Opening to insight

Flowers at various stages of opening

Fundamentally, we don’t know anything about anything. How then can we even begin to cultivate insight into how things really are? Author, practitioner, and Dharma teacher Kamalashila suggests how we can learn to open up to reality.

It is late summer and 10:22 in the morning.

I am in my room in Birmingham. Just a few yards away, framed in the open window, are the upper branches of a luxuriant copper beech, its leaves displaying to the eye subtle, dark greens (olive, patinated bronze) as they reflect the morning sunshine.

The fine outer branches shift almost imperceptibly, shedding complex darker shadows within.

The tree is full of beech nuts, and the leaves on a few small branches have already turned a dead, uniform orange-brown. In such a calm moment as this, I can enjoy describing to myself the rich detail of a beautiful object.

But do I see it as it really is? There is a framework of assumptions that we impose on the reality we perceive. “It” “is” “10:22” “in” “the morning.” “I” “am” “in” “my” “room” “in” “Birmingham.” Just a few yards “away,” framed “in” the open window, “are” the upper branches of a luxuriant “copper beech.” These accentuated words point to ideas that we use continually, ideas with which we make sense of life. We built them up painstakingly, over the long years of childhood.

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Yet on each of the countless occasions that we have uttered these names and prepositions, we have to skip over fundamental problems that arise in communicating our experience.

We don’t really know anything at all

We forget that we are raising matters concerning being, time, space, and form — matters which we profoundly do not understand. We do not even know what the word “is” implies. We don’t really know anything at all.

In our daily dealings with others we disregard this great ignorance we hold in common, devastatingly basic though it is. Otherwise, everything anyone said would entail long, irresolvable discussions on metaphysics. Everyone tacitly agrees to put these matters aside, since we cannot readily understand them. Yet they really are mysteries. We do not understand what a copper beech, or any particular object, truly is. Of course in the ordinary way we do know that a copper beech is a “tree.” It is a large woody perennial “plant,” with a distinct trunk, giving rise to branches or leaves at some distance from the ground.

Yet do we really know what a plant is? Yes, a plant is any living “organism” that typically synthesizes its food from inorganic substances, possesses cellulose cell walls, responds slowly and often permanently to a stimulus, lacks specialized sense organs and a nervous system, and has no powers of locomotion.

But then what is an organism? The dictionary explains that unless it happens to be an “animal,” an organism can be any living “plant.” But we have only just seen that a “plant” is a living “organism.” So all we can discover is that a tree is a plant, which is an organism, which is a plant, which is an organism.

We must wonder, sometimes, if there is any way to see reality as it is. Religions may tell us that we cannot expect to, that such an idea is hubristic, even blasphemous. And the accepted materialist theories about life all miss this point. So the mystery eventually becomes too much; it appears that we can only speculate – which seems idle, a waste of time. Most of us end up taking the position that we (whatever we are) just need to get on with living (whatever that might be).

The way we see our existence is thickly colored by the emotions and assumptions we hold, and leaves little room for compassion. Our world is perceived in a flickering half-light of wants and dislikes, and accounted for by an unquestioning common sense. We are so used to this perspective that it is difficult for us even to realize there is any problem. We repress the uncomfortable awareness that we understand nothing about life.

 …when death and other exposures to reality force open our eyes, we can bear to look at them only briefly, if at all

What can set the seal on this repression is that pain and fear often accompany our glimpses of reality. Despite the childhood years spent learning about life and developing an urbane adult shell, we have still not fully adjusted to it. For when death and other exposures to reality force open our eyes, we can bear to look at them only briefly, if at all.

We really cannot bear much reality. It shakes the jelly at our core when friends or lovers separate from us, or when they die. Such experiences can be like lightning striking at night. Seeing for an instant just how much what we relied upon was founded on wishful thinking, we are reduced to a bare and naked state, in a vast, unfathomable universe.

