On Mindfulness

On Daily Meditation Practice for this course  – some general  and preliminary remarks

Meditation practice cultivates, among other aptitudes, what is called “mindfulness.” Mindfulness is often defined as “non-judgmental moment to moment awareness.” This definition does not really capture the concept of mindfulness, but it does describe a skill, or connected group of skills,  important ones that you develop when you develop mindfulness. So we’ll take this as a provisional definition and starting point that we can modify and refine later.

By “non-judgmental” here, we should understand “judgmental” in the sense of passing an unfounded evaluation, thinking of the object or event observed as good or bad, pleasant or unpleasant, often without understanding the source or reason for our feelings.  How much is the content of your ordinary perceptions shaped and changed by what you perceive as something you like, or dislike, or are neutral toward?

By “moment to moment” we may understand that mindfulness is attention to each moment as that moment is present.  After reading through these remarks, for the next few hours note how little of that time your mind is attending to what you are doing and where you are at that very moment, and how much of the time your mind is diverted off, attending to something already past or to some future expectation.

By “awareness,” we should understand that meditation is a practice of concentration, focus, and attentiveness.  It is the ability to keep things in mind, and to know what we are keeping in mind and why. We function very much out of habit.  Think about how much goes on and how much you do without actually being consciously aware of what you are doing.  And note how much “static” constantly races through your mind, and how you are generally unaware of that static unless you consciously attend to it.  Give it a try, and find out how it is impossible, by force of brute effort, to make yourself pay attention to just one thing and prevent your mind from wandering.

Mindfulness is a concept that comes from the Buddhist traditions, and the English word “mindfulness” is the usual translation for sati (Pali) or smrti (Sanskrit), which literally means “memory” or “remembrance.” As we explore, we shall discover how mindfulness is not just about the present moment, and how, while not judgmental, it does involve judgment and discernment. So what we now call mindfulness is, more precisely, “keeping in mind,” and some of the skills that go into “keeping in mind” are the awareness of what we are keeping in mind, awareness of what we select to attend to and to keep in mind and what we choose to ignore, decisions about what is important to keep in mind, and the ability to control what we keep in our minds and what we dismiss.

Approach meditation you would another book for the class.  The readings are tools for inquiry, learning, and reflection. So, too, is your daily mediation practice.

In the late 19th century, European psychologists experimented with introspection as a way to study the mind.  The European experience seemed to lead only to inconsistent and non-reproducible results, which then led in mainstream psychology to the abandonment of introspection in favor of “third person” objective studies modeled on the approach of the laboratory experiment in the hard sciences.  Consequently, “contemplation” was, in much western philosophy and psychology, taken, in effect, as a synonym for “subjective” or, more bluntly, for “flaky.”  This fear of introspection has been in decline in recent years, and there is growing study and use of meditation in psychology, neuroscience, and therapy.

In the Asian traditions, you see something different.  They manifest the record of a very long and advanced tradition of contemplative practices that are the underpinning for a coherent and consistent theory of mind.

A part of all study is learning to use the tools of inquiry.  Inquiry requires acquisition of a number of skills, some more general, some more discipline specific.  Within philosophy, this set of skills includes a certain kind of reading – how to read a text slowly and carefully, how to analyze, how to find the structure of the argument, how to think about presuppositions and implications of what the text states.  Also among the skills for philosophy is the ability to attend to coherence and consistency.

None of these are skills we would think of as physical, but, just like riding a bicycle, playing the piano, or skiing, they are acquired only with practice, and with practice one gains not only ability but also understanding.

Meditation is likewise a skill.  This may be difficult to appreciate initially.  After all, watching a good skier can be entertaining and exciting for the display of skill.  Watching a good meditator, however, can be a lot like watching a bad meditator, which is a lot like watching someone doing nothing.  Of course, watching the accomplished reader has never caught on as a spectator sport either.  In short, appearances to the contrary, it is a skill that requires practice to develop.   Meditation is also a way to develop certain skills that you can make use of day to day, at work and play, when you are not meditating. It is all about training the mind. So, practice.  Try to avoid any expectations.  Just practice and observe.

Prerequisites for meditation practice?  There aren’t any, really.  To learn to ride a bicycle, you need to ride a bicycle; to learn to meditate, you need to meditate.  Of course, if you have plans to take up bicycling for the first time and happen to have a broken leg, you might want to keep your feet off the pedals until you have healed.  In the Buddhist traditions, ability to adhere to the basic moral precepts was an analogous condition for meditation – without that, it is taught, there is no point.  For our purposes, we won’t dwell on this (thought it is sure to come up in various way in our readings and discussions), save for one warning: drugs and alcohol are a very bad mix with mindfulness and meditation. It is all about training the mind in ways that are often ignored or underdeveloped, and anything that interferes with control of the mind is an obstacle to developing meditative skill.



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