What is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness is the energy of being aware and awake to the present moment. The Sanskrit word for mindfulness, smriti, means "remember." Mindfulness is remembering to come back to the present moment whenever our attention becomes distracted by the mind. It is the practice of being fully present with the immediacy of our experience. Perhaps most importantly, mindfulness is experiencing reality openly without judgment—without naming reality, trying to define reality, classifying reality as good or bad, or projecting our own beliefs onto reality. It is seeing what is present in our lives with whole-hearted acceptance and openness.
Why is Mindfulness Important?
Mindfulness is important because it frees us from the prison of our continual mental chatter and conceptual thinking—which is the cause of so much unnecessary pain and suffering—and it opens us up to the peace, the joy, and the freedom that are always available to us in each and every moment. It allows us to be in touch with our experience, helping us to become more aware of who we are and how we are living, and it enables us to flow comfortably with the change of life, accepting and embracing our experience instead of resisting and avoiding it.
When we are lost in thought, we are not aware of the many things happening within and around us, and we are disconnected from the reality of our lives. Though most people are unaware of it, they tend to live the majority of their lives in their minds—worrying, planning, fantasizing, thinking endlessly—and this habit of dwelling in thoughts has separated people from the present moment, making them unaware of the reality of their experience, and their connection to all of life. Instead of living in the reality of the present moment, most people live in a world of make believe, a world of delusion, a world of self-created thoughts, beliefs, and fantasies which keep them out of touch with the truth of reality.
Many of the thoughts that people think are also rooted in fear, and so they are often the cause of a great deal of psychological suffering. We are constantly narrating our lives, planning for the future, mourning over the past, judging things as good or bad, labeling and defining the objects of our experience. This constant thinking and mental narrating is also completely conditioned—it is composed of our memories, our habits, of the information we have learned from our society, of the language and beliefs we have adopted from our family and our culture. It is useful for communication, and certainly appears to be essential in our society, but it is not reality, it is not the truth. The word "tree" is not a tree, your name or the word "me" or "I" is not who you are, and you cannot eat the word "food" or drink the word "water."
Words are only symbols that represent reality, they are not reality itself. In our culture, we have become so obsessed with the world of symbols—of measurements, words, and numbers—that we have disconnected ourselves from the reality of things as they truly are. Mindfulness helps us find freedom from this vicious cycle of conditioned thinking. It helps us to reconnect with the reality of our experience, to escape from the constant mental chatter, and to bring our attention back into the present moment of our experience—a dimension of reality where words no longer have value, and where truth is returned to what is living; the direct experience of life in each and every moment.
How do we Practice Mindfulness?
Mindfulness is a moment to moment practice in which we continually remember to bring our attention back into the present moment whenever we notice that it has been lost in thought.
One of the most useful tools for doing this is the breath. Remembering to relax and focus on the inhalation and exhalation of our breath, unites our mind and body, and brings our attention back into the present moment. As long as you are alive, you are breathing, and so wherever you are, you can always carry this tool with you. In times of stress and uncertainty, remember that your breath is a sanctuary, it is a space within you that you can always return to, and when you focus on your breathing, you are able to change the way that you are feeling, and are able to relax with whatever sensations are present in your experience. Mindfulness creates the space from which we can objectively look at our experience, and choose to act with wisdom, rather than acting purely out of habit or impulse.
Buddhist monk and teacher Thich Nhat Hanh says, “Feelings come and go like clouds in a windy sky. Conscious breathing is my anchor.” By this he means that our experience is always changing, but no matter what we experience, we can always learn to relax with it by focusing on our breathing. It might sound simple to practice mindfulness, but as you will soon see, our minds are far more distracted then we would like to admit. Thankfully, the more we practice mindfulness, the more aware we become, and as a result, the freer we become. But we have to practice it to receive the benefit, and mindfulness is something that anyone can practice, regardless of age, gender, race, or religion. It is something that all can benefit from, and all that is required to practice it is the will to be honest with oneself and one's experience, and the desire to be free from the suffering caused by conditioned thinking.
As mentioned before, mindfulness is a practice. It is a seed that should be watered and cared for daily. If we want the seed to grow to fruit, we need to give it the proper care and attention. To help this seed grow to maturity, we strongly recommend the practice of mindfulness meditation. The instructions are simple, but to develop and maintain a daily practice is often challenging. We hope that we can provide you with the essential knowledge and inspiration to practice mindfulness meditation frequently, so that you may receive the many benefits that this simple practice can provide.
• Take a seat. Find a place where you can sit and relax, preferably a quiet place with minimal distractions. Sit in a comfortable position—you can sit in a chair with your feet on the floor, you can sit on the floor with your legs crossed, you can sit in lotus position, you can kneel—all are fine. The important thing is that you are stable and your body is relaxed.
