sampajañña

The bud dreaming the flower

Dream-like close-up of white rose, seen from above

Last weekend I taught meditation on a workshop along with another teacher who talked about the importance of goals as part of one’s spiritual path. This is something I often talked about in the past, although it hasn’t been a prominent part of my teaching recently. I think the last time I wrote about it was in my 2010 book, Living as a River.

My own presentation at the weekend was on mindfulness, appreciation, and gratitude: being in and valuing the present moment.

These two themes — having goals and appreciating the present moment — might seem contradictory, and it was interesting to explore how they’re actually not, but instead are (or can be) complementary.

One exercise I’ve done myself and which I recommend others to do is this: Imagine it’s 10 or 15 years in the future. You walk into a large room, and to your surprise it’s full of friends, relatives, colleagues, and members of your spiritual community. They’re all there for you. One by one people stand up and talk about you. They talk about the positive influence you’ve had on their lives. They rejoice in the qualities they admire in you. They celebrate your accomplishments.

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I suggest to my meditation students that, having done this reflective exercise, they write down the main points of what they’ve heard.

What’s happening when you do this exercise is that you’re getting in touch with your deeper values and aspirations. It’s easier to do this than when you simply sit down and ask the question, “What are my values and aspirations,” because when you do that you’re speaking in your own voice—the voice of your everyday ego, riddled through with doubt, pride, and fear. In hearing others’ voices you bypass the ego and hear a more direct and unfiltered account of what you most value. In fact, what you hear from these “others” is often surprising!

I call this “The bud dreaming the flower.” The bud looks deeply into its nature and sees its own potential. This is the resolution of the apparent paradox of having goals and ideals (which inevitably involve the future) while being completely in the moment. When you do an exercise like the one I’ve suggested, you’re seeing yourself more truly than when you’re simply mindful of who you are right now. This is because “who you are right now” is not something static. It’s a process.

There is no being, only becoming.

You’re always changing. Who you currently are is only a snapshot of an ever-unfolding and ever-changing process. You’re an arrow in flight, completing the long arc from birth to death. Being aware of what’s arising for you right now is like taking a still photograph of one moment from the long curve of your life.

It seems as if a bud need do nothing in order to transform into the flower, but that’s because we don’t see the immense effort that goes into its growth. The bud’s growth is not conscious, however.

Our own growth will often not take place unless we consciously become aware of our potential, unless we consciously work at overcoming the fears and doubts that hold us back, and unless we consciously apply ourselves in our lives. This deeper form of mindfulness is called sampajañña, or “mindfulness of purpose.”

The bud, dreaming the flower, comes to know itself more fully. It comes to see itself not as a static “thing” but as an ever-unfolding process. It comes to see itself in terms of its potential. Having seen this potential, its life becomes more conscious. When decisions are made—whether large or small—they become tools for steering oneself toward our potential future self. Every action becomes, potentially at least, a small step toward the full flower of our potential.

This awareness of our potential is an important practice in Buddhism. It’s why Buddhists commonly chant the refuges and precepts before a period of practice, paying homage to our potential and to the practices that enable us to manifest it. It’s why Buddhists visualize Buddhas and bodhisattvas (this is called “Buddhanusati”), and chant mantras—these are ways, once again, to dream the flower, seeing our own potential enlightened selves.

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Mindfulness and the big picture

Someone asked me:

I keep hearing about mindfulness where one needs to pay attention to everything. But I am a bit confused and hoping someone can explain it to me in details. Am I supposed to be mindful of everything all at the same time? For example, every time I talk, I automatically remember to be careful about what words I should use. But how can one be mindful of everything all at the same time?

Actually, it’s not necessary, and usually not possible or desirable, to pay attention to everything at once. Right now I’m typing these words, and so I’m not paying attention to the sounds coming from outside the house. I could pause and listen to the sound of a passing airplane, but then I’d have to stop typing. So what’s my purpose — listening or typing? Right now I want to type.

But if I want to type, then I need to check my posture from time to time to make sure it’s going to support my purpose. If my posture had been trained to be perfect, then I wouldn’t need to do this. But it’s not perfect, so I pause for a second and check in with my body. I notice I’m slumping a little; I straighten up. What’s my purpose? Typing. Why am I paying attention to my posture? Because I want to type.

