Mindfulness Practices and Beyond

Posted on Sep 6, 2012

by Lawson Sachter

Meditation practices differ widely, and so do the aspirations of those who practice them. Each tradition has its own strengths and weaknesses, and different forms of meditation work on different levels.

Some types of meditation are more calming, helping us to be more present and to lead more grounded lives. Other forms of practice work to strip away habitual mental and emotional formations, deeply shaking things up and paving the way for sudden insights and openings.

In some respects, mindfulness and ‘no-minded’ practices seem to move in contradictory ways. When skillfully worked with together, however, their complementary nature may lead to deep and lasting change. Mindfulness practices are now undoubtedly the most popular type of meditation. Although people apply the term in a number of different ways, the term “mindfulness” as used here refers to witnessing, observing, and “choiceless awareness” forms of practice. These ways of using the mind help us become more aware of what’s going on, inside and out. Some of these practices focus more on developing deeper levels of concentration, while others put more emphasis on cultivating greater openness and a kind of non-judgmental “allowing.”

Working with moment-to-moment attentiveness in sitting practice fosters a stronger sense of being, and incorporating this awareness into our daily lives helps us to be more present and aware.  Further, becoming attuned to the natural arising and passing of all phenomena helps us live with greater ease and detachment. By returning again and again to this level of awareness we can find ourselves less invested in the surging of the tide of moods and circumstances, less enamored with the more superficial aspects of our lives. As a result we naturally experience a greater sense of equanimity and ease.

Mindfulness practices complement many therapy systems because they help us live with greater clarity, and often give us a better understanding of the patterns and structures that perpetuate painful states in our lives. They help us slow down the thinking mind, be more attentive to the moment, and allow our awareness to rest in a larger context. Because of this they’ve been woven into a number of psychologically-based programs such as John Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR). They are also central features of psychotherapies such as Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), Marsha Linehan’s Dialectic Behavioral Therapy (DBT), Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), Relapse Prevention (RP), and many others.  A recent Google search came up with a mind-boggling 3,780,000 references all related to “mindfulness and psychotherapy”!

These therapies, and mindfulness-based practices in general, help us to be less reactive; their strength lies in the ways they keep us from being swept up into the tumult of our day-to-day lives. They reinforce the sense of a ‘someone’ or ‘something’ that watches or observes, which from a psychological perspective would be known as “cultivating the observing ego.” Research has demonstrated the many therapeutic benefits of following these kinds of practice, and many have clearly benefited from engaging in them on a regular basis.1

There is also a refined clarity that arises out of these dualistically-based practices that can permeate our lives. The great masters, however, caution us about mistaking this penetrating kind of clarity for awakening. As Hsuan Sha said,

Some people claim that the nature of Wisdom inheres in the vivid-clear one [consciousness], that that which is conscious of seeing and hearing is the Wisdom itself.  They regard the five Skandas [the consciousness group] as the Master.  Alas, such teachers only lead the people astray!  Such are, indeed, misleaders!
Garma C.C. Chang, The Practice of Zen, New York:  Harper&Row, 1970, p.101

And Zen Master Lin-chi (Rinzai in Japanese) tells us,

When I say there is nothing outside, students who do not understand me interpret this in terms of inwardness, so they sit silent and still, taking this to be Zen Buddhism. This is a big mistake. If you take a state of unmoving clarity to be Zen, you are recognizing ignorance as a slave master.
(taken from the web)

So all this leaves open the question of how such practices can connect with a person’s aspiration for awakening?

In Buddhist writings, the terms “awakening” and “enlightenment” have been used in many different ways, often rather loosely. In Zen Buddhism, however, these words have historically referred to something quite specific, and verifiable. As so many spiritual masters in different traditions have confirmed through their own experience, awakening occurs in that moment when, to one degree or another, the illusory sense of a fixed self abruptly falls away. In theistic religions this is often expressed in terms of ‘seeing,’ ‘knowing,’ or ‘being touched by’ God. Meister Eckhart said, “The eye through which I see God is the same eye through which God sees me; my eye and God’s eye are one eye, one seeing, one knowing, one love.” Fundamentally this is an experience, beyond explanation; it is that place where the dominance of the ego-delusion falls away.  As the Indian master Sri Nisargadatta put it, “It is not freedom of the self, but from the self.” Ramana Maharshi expressed it as being “free from the feeling of being the doer.”2 When understood on this level, we can say that awakening is ultimately about being free from the observing, witnessing mind.