• Set a time limit. If you are new to meditation, it can help to choose a short amount of time, such as 5 or 10 minutes, and gradually increase the length.
• Feel your breath. Close your eyes and pay attention to the inhalation and exhalation of your breath. Don't try to control the breath, but just observe the breath and allow the breath to be.
• Notice when your mind has wandered. Inevitably, your attention will leave the sensations of the breath and wander to other places. When you notice that your mind has wandered—in a few seconds, a minute, five minutes—simply return your attention to the breath.
• Be kind to your wandering mind. Don’t judge yourself or obsess over the content of the thoughts you find yourself lost in. Just acknowledge them and come back to your breath.
The practice is as simple as that. You sit, you observe, you get distracted, you come back, and you try to do it as kindly as possible.
Each time that we meditate, we are rewiring our brain, strengthening the connections between neurons, and increasing the capacity of our awareness. The mind is like a muscle, and we should exercise it regularly so that it can function optimally. Meditation is something that we should be happy to practice, it is not something that we should look at as a chore. It brings us freedom and opens us up to the present moment of life, helping us become aware of the ways that our minds work, our habits and patterns of thought, the stories we tell ourselves, and the many ways we are resisting the present moment and preventing ourselves from being happy.
It is important that while meditating, you do not to try to resist or suppress what comes up in your mind, but just acknowledge it, witness it, and allow it to be. There is no way to quiet your mind or to stop the thoughts from arising, and that is not the goal here. All you’re trying to do is pay attention to the present moment, without judgment. The goal is to become aware, and to learn to rest in your awareness and accept the things that enter and leave the space of your awareness. When meditating, also try to notice if there is any tension that you are holding in your body (typically people hold tension in the face, brow, jowl, shoulders, and back) and see if you can relax the tension in your body. We often unconsciously hold a lot of tension in our bodies that isn't necessary, and that causes our bodies harm. By becoming aware of this tension, we can consciously relax it, and heal our bodies in the process.
Meditation has been practiced for thousands of years, and the benefits of meditation are incredible. Meditation has been proven to:
• Lessen worry, anxiety & impulsive actions
• Reduce stress, fear, loneliness & depression
• Enhance self-esteem & self-acceptance
• Improve resilience against pain & adversity
• Increase optimism, relaxation, & awareness
• Improve self-control & reduce addictive tendencies
• Improve mood & emotional intelligence
• Increase mental strength & focus
• Increase memory retention & recall
• Enhance cognitive skills, problem solving & creative thinking
• Improve focus & manage ADHD
• Improve immune system & energy level
• Improve breathing & heart rate
• Reduce blood pressure
• Increase lifespan & longevity
• Increase self awareness & mental clarity
• Develop inner peace
Meditation has such a positive effect on us because it allows us to relax, to reconnect with our bodies and our breath, and to become aware of who we are, how we think, and how we habitually respond to thoughts and sensations. Many of the physical ailments that people have originate in the mind, and so meditation often has a great effect on us physically as well as mentally and emotionally. Spiritually, meditation is of great importance because it takes us beyond the mind into a space of pure awareness, where we realize that we are not our mind or any of the thoughts that arise in our mind. We are pure Consciousness, we are Spirit, we are Life itself, and within us is an infinite ocean of potential. Meditation reconnects us with our source, and empowers us as the free and creative beings that we naturally are.
There are many different types of meditation, but the particular method of meditation shared here is known most commonly as Shamatha, or Calm Abiding Meditation. In Tibet this meditation is called “shi-ney.” Shi means “peace,” and Ney means “to stay.” So this meditation is teaching us not to follow the habit of escaping ourselves and escaping the present moment, but instead learning to stay with ourselves, and learning to find peace within ourselves. This meditation is found in almost every tradition, including Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, Sufism, Christianity, and many others. But you do not have to follow or believe in any religion to practice it. The purpose of this meditation is simply to transform the busyness that is our normal mental state into relaxation, calm, and focus. In doing so, we gain freedom from our minds and the suffering that the mind produces, we become aware of our true nature which is the ever-present awareness that precedes the mind, and we discover new levels of peace, happiness, & freedom.
“I'm simply saying that there is a way to be sane. I'm saying that you can get rid of all this insanity created by the past in you. Just by being a simple witness of your thought processes.
It is simply sitting silently, witnessing the thoughts, passing before you. Just witnessing, not interfering not even judging, because the moment you judge you have lost the pure witness. The moment you say “this is good, this is bad,” you have already jumped onto the thought process.
It takes a little time to create a gap between the witness and the mind. Once the gap is there, you are in for a great surprise, that you are not the mind, that you are the witness, a watcher.
And this process of watching is the very alchemy of real religion. Because as you become more and more deeply rooted in witnessing, thoughts start disappearing. You are, but the mind is utterly empty.
That’s the moment of enlightenment. That is the moment that you become for the first time an unconditioned, sane, really free human being.”