Yet life must go on. Numbly, we piece it back together. It is the old, old story: human existence is fragile, uncertain and inexplicable. Samsara, the endless cycle, is profoundly unsatisfactory. So it is a definite relief when, soon enough, the terrible questions are washed over by familiar concerns: work, chat, shopping, washing-up, bedtime drink. We welcome the crack in reality closing again. Yet, as we return to normal we know something has been lost. Along with the relief of returning to daily life, we feel once more imprisoned by a wall of unknowing.

Can there be a middle way between the unbearable intensity of reality and the unbearable dullness of ignorance? If there is, it must somehow be through relying on something real, and not on wishful thinking The path that transcends these painful extremes is the Dharma. Buddhist practices, because they arise out of an insight into reality, are effective in helping us to come to terms with it.

The cultivation of insight requires two qualities known as samatha and vipassana. Through a long-term development of samatha (which broadly means calm), the mind becomes strong, happy and confident.

Along with that strength comes greater receptivity, so we’re more able to see things as they are, without being seared by the experience. The ability to look is samatha; the actual seeing is vipassana. It is not that reality as a whole is intrinsically painful, but that we are not sufficiently large or awake to sustain the totality. In our weakened state, the light streaming in through the crack is too intensely brilliant to sustain; yet we know it is an opportunity, as an experience of a universal truth.

…the light streaming in through the crack is too intensely brilliant to sustain

We can take up this opportunity if we begin to cultivate that calm, receptive strength. Through so doing, we shall eventually become strong enough to sustain the sight of the total reality. Some degree of such a vision is to be expected in more experienced meditators, whose senses are somewhat calmed, and who look closely at their experience.

Vipassana can be induced by meditation, and that is generally the way it is cultivated. But insight into reality can arise anywhere, at any time, when circumstances make us question our assumptions about reality.

This may be sparked by some critical occurrence like a death, or a relationship ending. But it may arise at a quiet moment when our thoughts come together at a single point — we see that all things really are impermanent and we experience, as in a vision, what this central reality implies for our human potential. These experiences seldom arise, however, unless the mind has been prepared over a long time by meditation.

Having created a foundation of samatha, we generate vipassana by reflecting on the Dharma with the mental lucidity conferred by that tranquil state. Achieving this tranquil state requires considerable preparation in the rest of our life. We can prepare in a general way by cultivating mindfulness, and following a more ethical way of life. This brings integrity, consistency of character, and a buoying happiness.

We take the integration deeper by regularly practicing samatha meditations, such as the Mindfulness of Breathing and the Metta Bhavana.

At the same time as establishing this foundation in samatha, we also cultivate a second foundation of Wisdom, in its preliminary stages. That is, we learn about the Dharma, and reflect repeatedly on what we have learned. We mull over what we hear and read, make sure we understand what is being said, apply that to our own experience, ask clarifying questions, and in this way cultivate a thorough understanding of what the Buddha taught.

These two preliminary stages of “learning” and “reflecting” prepare the ground for Wisdom itself. Learning and reflecting on the Dharma are strands of spiritual life that one never stops cultivating. To examine afresh our understanding, even of the most elementary aspects of the path to Enlightenment, always bears fruit. Our appreciation of the Dharma is enriched as it gradually loses its tendency to literalism.

To examine afresh our understanding always bears fruit

Along with meditation, reflection is the most important Buddhist practice. Given some understanding of the Dharma and regular meditation, it is quite easy and natural to reflect. It is a more or less spontaneous activity, provided we are not too distracted. But it is more difficult to create a mental environment in which reflection can happen.

Nearly all of us are deeply addicted to filling our time with activities. This habit not only allows us no time simply to sit and sift our thoughts as they disentangle themselves and spread out in the mind, it also stunts our ability to reflect. Understanding needs an inner space in which to unfold.

