By Elizabeth J. Harris
Part 2 – Mindfulness
Once I told an academic in Sri Lanka that I practised a Buddhist form of meditation. Flippantly, he asked whether I was able to levitate. That’s not an uncommon reaction. It confuses meditation with self-induced trance or making the mind a blank, something that is unrelated to everyday life. But to make such a confusion is a mistake. True Buddhist meditation is a vigorous form of mind-training which can transform both thought and action.
In the Theravada Buddhist tradition, found in Burma, Sri Lanka, and Thailand, the practice of mindfulness or “bare attention” is very important. When sitting in meditation, perhaps noting the breath as it touches the inside of the nostrils, thoughts inevitably enter the mind. Usually they relate to oneself in the past or the future. Recent conversations replay themselves. Decisions yet to be made thrust themselves forward. Reactions of dislike to bodily pains arise. And occasionally, images freed from a deeper level of our being move slowly upwards. When thoughts and feelings arise in meditation, they are to be simply observed. They are not to be repressed or pushed aside, but neither are they to be allowed complete freedom to proliferate. Their arising and passing is noted without censure or praise.
When I first began to meditate I discovered that thoughts and feelings are fluid, ever changing, often uncontrollable, frequently illogical and irrational. It was a painful realization, since I had assumed my mind was under my direct control. But it was also the beginning of self-knowledge, the beginning of knowing how my mind worked and the doorway to modifying conditioned and negative patterns of reaction in my own life.
At one meditation centre in Sri Lanka, high in the mountains, surrounded by tea estates, the first session begins at five in the morning. I had to get up by candlelight, pull on warm clothes, and cross the grass to the meditation hall, under a sky often brilliantly full of stars. One morning, I was gazing at the dark, silvered beauty of the sky when I heard steps below me. At that moment, I caught my mind saying, “Go on into the meditation hall so that they can see you were up first.” Normally, I would have hurried into the hall to show my punctuality, but on that occasion I noted the thought, recognized the element of competition, and consciously refused to act on it. I stayed for several more moments wrapt in the pre-dawn stillness, feeling the cool air against my skin, and I was certainly not the first to settle my cushions before the silent, candle-lit image of the Buddha. And I know it was the practice of sati, of mindfulness, which made that moment of insight into my own competitive egotism possible, insight into a childish wish to impress, to be top of the class.
Meditation of this kind is hard work. It has nothing to do with making the mind a blank, though it can lead to peace and calm when the racing mind stills and there is only the present moment. One monk who taught me put it this way: “Meditation is the ultimate practice of non-violence. Suffering, pain, and feelings of anger are not suppressed but faced, confronted, and transformed.”
Copyright 1994 Elizabeth J. Harris