mindful attention

When your meditation practice does itself

Sometimes I compare the mind to a cat. Just as it’s in a cat’s nature to wander, it’s in the mind’s nature to wander. But just as it’s in a cat’s nature to come home, it’s also the mind’s nature to come home — to come home to mindfulness.

In a couple of days I have an online meditation course starting that explores a practice called “Just Sitting.” In a way this is different from other meditation practices such as mindful breathing meditation or where we cultivate kindness or compassion. There’s no specific aim in the Just Sitting practice. Strictly speaking we’re not even trying to be mindful!

This might make this form of meditation seem pointless. After all, if you’ve meditated at all you’re probably very aware of how much the mind wanders and how much work seems to be involved in bringing your attention back to your object of attention, whether that’s the sensations of the breathing or a person you’re cultivating kindness for. You may wonder: if you don’t make an effort to be mindful, wouldn’t you just sit there in a distracted state and end up wasting your time?

It’s not like that at all!

Of course, as with any meditation practice, when you’re Just Sitting there are times when mindfulness is just absent and the mind wanders. But the interesting thing is that the mind always finds its own way home.

You’ve probably noticed many times how although your intention may be to remain mindful of the breathing, for example, your mind gets distracted without you deciding that it’s going to go wandering. Unmindfulness just happens. You don’t have to decide that’s what your mind is going to do.

But have you ever noticed that your mind always brings itself back to mindful awareness again? For every time that distraction happens, there is a time that mindfulness happens. It’s a one-to-one correspondence. And you never “decide” to come back to mindful awareness, do you? Mindfulness just happens. You don’t have to decide that’s what your mind is going to do. One moment you’re daydreaming and the next you’re aware that the daydream has ended, you have mindful awareness, and you return to your original intention. Your mind knows how to do this, and you have nothing to do with it!

Often when the mind has come home like this, we feel disappointed that it’s been wandering, or we feel it’s time to knuckle down and get back to practicing again. But neither of these things is very helpful.

If your cat was to walk through the door after an absence and you were to yell at it or try to force it to sit in one place it would probably head straight out of the door again.

If you were to welcome your cat home warmly and give it time and space to settle in, it would eventually find a place to sit quietly and be at peace. So what if your attitude was to warmly welcome when the mind has — quite spontaneously and with no effort on your part — found its way home again? What if you were to feel a sense of gratitude, and happiness, and even wonder? Perhaps your mind, just like a home-coming cat, would settle down more quickly?

At first we’ll probably think about welcoming the mind home as something we do in meditation. But in time we may come to appreciate that warmth and appreciation too are qualities that spontaneously arise. Just as our attention spontaneously comes home, so warmth and appreciation spontaneously appear to welcome it. And we find that there’s now less sense of us actually having to do anything in meditation. Meditation is no longer work. Our meditation practice is doing itself. The mind has come home, and is at peace.

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Three approaches to mindful attention, on and off the cushion


There are many forms of meditation. In this article you will find a list of ways to meditate in order to develop the ability to fully attend, to mindfully do whatever you do with your family, your friends, your colleagues, your children and yourself.

I.  Zazen

Zazen is the study of the self. Master Dogen said, “To study the Buddha Way is to study the self, to study the self is to forget the self, and to forget the self is to be enlightened. Upon his own enlightenment, the Buddha was in seated meditation.

Zen practice returns to the same seated meditation again and again. For two thousand five hundred years that meditation has continued, from generation to generation; it’s the most important thing that has been passed on.”

I find the best way to forget my self is to be fully attentive to the person I am with or the task I am doing–whether it be baking bread, washing dishes, writing articles or giving online counseling. It is a wonderful feeling to forget my self and really tune into others.

II.  Mindfulness Meditation

Mindfulness meditation is about learning to experience life fully as it unfolds, moment by moment, an invitation to wake up, to experience the fullness of life, and to transform your relationship with problems, fears, pain and stress so that you improve the quality of your life, your creativity and your mental states.

Mindfulness, off the cushion, is about being fully present to your thoughts, your feelings, and your actions. It has been said that being mindful is easy, remembering to be mindful is what is difficult.

I find associating mindfulness with checking the time is a good way to remember to be mindful. Other associations can work too — each time you have a cup of coffee or tea, or setting the alarm on your watch to go off each hour are ways to remember mindfulness. You can even download a mindfulness bell on your computer to remind you to be mindful as you are working.

Through the practice of mindfulness, you can learn to develop greater calmness, clarity and insight in facing and embracing all your experiences, even life’s trials, and turn them into occasions for learning, growing and deepening your own strength and wisdom.

III.  Dzogchen

The practice of Dzogchen is to remember that our ultimate nature is pure, primordial awareness. Our nature becomes a mirror that reflects with complete openness but is not affected by the reflections, or like a crystal ball that takes on the colour of the material on which it is placed without itself being changed.

In the practice of Dzogchen we are not distracted by (do not follow) thoughts – we allow awareness to effortlessly emanate. This pristine awareness is what Tibetans refer to as rigpa, or “ground luminosity”.

This state is very helpful when we are listening to others. Rather than judging or comparing or offering advice, we see the pureness of the person who is talking, the pureness in us meets the pureness in others.

So, bring what you learn in your sitting meditation “off the cushion” into your daily life and you will be meditating, mindful and attentive.

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