If we can see the importance of developing the inner life of our thought, then that will naturally become our main priority. All other Buddhist practices will then aid this project of deepening reflection. Mindfulness (of body, feelings, mental states, and mental objects) will particularly help as a focus, as we notice our response to every experience, and remind ourselves in each response of our overall aim.

Developing the inner life of thought is an essential preparation for meditation, because through it we move towards a synthesis that allows us to have faith in the possibility of Insight. This is not an intellectual synthesis, even though we could probably formulate some aspects of it verbally. It is a kind of knowing, yet its character is also emotional and volitional, so that with it comes sufficient confidence for us to open to whatever the truth might be.

Freedom from emotional conflict is essential if we are to do this, because the method of cultivating vipassana is to open the mind to some crucial point of Dharma, such as the truth of impermanence. It is a considerable step, and we must want to take it.

Nearly all of us are deeply addicted to filling our time with activities

To be effective, this opening up must be carried out when our minds are calmed and purified by dhyana, the conflict-free concentration brought about by samatha meditation. Thus in our samatha practice we need to have moved, at least to some extent, beyond conflicting emotions.

We have to entrust ourselves to the samatha practice in order to concentrate the mind, and move beyond the distractions of craving, anger, dullness and excitement — tendencies always present in ordinary consciousness. It is only in a mind unified and elevated by dhyanic meditation that vipassana contemplation can be nurtured and matured, through openness, into Wisdom (prajña).

It is obvious that the mind is now in a quite different condition than at the preparatory levels of learning and reflection, when we are thinking out our understanding with the ordinary, relatively distracted mind. With vipassana in the context of meditative absorption, the mode of contemplation is uniquely light, flexible and spacious. It combines potential for lucid thought with great receptivity.

In this way we rest our mind on some aspect of the Dharma, perhaps the “emptiness” that is said to characterize all phenomena. A tree, a plant, an organism, a being, a Buddha: does any “thing” have a nature of its own, and if so what is that nature? There can be no fully satisfactory verbal answer. Yet our willingness to relax and open ourselves to the truth, cultivated over years of practice, may tip the balance so that truth is glimpsed and begins to light us up from within.

It is encouraging to know that Buddhism makes us happy, yet this form of happiness cannot be relied upon

The Buddha saw things as they actually are. His teaching is a way to cultivate the same insight into reality, and that insight is the aim of all Buddhist practices, from Right Livelihood and skillful communication, through mindfulness, to the various kinds of meditation. We easily lose sight of this aim. Left alone with Buddhist practice, we tend to grind to an agreeable halt at the foundations, at the happiness that comes from skillful actions and states of mind.

It is encouraging to know that Buddhism makes us happy, yet this form of happiness cannot be relied upon. Our skillful mental states are not permanently established; there is a danger that when circumstances change, our confidence and habitual goodness may deflate like a punctured bubble. Only Wisdom, once developed, provides a reliable response to the ravages of impermanence.

Morality and happiness, important as they are, are insufficient in themselves; happiness can even be so intoxicating that it obscures spiritual vision. So if we never develop insight, we will sooner or later lose the conditions for our happiness. In the end, in a large and unfathomable universe, it is our openness to wisdom that really matters.

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Research: Naming negative emotions makes them weaker

naming emotionsWired Magazine reports on research that’s of relevance to meditators — especially those that use the vipassana technique of “noting,” where we name the most prominent aspect of our experience, saying inwardly, for example, “anger, anger” when we recognize that that emotion is present.

Meditation generally, and the technique of noting in particular, helps us to stand back from our emotions and to recognize that they are transitory events passing though our consciousness. Without this ability to stand back from our emotions we can easily become engulfed by them and we identify totally with them. Instead of experiencing anger we simply are angry.

It’s akin to flying in an airplane. When the plane is inside a cloud this is similar to being engulfed in an emotion. Everything you can see is cloud; everything you experience is filtered through the emotion. When the plane rises above the cloud you can see it from the outside; you can sense not only the emotion but also aspects of yourself outside of the emotion, including your relation to the emotion itself. The emotion is therefore weaker and has less of a hold over us.

