Writing about mindfulness and meditation

Just this present moment

Ryunosuke Koike, in The Practice of Not Thinking, describes mindfulness as keeping your thoughts related to immediate experience, and keeping the mind somewhat tethered to the other senses: being aware of seeing, hearing, touch, etc. I think this is a useful rule of thumb: it's quite simple to check whether our thoughts are related to present moment experience or not. As people who've been on retreat will testify, when the mind's energy is conserved perception becomes clearer. This is fertile ground for insight and understanding. We're not allowing the mind to expend all of its energy roaming freely in abstract thought, or get embroiled in old dramas.

This is something you'll find all over early Buddhist teachings, too, of course, but I'm finding the directness of this instruction refreshing. And it's not hard to see why it works. When we look at the teaching of dependent arising, which describes the process by which suffering arises. The final inflection point before suffering arises in this chain of events is, arguably, clinging. Intervening here is our last chance to do something before the consequences of craving or aversion fully mature. Experientially, clinging often shows up as obsessive thoughts about that which we crave. So by keeping thoughts more or less anchored in the present moment we prevent clinging from overwhelming the mind.

As someone who is prone to a lot of discursive thought and reflection, this simple present moment experience is an element of mindfulness that—though it seems obvious—I have somewhat lost sight of. It was obvious to me when first beginning the practice, but as we immerse ourselves in the philosophy of the early Buddhist tradition, there can be a lot of thinking, a lot of figuring things out, making connections, and a lot of grander-seeming ideas and practices. Sometimes figuring things out seems itself to be the practice, and though of course making sense of the teachings is important, this can be a trap.

The approach I have most often taken is to practice mindfulness of mind in the sense of watching thoughts arise and pass without necessarily believing or acting on them. Being aware of what the mind is doing and learning about the condition of the mind, and its habits. This is my home turf and I get a lot of benefit from it. It's very much like noticing the pull of the idea of pleasant experiences on the mind. However, I do find Koike's instruction helpful as an extension to this because it's a useful back-to-basics, black-and-white rule of thumb, a yardstick I can measure by. And I'm currently interested in practicing in ways that have reasonably clear requirements to which we can orient:

Are my thoughts connected to immediate experience or not?

That immediate experience could be driving, working, meditating, planning. And, if my thoughts are freewheeling away from the task at hand, would it be helpful to return to just this present moment?

To be clear, we are not intending to wipe thoughts out entirely, I see it as restraining them to be more or less relevant to the matter at hand. And of course, the mind will wander – this is part of its natural functioning but we still have the choice to bring it back if we are interested in cultivating a deep sense of presence. In the way I'm interpreting Koike's instruction, we can think about how best to settle the mind, how best to contemplate, how best to let positive qualities and energies take root, and abandon the unwholesome.

So we might ask:

  • What am I seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, touching, thinking?
  • Are my thoughts directed towards this immediate experience or task?
  • And are my thoughts and my attitude wholesome?

There is a simile in the early texts of mindfulness being like a post to which six wild animals are tied. These six represent the six senses: sight, touch, hearing, taste, smell, and mind. Without the post, the animals would be a chaotic brawl of scales, fur, and feathers. With the post, they are tamed. The mind is tamed and its energies conserved, gathered, ready for work, and prone to insight.