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By Ven. Tenzin Chönyi (Dr. Diana Taylor)
The winter sun is weak. No wind. The waves roll in parallel lines towards the shore. Myself, the dog, a couple of gulls, the otherwise empty beach are part of this quiet day. What will I be mindful of today: the way I walk, the gentleness of the day, the gulls wheeling away from Merlin’s barks, my headache, my next piece of writing, the aesthetics of the wave-sculpted sand? Mostly, I am choosing to be mindful of my thoughts. I have this article to write.
Mindfulness plays around between layers of my sensations and feelings and thoughts. Different things and thoughts grab my attention and mindfulness jumps there, like someone nervously holding a torch on a dark night. The problem, of course, is to make it stay where I want it to stay, regardless of the other exciting possibilities. If I want mindfulness to stay where I put it, I need a few other tools for developing concentration which we find in the texts on meditation.1 Mindfulness is not concentration. It is one factor that assists in developing that concentration.
By itself, mindfulness is not necessarily virtuous. It is the motivation behind the mindfulness that determines whether it is helpful or unhelpful. If I choose to be mindful of the waves rolling in, then what is behind that choice? Maybe I want to avoid thinking about something else. Maybe I want to experience connectedness to this environment. Maybe I want to study wave action. Maybe I want to observe impermanence. So if the practice of mindfulness is going to be beneficial, then my motivation should also be beneficial. If mindfulness is going to generate compassion and wisdom in my mind, then it needs to be used in conjunction with what I know will generate compassion and wisdom.
If my motivation is to have the best garden on the street, then I will be mindful of what I need to do in order to create such a garden. I will remember to compost my food scraps, to pull out the weeds, to trim the bushes and prune the trees. As I do these I will be mindful about the way I am doing each one. So far, so good. But if my motivation comes from pride and wanting my neighbors to be jealous of my excellent garden, then I will not have achieved much for my own mind.
These days mindfulness is a popular word. Google will bring up over 2 million references. It is now the main focus of much of Western psychology, particularly Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT). It is being used as a key tool in dealing with pain, stress, depression, addiction, anxiety disorders, disordered thinking, relationship problems, actualizing potential and so on. It is popular because it works. But the mindfulness of MBCT includes more than the mindfulness of keeping the mind placed on one thought or experience. MBCT mindfulness is described as “being aware of where your mind is from one moment to the next, with gentle acceptance.”2 That aspect of “being aware of where your mind is” is what we call introspection. This is another important tool. Gentle acceptance is what we mean by equanimity.
Equanimity is an important key in turning mindfulness from a mental exercise into a beneficial practice and to stopping our exaggerations. It means having a little wisdom and a little compassion, at least towards oneself. Now we have something new to be mindful of: the self that gives rise to the craving or aversion of exaggerations.
Why should we be mindful? If it is just to lower our blood pressure, then we might be a little healthier but still have a dissatisfied mind. So let me go back to my walk on the beach. Was I being mindful? Yes, for very short periods. Was I concentrating? Yes, at times, as I began to plan this article, or just enjoyed the beach, or wondered who left the tracks in the sand. Did I have equanimity? Well that was not challenged because it was such a nice day. Was my walk a Dharma practice? Now that depends on my motivation.
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