Perhaps all those blog posts you wrote about your breakup really did have a purpose.

Naming feelings takes some of the emotional impact out of them by engaging a brain region that aids self-control, according to new research.

In a clever series of experiments, UCLA psychologist Matthew Lieberman found that labeling a picture of someone who looked angry as “angry” reduced the negative emotional feelings that most people feel when viewing such a photograph.

“Putting feelings into words activates this region that’s capable of producing emotional regulatory outcomes, which could explain why putting feelings into words dampens them down,” Lieberman said in a presentation at the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences annual meeting on Saturday.

While plenty of psychological treatments have involved talking about one’s feelings, Lieberman’s work is some of the first to demonstrate the underlying neural basis for the therapeutic nature of talking something out. The research is based on the idea that engaging a part of the brain that aids in self-control, the right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex, helps put a damper on feelings, no matter how you get that part of the brain involved.

First, the researchers had subjects view photographs of men and women with some positive and some negative facial expressions. The negative facial expressions tended to stimulate activity in the amygdala, a region of the brain associated with processing emotions.

The researchers had the subjects play a simple game while looking at the photos. If the photo was of a woman (and 80 percent of the pictures were) they pressed the “go” button, but if the picture was of a man, they didn’t press the button — their brain had to intervene to inhibit the motor response of pressing the button. Simply exerting self-control over the motor function by not pressing the button led to reduced negative emotional response. The idea is that the self-control area of the prefrontal cortex turns on and helps all forms of self-control. They call this “inhibitory spillover.”

In the next set of studies, they had one set of people label the photos with simple gender-name matching — match Seth to the picture of a man, not Sarah. Another group was asked to name the emotions on the faces of the people in the pictures. The subjects who named the emotions experienced less negative emotion associated with negative images. By focusing on the emotions in the pictures to label them, the subjects engaged that piece of the prefrontal cortex and “down regulated” their intensity.

It’s important to note that the regulatory effect didn’t come from increased self-awareness about one’s relationship to the emotion. The more tightly regulated emotional response was practically a side effect of the cognitive task of labeling the emotion in the face. The researchers postulate that the same principle is at work when you talk about your feelings: it’s the bare fact of labeling your emotions that counts, not whatever conclusions you draw in the course of verbal expression (or poetry writing).

It’s possible that these techniques could be used to treat fear-based conditions from arachnophobia (fear of spiders) to zemmiphobia (fear of the great mole rat).

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Overcoming “change blindness”

Would you like to see the world in a new way? A way that’s more authentic and satisfying? A way that taps into your infinite potential and helps others to realize theirs?

Eirik Solheim has put together an impressive time-lapse movie of a woodland scene that compresses an entire year into 40 seconds of footage. This kind of presentation helps us to see the world in a different, and in some respects more real, way.

The human mind and senses are not good at perceiving change. You look at a cloud once, and then again ten minutes later, and you think it’s the same cloud. Actually the entire shape and size of the cloud may have changed, but you simply don’t notice.

There are of course much more dramatic examples of this phenomenon, which is called “change blindness.” This YouTube link wil show you that 75% of people don’t notice when in the middle of a conversation the person they are talking to is replaced with a completely different person. And this second link will give you a chance to see how hard it is to observe change happening right in front of your eyes.

Now check out the Solheim video and see what change looks like sped up.

When watching the sped-up version of reality the mind becomes focused on the change that we usually tend not to notice because it’s happening on too slow a timescale for us to register or because we simply don’t pay attention.

Imagination and insight

I love this kind of presentation of reality and often find myself looking at the world (in my imagination, of course) in this way. The Six Element Practice, for example, is an insight meditation practice in which we reflect on impermanence and interconnectedness. We become aware of the body — not just those parts we can directly sense but the whole physical body as perceived in the imagination, right down to the internal organs and bone marrow — and sense each of the elements in turn: earth (solid matter), water (anything liquid), fire (the energy of metabolism), air (anything gaseous), space (the form that the physical elements take), and the consciousness that perceives those other elements.

