7 Attitudinal Foundation of Mindfulness
To cultivate mindfulness requires much more than mechanically following a recipe or a set of instructions. It requires bringing your whole being to the process and opening to an entirely new way of learning. The attitude that we bring to the practice of mindfulness will to a large extent determine its long-term value to us. This is why consciously cultivating certain attitudes can be very helpful in getting the most out of the process of meditation. Your intentions set the stage for what is possible. They remind you from moment to moment of why you are practicing in the first place. Keeping particular attitudes in mind is actually part of the training itself.
Seven attitudinal factors constitute the major pillars of mindfulness practice as it is taught in this program. They are not independent of each other. Each one relies on and influences the degree to which you are able to cultivate the others. Together they constitute the foundation upon which you will be able to build a strong meditation practice of your own.
When we begin practicing paying attention to the activity of our own mind, it is common to discover and to be surprised by the fact that we are constantly generating judgments about our experience. Almost everything we see is labeled and categorized by the mind. We react to everything we experience in terms of what we think its value is to us. Some things, people and events are judged as ‘good’ because they make us feel good for some reason. Others are equally quickly condemned as ‘bad’ because they may us feel bad. The rest is categorized as ‘neutral’ because we don’t think it has much relevance. Neutral things, people and events are almost completely tuned out of our consciousness.
This habit of categorizing and judging our experience locks us into mechanical reactions that we are not even aware of and that often have no objective basis at all. When practicing mindfulness, it is important to recognize this judging quality of mind when it appears and to intentionally assume the stance of an impartial witness by reminding yourself to just observe it. When you find the mind judging, you don’t have to stop it from doing that. All that is required is to be aware of it happening. No need to judge the judging and make matters even more complicated for yourself.
As an example, let’s say you are practicing observing your breathing. At a certain point you may find your mind saying something like, ‘This is boring’ or ‘This isn’t working’ or ‘I can’t do this’. These are judgments. When they come up in your mind, it is very important to recognize them as judgmental thinking and remind yourself that the practice involves suspending judgment and just watching whatever comes up, including your own judging thoughts, without pursuing them or acting on them in any way. Then proceed with observing your breathing.
Patience is a form of wisdom. It demonstrates that we understand and accept the fact that sometimes things must unfold in their own time. A child may try to help a butterfly to emerge by breaking open its chrysalis. Usually the butterfly doesn’t benefit from this. Any adult knows that the butterfly can only emerge in its own time – that the process cannot be hurried.
In the same way we cultivate patience toward our own minds and bodies when practicing mindfulness. We intentionally remind ourselves that there is no need to be impatient with ourselves because we find the mind judging all the time, or because we are tense or agitated or frightened, or because we have been practicing for some time and nothing positive seems to have happened. We give ourselves room to have these experiences. Why? Because we are having them anyway! To be patient is simply to be completely open to each moment, accepting it in its fullness, knowing that, like the butterfly, things can only unfold in their own time.
Patience can be a particularly helpful quality to invoke when the mind is agitated. It can help us accept the wandering tendency of the mind while reminding us that we don’t have to get caught up in its travels.
- Beginner’s Mind
Too often we let our thinking and our beliefs about what we ‘know’ prevent us from seeing things as they really are. To see the richness of the present moment, we need to cultivate what has been called ‘beginner’s mind’, a mind that is willing to see everything as if for the first time.
This attitude will be particularly important when we practice the formal meditation techniques. Whatever the particular technique we might be using, we should bring our beginner’s mind with us each time we practice so that we can be free of our expectations based on our past experiences. An open, ‘beginner’s’ mind allows us to be receptive to new possibilities and prevents us from getting stuck in the rut of our own expertise, which often thinks it knows more than it does. No moment is the same as any other. Each is unique and contains unique possibilities. Beginner’s mind reminds us of this simple truth.
Developing a basic trust in yourself and your own basic wisdom and goodness is an integral part of meditation training. It is far better to trust in your intuition and your own authority, even if you make some ‘mistakes’ along the way, than always to look outside of yourself for guidance. Teachers, and books and tapes can only be guides, signposts. It is important to be open and receptive to what you can learn from other sources, but ultimately you still have to live your own life, every moment of it. In practicing mindfulness, you are practicing taking responsibility for being yourself and learning to listen to and trust your own being. The more you cultivate this trust in your own being, the easier you will find it will be to trust other people more and to see their basic goodness as well.
Almost everything we do we do for a purpose, to get something or somewhere. But in meditation this attitude can be a real obstacle. Although it takes a lot of work and energy of a certain kind, ultimately meditation is a non-doing. It has no goal other than for you to be yourself. The irony is that you already are. This sounds paradoxical and a little crazy. Yet this paradox and craziness may be pointing you toward a new way of seeing yourself, one in which you are trying less and being more. This comes from intentionally cultivating the attitude of non-striving.
