Mindfulness and the big picture

Gerbera in closeupSomeone asked me:

I keep hearing about mindfulness where ones needs to pay attention to everything. But I am a bit confused and hoping someone can explain it to me in details. Am I supposed to be mindful of everything all at the same time? For example, every time I talk, I automatically remember to be careful about what words I should use. But how can one be mindful of everything all at the same time?

Actually, it’s not necessary, and usually not possible or desirable, to pay attention to everything at once. Right now I’m typing these words, and so I’m not paying attention to the sounds coming from outside the house. I could pause and listen to the sound of a passing airplane, but then I’d have to stop typing. So what’s my purpose — listening or typing? Right now I want to type.

But if I want to type, then I need to check my posture from time to time to make sure it’s going to support my purpose. If my posture had been trained to be perfect, then I wouldn’t need to do this. But it’s not perfect, so I pause for a second and check in with my body. I notice I’m slumping a little; I straighten up. What’s my purpose? Typing. Why am I paying attention to my posture? Because I want to type.

There’s a cluster of things I need to pay attention to if I want to type. I’ve mentioned posture, but I might in certain circumstances have to pause and reflect on what I’m going to say: that’s mindfulness of my thinking. I might have to pause and pay attention to how I feel. I might notice I’m tired and it’s time to rest.

Another example: My questioner mentioned being aware of the words he’s using in conversation. You need to do that. But you’d also want to be aware of the person you’re talking to, because you want to know what effect your words are having. Is the other person understanding you? What’s their emotional response to what you’re saying? To know that, you have to pay attention to them, and also to yourself — you’ll sense whether the other person is at ease by sensing whether you are at ease, for example.

And you need to be aware of what your response is to what they say to you. Again, you need to notice your feelings, what your thoughts are, etc.

Again, there’s a natural set of experiences that you need to pay attention to while you’re in a conversation with someone. The factors I’ve mentioned aren’t meant to be exhaustive. For example, sometimes when I’m listening to someone talk, my mind tends to wander to something I’m preoccupied with, and so I find it helpful to notice the movements of the breathing in my belly in order that I can stay grounded.

But when you’re in a conversation you probably don’t want to be paying attention to a passing airplane, to the sound of a ticking clock, or to another conversation that’s going on elsewhere. Those are distractions to your purpose, which is being in communication with the other person.

So what you do is dependent on what your overall purpose is. We don’t practice mindfulness for the sake of practicing mindfulness. Mindfulness isn’t an end in itself. It’s a tool. There are a few times we want to be open to everything that’s arising — for example in meditation — but that’s quite rare, and done as a form of training. Generally, you need to bear in mind what you’re actually doing (this is called sampajañña) and then pay attention to a set of experiences connected with that task (this is called sati).

I’m not suggesting being dogmatic, and sometimes you’ll need to shift your purpose. Having the attitude “I’m not going to pay attention to what my colleague is saying because I’m typing” isn’t helpful. There are higher-order purposes and you need to have some common sense. Harmony with others is one of those. If there’s an interruption from another person, you need to deal with it.

This need for higher order purposes is implicit in the Buddha’s eightfold path, of which mindfulness is just part. A key aspect of the eightfold path is the first, samma-ditthi, which is right view. It’s right view that gives us our overall context or purpose in life: for me the simplest way to look at this big picture is that Buddhism is about learning how we cause suffering for ourselves and others, so that we can find freedom from suffering. That view then carries over into the other factors of the path. To take just the example of the second factor of the path, samma sankappa, what emotions do we want to encourage and which do we want to discourage? Emotions of greed and hatred cause suffering. Compassion, patience, etc. free us from suffering. Right view tells us where we want to be headed, while mindfulness lets us know what we’re working with and monitors our progress. I don’t intend to do a full description of the eightfold path—just to illustrate that mindfulness traditionally has a broader context, and can’t be understood without reference to the big picture.

Mindfulness stripped of that context—stripped of its Buddhist context and secularized, as it often is—is still a useful tool, but it can also be confusing, as my questioner has found.

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