The Tibetan tradition of Dzogchen teaches that the knowing that is present in every experience is unconditioned by every experience. This knowing, this awareness, is eternal, unchanging, and ever present. We are not the object of knowledge, we are the knowing itself. Our true nature is this awareness—unchanging and ever present.
In Sanskrit the nature of this awareness is often referred to as Sat Chit Ananda, which means existence, consciousness, bliss. They say that that is our true nature. Existence, consciousness, bliss. We simply are. We exist. We are aware. And the nature of our awareness is pure and blissful.
It is difficult for us to grasp this because it is something that can’t be understood conceptually. It can’t be known through intellectual knowledge alone. It has to be experiential. It cannot be the object of knowledge, it is the knowing itself. In the words of the Indian Sage Shankara, “For He is the Knower, and the Knower can know other things, but cannot make Himself the object of his own knowledge, in the same way that fire can burn other things, but cannot burn itself.” The aim of Dzogchen meditation is to get in touch with this natural state of being—the true nature of awareness; the natural state of bliss.
Eckhart Tolle, a modern spiritual teacher, once said that “You find peace not by rearranging the circumstances of your life, but by realizing who you are at the deepest level.” From our experience, we have also found this to be true. The realization of who you are at your deepest level enables you to find peace and contentment within your own being, letting go of all the things you have mistakenly identified with, along with all of the suffering that was created around these false identifications.
“Only the truth of who you are, if realized, will set you free.”
We would like to provide a meditation now to help you get in touch with the truth of who you are, to realize your true nature as pure awareness. This type of meditation is called “Non-conceptual meditation.” But before we begin the meditation, we would like to offer a passage from the book "The Answer Is YOU" so that we can better understand what “non-conceptual” really means:
“The Buddha did not spend much time talking about the creation, origin, and meaning of the Universe. His focus was on providing people with a practical way to be free of their suffering. Though we can see from his teachings that he had profound wisdom and a deep understanding of the nature of reality.
He realized that there is an ultimate reality that is beyond beginning and ending, beyond up and down, beyond coming and going, beyond birth and death, beyond being and non-being—and he called this ultimate reality Nirvana. Nirvana is the absence of all notions, the absence of all concepts, and the absence of all mental constructions of any kind. It is not something that we run after or strive to attain; it is the very ground of our existence.
Many of us suffer because we are caught in the notions that we have a beginning and an ending, that we have a birth and a death, that we are the same or that we are different. But when we touch our true nature, the nature of Nirvana, we transcend all of these notions and become free.
These notions and concepts that our minds create are the source of all our fears, and consequently are the source of everything that prevents us from feeling love, freedom, and happiness. When we drop all of our notions and reach the state of Nirvana, we are no longer afraid of birth and death, of being and nonbeing, or of any of the ideas that our minds create.
True freedom is freedom from the known, freedom from concepts, freedom from the idea of being the one Self or of being a separate self. True freedom is the freedom of touching our true nature—the freedom to just be, right here and now, in the unknowable, indefinable, and immeasurable beauty and mystery of the present moment.”
--Joseph P. Kauffman, The Answer Is YOU
In the book, a quote from Suryanarayana Raju is also provided:
“At present your awareness is object knowing awareness. Unless you are mentally free from the objects you will not be free in the present moment. Don’t think objects of you just physical, there are inner objects like ideas, beliefs, dogmas, desires, ambitions, craving to become something, fears, etc. If you can see the transiency of these objects your mind will be free from these objects and your awareness then becomes pure. Only pure awareness has the capacity to be present in the present moment because it has no distraction towards objects. The harsh reality is that your awareness is continuously distracted by the objects because you are investing something in them and so you will never be able to be present in the present moment. All the time you are projecting something from your past experiences which we call mind into the future thus missing the present. Missing the present means you are missing life because life is always a new flow in the present moment and unless we are with that flow we will not be able to participate in life. At present what we call life is nothing but perpetuation of dead past and we cling to this past because we feel secure in the past because it is known and we are afraid to live life in the “present” which is always new and unknowable. We are all afraid of leaving the known which is like death and we don’t dare to live the unknowable. To live with the unknowable we must first be free of inner and outer objects.”
– Suryanarayana Raju
Non conceptual meditation is about getting in touch with the unknown, undefinable, yet ever present reality of life. It is about not only discovering our true nature as pure awareness, but cultivating the habit of being in this awareness, so that we may flow with life, rather than clinging to life or resisting life.
Dzogchen has been translated as “The Great Perfection” because it gets us in touch with that state of perfection in ourselves where nothing needs to be done, nothing needs to be fixed, and nothing needs to be improved. Everything is perfect just as it is. We just need to rest in our awareness, and allow life to flow naturally.
The great sage and founder of Taoism Lao Tzu said, “Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don't resist them; that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like.”