So coming back to the question of how witnessing, observing, and choiceless awareness practices, can lead to awakening? The answer, both historically and experientially, is that they simply don’t work that way. As Einstein said, “You cannot solve a problem from the same level of consciousness that created it. You must learn to see the world anew.”

Historically, this vital distinction between mindfulness practices, and those that are referred to as “no-mind,” “non-dual,” or “awakening-based” practices, was brought into focus through a mythic interchange of 7th century China. Although it now seems clear that these incidents never actually occurred, for centuries these dialogues have been used to bring essential Dharma teachings to life.3

As the story comes down to us, the Fifth Dharma Ancestor, Master Heng-jen, decided it was time to choose a successor.  To this end he asked the monks at his temple to submit a verse expressing their understanding. The head monk, Shen-hsiu, after some hesitation, wrote this verse on the monastery walls:

This body is the tree of Bodhi,
The mind like the stand of a bright mirror.
Moment by moment wipe the mirror carefully,
And never let dust collect on it.

When Master Heng-jen read what the head monk had written, he spoke with him privately and said, “This gatha which you have composed reveals that you have not yet seen the self-nature. You have only arrived at the threshold, but have not entered the door. Ordinary people, by conducting themselves according to your gatha, will be prevented from falling into a worse state. But it is impossible to attain the highest wisdom on the basis of such a view.

In response, Hui-neng, who was a novice at the time, composed his own verse:

Bodhi is not originally a tree,
Nor has the Bright Mirror a stand.
Since originally there is nothing,
Where can dust alight?

Hui-neng’s verse reveals a direct understanding of the non-dual nature of shunyata – a term often inadequately translated as Emptiness.  Because of the depth of his understanding, Hui-neng was then chosen as Heng-jen’s successor, and the fundamental teaching ascribed to this Sixth Dharma Ancestor was:

As long as there is a dualistic way of looking at things there is no emancipation. Light stands against darkness; the passions stand against enlightenment. Unless these opposites are illuminated by Prajñã, so that the gap between the two is bridged, there is no understanding of the Mahãyãna...”
D. T. Suzuki, The Zen Doctrine of No Mind, London: Rider, 1991, p.36 (emphasis added)

Again, though the historical veracity of these dialogues is very much in question, they do reflect a long-standing clarification of Ch’an and Zen practice.  They highlight the central and grounding role of awakening, and with that, the importance of non-dual practices.

In a more contemporary vein, we find the same vital point being highlighted by D.T. Suzuki:

In the dust-wiping type of meditation it is not easy to go further than the tranquilization of the mind.  At best it ends in ecstasy, self-absorption, a temporary suspension of consciousness.  There is no ‘seeing’ in it, no knowing of itself, no active grasping of self-nature, no spontaneous functioning of it, no ‘Seeing into Nature’ whatever. The dust-wiping type is an artificial construction which obstructs the way to emancipation.”
D. T. Suzuki, The Zen Doctrine of No Mind, London: Rider, 1991, p.43 (emphasis added)

One of the variations of mindfulness called “labeling,” a practice that breaks up experience into linguistic fragments, inspired even stronger sentiments in Lama Govinda. Referring to a specific form of labeling used in Burmese walking meditation, Govinda wrote:

By breaking up the function of walking into its various phases, for instance, we only destroy the unity of movement, and replace it by an artificial division which merely makes movement a torture without bringing us one step nearer to the understanding of its nature… It is the antithesis of spontaneity, the undoing of all that the Masters of Zen regard as the highest achievement of the mind: intuition. It is the victory of the narrowest kind of intellect over the liberating forces of the unifying, intuitive mind.
Lama Anagarika Govinda, Creative Meditation and Multi-Dimensional Consciousness, Wheaton: Quest Books, 1976, p.130

