Skip to main content

Mindfulness 1 – Metta Institute

By: Norman Fischer, Zoketsu Norman Fischer | 07/30/2007
Location: Metta Institute
In Topics: Buddhist Sutras, Meditation and Mindfulness, Pali Canon

First of two part talk on Mindfulness given to the Metta Institute

Mindfulness 1 – Metta Institute

First of two part talk on Mindfulness given at the Metta Institute

By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | July 30, 2007

Abridged and edited by Ryusen Barbara Byrum


I thought of a few things to say, in general, about the practice of mindfulness – things that I have found to be helpful and interesting in the course of the practice.

First of all, we are all deeply conditioned to see body and mind as two completely different realms – the mind being more serious than the body. Of course, if something goes wrong with the body, it becomes serious, but we are conditioned to think that the mind is more serious than the body. So it is sort of surprising, then, that mindfulness seems to be a fairly thorough-going and deep spiritual practice that is based on awareness of the body. Simply being aware of the body. We can see a lot of virtues in being aware of the body – such as thinking it is good for your health – but it doesn't seem like that would be a spiritual path.

So it is a little counterintuitive, but that is what is suggested in the practice of mindfulness. If you read the whole Mindfulness Sutra, you are startled when you realize that most of it – pages and pages – are about various ways of being aware of the body and contemplating the nature of the body. All meditation techniques begin with mindfulness of the body and emphasize mindfulness of the body over and over again – not even as a step, but as a practice: constantly coming back to the body and breath.

So this in itself is a very important and deep thing to think about. Spirituality is rooted not – as we have been conditioned to believe – in the spirit and the soul and the heart and the mind, but in the body. We do want to access the spirit, the heart, and the mind, but the way to do that is through the body. So the body is not preliminary. It is the way. It's the gateway to a particular sort of awareness that is advocated in the Mindfulness Sutra and, in general, in mindfulness practice in Buddhism.

In TheFour Foundations of Mindfulness, the first foundation – meaning the most foundational of the foundations – is the basis of everything. It is simply to embrace, probably in a way that one has never before embraced, the reality that one is a body. One is made of the elements of earth. The body is literally earth. In Hebrew the word for human being is the same as the word for earth, because human beings spring from the earth. It is the basic reality, and we come back to that reality, over and over again, and we ground ourselves in it. The body is the foundation of mindfulness of our emotions; mindfulness of our thoughts; mindfulness of our deeply rooted feelings; and mindfulness of all spiritual insights and realities.

A point that seems tricky for us as Western people, especially post-modern Westerners, is that sometimes when you hear about mindfulness, and you are encouraged to practice mindfulness, it's hard to figure out what the difference is between mindfulness and ordinary self-consciousness. One could say, "Aren't we frequently – without meditation, without any of this training – aware of our emotions? It's not like we never knew we had an emotion. We're aware of emotions, our feelings, our thoughts. These are accessible to us already without this breathing. In fact, throughout our whole lives we've been quite aware of our mental states and feelings."

However, we have been aware of all this from the standpoint of self-consciousness. "I'm feeling this. I'm thinking that. I'm upset about what I'm thinking. I don't like it that much. It's awful what I'm feeling. I shouldn't be feeling this. I wish I weren't feeling this." So our standpoint has been, naturally and obviously, self-conscious: "I'm feeling this. I'm thinking that. I'm aware of this." Right? That is what awareness has always been.

First of all, it's quite natural for the mind to go that way. It does seem like we are somebody. Doesn't that seem to be true? Seems pretty plausible. Everybody calls me by my name. It seems like we have that experience of being somebody, not only from within, but also from all around us. Not that we have particularly examined this question deeply, but we take it for granted that everything that we think, feel, and hope for is all coming from the standpoint of myself. So, naturally, when someone tells us to be mindful, to be aware of our thoughts and feelings, we say, "Okay I will be aware of my thoughts, I will be aware of my feelings." The difference is very small, but actually huge, and if we are mindful in a self-conscious way, then, in fact, it's not that helpful. It can even be unhelpful. The practice of mindfulness could over-emphasize our self-consciousness. I've seen this happen, when meditators become hyper-self-conscious through the practice of mindfulness – or through what they think is the practice of mindfulness.

So, I want to make a distinction between mindfulness and self-consciousness. Maybe I could say it like this: Mindfulness is a more immediate, because, after all, we mediate the gut feeling of an emotion. First there is a gut feeling of an emotion, and before we even register that feeling, we immediately say, "I'm feeling this. I'm feeling unhappy." Mindfulness is a gut feeling, that which might not actually be unhappiness. It might be tension in the body. It might be a particular thought. It might be a particular mood or valence of feeling. But then we call it unhappiness, and we say, "I'm unhappy."

