Monday, February 4, 2013

MINDFULNESS AS SOFT FOCUS AWARENESS


One of the best books ever written on Mindfulness---not only for beginners but also for others---is Mindfulness in Plain English by the Sri Lankan Theravada Buddhist monk and author Bhante Henepola Gunaratana (pictured above). I wholeheartedly recommend it, as well as all other books written by ‘Bhante G.’

Mindfulness is many things, but above all Mindfulness is the bare attention to, and the choiceless (i.e. no preference, and no prejudice) awareness of, the action and content---both internal and external---of the present moment unfolding from one moment to the next. (Note. It is the attention that gives rise to the awareness.) Mindfulness is not only awareness, it is also the awareness of awareness. But exactly what sort of awareness? Well, for one thing, it is a curious awareness, that is, one in which the observer---that is, you, the person that you are (not some supposed 'inner' observer in your mind)---is open, spontaneous, passively inquisitive, and, above all else, flexible. Also, the awareness is not only direct and immediate, it is of a ‘soft focus’ kind. Never forget that. Bhante G has this to say about the matter: 

When you first become aware of something, there is a fleeting instant of pure awareness just before you conceptualize the thing, before you identify it. … It is that flashing split second just as you focus your eyes on the thing, just as you focus your mind on the thing, just before you objectify it, clamp down on it mentally and segregate it from the rest of existence. It takes place just before you start thinking about it--before your mind says, 'Oh, it's a dog.' That flowing, soft-focused moment of pure awareness is Mindfulness. In that brief flashing mind-moment you experience a thing as an un-thing. You experience a softly flowing moment of pure experience that is interlocked with the rest of reality, not separate from it. …


Bhante G goes on to say that Mindfulness is akin to what we see with our peripheral vision ‘as opposed to the hard focus of normal or central vision.’ Now, here is what I think is the really important thing. In Bhante G’s words:

Yet this moment of soft, unfocused, awareness contains a very deep sort of knowing that is lost as soon as you focus your mind and objectify the object into a thing. …

Let’s say that you’re driving your motor vehicle in the middle lane on a six-lane highway. Using your peripheral vision you become aware that there is on your side of the road and more-or-less level with you a red truck in the left lane and a black or dark blue car in the right lane---it doesn’t matter what. You are aware they are there. You don’t need to look closely. It’s more than sufficient that you’re aware they are there---and you immediately adjust your position in your lane to make sure there is no contact, while all the time keeping your eye on the road and looking directly ahead. That is the way to go!  

Bhante G makes the undeniable point that, in the ordinary course of our experience of things---that is, so-called ‘ordinary perception’---this ever-so-brief moment of ‘soft, unfocused, awareness is ‘so fleeting as to be unobservable.’ Yes, we squander the moment, so to speak. We let it die on us completely. So much of our so-called experience of life is, well, a total non-experience. We are not even ‘alive’ to it. Yes, I estimate that as much as 80 or 90 per cent of the moments of our life ‘experience’ are not experienced by us at all. It’s like we are not even alive for most of the time. Sad---very sad---when you stop to think about it.

Yes, we choose to be ‘alive’ (in a sort of a way) to some perceptions but we let it die on us and quickly make it---and ourselves---the past. We note the perception. We label the perception. We react to the perception (in the form of, say, attachment or aversion) on the basis of, among other things, mental images, memories, opinions, beliefs, judgments, prejudices, preferences, evaluations, as well as so-called knowledge and conditioning---and we interpret the perception. Instead of just 'seeing' or 'observing' in a direct, immediate and spontaneous manner, we subject the otherwise fleeting perception to the whole content of our consciousness stream. And, not only that, we start to analyse and judge it---thinking, thinking, thinking. There is no end to it. And where there is thought, there is no awareness. None.

The result---analysis paralysis, judgment, all rooted in the past. For varying lengths of time we cease to be present in the now---we’re stuck in the past. And that's not a good place to be.

In the words of Bhante G, ‘[t]hat original moment of Mindfulness is rapidly passed over.’ He then goes on to say that the purpose of Mindfulness Meditation is ‘to train us to prolong that moment of awareness.’ Now, we are talking about a 'still' moment of ‘pure’, unadulterated, unconditioned (that is, not-in-the-past) awareness---before we start mentally riding off in all directions, so to speak. Bhante G refers to this moment of awareness as a ‘flowing, soft-focused moment of pure awareness.’ Beautiful words. J. Krishnamurti has written, 'To see temporarily is sufficient. If you can see it for a fleeting second, it is enough, because you will then see an extraordinary thing taking place.' He is talking about an attention that is total and complete, that is, direct perception---without memory and thought taking any part in it. Elsewhere, Krishnamurti refers to the state of mind in which there is 'total seeing' as a 'state of negation' in which there is no identification and there are no evaluations, no justifications, no condemnations and no defences. It is a mind or mind-set that is 'choicelessly still,' yet at the same time 'fully awakened.' In the words of Krishnamurti, 'Seeing is one thing and seeing something is another.'

People say to me, ‘Surely there is a place for analysis, judgment, and the like?’ Of course there is. As a practising lawyer I would get nowhere without analysis and judgment of complex sets of facts and circumstances falling for consideration and advice. But, having said that, we are talking about moment-to-moment choiceless awareness and experience of life as it continuously unfolds from one moment to the next. Don’t let those precious moments ‘die’ on you by letting your mind stop to label, analyze and judge. Instead, stay soft-focused in the now, remaining curiously but passively alert to each perception---that is, ‘flashing mind-moment’---as close to its moment of ‘arising’ as is humanly possible in all the circumstances of the moment. Do that---and you will truly come alive!


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