The only willful choice one has is the quality of attention one gives to a thought at any moment.
— Jeffrey Schwartz and Sharon Begley
There will be times when you perceive mindfulness not to be working. At these times, your mind will have a mind of its own, so to speak. You may get frustrated by the mind’s stubbornness and astonishing talent for amnesia, as it not only forgets to pay attention but forgets to care about paying attention. It will seem your mind is laughing and sneering at your feckless attempts to train it.
At times like this, you need to be deliberate about seeing clearly. Clear comprehension penetrates the fog so you can more easily see what you see and notice what you notice. It clears up confusion and poor inner-sight in response to questions such as What is really here in the mind, in consciousness? How can I keep from bumping into the same obstacles over and over? How can I apply more effort and energy toward making mindfulness a priority each day? How can I seek out others who are actively pursuing mindfulness as a life choice?
It is early in the morning when I visit with Brett for the first time. Within moments of sitting down, the tall twenty-three-year-old with sandy brown hair and a brawny build starts to cry. His story of depression and anxiety began, he tells me, almost nine months earlier when he got his first job, working in retail sales, after graduating college. “My boss complains that I don’t try hard enough to sell. But I don’t want to push people,” he says, his eyes reddening. “Sometimes I get so upset at work that I can hardly go back to the office after lunch. I really wanted to teach music, but I thought I’d see what I could do in the job market. I’d like to quit and go back to school, but if I quit before a year, it won’t look good on my résumé.”
Brett’s job stress and jumbled emotions have thrown him totally off balance. He is unable to clearly see that his job is placing him at odds with his value system and a deeper desire to teach. My work with Brett centers on helping him move toward what really matters most to him. Brett’s situation illustrates that clear comprehension is difficult to attain when we feel scattered, dismiss our inner wisdom, deplete or exhaust ourselves, or struggle with confidence. Any of these may be a sign that your life is out of balance, making it difficult for you to observe the mind with discipline and clarity.
When this occurs, ask yourself the following two questions. First, Am I conducting myself in a way that is harmful either to myself or to others? If you identify harmful actions, it’s important to change course as soon as you can. The second question to ask yourself is, Am I behaving inappropriately? Another version of this would be, Are my intentions misguided in some way? For example, you may be working hard at a job, which could be beneficial, but your intention to do so may be driven by greed, lust, or another inappropriate emotion. When you answer these questions honestly, you establish the ability within yourself to remove the confusion that makes it hard to mind the mind.
When we mind the mind, we don’t need to throw anything out. There’s nothing to change or to do. By honestly and directly facing a situation, you begin to remove the obstacles of confusion that make it hard to focus on the mind. Regardless of what is present in the mind, you can observe its contents: anger, joy, boredom, depression, frustration, bare awareness, judgmental thoughts, nonjudgmental thoughts, cravings, avoidance, grasping, attachments, liberation, nonliberation.
Let all into the room, friends and enemies alike. Let them mingle and see what happens. Let all drops of thought rise from the depths and merge back into the ocean of consciousness from whence they came. Remember, too, that minding the mind means going beyond the analytical mind to apprehend and penetrate the impermanent nature of mental phenomena. Observing and investigating the mind lead to insight and freedom. We enlighten the mind by letting it be just as it is.
Make a commitment to practice this particular teaching each day for the next week . . . . Begin with a goal that is small, realistic, and achievable. So if that means five minutes a day, that’s great. You can always add an extra five minutes when you want. Basically, it’s important to build up your confidence and effort.
Donald Altman is the author of The Mindfulness Codeand Meal by Meal. He is an adjunct professor at Lewis and Clark College Graduate School, teaches at Portland State University, and conducts mindful living and eating workshops nationally. A member of the Dzogchen Foundation and the Burma Buddhist Monastery Association, he lives in Portland, Oregon. Visit him online at http://www.mindfulnesscode.com