There’s a cluster of things I need to pay attention to if I want to type. I’ve mentioned posture, but I might in certain circumstances have to pause and reflect on what I’m going to say: that’s mindfulness of my thinking. I might have to pause and pay attention to how I feel. I might notice I’m tired and it’s time to rest.

Another example: My questioner mentioned being aware of the words he’s using in conversation. You need to do that. But you’d also want to be aware of the person you’re talking to, because you want to know what effect your words are having. Is the other person understanding you? What’s their emotional response to what you’re saying? To know that, you have to pay attention to them, and also to yourself — you’ll sense whether the other person is at ease by sensing whether you are at ease, for example.

And you need to be aware of what your response is to what they say to you. Again, you need to notice your feelings, what your thoughts are, etc.

Again, there’s a natural set of experiences that you need to pay attention to while you’re in a conversation with someone. The factors I’ve mentioned aren’t meant to be exhaustive. For example, sometimes when I’m listening to someone talk, my mind tends to wander to something I’m preoccupied with, and so I find it helpful to notice the movements of the breathing in my belly in order that I can stay grounded.

But when you’re in a conversation you probably don’t want to be paying attention to a passing airplane, to the sound of a ticking clock, or to another conversation that’s going on elsewhere. Those are distractions to your purpose, which is being in communication with the other person.

So what you do is dependent on what your overall purpose is. We don’t practice mindfulness for the sake of practicing mindfulness. Mindfulness isn’t an end in itself. It’s a tool. There are a few times we want to be open to everything that’s arising — for example in meditation — but that’s quite rare, and done as a form of training. Generally, you need to bear in mind what you’re actually doing (this is called sampajañña) and then pay attention to a set of experiences connected with that task (this is called sati).

I’m not suggesting being dogmatic, and sometimes you’ll need to shift your purpose. Having the attitude “I’m not going to pay attention to what my colleague is saying because I’m typing” isn’t helpful. There are higher-order purposes and you need to have some common sense. Harmony with others is one of those. If there’s an interruption from another person, you need to deal with it.

This need for higher order purposes is implicit in the Buddha’s eightfold path, of which mindfulness is just part. A key aspect of the eightfold path is the first, samma-ditthi, which is right view. It’s right view that gives us our overall context or purpose in life: for me the simplest way to look at this big picture is that Buddhism is about learning how we cause suffering for ourselves and others, so that we can find freedom from suffering. That view then carries over into the other factors of the path. To take just the example of the second factor of the path, samma sankappa, what emotions do we want to encourage and which do we want to discourage? Emotions of greed and hatred cause suffering. Compassion, patience, etc. free us from suffering. Right view tells us where we want to be headed, while mindfulness lets us know what we’re working with and monitors our progress. I don’t intend to do a full description of the eightfold path—just to illustrate that mindfulness traditionally has a broader context, and can’t be understood without reference to the big picture.

Mindfulness stripped of that context—stripped of its Buddhist context and secularized, as it often is—is still a useful tool, but it can also be confusing, as my questioner has found.

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Find your North Star

I recently did a meditation retreat (at Spirit Rock, wonderful place, including for workshops). One evening as we walked out of the hall after the last sit, I was feeling rattled and discombobulated. (One of the benefits of a retreat – though it can be uncomfortable – is that it stirs up of the sediments of your psyche, which can muddy your mental waters for awhile.)

I looked up at the stars shining brightly in the cold clear night, and soon noticed the Big Dipper. My eyes followed its pointing to Polaris, the North Star, and a wave of easing came over me. The star felt steady and reassuring, something you could count on. It connected I think with a young part of me who loved the outdoors and learned to believe that as long as he could locate the North Star, he could find his way out of the tangled woods and back to safety.

Gazing at Polaris, I asked myself, “What’s my North Star?” One answer came to me immediately, and another just seconds later. Immediately I felt better. Calmer and more resolved.

I’ll tell you what came to me in the How section below. Right here I want to make the points that it’s the question that matters most – and that the answer(s) will be different for different people.

When you find your North Star, you know where you’re headed. That alone feels good. Plus, your North Star is (presumably) wholesome and vital, so aiming toward it will bring more and more happiness and benefit to yourself and others. And you can dream bigger dreams and take more chances in life since if you lose your way, you’ve got a beacon to home in on.

