Do we really understand mindfulness? It’s become one of those ‘must do more of that’ sentiments, as though we could press a button on the side of the head.
Perhaps the reason for our chagrin is not that we lack diligence, but that we think it’s a chore… Possibly that we don’t feel pulled or compelled from within to practice it? After all, we don’t need telling to breathe. It just happens because we need it.
Could we build an internal process that mirrors that life-affirming need for air? Could every thought be automatically checked for its origin and purpose, so that our real existence wasn’t diluted in an exhausting maze of events?
The world practice is key. Like (say) piano practice, we know we need self-discipline to reach the results we want – in the piano’s case the ability to make beautiful music. This generally gets agreement, but the word ‘reach’ is telling. Reach suggests that this mindfulness is not a native state to us; is not part of our intrinsic self… It has to be added with effort.
This expectation of effort may be entirely incorrect, and may provide the key to a more intelligent attention beyond ‘duty or practice’.
We don’t need a formal method to investigate mindfulness. We simply need to let our ‘self’ be the teacher. We are learning about that self every time we turn out attention inwards to watch how we work, how we think, why we wander in our thoughts and end up being frustrated and annoyed.
We could wipe clean our mental idea of the mind and investigate it – right now, reading this! The dialogue you are having, reading these lines on a screen, is the mind. It’s not the act of perception – that operates at a lower, unconscious level. It’s the act of interpretation that is the first part of how the mind (me) reacts to the continuous stream of events.
We can listen to this process of registration by seeing how we turn practically everything we experience into language. Reading this – if you are engaged with it – you will be forming the letters into words spoken by your own voice. Did you hear it, then? It’s quiet, but it’s definitely you.
One interesting technique to make this startlingly conscious is to change that voice – literally change it to another person: say, your wife, or your sister, brother, boss, or even your mother… as though they were reading you a story. It’s not difficult but can be shocking when it reveals how adept this language-based part of the mind is at narrating our everyday experience.
Try changing between two or three voices as though you are all taking turns to read aloud…
Now lets make it different. Drive your car, or take a short walk. Note how the inner narrative is created in language as the external events arrive. We may think that there’s just ‘silent me’ in here, but that’s not the case. The ‘me’ is anything but silent and constantly verbalises your experience, based upon the information of the senses and the automation of the pleasure-pain complexes of the past.
Walk this verbalisation carefully and you will notice that it is all based on what’s happening to you. You may think of others, as in a driver saying, “That young fool is driving like an idiot!”. But the observation is based upon a relationship of ‘I’ and ‘he-she’it’, and neither can exist without the other. To have an external ‘it’ we have to have an ‘I’ to which the ‘it’ is external. In a very short time, this gives vast power to the sense of ‘I’ within. Yet, in reality, it may not be there at all… just a very clever nexus of thoughts.
In other words, our mind – our consciousness of our experience – is based upon a subject-object relationship that divides our entire existence into the ‘me’ at the centre of things and the encircling world experienced as flavours of ‘it’.
From this, we can work backwards… and this is where it gets really interesting.
The Hindu philosopher and teacher Sr Ramana Mahararj made this the nucleus of a lifetime’s teachings.
He taught that the beginning of our physical, brain-led lives was the establishment of an ‘I-thought’. As infants, we move from a state of pure consciousness which has no sense of ‘I and it’, to an awareness of and apparent duality of ‘me and that’. This duality gradually separates us, in large part due to our subject-object language, from the vivid purity of our experience, Gradually, but necessarily, we get pushed away from ‘home’ in order that we survive and mature in the world.
In the next part of the story, we will examine how we can build a new state of consciousness simply by asking two questions of the world as its events flows ‘at us’.
©Stephen Tanham 2022
Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye, a journey through the forest of personality to the dawn of Being.