This quote really captures the essence of non-conceptual meditation. When we begin the meditation, we need to drop all of our goals and intentions. If we are holding on to any expectations, it is not Dzogchen meditation. Then, whatever comes up, just let it come; let it be. We let things pass through unhindered, and they dissolve naturally. We just watch. Even if you “the watcher” appear, it’s no different—just watch that and let it be. There is no need to internally question or analyze anything that appears. Just remain open and resting. The thoughts will come and dissolve on their own. Just remain the unattached observer. Do not label the thoughts. Do not judge them, criticize them, or try to understand them. Just let them come, and let them dissolve. In Dzogchen this is called liberation upon arising—the mere appearance of the thought is its liberation—it comes, and it goes. We let it come, we let it go. All while remaining centered in the peace of our ever present awareness. We are awake, but unengaged.
We sometimes think of meditation as a kind of escape from our hectic world. For example, we just want to be free from harsh and loud noises so that we can sit in a place that is quiet and peaceful. Dzogchen teachers have discovered that peace does not have to be dependent on our circumstances, but rather it is dependent on us and our ability to relax and be open to whatever arises. In non-conceptual meditation, the need for our outer environment to be peaceful is really an inner tension, one that needs to be let go of. So whatever comes to us and whatever we feel, think, or perceive, allow it to merge completely with the meditation and perceive that there are no distinctions between this and that, you and I, no need for pushing away or taking in. Just allowing everything to be.
Lower any expectation you might have of the meditation. We are not doing it to gain or accomplish anything. We are doing it to be free. We are allowing everything to arise without creating an inner resistance. Whether the noise is coming from outside of you, or inside your head, it is all just noise, all part of one big happening, and we are just observing this happening, and allowing it to happen on its own, without our need for involvement. We are allowing our minds to be like space. Space allows everything to exist within it, yet it is not bound by anything. So too, our minds can become like space. We can welcome whatever arises, and we can let go of whatever passes, while we remain unaffected in our foundation of peace and stillness.
In the Shamatha meditation (the most commonly practiced meditation), we focus on one object, typically the object of our breath. In this meditation however, we do not have any particular focus, but instead we are just resting in our natural state of awareness. We are not engaging in what arises, but we are not resisting it either. We are simply learning to stay in our center, and to allow our center to stay open to all experience. The basic instructions for this meditation are “Relax and open.”
• Set a time limit for the meditation (not always necessary, but helpful for beginners).
• Close your eyes (this meditation may also be practiced with the eyes open, but for beginners, closed eyes are recommended), and let go of all expectations you might have of the meditation.
• Relax your mind, your body, and your breath, and just observe. It is important that you do not feel rushed or have a sense of needing to be somewhere other than right here and now.
• Allow yourself to be in this state of relaxed, unattached, unbound, open, observing.
• Allow thoughts, emotions, and sensations to enter and exit your awareness on their own accord. Do not give your energy and attention to what comes and goes, simply allow it to be.
• Just remain relaxed in this open awareness.
• If you get distracted, and your attention becomes focused on an object of awareness, simply notice it, and come back to your spacious, open, observing.
• Rest in this natural state.
The Dzogchen teachings are based on the idea that enlightenment and primordial purity is our natural condition, it is the pure state of mind, that exists within all beings.
We can realize this in our own experience, and if we are sincere, we can even sustain this realization in our everyday lives. It cannot be sustained through force, but really it comes down to relaxing deeply to the subtle level of mind that is one with the true nature of reality. So we must practice as often as possible in order to become accustomed to a reality that we have misperceived until now. It becomes crucial that we also learn to take our practice out of sitting meditation and into everyday life. This is often referred to as “post meditation” and it involves maintaining mindfulness in our everyday lives. Practice being mindful of where you are and what you are doing as you go through your day. Use the short pauses that constantly occur between activities to relax your mind and focus on your breath—such as waiting in line, in traffic, at a red light, or whatever activity causes you to pause. Use this pause to relax and reconnect with your primordial center of peace.
It is also helpful to recognize that all beings have the same true nature, and while there may be differences in appearance, that inner reality at the core of our being is one and the same. If we can remember this, we can have compassion for others. Even if people act in a way that is disrespectful or violent, it is because they are ignorant of their true nature. People that hurt others only do so because they are hurt themselves. If we can find that place of peace within us, we can act from that center, and we can help others find peace as well.
"The perfect man employs his mind as a mirror; it grasps nothing; it refuses nothing; it receives, but does not keep."
Mindfulness for Recovery – An infographic that aims to raise awareness about how mindfulness aids addiction recovery.
"Meditation is not a practice in which we do anything. It is a practice in which we stop doing, in which we stop completely, both inwardly and outwardly, in order to reconnect with our source and realize the fundamental ground of our Being."
—Joseph P. Kauffman, The Answer Is YOU