This section is not about reflections on mindfulness, but is about the practice of reflecting while in a state of mindful meditation.
The whole point of the mindfulness of breathing practice is to help us to develop more concentration and calmness, so that we can break through into a deeper understanding of the nature of reality. Having stilled our mind, so that it has become like a calm lake, we can then begin to reflect. It’s a happy coincidence (or is it a coincidence?) that a lake, like the mind, can only reflect when it is calm.
But what is reflection? We tend to assume that reflection is having a constant flow of thoughts running through our minds, but this does not have to be the case. In fact it’s best if it isn’t.
Imagine that you are standing in front of a calm lake. The lake is still and tranquil, and you can see the reflections of the further shore. You take a tiny pebble, and toss it into the midst of the reflections with respect, as if it were an offering to the ancient gods that live in the depths of the waters. The stone plops into the water, and disappears without trace, leaving behind waves of concentric ripples.
Each ripple presents you with a slightly different perspective on the reflections of the other shore. You watch the ripples radiating from the place where the stone vanished, as they widen and fade and eventually disappear altogether. Then once the lake’s surface is still once more, the reflections have returned to normal, and you toss in another offering.
This is how we can best reflect in meditation; reverently dropping a thought into our hearts, and then patiently watching the ripples coming from that thought until our mind has once more become still.
The ripples that emanate from the thought-pebble are not necessarily thoughts – they’re more of an indescribable feeling of subtly shifting perspectives (like the distorted images at the edge of each ripple). You drop in the pebble of thought, and your emotions and your subconscious understandings respond with a subtle shiver.
What kinds of pebbles can we drop into the waters? We can drop in the thought that each breath is precious – that it only lasts for a moment never to return. This challenges our assumptions that we do the same thing over and over. We never do the same thing over and over. Every experience is unique, and it is deeply fulfilling to experience the uniqueness of each precious moment.
We can reflect on the fact that our breath connects us with every human being, plant, and animal in the world. Our breath is the living symbol of our interconnectedness with others. Your body, and the breath that sustains it, is made of forests, and fields, and birds, and animals, and oceans, and mountains. It is made of the air above, and the earth below. It is made from the remains of a long-ago dead star. We are vaster and richer than we think.
We can reflect on the impermanent and insubstantial nature of every experience we have. Thoughts come and go like rainbow apparitions, emotions coalesce like clouds and then dissipate. Feelings loom like shadows and then are gone. Where did they come from. Where did they go?
The proper contemplation of these sorts of reflections can lead at times to a certain unease, although that unease should be seen as a creative force – a questioning of assumptions that are so close to us that we rarely, if ever, see them. But they can also lead to a sense of fulfillment, and a sense of awe and wonder at the majesty and mystery of life.
As a great Indian teacher said: “Let these three expressions: I do not have. I do not understand. I do not know, be repeated over and over again. That is the heart of my advice.” This might seem strange advice at first, but that only means that the path of reflection is deep and subtle, and that we all have a long way to go in cultivating that sense of awe and mystery which turns not-knowing into the most profound source of wisdom.