In the case of the four physical elements of earth, water, fire and air, we not only notice the element within the body but we imaginatively connect with it in the outside world, reflecting that all the elements within the body come from outside. Not only do they come from outside, but they are in the process — right now — of returning to the outside world. The “self” is not a thing but a flow. In our imagination we actually see all this happening. When contemplating the earth element, for example, we see crops growing from the soil, we see those crops flowing into factories and stores, and into our bodies, and then back into the outside world as we defecate, shed skin cells and hair, and as we burn glucose in our cells. I see all this happening in a sped-up, compressed form, rather as in Eirik Solheim’s beautiful video. The body is no longer a static thing but is a fluid process.

To Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand and Eternity in an hour (or less)

On one arts retreat I was co-leading (I taught the meditation, someone else was teaching the arty stuff) we were asked to go and connect with the landscape, and to choose one object that we could bring inside that expressed that connection. The retreat was in a beautiful glen in the Scottish highlands, and I stood on a spit of land where a river flowed into the loch (the very spit you see below). I found myself seeing the land as it once was, covered in a sheets of ice thousands of feet thick. I saw the ice melting, the loch forming surrounded by rock scraped bare, the flowing river dumping gravel and rocks, inch by inch building the very spit I was standing on as stones fell out of the flow and were deposited in a spreading fan. I saw trees rise and fall in the blink of an eye, wave after wave of them. I watched changes of ten millennia unfold before me in the space of a minute or two, until we reached the present moment in which I stood.

We’re often confined by the senses that we have. To us five minutes can seem like a long time. To a mountain a thousand years is a brief moment. Its only in our imaginations that we can perceive the world on different timescales, and come to see that the events of our lives are just flickers on a screen. Using our imagination in this way can reveal things in their impermanence, which means that we’re seeing them in a truer way than we usually do, where we fail to appreciate the reality of change.

In the Six Element Practice we free ourselves from the prison of our limited senses. We look at the body and we see a clear demarcation between self and other. Our skin marks the boundary between what’s inner and what’s outer. Yet in the practice we see that what’s “us” is made entirely of stuff that’s not us, and that this borrowed stuff is merely passing through. To realize that is to get much closer to reality.

Imagination allows us, as Blake put it:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.

Seeing all beings as Buddhas

We tend to see ourselves as “things” — as relatively unchanging entities. We see others the same way. Sometimes as part of my practice I remind myself of the immense change that a person can go through by repeating a phrase from a Zen poem: “All beings are, from the very beginning, Buddhas.” I take that like in this instance to indicate that even if someone is acting in a way that I don’t like and that I label as cruel or stupid, that person has the capacity to be a Buddha. If I relate to that person purely on the basis of who he or she is right now, I won’t encourage the emergence of their potential Buddhahood.

Relating to someone on the basis of how we see them right now is like seeing Solheim’s video reduced to a single frame. It’s a static way of seeing things. We’re disconnected from the reality of change. But imagine if we could consistently see that person not as a thing but as a process — if you could, at least in our imaginations — see that person evolving towards wisdom and compassion. How might that change both them and us?

When I manage to relate to another person as a potential Buddha — as a changing, evolving being who has the capacity for wisdom and compassion, I’m more likely to relate to them in a way that helps them grow into their potential. And I think it helps me grow into my own potential as well.

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Waking up into the moment

The goal of Buddhist practice is “bodhi” or “Awakening.” Waking up fully to reality may yet be far off, but Vimalasara reflects on how in our day-to-day lives the times just before and after sleep can be valuable opportunities for practice.

