Mindfulness is all the rage these days, but just what is it? I’ve talked before about mindfulness - or sata - as the remembrance of the present moment so I’m not going to go into a deep definition of it here. I wanted to deal instead with a hindrance to mindfulness.
The Buddha talked often about the hindrances to meditation practice. These include: Desire, Aversion, Sleepiness, Restlessness and Doubt. What I want to talk about is another hindrance specific to mindfulness - what I’m calling meta-mindfulness or the mindfulness of mindfulness. Because my monkey-mind likes to dialogue this is a big issue for me and I want to talk about some of the ways I deal with it.
Mindfulness as I’m discussing it is the Zen approach of simple, open awareness of our present reality. Suzuki Roshi when asked for his views about consciousness said, “I don’t know anything about consciousness. I just try to teach my students to hear the birds singing.” He also is credited with my favorite poem about zazen:
Open your front door.
Open your back door.
Allow thoughts to come and go,
Just don’t serve them tea.
I recite this poem whenever we have new practitioners at the Center. It always gets a chuckle and then a smile and nod of the head as people realize how simple and how difficult a task Suzuki Roshi is setting us.
Mindfulness in the Zen tradition is neither shutting off thoughts nor focusing on them. It is neither shutting yourself away from the noise of everyday life not being consumed by it. It is hearing the birds sing and letting our thoughts come and go - without serving them tea. I’m getting better at this, but it’s a long practice and one I doubt I’ll ever perfect. I do, however, have a major hindrance to it - and I’ll bet it’s one that many of you share. It is that I’m not simply BEING mindful but I’m FOCUSING on being mindful.
I find myself swinging between periods when I’m truly simply aware of the world around me, periods when I get caught up in thoughts about the world around me (“what are the dogs barking at?”, “Where is that firetruck going?”) and periods of thinking about which of those two states I’m in! This last one is what I mean by meta-mindfulness, and it can be one of the most seductive hindrances to true mindfulness.
The reason that it’s so seductive is that we easily convince ourselves that meta-mindfulness is true mindfulness. We think to ourselves, “ah, I hear the birds singing….but am I concentrating on them too much? Maybe I should move on past the birdsong to something else.” And “am I enjoying the sunset too much? Maybe I should just let it go and turn my eyes away.” This type of meta-awareness can be a vortex that pulls us quickly out of our moment-mindfulness. And yet we convince ourselves that it’s OK because, “aren’t we just being mindful of being mindful?”.
But that’s just the point. Suzuki Roshi doesn’t tell us to either concentrate on (listen to) the song of the birds or to think about whether we’re hearing the birds sing, but simply tells us to hear the birds sing. Plain. Simple. Beautiful. Difficult. He also, though, gives us a prescription for fixing this. “Let thoughts come and go, just don’t serve them tea.” This applies not just to thoughts of things like groceries or work or children but to our thoughts about thoughts as well.
These meta-thoughts will never cease. Our task is not to make them cease but to simply let them come and go without confusing them with mindful awareness itself. Be aware that these thoughts will arise and don’t struggle to keep them down - but don’t let them settle down on your cushion with you either. Think of them like awareness of tightness in your muscles. Thinking, “boy, my knee is tense” does nothing to release the tension, yet it’s a good pointer for us to relax our muscles. In the same way these meta-thoughts are not mindfulness but they can be a bell to transition us from thoughts to mindfulness - if we don’t confuse the alarm with the actual awakening.