So mindfulness is more phenomenological, so to speak. It is more immediate, more basic. It is just an awareness of what is arising within the field of awareness, rather than personalizing it: "I'm feeling this. I'm feeling that." You can see why it has to start with the body and the breath, because those sensations are more immediate. When it comes to feelings and thoughts, I would say that it is pretty much absolutely impossible to be aware of a feeling or a thought without personalizing it, without making it a form of self-consciousness. This becomes more possible when you train in the more immediate sort of awareness, that is most easily done by being aware of the body and the breath. The sensations in the body are very detailed, and there is a lot less tendency to elaborate on them. Of course, we can do that, and we have experienced that the last few days – elaborating on the different sensations of the body. For example, "How come I can't sit up straight?" Basically it is easier to be phenomenological about taking notice without any commentary, without any personalization – just what arises in the field of awareness.

I understand that it may take awhile to get the feeling – the immediate feeling within your body and emotions and thoughts – of the difference between self-consciousness and awareness. Just to be aware of what arises in the field of awareness. So what I am saying now is just be aware that there is that difference, whether or not you can see it. Just be aware of that. So don't be so sure that when you think, "I'm feeling this, or I'm feeling that," that that is mindfulness, or that's what is going on.

I am sowing the seeds of doubt and confusion, I hope, because this is something different.

The thing that is important about this, and that you notice very quickly once you begin practicing mindfulness, is that there actually isn't that much difference between something that arises in the field of awareness which I would call "me" or "mine," and something that arises in the field of awareness that I would not call "me" or "mine." If you read the Mindfulness Sutra carefully, and think about what it is saying, this is what is being said repeatedly. And this is of cardinal importance for the work that you are training to do: Just being aware of the thoughts and feelings that are arising within the field of awareness.

In other words, arising in the field of awareness is a thought. Arising in the field of awareness is a sound. Arising in the field of awareness is something that I am seeing. These things are equally arising in the field of awareness, but I usually say that the thought is "mine," whereas the perception of looking at you is not me. Hearing the sound of the bird is not me. But from the standpoint of awareness itself, or mindfulness itself, it is all something that is arising in my consciousness. Consciousness is also something that arises, and it is just as much an experience as a thought. Consciousness itself is an experience. That becomes a very important thing, because we live pretty much imprisoned by the skin – by this little bag of stuff that we think is me.

With mindfulness there is an understanding that there's an inside and an outside, but the distinction between inside and outside is not as important as we have made it. You can imagine what the practice of mindfulness would do for your capacity to listen, to empathize, to intuit what's going on around you – with an intimacy that is not really possible if your outward awareness isn't really focused on another. With mindfulness you are focused on just what arises within the field of awareness. Sometimes it comes from inside. Sometimes it comes from outside. Either way, it is just as immediate, just as important, and just as much one's own. So that's important, also, to realize.

So this is a pretty radical shift: to stop living the flow of your experience from the standpoint of oneself, and begin to live the flow of experience from the standpoint of what arises and passes away. What arises and passes away. It's a really big shift, so it takes a lot of training. I think that everybody should be able to complete the training in this. Everyone should really try to get a glimpse of the distinction that I am trying to make. It's so difficult to make this distinction clear, because of our language and our whole way of looking at things. It's almost impossible to make it, but you will see it in the course of this retreat.

It's not about setting yourself up as an observer. That's exactly self-consciousness. I am an observer over here, observing what is going on inside of me. [Rather,] in a sense, you could say, this is a drastic disappearing – allowing what is being experienced in the field of awareness to be there, with a knowing of what it is. And sometimes that could be a thought; it could be a feeling; it could be an emotion. It could be a memory; it could be a visual object. It could be a sound; it could be a smell; it could be a physical sensation. In fact, it's all things, constantly in a flow, sometimes one of them succeeding the other in rapid succession. It's letting that flow take place, without conditioning it too much by saying, "It's about me."

So, maybe in this week you have already glimpsed this. When you see yourself being excessively self-conscious, you know what that is, and you shift your attention from that to just what is happening. It's difficult to do, and it is not as if one can tell oneself to stop being self-conscious. But you begin to see self-consciousness as something arising in the field of awareness.

So, in this kind of business [training people to be caregivers for the dying], people talk about the way one is constantly evaluating oneself. Did anybody experience that? "How am I doing? Oh, this is really good. I'm doing this right." Or, "No, I'm not doing it right. I had it there for a minute, but now I'm not doing it right. I can't do this. I don't know why I ever signed up for this course. It's completely against anything I have ever done before, and I am lousy at this. Everybody else can probably do it really well, but I can't do it. What am I doing here? It is too embarrassing to get up in the middle of this and go screaming out of here, so I probably won't do that. But I am just going to have to grit my teeth and get through this somehow."

You might have had these thoughts cross your mind, which is kind of a desperate situation. Instead of that, just notice these things arising in your mind. Notice how compelling they are. You can imagine how liberating that would be, not always having to fall for every dumb story that your mind comes up with! To be able to decide, even: "I like that dumb story. I'll go with that." Or not. This would be great. This would be freedom, and that's what the mindfulness practice will help you with.

Now, let's be honest about this. There is an implied faith in all this. In the Mindfulness Sutra, the Buddha begins the whole discussion by making this ringing declaration: "All your human problems will be brought to rest simply by giving up our sense of control, our sense of ‘I have things that I want and like; and things that I don't want and like; and I want to get the things I want and like; and I want to get rid of the things that I don't want or like; and I am in charge of that process, and no one else is going to be in charge of it but me.'" I'm paraphrasing or maybe exaggerating, but this is the way we live, right? That's normal.