Everyday life is entangling. It’s so easy to get caught up in routines and obligations that gradually take over to set the course of your life. It may look goal-directed – make breakfast, get the kids to school, go to work, return home, make dinner, go to bed, repeat the next day – but we know inside that there is no deep purpose to it, no fundamental aim that gives clarity, meaning, and richness. Then life starts to feel hollow, more about getting through than getting to.

What’s the light that will guide you out of your own tangled woods – both the woods “out there” in the world and the ones “in here,” inside your own mind?

How?

Find a time and a place that’s meaningful to you. Perhaps sitting quietly at home with a cup of tea, or in a house of prayer, or – like me – under the night sky. Help your mind settle and grow quieter. Then simply ask, wordlessly or out loud, “What’s my North Star?” Perhaps try other ways of asking this question, such as: “What’s the most important thing?” “By what should I set my life’s course?”

You could also just hold the question in the back of your mind over the course of a day and see what comes to you. Or while doing a pleasant task with your hands (like gardening, knitting, or stroking a cat), ask the question and see what arises.

The answer may be soft; you may have to listen closely to hear it. It may come with the voice of an inner child, or a teacher, or with a simple viscerally persuasive clarity. The answer that came to me was the single word, Truth, followed by Love – but your own answer(s) may come in the form of a wordless knowing, an image, a body sensation, or a memory.

Some people (including me) have several North Stars, though usually they are lined up in the same direction so there is no conflict among them. And sometimes a person has a single North Star, one aim, one principle, that draws together all the threads of his or her life.

It’s OK for your North Star(s) to change over time. But whatever it is right now, let it guide you.

This means keeping it in mind – perhaps with a yellow sticky on the refrigerator, or by jotting it down (maybe in a coded way, for your privacy) at the top of your “to do” list for the day. Or you could (as I do) often recommit to your guiding light(s) when you first wake up.

Notice or imagine the rewards that do or will come to you and others from following your North Star. What trouble will it keep you out of? What joys and gains will it bring to you and others? Keep letting these good feelings and knowings sink in to you, linked in your mind to your Star.

When troubled or tangled, ask yourself: “How could my North Star guide me with this? In its light, what’s the priority here and now?” Try to accept this guidance; give yourself over to it.

Moment after moment, we are always headed in one direction or another. As these add up, they become the course, for better or worse, of a person’s life.

May the course of your life be aimed at your own North Star.

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Sampajañña: unraveling lifelong habits with mindfulness

It’s discouraging, isn’t it, to watch ourselves fall repeatedly into our same old habitual traps. We try to practice mindfulness, but it can be frustrating. Do you ever have days where you’re so caught up that you realize only at night, despite your best intentions, that you weren’t mindful for even one moment?

And it’s especially hard when we’re face to face with lifelong tendencies that resist change in a big way.

But don’t lose heart. It doesn’t mean you’re no good at this. After all, you NOTICED that you weren’t being mindful. That noticing is a positive event. Even though it happened after the fact, you observed something you probably weren’t aware of before. This is a good thing! This is progress. And it’s this emerging awareness that’s going to pull you through.

There’s an aspect of mindfulness from the traditional scriptures that applies here. It’s sampajañña, which is Pali for something like mindfulness of purpose. Sampajañña means always keeping our sights on where we want to go, our intentions. It introduces the dimension of time to mindfulness.

Mindfulness isn’t only about seeing what’s happening now. It’s also about seeing cause and effect. Like seeing how something we did in the past created the situation we’re in now. We see the results of our mistakes, and make a resolve to start doing things differently. We also see our successes, and think of how we might build on them. It’s about seeing in a clear-headed way the results of our choices. And also seeing that we HAVE choices, and starting to take responsibility for ourselves.

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We look at these things not as a way to beat ourselves up, but to keep our sights on where we want to go. We all have some image of how we’d like to be – whether it’s more confident, peaceful, kind, whatever. Maybe today, right now, we didn’t do things the way we would have liked. When we see how we don’t measure up, applying sampajañña means not giving up on ourselves. We may have fallen short today, but we still have our intentions. We still keep our eyes on the prize. We keep moving ahead.

And what if we feel stuck and clueless about what to do? For starters, we could stop taking our self-doubting thoughts so seriously. They are just thoughts, after all. They’re not doing anything to help us move forward, are they?

We could also try doing SOMETHING, and see what happens — as an experiment. It’s more fodder for cause-and-effect learning. Sometimes when we’re lost, it helps just to walk around the bend to get a different view – maybe it leads to a clearing that helps us to see further ahead.

