Mindfulness of What?
Mindfulness is always mindfulness of something. This very explicit instruction of Thay’s will be explored in this talk.
Mindfulness is always mindfulness of something, and true mindfulness is awareness of the impermanent, non-self reality of the object of our mindfulness. This means that we make the effort to constantly see impermanence in everything we look at. When we are mindful of our breath, we want to take into consideration that our breath is impermanent. Walking, we understand the impermanence of each step. Mindful of a tree, we dwell on its impermanence.
For a long while I thought of mindfulness in a superficial way – obviously leaves on trees last only for the summer, they are doomed to fall and also everything else in this world is doomed to change. “Okay, I get it.” But that view of impermanence still takes for granted that the leaf is an entity with a reality of its own, at least until it changes into something else. I see now that there is a more basic impermanence to consider. My concept of the leaf as “an entity that changes” still sees the leaf as a leaf, if only temporary.
There is a deeper reality beneath the appearance. My view of the leaf as a temporary entity involves a concept that I impose on something to make it easier for me to understand. The leaf is like a rainbow or a river—my concept describes part of the reality but leads us astray at the same time. The rainbow is there, but isn’t really an ”it”, but rather an interaction of sunlight and cloud droplets and they are in constant motion. The river is there, but it’s an action as much as a thing. It’s a flow in a channel, and the old saying is true, “You can’t dip your toe into the same river twice.” Realizing impermanence, in this deeper sense, is realizing that everything is like a rainbow or a river.
Practicing mindfulness means the ever-growing awareness of our over-simplification of reality so that we can get along in the world. It is no longer a matter of trying to understand certain concepts, it is living with them, all the while being mindful that what we assume is not the full picture. Thay calls our usual view of the world delusion. We usually live in ignorance, and through mindfulness we go, little by little each day, in the direction of awakening.
In his illustrative work Understanding Our Mind Thay says that the teachings of impermanence and non-self are not doctrines or subjects for philosophical discourse. They are instruments for meditation, keys to help us unlock the door of reality. The illusion of permanence is based on our seeing a series of instances. That steady stream of instances gives rise to the appearance of permanence in the same way that a motion picture is composed of individual still photos. The present moment is composed of many instances of still photos that run together in my eyes. The present moment is thus literally and in reality what is, all that there is, and that is amazing and wonderful. Present moment, wonderful moment.
– from a talk by Walt Keough