Without mindfulness we are only half alive. Author and teacher Vajragupta suggests keeping watch on four levels of awareness.
Spiritual life is about transformation: we need to know who we are in order to know what must be transformed. And we need to bear in mind our sense of purpose, our sense of who we want to become. At our least aware, we are bundles of habits, thrown hither and thither by whim, chance or circumstance. The spiritual life involves making creative, conscious, disciplined choices about the kind of person we wish to be. Mindfulness is indispensable to this process.
We can also say with certainty that it takes effort to cultivate mindfulness. There’s so much going on in our lives that mindfulness gets forgotten. But if we truly want to change, we need mindfulness. So how do we develop it? The four levels of awareness are a useful guide.
The first level is awareness of oneself. This means actually experiencing yourself, not watching yourself in an alienated fashion, as though observing the operations of a machine. In practicing mindfulness we try to stay in touch with how our bodies feel, what kinds of thoughts and images pass through our minds, which emotions arise and fall.
Some people use cues to remind them to be aware. For example, you may decide that each time the telephone rings you will use it as a prompt to re-establish mindfulness. By pausing for a moment you can remember there will be a real, live human being on the other end of the line. Another valuable aid to mindfulness is to practice doing one thing at a time — doing it fully and with awareness — rather than attempting several things at once.
The word mindfulness suggests “fullness of mind,” implying richness and meaning within our experience. The word awareness introduces another dimension, connoting an expansive, outward-looking attitude. This brings us to the second level: awareness of others. Awareness of self is important, but we must be careful not to think of mindfulness in overly inward-looking terms, nor as self -preoccupation.
Awareness of others means being aware of them as persons not as objects. Meditation practices such as the Metta Bhavana (development of loving-kindness) are concerned with cultivating this awareness. In this meditation we aim to see people more fully and objectively, rather I than just reacting subjectively to them.
Of course, we can practice this outside formal meditation as well. I used to work in a team of Buddhists in which we began the morning by “reporting-in” on how we were, what we wanted to achieve that day, and so on. One morning a couple of us (in a rather quirky mood) suggested we report-in for the person to our left, rather than for ourselves. The result, as well as being entertaining, was a lesson in awareness of others. How aware had I been of that person when I was working with him yesterday? Did I notice what he was doing, how he was feeling, or what kind of day he had? Awareness of others also implies communicating more fully with people – really listening and taking them in — as well as communicating ourselves.
The third level is awareness of the environment; that is, of what we see, hear, smell, taste and touch around us. We can practice mindfulness on this level by trying just to notice things. This provides a much richer experience of life but, again, it is not easy. We are so used to rushing around that we lose the ability to stop and experience the world we inhabit. For example, some people who visit art galleries hardly look at the paintings! The tendency is to drift by with a glazed expression, spending just a few seconds in front of a picture before moving on to the next. Becoming aware of things and taking them in is a practice. We have to learn to look.
The more we look, the more we see. One spring afternoon, when I was on a retreat at Guhyaloka Retreat Centre in the mountains of southern Spain, I went looking for the orchids I had heard grew in the valley. I searched a long time without success. I continued searching. Then, suddenly, I spotted a tall green stem with a mass of pink flowers at the top, which I knew immediately was an orchid. The curious thing was, as soon as I had spied this one, I started seeing orchids everywhere. The field I had been walking through was full of these beautiful flowers but I had only just learned to see them.
In some ways it is easier to be aware of the environment in the countryside, but we can practice this kind of mindfulness anywhere. Noticing our surroundings, on the journey to work for example, takes us out of ourselves if we have become anxious or self-preoccupied, or are just half asleep. We can be aware of the changing seasons, the weather, passers-by, buildings and adverts along the street. What effect is it all having? What do we want to take in and what do we want to filter out of our awareness?
Finally, there is awareness of Reality. The eventual aim of Buddhist practice is to “see things as they really are.” For example, to be aware of the truth of impermanence not just theoretically but as something deeply known, so that when confronted with death or change we respond with equanimity rather than horrified surprise. Although awareness of Reality in the full sense is the culmination of the spiritual life (and our practice of all other levels of awareness), we can develop it along the way, too. By practicing Metta Bhavana, for instance, we become more aware of what others are really like, and our view of them is less colored by our own likes and dislikes, our fears and projections.
Mindfulness takes effort, but it is worth it. The more mindful we are, the more we are truly awake and alive – and the more positively we can direct our lives.
Vajragupta is a Buddhist practitioner and teacher who grew up in London. He was the director of the Birmingham Buddhist Centre from 1997 to 2005 and is the author of “Buddhism: Tools for Living Your Life.”