We all start off using different techniques of meditation, this is like learning to drive a car using a simulator. We learn all the different elements of the skill separately (steering, gears, brakes etc.) and then later on we combine all these as we drive.
All techniques should have an element of watching (vipassanā) and an element of peacefulness (samatha). These are both necessary elements for progress. If we do not learn to combine these early on our minds will always be vacillating, trying to decide which one to do, when with patience it can be perfectly natural to be doing both at the same time. When we are concentrating on driving a car, for example, we keep our eyes on the road ahead, this is like following a meditation object to calm the mind. We also need to be aware of what is happening on the periphery of our attention, this is like keeping an eye on what else is going on in the mind. An experienced driver automatically uses the controls (the different techniques) while keeping his eyes on the road.
This is also a training relevant to the rest of our lives. We then keep our minds on whatever we are doing whilst being aware of what else is happening, this is balanced attention. We can be effective and also receive the feedback that is coming back to us from our actions. we are aware of both our thoughts and our feelings.
Keeping our mindfulness
Staying in the present moment is not as easy as it sounds. It is mostly a matter of ‘relaxed discipline’: The more we are mindful of something one time, the more we can relax into it, the more likely we will be mindful of it next time.
It is difficult to notice how and when we lose our mindfulness. When we are lost we are lost. So the art is not to give so much attention to when or how we lose mindfulness but how to maintain it. The formal meditation practice helps a lot. When we are meditating we have the object of our meditation, if we are watching the breath it is the continuous presence of the breath in and out that shows us we are mindful. What we need to look for as we meditate more is some kind of sign that our mindfulness is established other than this object – something we can be aware of whatever we are doing. This sign will vary for different people (e.g. brightness in the eyes, a faint ringing in the ears, a sense of ‘presence’). This sign can then become like an anchor for us, holding us in the present moment. This anchor can become something very significant, almost magical or mystical in our lives, an opening into another dimension, another world – the world of mindfulness or 'mind fullness'.
Our whole experience of mindfulness hinges first of all on what we understand or experience the mind to be. What is not explained by the Buddha in his discourse on mindfulness (the satipaṭṭhāna sutta) but taken for granted is the understanding of the mind current at that time. This understanding was formed by the experience of samādhi. This experience was well known, commonplace, in spiritual circles at the time of the Buddha. Now it is very rarely experienced, even mentioned.
The modern perception of the mind is of thinking and emotion. Even if we have studied the Buddha’s teachings and we have all kinds of ideas about the spacious mind, when we come to start actually practising we are quickly back to our usual way of experiencing the mind and its operation. We end up merely thinking about ourselves.
The ancient perception was of a brightness at the heart, shining out to encompass the world and also creating a space in which thought and emotion arise and cease. If we understand the modern perception to be influenced by an objective view of the mind, as being centred in the nervous system and the ancient view to be purely subjective, then they need not contradict. We are just left realising, perhaps, that if we do not impose an objective view onto our subjective experience then it is not the same.
In terms of practice we can understand the development of mindfulness outlined in satipaṭṭhāna as an awareness of our world, inner and outer, based on this understanding of the mind and thus one that accompanies and supports this experiencing of samādhi, the unified mind. Thus in satipaṭṭhāna our purpose is to build up a unified experience of life. We do not focus and analyse one element at a time. Centring strongly on the body we open up to feeling, to the space of the mind and thought in that order. Within the unified experience these latter three elements emerge as the mind expands from its true centre at the heart.
The Buddha further points out that this apparent centre is not the ultimate. The mind expands to the degree that this centre is lost and that this is the ultimate non-dual state.
So, far from aiming at a highly focussed point of analysis, the practise of mindfulness is one of an expansion of the mind. We begin with the body and with a point of emptiness or space developed through concentration but then expand this point to include the world.
Of course I am not the first to point all this out. Many meditation teachers do the same. Yet we can also think that the solution is to merely form a different view of things rather than striving for the actual experience of samādhi. This is like reading the book rather than doing the practice, we fall into armchair Buddhism, much easier. The view will, however, never substitute for the experience.
The traditional spiritual path is virtue, then concentration, then wisdom. We begin with the ‘mundane’ path of virtue. We are learning first of all to tune in to our minds with a moral intention. Then, as we empty out the mind through concentration, we see that it becomes more and more wholesome. In this way we learn for ourselves, in our own experience, that everything that comes to interfere with our concentration, that arises automatically in the mind, is unwholesome. At this point there is no longer a need to discriminate on a moral basis.
Having seen this, we can add contemplation to concentration as a way to let go of all these states and to empty out the mind. Then we are not dependent upon concentration practise to keep the mind clear. Once we have developed, through contemplation, the stable perception of the automatic mind as unwholesome, the mind will become automatically self-clearing. Then we can apply our wholesome minds fully to other things. Developing wholesome perceptions of the world will then cut off at the root any tendency for the unwholesome to arise.
I hope this explains the connection between the two kinds of right mindfulness in the Buddha’s teaching – mundane and supramundane. Mundane right mindfulness is to see the wholesome or unwholesome nature of things, it is a moral discrimination. Supramundane right mindfulness contemplates the impermanence, unsatisfactoriness and non-self nature of things.