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Mindfulness, mind-emptiness or mind-openness ?

Published on February 28, 2017 Linkedin

You can hear this word ringing everywhere now. As one of my friends, a fervent practitioner of yoga throughout her whole life uttered in dismay : ”We have been doing meditation for centuries if not millennia ; now, out of the blue it is winning itself a sterling reputation in the business world .” Thanks to Jon Kabat-Zinn who created his Mindfulness based Stress reduction programme and popularized the word into the Western world a century after the term had been coined by T.W. Rhys Davids as the translation of the Buddhist Sati. It is funny though that since I started meditating when I was 15, I have been taught to aspire towards just the opposite : “an empty mind”. However, some people will tell you that this is plain nonsense – in so much as it is impossible to reach. This is true in a way ....because brain activity never stops unless life itself has departed. Yet there is some form of misunderstanding around what we refer to as “emptying the mind” in meditation : which is the surrender of the ceaseless chatter of the mind. So, how do you stop it ? We may want to stop it but if we believe we are just our thoughts or our thoughts represent who we are - you know, I think this and I think that - , then forget it. Meditation, our good old meditation of all times or Mindfulness for that matter is a good place to start learning about that. We may focus on external signals such as a burning candle or sounds. Nowadays with the scientific research into the brain and the understanding that it believes what it sees, visualizations can serve the purpose of quieting our chatterbox while creating new paths towards new behaviour and new dimensions. However, when we learn to focus our attention on our breathing or to the signals our body is giving out, whether pain, tensions or other sensations such as inner sounds and we watch ourselves doing that, we become aware of the here and now, the Buddhist Sati. Breathing and our body are our real allies anchoring us in our reality here and now, away from the endless agitation of the mind. They support our intention of attention on the present moment. I remember I am. We eventually get again distracted by our flow of thoughts. It may happen that at this stage, our thoughts become all the more harassing as the mind endeavours to stay in control. We can teach ourselves to just watch these thoughts float by ....without judging them, without being moved in any way by them, without identifying in any way to them. We just indulge in observing within. Some pain may become unbearable. As we observe the pain and focus onto it with our breathing, we plunge right into it and as we do so, it not only relaxes and becomes bearable but propel us into higher levels of our consciousness. I become fully aware of the present moment unfolding. In this state of quietness, we become open to other experiences. Insights flash in. Deeper and sudden understanding blooms so that we can embrace the source of our malaise. We see things in a different light. Compassion and kindness arise...also towards ourselves. Indeed, Shauna Shapiro points out that the character used (念) in the Chinese and Japanese versions of sati, is actually a compound of the ideographic images for mind (the top half) and heart (the bottom half). Our awareness has a binding faculty over mind, heart and body. Our train of thoughts has stopped running in rut-like patterns and has now given way to a broader dimension. As we practice, we move into further dimensions. We may happen to step into what I call the fleeting state of Grace, a state where in complete awareness, we pulse at one with the energy around. The brain is not thinking – at least not in its usual way – and yet is more active than ever. We have now stepped into the dance of alpha waves and in a deeper phase of meditation into delta and gamma waves. Just that is now being proved by ongoing research to be excellent for our physical health, for our social relationships and for our mental health. But now comes the most exciting of it all. How do we take this into our daily life ? Are you one of these people who think that thinking about the problem will solve it ? I was until I realized that the migraines I was having at a time were the result of thinking too hard. Every time I got trapped in the cycle of “I’ll think about it so I can solve it “, the sheer remembrance of my past migraines and how I had to lie down in the dark for half a day urged me to give up thinking about my problems. I could live without. We believe we are our thoughts and solutions will only come from these thoughts. But they won’t because we are constantly thinking in the same way. Nothing new can come out of the same way of doing things. However, by taking our meditation into our active life, by stepping back and watching intently, we are venturing into new ground. It costs to give up the supremacy of our thoughts. We believe there will be no one in control..... that is... our usual self will no longer be in control. However, this new space we have created is the cradle of new experience. 25 years ago, my then mentor sent me out in the mountains with a herd of a hundred goats. It was a wonderful experience for the first few days until I became assailed by my mind. My goats did as they pleased, running astray, splitting in small groups and driving me even more crazy. It dawned on me that they were in fact the reflection of what was going on within myself and as I watched them, I became more aware of the turn my thoughts were taking. I could then renounce to these thoughts, quieten them down and watch my goats quieten down as well until they would literally sit around me just as cows would – as one of my companions who went through the same experience with our mentor narrated. When we go about our daily business, as we carry out our diverse activities and engage in our relationships, we learn to cultivate this impartial observer : our aware self. Gurdjieff, the enigmatic spiritual teacher of the beginning of the 20th Century called this divided attention. Thank God our breathing, our body and our heart are the powerful allies we hold to cling to our awareness. This is where and when new experience unfolds, understanding and empathy, creative solutions, decisions in line with our self ....or just being, having a good laugh and enjoying the moment here and now. “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” Viktor E. Frankl

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