The mind is an endless landscape
upon which trees, mountains, valleys, and waters grow and dissolve,
upon which birth and death unfold.
I am jumping ahead a little bit through the Four Foundations (Establishments) of Mindfulness (Body (breath), Feelings, Mind, and Dharma) and addressing “mindfulness of mind”. I am writing this as my understanding of a lecture at the Nalanda Institute given by Sonia Sequeira and Joe Loizzo. I am also using it as a launching point to come to terms with observations of my own meditation practice through the years.
When focusing on the breath in mindfulness of breathing or doing any other form of one-pointed concentration (shamata) meditation we are focusing on one element that helps to calm the mind and is relatively simple to do. I say simple knowing that everyone has a different point of entry into meditation, and we all have our strengths and challenges with its practice. After working with the breath, we practice moving to concentrating on the body. The practice of concentrating on the body gets trickier for some because the body is a big thing that is harder to pinpoint. The body has many elements and takes us to the global or universal aspects of what it means to inhabit a body. The body isn’t just various parts thrown together; it extends beyond solid flesh and bones. It contains space, and it also inhabits space. It is the space in front, behind, around, above and below. It also contains the same stuff inside of it that is outside. The boundaries of the body are harder to discern, so when we meditate on the entire body, we are taking that one-pointed concentration and learning to expand. We are going from a more narrow focus to a much wider one.
The same follows with mindfulness of mind as this is another step in the widening of our concentration. It is an attempt to come to terms with the contents of the mind. How do we come to terms with something so difficult to grasp? We don’t. Instead, we see it as a process or as something that moves and changes. The mind isn’t the contents of the mind, but its vast openness. Observing it involves relaxing into the limitlessness of the mind. The Tibetan’s see it as an open sky where weather comes and goes. The weather, in this case, are the mental phenomena including thoughts and sensations that come and go. When we observe the mind, we are using the mind to turn back in on itself, and this sometimes creates a feeling of disorientation and futility if we attempt to grasp it. This disorienting feeling clues us into the ineffable nature of things. We are using the same ability to observe the mind as we do when we gather our attention from distraction and return it to the breath. The same observational skills allow us to sit back and watch the display of the mind with steadiness and openness.
At times, this observation of the mind may appear to be similar to dissociation. In the case of meditation we observe, but we do not feel disembodied or removed from reality. We are diving directly into reality. We are balancing between observing and dwelling within. As Sonia Sequeira stated in the Nalanda Institute lecture, we are not trying to become a spiritually intangible being through meditative states. She added that we attach enough to care and dwell in the world but detach enough to feel compassion and understand that moments are ever changing. As Joe Loizzo added, we are practicing freedom from the content of the mind, noting that the content of the mind isn’t what is real.
Imagine you are on a roller coaster. While imagining this observe thoughts and sensations as you go through each curve, climb, loop and drop trying to find a balance between experiencing and observing.
What did you notice?
In the future, I will present an audio guided practice to help you with mindfulness of mind practice.
Resources of interest: