What Is Mindfulness Anyway?


"My Friends, it is through the establishment of the lovely clarity of mindfulness that you can let go of grasping after past and future, overcome attachment and grief, abandon all clinging and anxiety, and awaken an unshakable freedom of heart, here and now." - from The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha.

doctor-parker-wilson-therapist-counselor-250x380Dr. Parker Wilson, Psychotherapist, Professor, And Director Of The Awakened Mind Institute

Mindfulness is an ancient practice (also called "calm abiding" and "single point of focus") that allows a practitioner to develop (among other things) a profound awareness of the nature of his / her thoughts, emotions, and other mental phenomena.

Mindfulness is:

  • A mental skill that can be taught, cultivated, and honed. It is a cognitive technology available to anyone.
  • About recognizing that our awareness (our consciousness) is not our thoughts, emotions, judgments, beliefs, perceptions, and opinions. Thoughts and emotions (and the rest) are just mental phenomena. Mental phenomena make up what we think of as "our mind." And our minds arise from this underlying consciousness (our basic sentience or awareness).

Our minds (all our mental phenomena) are our sixth sense

In the beginning, it is this sense  that is tamed, focused, and refined by mindfulness practice.To further clarify what I mean by mind as "the sixth sense," let me offer an example used by one of my teachers.

Imagine, if you will, what would be left if you were suspended in a sensory deprivation tank. Your sense of sight is gone, you can hear nothing, there is no taste, and no smell; because you are floating in a viscous, body temperature liquid even your sense of touch is suspended.

What sense is left to you in this scenario? Well, you would still be thinking and feeling. Your thoughts, emotions, judgments, opinions, memories, beliefs, perceptions, conceptions, dreams, fantasies - all of these mental phenomena are what constitute your "mind." These mental phenomena are the primary ways in which we take in, process, and understand our life - thus they are our sixth sense. But this sixth sense (our mind) is different than the basic awareness (the primordial sentience) from which it arises.

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Most of us, pretty routinely, make a very important mental mistake

It is so common and deeply rooted that it is sometimes almost impossible to see. Somewhere, deeply entrenched in our conditioning (perhaps even in our DNA), is the belief that we ARE what we think, feel, and perceive. We naturally and mistakenly identify with our mental phenomena as if they define us. We believe we are these things. We grasp at some of our thoughts and emotions, identifying with them and holding them very tightly. We also become very averse to some of our thoughts and emotions - shoving them away, denying them, and fighting their existence.

Why is this a mistake? Because our consciousness (our basic, underlying, primordial awareness) is much different than all those mental phenomena that arise within it (all our thoughts, emotions, judgments, beliefs, perceptions, and opinions). What we really ARE, what really defines us, lies within our fundamental, underlying consciousness.

Both our mental phenomena and our underlying consciousness from which they arise have characteristics

The mental phenomena of thought and emotion have varying levels of degree and intensity, and they all rise and fall, come and go, with time (usually transforming into other mental phenomena). Because this is true, it is impossible to sustain any thought, emotion, or mood state permanently.

Our thoughts and emotions are also relative (or insubstantial). Because this is true, the same situation or occurrence, when perceived by a group of people, can produce radically different thoughts and emotions in each person. 

Thus the characteristics of our mental phenomena are impermanence and insubstantiality. Moreover, because we do not work well with our minds, the qualities of the average human mind tend to be: oscillating dullness and excitation, doubt, confusion, obscurity, extremity, and a distinct lack of psychological balance.

Most people can recognize the truth in the above paragraph. So this is the part when it gets a little weird

Its gets weird because the only way to truly know if what I am about to say is accurate or not is to find out for yourself. The only way to find out is to actively explore your own mind via classical introspection, modern cognitive psychotherapy, and / or meditation.

You can take the word of countless generations of contemplatives, you can read the results of neuro and clinical research, but you can never truly know until you see it for yourself. So here is the weird statement: the characteristics of your foundational consciousness (that from which your mind arises), are vastly different than the characteristics of your mind.

Whereas the characteristics of mind are impermanence and insubstantiality, the characteristics of your underlying consciousness are permanence and substantiality. The inherent qualities of our underlying consciousness are (in part): awareness, stability, vividness, clarity, luminosity, stillness, and insight.

In short, this is why mindfulness meditation (the cultivation of mindfulness) is so useful to us as human beings: its helps the mind become more akin to its underlying consciousness, and thus those negative characteristics of the mind (which are impermanent and insubstantial anyway) begin to dissolve away, having less and less effect, and leaving only the inherent characteristics of consciousness in their place.

Through mindfulness practice, then ...

We learn to access this underlying, basic sentience (our consciousness). With continued and ever deepening practice, we learn to bring the inherent qualities of our consciousness to our mental phenomena. In essence, with continued effort and practice, our mental phenomena (our thoughts, emotions, judgments, opinions, memories, fantasies, dreams, etc) all begin to become more luminescent, clear, stable, still, insightful, balanced, calm, and wise.

Mindfulness practice (when combined with an increase in ethical, healthy behavior) ultimately trains the mind to be decidedly still and aware. This increased mental stillness and awareness then produces increased psychological stability and clarity. With this increase in stability and clarity comes the beginnings of penetrative psychological insight. This is the model of positive effects not only for classical mindfulness practice, but also for all modern mindfulness based cognitive psychotherapies.

Here is a useful analogy:

Living in our mental phenomena (identifying with them, grasping at them, etc) it is like trying to look through the surface of a lake when there are incessant ripples and waves criss-crossing, and constantly disturbing the surface.

It is impossible to see through the surface of the lake! All these waves and ripples can be frustrating and disorienting. These waves and ripples represent your disturbing thoughts, emotions, words, and behaviors.