For example, if you sit down to meditate and you think, “I am going to get relaxed, or become a better person”, then you have introduced an idea into your mind of where you should be, and along with it comes the notion that you are not okay right now. “If I were only more calm, or more this or that, then I would be okay. But right now I am not okay.” This attitude undermines the cultivation of mindfulness, which involves simply paying attention to whatever is happening. If you are tense, then just pay attention to the tension. If you are in pain, then be with the pain as best you can. If you are criticizing yourself, then observe the activity of the judging mind. Just watch. Remember, we are simply allowing anything and everything that we experience from moment to moment to be here, because it already is.
In the meditative domain, the best way to achieve you own goals is to back off from striving for results and instead to start focusing carefully on seeing and accepting things as they are, moment by moment. With patience and regular practice, movement toward your goals will take place by itself. This movement becomes an unfolding that you are inviting to happen within you.
Acceptance means seeing things as they actually are in the present. In the course of our daily lives we often waste a lot of energy denying and resisting what is already fact. When we do that, we are basically trying to force situations to be the way we would like them to be, which only makes for more tension. This actually prevents positive change from occurring. We may be so busy denying and forcing and struggling that we have little energy left for growing, and what little we have may be dissipated by our lack of awareness and intentionality.
Acceptance does not mean that you have to like everything or that you have to take a passive attitude toward everything and abandon your principles and values. It does not mean that you are satisfied with things as they are or that you are resigned to tolerating things as they ‘have to be’. It does not mean that you should stop trying to break free of your own self-destructive habits or to give up on your desire to change and grow, or that you should tolerate injustice in the world around you. Acceptance as we are speaking of it simply means that you have come around to a willingness to see things as they are. This attitude sets the stage for acting appropriately in your life, no matter what is happening. You are much more likely to know what to do and have the inner conviction to act when you have a clear picture of what is actually happening than when your vision is clouded by your mind’s self-serving judgments and desires or its fears and prejudices.
In the meditation practice, we cultivate acceptance by taking each moment as it comes and being with it fully as it is. We try not to impose our ideas about what we should be feeling or thinking or seeing on our experience but just remind ourselves to be receptive and open to whatever we are feeling, thinking, or seeing, and to accept it because it is here right now. If we keep our attention focused on the present, we can be sure of one thing, namely that whatever we are attending to in this moment will change, giving us the opportunity to practice accepting whatever it is that will emerge in the next moment.
- Letting go
They say that in India there is a particularly clever way of catching monkeys. As the story goes, hunters will cut a hole in a coconut that is just big enough for a monkey to put its hand through. Then, they will drill two smaller holes in the other end, pass a wire through, and secure the coconut to the base of a tree. Then they put a banana inside the coconut and hide. The monkey comes down, puts his hand in and takes hold of the banana. The hole is crafted so that the open hand can go in but the fist cannot get out. All the monkey has to do to be free is to let go of the banana. But it seems most monkeys don’t let go.
Often our minds get us caught in very much the same way in spite of all our intelligence. For this reason, cultivating the attitude of letting go, or non-attachment, is fundamental to the practice of mindfulness. When we start paying attention to our inner experience, we rapidly discover that there are certain thoughts and feelings and situations that the mind seems to want to hold on to. If they are pleasant, we try to prolong these thoughts or feelings or situations, stretch them out, and conjure them up again and again. Similarly there are many thoughts and feelings and experiences that we try to get rid of or to prevent or to protect ourselves from having because they are unpleasant and painful and frightening in one way or another.
In the meditation practice we intentionally put aside the tendency to elevate some aspects of our experience and to reject others. Instead, we just let our experience be what it is and practice observing it from moment to moment. Letting go is a way of letting things be, of accepting things as they are. When we observe our own mind grasping and pushing away, we remind ourselves to let go of those impulses on purpose, just to see what will happen if we do. When we find ourselves judging our experience, we let go of those judging thoughts. We recognize them and we just don’t pursue them any further. We let them be, and in doing so we let them go. Similarly when thoughts of the past or of the future come up, we let go of them. We just watch.
If we find it particularly difficult to let go of something because it has such a strong hold over our mind, we can direct our attention to what ‘holding on’ feels like. Holding on is the opposite of letting go. We can become an expert on our own attachments, whatever they may be and their consequences in our lives, as well as how it feels in those moments when we finally do let go and what the consequences of that are. Being willing to look at the ways we hold on ultimately shows us a lot about the experience of its opposite. So whether we are ‘successful’ at letting go or not, mindfulness continues to teach us if we are willing to look.