We are honored to exclusively share with you, our dear readers, excerpts from Frank Berliner’s new book, which you can purchase here if so inspired. Frank is a Buddhist and Shambhala teacher and professor at Naropa University, and our original Buddhadharma columnist (going 12 years back!). He is my meditation instructor and life coach, of sorts (I just call him “mentor”…or consiglieri), and his ability to convey simple wisdom about how to be fully human is powerful, dignified and helpful. May it be of benefit! ~ Waylon Lewis
Mindfulness and Awareness
The mind you experience in meditation is simply an unfolding of awareness, or knowingness. At the level of shamatha practice, what your mind knows is still experienced as if it were separate from you, out there, so to speak.
One way of defining “mind” is to say that it is that which has the capacity to be aware of something other than itself.
You are the witness, and you’re witnessing the contents of your mind. Recall the metaphor of the observer who sits comfortably on the bank of a stream, watching its flow. At this point, it is probably more helpful to think of “mind” as a verb rather than as a noun—so that you don’t forget you are dealing with a dynamic process rather than a concrete entity. What all forms of mindfulness meditation have in common is the simple truth that this dynamic knowingness is always there, minding things.
The One-Shot Deal of Nowness
The more deeply you are able to stabilize the mindfulness of shamatha, the more you realize the truth of what my teacher called the one-shot deal of nowness. What he meant is that this mind you experience when you meditate—with all its busyness and speed, its highlights and emotional varieties, its melodramas and its ups and downs, its complicated schemes and strategies of all kinds—is really an ongoing process of great simplicity. This simplicity consists of the fact that this mind can only relate to the moment of nowness, and it can only do this one moment at a time.
Not only that, but the relationship between nowness and the object of your attention is choiceless. Whatever your mind is minding—that is its nowness. You may be having an elaborate fantasy about a past experience, but that fantasy is your nowness at that moment. There is no other present moment or nowness behind or apart from the fantasy, so to speak. And though you seem to be dwelling in the past, it is merely a memory that can only take place in nowness. From that point of view, there is no past—only memory in nowness.
Because your mind is generally moving so fast, and with such fickleness, most of the time you do not see this simplicity. We could describe this as a “neurotic mind,” which keeps obscuring itself by means of its own chaotic movement. Or we could call it the “grasshopper mind” because it jumps impulsively back and forth with no apparent logic or reason. The practice of shamatha gradually tames this grasshopper mind. It slows it down—not so that it becomes duller or less intelligent. Assuming that will happen is to mistake mental speed for cognitive sharpness. By slowing your mind down, it simply becomes clearer, more precise, and more able to see its own movement in the present moment. It does not overlook itself.
In the film from the late 1980’s, “Buckaroo Banzai”, the hero gives a speech to his warrior comrades that ends with the punch line, “Remember, men, wherever you go, there you are.” The mindfulness of the mind experienced in shamatha, then, is that same choiceless simplicity: either you are here, or you aren’t. There is no escape from this one shot deal of perception, moment after moment after moment. Mindfulness training is nothing more, and nothing less, than learning how to show up for the moment in this way.
This way of practicing meditation, which was also described in Chapter 9, is not too tight, not too loose. “Not too loose” means that there must be precision when you meditate. You don’t simply hang out idly and hope for the best. Instead, you appreciate the accuracy and simplicity of this one-shot deal. But “not too tight” means that if you make a big project out of being accurate and precise, you miss the moment, because you are somehow adding something extra to the simplicity.
Refining the Object of Mindfulness
In terms of the technique of shamatha practice, you begin to let part of your attention go to the breath, and the rest to the general environment.
To do this properly, begin to refine the way you use your breath as the object of mindfulness. That is, instead of resting your attention on the full movement of the breath in and out of the body, you focus now only on the breath as it goes out into the space around you. Raise your eyes and look out into the space, though with the same soft, relaxed gaze as in the initial instruction. If it is helpful to quantify, apply roughly 25 percent of your attention on the breath, 75 percent on the environment.
This changes your relationship to the technique of shamatha in a subtle but powerful way. Just as earlier you were practicing touch and go with thoughts, so now you begin to practice touch and go with the breath itself, as well. You tune into the moment of precision as the breath goes out, then you naturally let it dissolve into the openness. The breath dissolves as it goes out, and you don’t sustain your attention to it as it comes back in. You begin to let go of the project of meditating.
With this style, there may be a more general sense that you are here, just sitting, aware of your posture, aware of the thoughts and sensations as they come up and pass away, aware of the physical situation around you where you’re sitting, and so on. The precise quality of your mind being mindful is happening in a bigger space, so to speak. There is a sense of openness around the technique of relating to the breath. You don’t have to nurse that experience of being mindful, like a clerk carefully checking and ringing up every item that goes past him at the checkout counter. While mindfulness remains a deliberate process, it does not become an obsessive one.
When you meditate like this, only the outbreath is now experienced in a definite, tangible way, but that experience is then disowned as the outbreath dissolves. As the outbreath diffuses into space, you find that your mind may relax into a more open dimension. The invitation to relax within this open environment is implicit; you have already set the stage for it by placing one-pointed attention on the movement of your breath in the original instruction for shamatha.
