In order to deepen our mindfulness we have to practice sitting with experiences, even if they’re unpleasant or involve unskillful emotions.
Sometimes we can be quick to jump in with various tools we’ve learned to deal with the various emotional states that that arise and take us away from the object of our meditation practice — emotions such as ill will, craving, despondency, embarrassment, and anxiety — not allowing time to really be with the distraction and to see what we can learn from it.
But if we can patiently sit with our experiences, unexpected transmutations can take place. Ill will can evaporate to reveal tender sadness, or beneath craving we can come to see a wholesome yearning for completeness.
However, the habitual use of antidotes to distractions can lead to a subtle form of repression in which these parts of ourselves are forced out of consciousness, and when reaching for antidotes becomes a habit we’ve lost our freedom — and all meditation practice is about finding greater levels of freedom.
Mindfulness is active rather than passive. Mindfulness doesn’t have to merely notice experiences, but can explore them. For example, an experience to which we apply the label “pain” can be seen not as one thing but as a series of processes becoming and un-becoming.
As we investigate an experience of physical pain we can see interweaving currents of pressure,
heat, cold, tingling, throbbing, and pulsing — and sometimes the pain seems to vanish altogether. An experience we may have wished to escape now becomes a source of fascination and an object of concentration.