It’s often said that mindfulness is about being rather than doing. And many of us come to mindfulness when we realise that the most significant moments of life are often infused with this sense of being.
Feelings of peace, contentment, awe or connection with the wider world do not come when we’re frantically scrolling through web-pages, but when we sit and reflect or attend quietly to one thing, one person, one thought.
This is what we practice in meditation – we train the mind to rest in awareness. We do this by being curious about this moment, noticing what takes us away, and then noticing what is here again.
Despite this, many of us find it difficult to let go of doing in practice. We approach meditation as if trying to accomplish something – trying to make something happen. After all, we have to do something, surely, to make a difference?
Perhaps we’ve been told that our task is to “come back” to the present moment, however many times we wander away. Won’t this help us to be more mindful?
Yes and no.
If we focus on moving our attention, or taking ourselves back to the present, in a very literal sense, our practice can become clunky and mechanical, failing to engage with the present at all. It becomes another occasion of striving for something different – an arduous task of throwing the mind back and forth, as if our aim were to lift great mental weights from one place to another.
But what if I told you that you never had to move your mind again, in practice? The essence of practice is not the moving of attention – it is awareness.
When we are awake, awareness is always with us. We don’t bring it about by moving our minds. And we don’t move it around. It cannot be moved. So, what can we do to find it?
My teacher Suryacitta would say “try not to be aware now”. When we do this, we realise that we cannot help but be aware. Awareness grows when we stop – when we stop trying to make something happen.
Awareness is engaged through a subtle act of dropping into what is already happening. This gesture intensifies and concentrates something we already possess.
I prefer to talk of “dropping into” or “opening to” the present moment, rather than “coming back”. And this is done by the simple intention to notice what is happening – what is happening right now. We drop into awareness by deciding to notice. This is all the “doing” we need.
So, I encourage you not to focus on “bringing the mind back” – focus on noticing what is here. Focus on feeling the body. Focus on hearing what’s in the room. Focus on seeing what thoughts arise. This is the practice.
Is that it? Is that all we have to do? Isn’t the practice also about letting go? About not-judging? Yes, but if we look carefully, we see that these attitudes are rooted in awareness too.
When we get distracted from our breath, say, we need only be aware of that distraction. We don’t have to do anything with it. To not “judge” the distraction is simply to notice it. Not judging is not adding anything at all.
By just noticing, awareness brings the distraction into the foreground and strips it of momentum. No longer does can it do its insidious work, outside the light of the mind.
To help us not add, we then “come back” to the breath. But this is no manoeuvre. This doesn’t have to be a “return”. All we do is feel into the breath, as we began.
If we really understand this, we realise that we don’t have to “let go” of our distracting thoughts at all. We just notice the breath. This is all that letting go is. We notice the breath, notice distraction, notice the breath.
As we do this, the mind begins to unwind, all on its own. Thoughts still arise, but gradually they don’t bother us so much. They don’t envelop and control us. They don’t drag us in, in the normal way. We experience an increased sense of spaciousness and openness.
This happens through awareness. Awareness is our only tool. All other techniques (mental noting, thought labelling, counting breaths, etc.) are merely prompts to awareness. Awareness is where the power lies. For, as we stop feeding our pre-occupations by bringing them to awareness, they slowly burn away.
Let awareness do the work, so “you” don’t have to.