Mindfulness in a nutshell

Have you ever suddenly become aware of a background noise that had been going on for some time unnoticed? Or have you ever woken up just moments before your alarm clock went off, as if an inner force had lifted you from slumber? That was mindfulness.

Mindfulness is a mental faculty, like intuition or musical ability. It reminds you of what you didn't know you had forgotten, and wakes you when you didn't realize you were sleeping (or daydreaming).

Think of stone age hunters stealthily stalking their quarry while on guard for predators that might in turn be stalking them, the hunters. Their minds are quiet but alert, empty but present, sharply focused on the immediacy of the situation, knowing that anything can happen. That also is mindfulness.

walden reflected

Mindfulness points out what ordinarily escapes conscious attention, what is hidden in plain sight -- or what we've overlooked or forgotten because it doesn't fit our interpretations, or pertain to our goals, or because it makes us feel uncomfortable.

Mindfulness does its work before intellect and emotion have had a chance to bring their judgments, interpretations, names, categorizations, or biases to bear on perception. It feels light and nimble, and comes in a flash -- out of the corner of the eye -- as if with a sideways glance, without grasping or looking directly.

Why bother cultivating mindfulness? Among its many welcome side effects are deep serenity and a patient, tolerant understanding of others, but it is worthwhile in itself for reasons that must be experienced to be appreciated. In a word, it awakens us.

Without mindfulness, we function as if on autopilot, only partially aware of who we really are or what we're doing.

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When you wake up in the morning, spend a few moments savoring your dreams. You don't have to remember what happened in the dreams. Just taste their overall flavor. Even when you do remember fragments of the dream story or imagery, pay especial attention to the subtle moods that they evoke, which are like aromas or fragrances.

The delicate threads of your dreams will be lost easily in the morning if you enter your waking life too quickly. Take your time, lie still for a moment, and taste the herbal flavors that your dreams have left in your mind.

Then, when you do begin to think about your waking life, notice its flavor, as well, as if it were also a dream.

Take your time, lie still for a moment, and taste the herbal flavors that your dreams have left in your mind.

Sometime during the day, when you remember to do it, pay attention to the sensations on the inside of your body. You might start by letting your attention rest on the sensations of breathing in your chest and throat.

Notice what happens to your mind as you begin to focus on those inside-the-body sensations. Do you notice a shift in the overall tone of your mind?

Then let your attention move throughout your body, like the gentle hands of a masseur, checking for spots where you feel tension or sensations of burning, tingling, or glowing. Don't forget your hands, fingers, and feet.

If you're feeling a strong emotion, such as fear or excitement, where do you feel the sensations of that emotion in your body? What textures, colors, or flavors do they have? See what happens when you examine the sensations in detail, taking quick glances at them. Mindfulness is what lets you see in greater detail.

While you're walking around outside, listen for spaces between sounds. Even the steadiest sounds are perforated by tiny gaps. Listen to the sounds as if they were music. Also, try tasting their aromas, the subtle impressions that they make on your mind, just as you do with dreams.

Try listening to the sounds as if you were listening from your belly or gut, rather than from your head. Let your belly become the center of your awareness. Let it feel just as sensitive and exposed as your face.

Also, instead of looking at things as whole objects that have names and purposes, let your attention be drawn to their textures and colors, until what you're looking at doesn't have a name or description at all. Notice how the feeling of your mind changes as you do this.

While you're having a conversation with someone, spend a moment listening to the spaces between the sounds of his or her words. Try listening from your belly. Feel its changing sensations as the person is speaking.

Before you fall asleep at night, lie still and look for feelings of tension that come from all your effort to get things done during the day. Look for knots of tension in your head, neck, face, and in your belly or in your limbs.

The next day, as often as you remember to do it, look for those feelings of effort again as you're going about your day. Do you feel any tension around or behind your eyes? Pay attention to how the "making an effort" feelings are associated with thoughts or desires.

In the same way that you were noticing moments of silence between sounds, also notice that between the feelings of effort there are gaps where those feelings diminish or disappear. Sometimes the gaps are so small that they're hard to notice at first, but let mindfulness point them out.

Thoughts are like mini-dreams. When you suddenly realize that you've been having a thought (mindfulness is what reminds you), savor its flavors, savor the residue that the thought has left in your mind, just as you've been practicing with your dreams every morning. Does it produce any sensations in your body, perhaps behind your eyes?

Notice gaps between the thoughts, where there's a bit of silence. What do you experience in that silence?

Now listen to the sound of your thoughts -- not to what the thoughts are about, but to their tone of voice, as if you were listening to another person talking. What would that person's facial expressions or body language look like? What would that person want to say?

With quick glances, explore the subtle sensations, the dream-like flavors and aromas of the personality that seems to be "you", the captain of the ship, the pilot that seems to be in charge of your body.

Observe how it seems to break up into little bits, like pixels on a screen, as you glance at it up close and in detail.

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From time to time reflect on the "I" that sees inside your mind. What is experiencing and how does it know that it is experiencing? What kind of light illuminates dreams and thoughts so that the "I" can see them?

When seen with mindful glances, the most ordinary aspects of experience seem mysterious and remarkable -- and the more ordinary, the more remarkable.

How strange that the universe exists rather than that nothing exists at all, and that it exists just as it does and not some other way. And then, how strange that this "I" exists and is aware of the existence of that universe.

Such bare reflections come as part of the process of mindful awakening. Once the process of awakening begins, it moves along at its own pace, under its own steam, as awareness awakens to itself.

Michael Webb, January, 2008

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