The Expansion into Awareness
As you come to rest in awareness, you might discover that this mind you are being mindful of is actually full of gaps, full of openness, as part of its natural pattern. You can’t heavy-handedly pin down the present moment. That would be like a clumsy dancer who tries so hard to follow the music perfectly that he keeps stepping on his partner’s toes.
Instead, if you look closely, you begin to suspect that within this openness there is nobody in particular who is keeping this project of mindfulness going. It is more self-existing, and simply happening on its own without too much help from you.
Meditation is a balance of precision and freedom, of sharpness and openness. More and more, it becomes a kind of dance. There is the precise experience of the one-shot deal of nowness, and there are the “gaps” that lead to an open background of presence out of which the experience of the one-shot deal suddenly emerges, flashes, and passes away.
It is that simple—always!
There is much more going on than just the return to the breath, and you could tune into this bigger picture, more and more. Doing this is not so much a technique as a discovery that occurs naturally as you continue with the practice. In a more formal sense, this expansion in the practice is a gradual transition from mindfulness to awareness. These two words are being used here in very precise ways that are not interchangeable.
“Mindfulness” is the precision and the appreciation of detail that develops from working diligently with the shamatha technique of returning again and again to the object of attention. The focus and one-pointedness that develops from mindfulness is the indispensable foundation for all the meditative practices that come afterwards.
“Awareness” is the experience of relating to the larger environment in which all these details are taking place. It is an appreciation of the space in which the details arise.
The Tibetan word for this awareness is “sheshin”, which means “presently knowing.” It is a kind of panoramic alertness or intelligence that is always happening alongside the mindfulness as we continue to practice.
The Buddhist teachings offer two metaphors for how mindfulness and awareness relate: the army metaphor and the township metaphor.
If mindfulness is the general of an army, sheshin is the spy who does reconnaissance before the engagement on the battlefield happens. What this means in your meditation practice is that mindfulness—the general—leads the practice of shamatha by directing you to hold the posture, follow the instructions, feel sensations, and notice qualities of thought or breath. Sheshin—the spy—is the continual wake-up quality that brings you back to the object of meditation, and alerts you to potential obstacles before they become too overwhelming. This advance intelligence works because it is familiar with the enemies (habitual patterns and distractions) and their troop strength (the power of the emotional hook.) Sheshin is therefore sometimes referred to as a “light-handed warning system.”
For example, if your mind is habitually wild and overly excited when you practice, or habitually drowsy and dull, it is sheshin that becomes aware of the approach of these obstacles before they happen, so that the general of mindfulness can deal with them by focusing on the posture, sensation, or the breath—and thereby keep you in the present moment. As you become more familiar with your habitual mental tendencies, the spy becomes sharper and the feedback more useful in working with the obstacles to your practice.
In the second analogy, mindfulness is the town, sheshin is the sheriff, and the obstacles are the outlaws. Here, sheshin protects the town by rounding up the obstacles, so to speak, before they take over.
One of the many ways to do this is to apply your awareness of the environment and arrange it deliberately for a desired effect, or outcome. A good example of this is contained in traditional Tibetan instructions for people engaged in solitary retreat. If your habitual mental mode is wildness, it is recommended that in order to subdue the mind you should wear heavier clothing, eat heavier food, create a warmer environment in your retreat space, move around less, and face a dark or black surface while meditating with a downward gaze. If your greatest obstacle is drowsiness, the opposite instructions are given: in order to perk up the mind wear lighter clothing and eat lighter food, open the windows and allow more air circulation, intersperse your sessions of sitting meditation with frequent sessions of walking meditation, and face a bright or white surface as you sit with an upward gaze.
A Deeper Level of Knowing
The key aspect of sheshin is that it is a sustained experience of being present for whatever arises in the mind as you practice. In other words, whether your mind is still, or full of thoughts, you are present with that, you are right there for that. You are not constantly distracted, so you are not constantly coming back from that state of distraction. More and more, there is a continuity of wakefulness and presence. Most important, there is a noticeable deepening of the knowing faculty in your spiritual development.
Another way to say this is that there is a subtle, continuous experience of the abstract watcher or naked witness in your meditation practice. This experience includes a sense that whatever your mind is doing, the qualities of presence and alertness are there. They don’t change from moment to moment, and they aren’t undermined by temporary occurrences in the mind.
The alert awareness, or sheshin, becomes panoramic—wider and more encompassing than that little dot of mindfulness,
the “little dot” being the vividness of each detail of mindful perception as it flashes into existence in the present moment. Sheshin tunes us into the background—the larger environment of presence that is always there. The “background” is the open, unconditional dimension of that vivid experience—an openness that both precedes the dot and remains after it has vanished.
To summarize, mindfulness is the dot of nowness, and presence is the abiding space of awareness in which the moment of mindfulness vividly flashes, then passes away, over and over again.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Editor: Rachel Nussbaum
Photo: Frank Berliner