Mindfulness is saying: "No, I am not going to do that. I am just going to see what arises in the field of awareness." Period. I am going to devote myself, at least for these seven days, just to see what arises in the field of awareness, without making it mine; without conditioning or controlling it by my needs. I am just going to see what is there as honestly as I can. This implies that I am not going to apply the same kind of control and censorship to what is going on inside me and all around me.

There is an implied faith that this is a worthwhile thing to do. That the letting go of my usual set of controlling mechanisms is somehow going to result in another kind of process of my living, and the result will be a happy and wholesome improvement over how I have been living. So there is a kind of faith in that, because, otherwise, without some faith in that, why would you ever do it? It would be terrifying to give up that level of control, which is so intimately involved with almost every thought. To give that up and open up your hands, and to be aware of it, and to just let it be there.

Think about that. If you don't have some provisional faith in the process, that it is worthwhile and that it may be beneficial, it's hard to give yourself to it. You really don't want to give up that control. So it is something that you ought to reflect on. "Do I trust this process of awareness, of mindfulness, enough to take the risk of allowing whatever is there to be there, and just to be aware of it, without pushing it away because I don't like it? Just be aware of what is there? Am I willing?"

Now, the next thing I want to talk about is the actual technique of meditation. There was a 13th century Japanese Zen teacher who, in discussing meditation, carefully tells his readers about how to sit up straight, how to hold your shoulders and arms, how to breathe, and so forth. Very technical, simple instructions. And then he says, "When you are doing meditation, you should think not-thinking. How do you think not-thinking? Non-thinking. This is the essential art of meditation."

So those are the instructions that he gives. When you first hear that, it sounds a little strange, and it is hard to get much out of it, but there is a very profound and simple instruction that is being implied here. It has to do with all that I have been saying about mindfulness, especially why it is so important to be mindful about the body and the breath. And why mindfulness of the body and the breath create a shift in the way that you receive everything that happens.

Normally there is a lot of thinking that goes on. Notice this? When you are sitting in meditation, it can drive you crazy! Your mind is going on and on and on, and you think, "It doesn't usually happen like that." But actually it does. I think if you look at ordinary, everyday consciousness, there is a certain muffled quality to it. It is almost as if somebody has put a thick blanket over your brain, and only very little gets out. All this thinking that you are experiencing – and that may be driving you crazy while you are sitting – is going on anyway all the time, only it's muffled – you don't hear it. And now, in meditation, there is nothing else to do. No distractions, no tasks, so now you notice it. But there is a lot of this that goes on all the time – 24 hours a day, not only when you're conscious, but also when you're not conscious. This is going on, wearing a mighty groove in your life – like a superhighway going right down the middle of your life.

That is what Dogen is calling thinking. He says, "Think not-thinking." This is a different kind of thinking from the superhighway. It's a totally different kind of thinking. Because if you withdraw a certain amount of attention and a certain amount of energy from this habitual, almost unconscious, process, and, instead, with patience and persistence and loving-kindness and tenderness, you take that energy and you place it on the feeling of the body and the breath, over and over and over again, what you are doing is wearing down the gargoyles on that superhighway. And you are making another kind of thinking possible. This is what Dogen means by "Think not-thinking."

So that thinking – that has been part of your life all this time, that you might never have been aware of, which is out there in the bushes, in the hills, in the sky – will be able to come into view. You won't be stuck only on this one track of the superhighway. That's why when you bring some attention to the breathing and the posture, and you do that with a lot of persistence and faith, eventually things emerge from deeper levels of consciousness that have been there all along, but have been literally inaccessible because of this one-track groove.

So that's the instruction. Thinking is not the problem, but you have to think not-thinking. A different kind of thinking. The kind of thinking that, to whatever extent is possible for you, is freed up from your ordinary habit. When you have that measure of freedom, there's more spaciousness, and other things can arise that are very important for you to experience. They are not created by the practice. They are created by your life. But with this practice, they are given the space to arise, and you can be aware of them.

That's why I am bringing up Dogen, because meditation instructions sound like you are being told, "Okay, what you want to do is to be all the time aware of the breath; all the time aware of your body; and do not have any thoughts." And then you are frustrated, because you notice that thoughts are coming all the time, and you think, "I'm not doing this right." But that is not what is being suggested. What is being suggested is that the positive, intentional effort that you are making is to come to the breath and the feeling of the body. That's the effort you are making, over and over. But the point of that effort is to simply create a space inside, to allow whatever is there, whatever thought, whatever feeling, or sound, or sensation – and these are all one piece – to let it be allowed to just arise in the field of awareness.

Meditation – mindfulness – is a form of thinking, but it is much more spacious; much more intuitive; much more creative; and much more satisfying than the usual way that we think.

Download file

Click to stream and listen immediately, right-click and pick "Save Target As" or "Save Link As" to save to your hard drive.