Most of us spend much of our lives just getting hit by and / or trying to avoid all these waves! But make the surface of the lake calm, still, and clear and you will instantly see through to the very bottom of the lake.

Your spacious, still, stable, and clear underlying consciousness is what you will learn to access in mindfulness practice, and it is this consciousness that will become your refuge. Consciousness is always the refuge of a healthy mind.

Mindfulness practice gives you access to consciousness, it gives you some space between you and everything you are mentally experiencing at any given moment.

Therefore, with practice, even during your most difficult mental experiences (your biggest triggers like loneliness, helplessness, grief, depression, irritation, rejection, self-defeating thoughts and judgments, etc), mindfulness will continually:

  • Remind you that you are not your thoughts and your feelings.
  • Connect you to your basic, underlying consciousness (and all of its inherent qualities).

For example, have you ever caught yourself in the act of feeling something? Have you ever been angry or afraid and noticed yourself experiencing the anger and fear? Something like, "Wow, I am really angry right now," or "I am really feeling scared right now." This is basic introspection. This is stepping out of your identification with the emotion and then witnessing yourself experiencing it. This is spaciousness. This is basic mindfulness.

If you have ever noticed yourself experiencing a mental phenomena, did you ever further noticed that your awareness of your anger was itself never angry? Did you ever further notice that your awareness of your fear was itself never afraid?

When you learn to access and bring these inherent qualities of your basic, underlying consciousness to all your disturbing thoughts and emotions ...

  • You begin to see them for what they really are: just transitory, impermanent psychological experiences. Then you will learn to stop indulging and identifying with them.
  • You will learn to stop getting so hooked by, and all caught up in them.
  • You will learn to stop exiting from them.

Why? Because you will begin to clearly see that your indulgence of and identification with all your afflictive mental phenomena was simply a deeply rooted mental mistake you were making; a mistake that has been causing you pain over and over again. Now you have the skill to face your depression on its own terms - without reacting, without bolting, denying, minimizing, blaming or exiting.

When you see for yourself:

  • (through introspection and meditation) that your awareness of your fear is not afraid.
  • That you are something altogether different than all your thoughts and emotions, ...

... now you can learn to become curious about your fear - now you have stopped running and fighting and denying; now you have become even more mindful. You have become psychologically healthier.

Mindfulness is about ...

  • Becoming aware of the people, places and things that emotionally "hook" us.
  • Recognizing when and how we reach our "emotional limits" with people, places, and things, and then ...
  • Cultivating a deep recognition of the ways in which we habitually (and unhealthily) exit our uncomfortable emotional limits. Our unhealthy "exit doors" from our own mental experience are the primary creators of everyday mental disease and suffering.

Mindfulness, as a practice, is about ...

  • Being present in your own mental experience and dropping all of the thoughts, emotions, opinions, beliefs, and judgments about that mental experience. It is about ...
  • Being conscious and awake without adding, subtracting, commenting, editing, reacting to, or judging anything. It is about ...
  • Recognizing that your mental experience (your experience of thinking and feeling) is highly distractable and that you spend much of your time chasing, reacting to, identifying with, "getting hooked by," and trying to exit your disturbing thoughts, emotions, judgments, beliefs and opinions. Mindfulness is about ...
  • Witnessing yourself thinking and feeling, and then learning to abide in that underlying awareness that is doing the witnessing. Mindfulness is about ...
  • Learning to recognize that your general chaotic, reactivity to the people, places, and things in your life is simply not very healthy.

Mindfulness Practice at The Awakened Mind Institute

Often after only a few hours of mindfulness practice (when properly instructed, and debriefed in stage one of AMI's psychotherapy), clients begin to realize the extent to which they are (and have always been) carried off by, hooked by, and consistently exiting their own mental experience.

They deeply realize that their minds are NOT in their control; that their minds have been fundamentally hyper-reactive and chaotic (what the Chinese call the mind of the ten thousand things). Upon deeply realizing this (so called "meditative realizations") clients most often become well motivated to continue to practice and further hone the mental skill of mindfulness.

With continued practice, clients slowly learn to stay with and abide in their disturbing mental phenomena, without being as hooked, identified with, and prone to exiting (stage one of AMI's psychotherapy). When this occurs (this ability to stay and abide in), AMI's clients:

  • Naturally decrease stress, compulsivity, impulsivity and many other generally unhealthy characteristics of their former everyday mental life.
  • As you might imagine, simultaneously report increases in a sense of calm, peace, clarity, humility, psychological insight, overall emotional balance, and a general satisfaction with their lives.

Now they can:

  • Bring this calm, mental stability to everything they do.
  • Truly begin to unpack and work with their destructive behaviors; all those unethical behaviors that create more mental confusion and suffering (stage two of AMI's psychotherapy).
  • Begin to create new insight and clarity in their work, their families, and all their other relationships.
  • Begin to face and transform the psychological conflicts, twisted wiring, and barriers that have had them feeling stuck and overwhelmed for years and decades (stage three of AMI's psychotherapy).
  • Begin to live beyond chaotic reactivity to their minds, now they have cut through their fear and other disturbing emotions, now they have created awareness, clarity, insight, direction, balance, and meaning.
  • Begin to live beyond "I like," and "I don't like;" beyond "I want," and "I don't want."
  • Begin to ask and explore the really important questions, like: "If I am not my thoughts and emotions, than what am I?," and "When I notice myself thinking and feeling, what is it that is doing the noticing?"

The exploration of these questions can evolve a client to the point where they begin to develop profound wisdom and true psychological freedom. At this point, they often begin living beyond life and death itself.

Dr. Parker's Mindfulness Tips

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