Without the stability that arises out of mindfulness, non-dual practices by themselves can be quite destabilizing. On the other hand, without the transformative power of non-dual practices we run the danger of losing the depths of Awakening. Of course a person doesn’t have to aspire to awakening in order to practice, and probably most people don’t. And yet when someone is in touch with this deepest human yearning, then it seems vital that it at least be acknowledged, and ideally given expression through an appropriate practice.

So while mindfulness practices lead to a greater sense of presence and calm, they do not challenge the fundamental paradigm of our lives: the primal sense of self and other. “Dust-wiping” forms of practice reinforce the implicit assumption that there is something obscuring the truth that has to be removed, wiped away.  Some Zen masters of the past referred to this as “brushing aside waves to look for water.”

Non-dual practices work to strip away the dualistic straitjacket of thought and language, and undermine the sense of self-and-other.  This process can stir up considerable anxiety not only by activating unresolved issues in the unconscious, but also by challenging the very sense of self itself.  Such practices begin with the assumption of intrinsic enlightenment – that just as we are, we lack nothing.  Practice, therefore, is not about either getting, or getting rid of, anything; it’s about waking up to what is and has always been.  We do this not through observing or witnessing, but by immersing ourselves so deeply that we completely lose ourselves. These are two fundamentally different approaches to practice.

Anyone who has taken part in extended retreats knows that as the upper levels of the mind quiet down, deeper waters may become roiled, and this is particularly true with practices that embody a deep, quiet, selfless kind of questioning or absorption. Such “no-minded” practices bring us to the edge of what’s “known,” and urge us to somehow go further. They help us get beyond the noisiness of our internal dialogue, and so begin to open us to what lies beneath. Such practices are more likely to rock the boat, to dredge things up – to mobilize the unconscious. It’s exactly because of these kinds of “unsettlings” that these practices lead us to such strong places of insight, and it’s exactly here that the deepest levels of change become possible.

Deep and well-integrated awakenings are rare, but there are also many kinds of openings that people experience—powerful internal shifts that transform how we live and how we relate to others.  Even just a glimpse into another realm can lead to a new kind of freedom, when suddenly we understand something in a brand new way.  Of course, the deeper the practice, the more life-changing such experiences can be.

The Buddha’s Enlightenment is the wellspring of all Dharma teachings, teachings that affirm that this experience, to one degree or another, is possible for us all. From one perspective, all the sutras, commentaries, and other Dharma writings can be seen as little more than footnotes to this singular instant. Some people maintain that “striving after awakening is just an expression of the grasping mind, the mind of ego,” or “what’s the point when there’s really nothing to get?”  But these at best are only half-truths. The fact is that countless people, like the Buddha himself, have been drawn to practice out of an inexplicable longing for wholeness and freedom—for this “something” that resonates with our deepest intuition.

If Buddhism ever loses the spirit of genuine awakening, it will lose its essence, its heart-center.  Whatever our own aspiration, to minimize or deny the possibility of awakening is to give up on the teaching that this radical freedom is actually possible.  In the instant when the Buddha looked up at the Morning Star and everything burst wide open, he exclaimed, “Wonder of wonders, all beings are Buddha!”  How absolutely amazing!  This Original Perfection is our birthright, and the essential teaching of Buddhism is that we can bring forth this living truth—not only for ourselves, but for the sake of all beings.

  1. Mindfulness practices become Dharma practices when they include the element of faith in the Buddha’s teaching and awakening; this faith is one of the central things that distinguishes them from more psychologically oriented techniques. []
  2. The Spiritual Teachings of Ramana Maharshi, Boston: Shambala Publications 1988, p.17 []
  3. As Black Elk once said about an American Indian teaching, “I cannot tell you if this actually happened, but if you think about it you will see that it is true.” []