Mindfulness is paying attention to real time reality. This can seem like such a small thing—and it is. It is a state of attention that is as natural and soft and wordless as our peripheral vision. Yet mindfulness also means to remember… what? Mindfulness pulls us back to a greater living reality, reminding us that life is more than our own repetitive thoughts or fears or desires. Rooted in the present tense world of the body rather than the thoughts, the strangely named mindfulness (bodyfulness? Lifefulness?) delivers us from the hellish centrifugal force of our own egos.
The venerable monk Gunaratana writes in Mindfulness in Plain English: “Deeply buried in the mind, there lies a mental mechanism which accepts what the mind perceives as beautiful and pleasant experiences and rejects those experiences which are perceived as ugly and painful. This mechanism gives rise to…things like greed, lust, hatred, aversion, and jealousy. We choose to avoid these hindrances, not because they are evil in the normal sense of the word, but because they are compulsive.”
Most of us know the pull of compulsions—from the siren call of the refrigerator and that last piece of homemade whatever to the thought or worry that keeps repeating to memory that shadows our lives. Mindfulness saves us by gently, gently, gently pulling us back into the world of the living, the world of new possibilities. But here’s the thing. Mindfulness is so gentle in it’s action, so subtle and inclusive by nature, that it needs the help of concentration (samadhi). In meditation, concentration on an object like the breath is a tool that keeps the sensitive attention of mindfulness anchored. The catch is that mindfulness brings meaning and understanding to what we see—without mindful awareness, concentration can become narrow and driven…compulsive.
Strangely, as I was pondering these things on Sunday, I managed to lock myself out of my house. And just when everything was going so well, when I seemed to be flowing along so…mindfully? After the first rude shock of it, after the momentary impulse to burst into tears, I went for a walk. I found myself thinking “I’m locked out, I’m locked out…and variants including I can’t believe this happened to me, Why now? As I walked, the beautiful colors of the changing leaves and the cool air or some unnamable combination called me to remember that I am here. On the earth. In that moment, I realized I wasn’t just locked out, I was locked in my own tiny skull, oblivious to the life around me. I shifted the the focus of my concentration from the mantra Locked Out to the sensation of walking and breathing, to the awareness of being alive on this beautiful earth. When I got home the door was unlocked. Mindfulness is like walking through an open door.