The first thought when I woke up was, “I want my mind back.” After years of working hard to meet deadlines as a journalist and partying all night with my friends it felt like my brain was riddled with holes. There were big gaps in my memory and I’d sometimes joked that my brain was poisoned with stimulants and alcohol. And it was poisoned, but even worse my heart was toxic as well. And when I woke that morning, at the age of twenty-nine, I knew I had to make a change in my life. And I did.

And it often seems to work like that. We wake in the morning and some things have sorted themselves out. We’re clearer. We know what we need to do.

In my case I’d been meditating and starting to reflect on my life, but on that morning I had a sense of urgency to change how I was living. Meditation was the thing that woke me up, but it was sleep that provided the means for it to do so.

In my book, Detox Your Heart, I talk about how important it is that we pause in our lives so that we can connect with ourselves, and sleep is one of the places we pause. We may not pause at all during the day, but when we get into bed the physical body stops. So sleep was a place where I would stop, and where I had no control over what happened in my dreams or thoughts. In my waking life I’d try to control things, but in my sleeping life I couldn’t do that. When sleeping, our conscious habits of control are on hold, and other inner voices can make themselves heard. So it’s perhaps not surprising that there are moments of insight when we wake up, moments when we’re clearer and have a better sense of what we really need.

I think it’s really important to become aware of what we feel first thing in the morning. Waking up is a significant moment for getting in touch with what we’re feeling, what we’re thinking, and how we’re doing. It’s a significant moment in which to check in. But often we don’t. The alarm goes off, we’ve got to get up, and we’ve got all these things to do. But waking up is a significant moment where it can really benefit us to take a few minutes to just to check in and gauge how we are feeling and thinking.

I often say that turning inwards in this way is a revolutionary act because it has such a profound impact on how we live. If we check in with ourselves in the morning and we know we’re feeling vulnerable, for example, we can put on a layer of emotional protection before we go out of the door and know that we need to take extra care. Otherwise we’re likely to find ourselves getting angry later in the day and be surprised about it and not know why it’s happened. Or if we wake up and we’re already angry then at least we’re forewarned and we can deal with the anger as best we can — befriending it, taking it as a warning that we need to take care of ourselves throughout the day, allowing the experience to be there but letting go of it and softening the heart. When we take the time to tune in in the morning it alerts us to what’s going on and we can deal with that appropriately.

It’s important to become aware of what we’re feeling because that’s what we’re taking into the world and that’s what we’re communicating through. If we could be aware of what’s going on 24/7 that would be great, but that’s difficult to do and I think that the morning is one of those times where we can really begin to introduce the practice of mindfulness, because it is the time when we’ve stopped, we’ve slowed down.

I’m one of these people that sometimes wakes up and pretends to be asleep. By “pretending to be asleep” I mean I’ll have an insight but not want to acknowledge it. I don’t want to know something I already know. I want to avoid truths that I find are uncomfortable. I want to pretend that something isn’t happening when it is.

I think a lot of people pretend to be asleep. I had a friend who told me she hadn’t read my book yet and so I asked her why not. And she said that she hadn’t read it because she knew she’d have to start doing things differently in her life. And I laughed, because it’s so common that people know, but they don’t want to know that they know.

Unless we’ve mastered the art of lucid dreaming we can’t directly affect what goes on in our sleeping lives — any maybe we shouldn’t — but we can choose what we’re going to do just before we sleep and the moment we wake up, and those choices can have a big effect on our lives.

When I’m mindful I’m really aware of what I do before I go to sleep. I don’t like to watch intense films — films with murder in them for example — just before I go to bed. Like most people I wouldn’t drink coffee just before going to bed because it stimulates the mind, yet intense movies can be just as stimulating. And I notice that if I just sit and check in for a few minutes it has a completely different impact than if I just go straight to bed from whatever I’ve just been doing. Even cleaning your teeth with mindfulness is a really good thing to do before going to bed. It’s a time of pausing.

