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Focused or Detached Mindfulness

Is Mindfulness Supposed to be Focused or Detached?

A while ago I went to a talk on Mindfulness here in Columbus. The presenter was a well-known mindfulness instructor in the area and I wanted to hear what he had to say. The talk also included 3 short sessions of practice that I thought would be interesting as well. The evening was interesting and informative but it brought up the question in the title for me; is mindfulness a focusing practice or a practice of detaching and letting go?

It depends completely on what you’re calling mindfulness. We have a tendency in the Order to call our Zazen practice a mindfulness practice, yet Zazen is a detaching, unfocussed practice. We let thoughts flow through our mind without becoming attached to them. The mindfulness that this teacher was talking about was a much more focused practice - picking out a sound or a sight to focus your attention on. This is actually very similar to what’s being taught in Western corporate environments to increase productivity. Can both of these be considered mindfulness? Is one better than the other?

The Pali term that we translate as mindfulness - sati - actually means something closer to, “remembrance of the present moment”. This appears in Theravadin Buddhist practice mostly in Vipassana meditation, which is a focused, noting style of mediation. At first glance this would appear to be closer to what is being taught in Western, secular mindfulness than it is to Zazen. So is corporate America closer to the Buddha’s intent for sati than those of us who practice Zazen?

There’s an excellent post in the Theravadin blog that talks about how the concept of sati as taught by the Buddha relates to mindfulness. The writer points out that while the term sati certainly has elements of mindfulness the Pali term that most closely resembles what the West sees as mindfulness is actually sampajanna - or “to know together with”. The Buddha uses this term not for meditation practice but for the everyday awareness that a monk should have about their own body as well as the things going on around them and the activities they’re doing. Sati, on the other hand, is reserved for meditation. So what is ‘remembrance of the present moment’ if it’s not experiencing it fully?

Sati certainly includes experiencing the present moment fully, but think about the English translation for a minute. ‘Remembrance’ implies a past event even though here it’s being applied to the present moment. So we are to see the present not as permanent but as something passing away even as we experience it. It is this awareness of the constant arising and passing away of moments, of experiences, of sensations that distinguishes samma sati - or appropriate mindfulness from the Eightfold Path - from miccha sati - or inappropriate mindfulness. Miccha sati grasps onto the moment and refuses to let it pass. Samma sati notes the moment as it passes away then moves onto the next fading moment.

Say you are sitting in meditation and a firetruck passes by with siren blaring - something that’s fairly common at our Center. Samma sati will note, “ah, a firetruck on the way to a fire” then let go of the thought. Miccha sati will also note the firetruck but may obsess about, “I wonder where it’s going?” or “Why does it always get noisy right when I’m meditating?” Sati itself can be said to neither be good nor bad; it’s only when we release the present moment or choose to cling to it that we can be said to be either practicing the dharma or not.

Focused mindfulness practice as it’s taught in corporate America is neither good nor bad; it is neither dharma practice not outside of dharma practice. While it does tend toward a clinging to the object of focus, that’s exactly what’s needed for increasing productivity. It does not pretend to be a dharma teaching and we as Buddhists have no right to judge it as either good or bad; it simply is. The same can be said of Vipassana on the one hand and Zazen on the other.

When practicing Vipassana it is easy to move from noting to clinging. This is true of any noting practice. Zen teaches me to fully experience the taste of my food, but to not cling to it. How easily do we all move from experiencing a great meal to desiring to experience it again, or to comparing future meals to it, or to mourning that it’s finished? When practicing Zazen it’s easy to slip from detaching from identifying with the moment to not even experiencing it. We’re not practicing Zazen when we’re sitting in a stupor, unaffected by anything. How often have we all slipped into a state where if someone were to ask us later what we were doing we would not be able to answer at all?

What is the intent of your mindfulness? If you are trying to increase productivity then embrace secular mindfulness. If you are doing it as dharma practice then I urge you toward either Vipassana or Zazen - practiced appropriately. You see, the fact is that neither Vipassana nor Zazen is either focused or detached. Vipassana may more consciously note the present moment or the physical sensations, but when practiced appropriately - with samma sati - it notes them to be aware of their arising and their passing away. Zazen may more heavily emphasize the arising and passing away, but we cannot be aware of these without noting the thoughts, sensations, actions that are arising and passing away.

So to answer the original question “Is Mindfulness supposed to be focused or detached?” I can only give the Zen answer, “Yes”.

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