Or we might simply stay still for while, not thrash about so much – mentally, emotionally, or actively. It’s analogous to when you’re in water over your head. Thrashing about can make you sink, but if you lie still you’ll float easily on the surface. It’s a similar idea here. Sometimes it’s our own overreacting that creates problems for ourselves. Can we let go of our anxiety and fears, and just be? And allow some clarity to settle in on its own?

So mindfulness isn’t something to achieve. It’s not about “getting it right” and reaching for some ideal state of mental clarity. I think for most of us, that’s a near impossible standard. I think mindfulness, especially in the context of sampajañña, simply means being there for ourselves over the long haul, and never giving up on ourselves. It’s an attitude or an approach to life, not an endpoint.

What ultimately help us unravel our lifelong habits is doing the best we can, wherever we are now. And accepting that the pace of change is often beyond our control. The time and circumstances might not be ripe yet. But we can trust that everything we’re doing now is laying the groundwork for the future. We can still be an active participant in our lives. We can still show up for ourselves. And isn’t that really what’s going to get us through?

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In the moment, in the sweep of time

Sunada sometimes hears skepticism about the idea of being “in the moment.” Does it really mean we should cut ourselves off from our past and future? Are we to drop all our cherished memories? Should we naïvely stop planning for our future? No, she’s quite certain this isn’t what the Buddha had in mind when he taught about mindfulness. So let’s take a closer look at what it might really mean.

In the Buddhist scriptures, mindfulness is described as having several different aspects. One of them is sati, which is Pali for recollection, memory, or recalling to mind.

we can be aware of our past (a helpful thing to do) without being in or holding onto the past (an unhelpful thing to do).

When we’re present with ourselves, we don’t just pop into existence at that moment. We also come with a whole lifetime of learning, experience, skills, and knowledge, all of which are manifesting in some form for us at that moment.

For example, right now, I have all that I’ve learned from my Buddhist studies at my disposal. I don’t discard that in order to be in the moment. They are PART of my being in the moment. My past informs and gives a cumulative shape to my present. And my past is what has equipped me with all the skills and experience I have at my disposal NOW, to act on things in the moment. So as you can see, we can be aware of our past (a helpful thing to do) without being in or holding onto the past (an unhelpful thing to do).

Another aspect of mindfulness is sampajañña, which translates to something like “mindfulness of purpose.” This is about being conscious of where we’re headed — a sense of direction or where we intend to go.

It means taking a bigger perspective of how we wish to be right now, as part of a vision of how we want to be in the future.

Intention could simply mean, for example, a commitment toward being kind and compassionate toward others. It doesn’t have to be anything as grand as a life purpose. It means taking a bigger perspective of how we wish to be right now, as part of a vision of how we want to be in the future. Without it we’d drift aimlessly like an idiot sitting smelling the roses, having no clear sense of values or direction. But at the same time, it’s quite a different matter from living in the future – such as wishing for things we think we lack, or worrying about dangers that we think lie ahead.

So in the course of our daily lives, returning to the breath and coming back to the present doesn’t mean cutting ourselves off from our past and future. Rather than limiting ourselves down to a tiny, stunted slice of ourselves, I think it means quite the opposite. It means seeing our full breadth and depth clearly within a broad sweep of time, but from the standpoint of where we are now.

It means expanding our awareness in all dimensions and with greater sensitivity, so that we can clearly see EVERYTHING that impinges on our present experience.

By analogy, it’s sort of like stopping during a hike up a mountain and taking in the panorama of the trail behind and ahead of us. Of course, we want to be fully present and take in the view – after all, that’s what hiking (and life) is all about. At the same time, we stay aware of where we’ve come from and where we’re going, without getting caught up in either. And with all that in mind, we make informed choices about what steps to take now – including which trail to take, the pace of our walk, and so on – to reach our destination safely and enjoyably.

So with this definition of mindfulness, I think “staying in the moment” is a tremendously helpful, but challenging thing to do. It means expanding our awareness in all dimensions and with greater sensitivity, so that we can clearly see EVERYTHING that impinges on our present experience. Clear seeing also means understanding what we can and cannot change, and maintaining the wherewithal to make wise choices in the midst of it all. Wouldn’t you agree that this is how we’d like to be ALL the time?

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