We can also reflect before we go to sleep. This week I’ve been reflecting on impermanence by sitting and turning over in my head that the sexual relationship I’m in will change, and that it will end one day, even if it’s through death. I’ve been reflecting on all the things that I’m attached to in this way. I’ve been doing this because I still find that I react emotionally much more to the prospect of paying a large phone bill than I do to the fact that I’m going to die some day! Sometimes our priorities are just completely out of proportion and we need to reflect to bring things back into balance.

And reflecting on impermanence before going to bed has led to me feeling much more in the present this week. I’ve been quicker to notice my mind going off, have brought myself back to my experience more quickly, and have been enjoying the preciousness of life, or at least getting more glimpses of that preciousness.

What we consciously think about first thing in the morning is an important practice. There are several exercises in my book where I suggest that people do a specific action first thing when they wake up — taking some deep breaths, or checking in, or using an affirmation. If I use an affirmation first thing in the morning it’ll be with me for the whole day. What we first think about in the morning has a significant impact. If my affirmation is “I am lovable, I am lovable” that sets me up for the day and when difficult things happen I remember my affirmation and it gives me support.

We all have rituals in the morning. My partner gets up especially early to have a long bath and read. When I was a journalist I had to start with reading or listening to the news — and I was glad to be able to give that up because it was such a harsh way to start the day. So what I suggest to people is that they introduce positive rituals — rituals that support a healthier mind and heart.

Buddhism talks about the goal of practice being to wake up in a metaphorical sense. And yet our literal waking up is such an important time. It’s when we have breakthroughs, it’s when we have a natural opportunity to check in with ourselves, and it’s when we can start developing positive rituals that help us to be more awake and aware in our daily lives.

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Looking into our fetters — and finding freedom

Sky reflected in a mirror that's lying on grass.
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 seemed.

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. It 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.

We can also come to see pain as part of an interconnected system, noticing how the body responds by tensing up, how the emotions respond with aversion, how thoughts of self-pity arise. And as we bring those responses into mindful awareness we realize that we don’t have to amplify our suffering through reacting to pain but instead can simply experience it as it is.


The Persian poet Rumi writes of how when dark thoughts appear we can “Meet them at the door laughing / And invite them in”. I often recall those words when challenging experiences arise. If a friend turned up on my doorstep full of self-doubt, anger, or hurt, how would it be most helpful to meet him? Would I want to try to cheer him up, or send him away, or even to try solving his problems for him?

Although I confess that trying to solve people’s problems can be hard to resist, what I’d ideally like to do is to greet him with compassion: inviting him in, sitting him down, and listening. Ideally I’d like mostly to just listen, and to provide the curiously, love and encouragement that my friend needs to let his story unfold.

When I take this approach with myself and my own dark thoughts, embracing troubling experiences with loving mindfulness and sensing the often unacknowledged pain that accompanies each one, a profound sense of relief and gratitude often emerges; the kind of sense you might have if you’d been lost without hope in a dark wood and had at last found a path home.


The Buddhist tradition offers us the paradox that freedom comes not from trying to escape our inner fetters, but from looking deeply into them and seeing their impermanence and insubstantiality.

As mindfulness develops it becomes permeated with insight. As we notice pleasant and unpleasant experiences, skillful and unskilful emotions, as they arise and fall, we come to appreciate the transience of all our experiences, and we can further come to see that those experiences – pleasant or unpleasant, skillful or unskilful — are not an inherent part of who we are.

Our sense of who we are starts to shift, and a greater degree of freedom, spaciousness, and contentment begins to emerge as our fetters dissolve into emptiness.

Mindfulness has many facets — many more than those I’ve touched upon here — and I’d encourage you to let your mindfulness reveal these and other hidden aspects, not simply noticing your experiences, but accepting them with equanimity, actively exploring their texture with an inquiring mind, embracing them with metta, and looking deeply into them with an awareness of impermanence and insubstantiality. The more deeply you look into your inner fetters the more you will find yourself to be free.

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