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Thursday, October 25, 2007

uality of Mindfulness; aided by instructions and attention

The Quality of Mindfulness; aided by instructions and attention - Daily Mirror

he Quality of Mindfulness; aided by instructions and attention

The first five disciples of the Buddha were to observe Vas for the first time. Picture shows the ritual of offering robes to the monks.
Painting by Amila Atapattu

Ven. Ajahn Brahmavamso
Mindfulness is one of the controlling faculties (indriya) which creates success in meditation. If it's not fully understood, and fully practised, one can waste a lot of time in one's meditation. I will now explain the quality of mindfulness.

Setting up the "Gatekeeper" inside
I like to use a simile for mindfulness of a person who's guarding a door or guarding a gate. The simile of the gatekeeper to describe mindfulness was used by the Buddha. For mindfulness is not just being aware, being awake, or being fully conscious of wht's occurring around you. There is also that aspect of mindfulness that guides the awareness on to specific areas, remembers the instructions and initiates a response. For example, suppose you were a wealthy person with a gatekeeper guarding your mansion. One evening, before going to the Buddhist Temple to practise meditation, you tell the gatekeeper to be mindful of burglars. When you return home, your loving-kindness suddenly vanishes when you find your house has been burgled. "Didn't I tell you to be mindful, you scream at the gatekeeper. "But I was mindful", pleads the gatekeeper. "I gave attention to the burglars as they broke in, and I was clearly attentive as they walked out with your digital T.V. and state-of-the-art C.D. system. I mindfully watched them go in several times, and my mind did not wander as I observed them going out with all your antique furniture and priceless jewellery.

"Would you be happy with such a gatekeeper's explanation of mindfulness? A wise gatekeeper knows that mindfulness is more than bare attention. A wise gatekeeper has to remember the instructions and perform them with diligence. If he sees a thief trying to break in then he must stop the burglar, or else call in the police.

In the same way, a wise meditator must do more than just give bare attention to whatever comes in and goes out of the mind. The wise meditator must remember the instructions and act on them with diligence. For instance, the Buddha gave the instruction of the 6th factor of the Noble Eightfold Path, "Right Effort". When wise meditators practising mindfulness observe an unwholesome state trying to "break in", they try to stop the defilement, and if the unwholesome state does slip in, they try to evict it. Unwholesome states such as sexual desire or anger are like burglars, sweet talking con artists, who will rob you of your peace, wisdom and happiness. There are, then, these two aspects of mindfulness: The aspect of mindfulness of awareness and the aspect of mindfulness of remembering the instructions.In the Buddhist Suttas, the same Pali word "Sati" is used for both awareness and memory. A person who has got good mindfulness is also a person who has got a good memory, because these two things go together. If we pay attention to what we are doing, if we are fully aware of what we are doing, this awareness creates an imprint in our mind. It does become easy to remember. For example suppose you're in danger. Suppose you come very close to having a serious car accident. Because of this danger, your mindfulness would become extremely strong and sharp. And because of that sharpness of mindfulness in a potential accident, you would remember it very easily, very clearly. In fact when you went back home to sleep that night you may not be able to forget it. It may keep coming back again and again. This shows the connection between awareness and memory. The more you are paying attention to what you're doing, the better you remember it. Again, these two things go together, awareness and memory.

If we have gatekeepers who have developed awareness, they will pay attention to the instructions that they are given. If they pay full attention to the instructions that are given, they will be able to remember them and act on them diligently. This is how we should practice mindfulness. We should always give ourselves clear instructions with full attention so that we will remember what it is we are supposed to be doing. The teacher's job is also to give clear instructions to help us in guiding the mind. That is why I teach in these very clear stages: stage 1, stage 2, stage 3, etc. When we make the training in meditation methodical, when each stage is very clear, then it becomes possible to give our "gatekeepers" clear instructions.

Instructing the "Gatekeeper"
At the beginning of the meditation when you start stage 1, you should remind yourself that there's a gatekeeper inside -- that which can be aware of what's happening and can choose where to put that awareness. Tell that gatekeeper something like repeating: "Now is the time to be aware of the present moment. Now is the time to be aware of the present moment. Now is the time to be aware of the present moment." Tell the gatekeeper three times. You know that if you have to repeat something, you're much more likely to remember it. Maybe when you were at school, if you couldn't spell a word, you'd have to write it out a hundred times. Then you'd never forget it after that. This is because when you repeat something, it takes more effort. It's harder to do. You have to force the mind a little bit more, and mindfulness has to become stronger. What's easy to do doesn't take much mindfulness. So make it a little bit difficult for yourself by repeating instructions such as: "I will be aware of the present moment. I will be aware of the present moment. I will be aware of the present moment." Again, say that to yourself thrice .

Now with the gatekeeper, like any other servant or worker, you don't have to keep giving the same instruction every second or two. In this way of developing mindfulness just give that instruction to the gatekeeper thrice at the beginning, then let the gatekeeper get on with the task. Trust the gatekeeper to know what they are doing.

Instruct your gatekeeper in the same manner as you would instruct a taxi driver. You just tell them clearly where you want to go and then you sit back, relax and enjoy the journey. You trust the driver knows what he is doing. But imagine what would happen if you kept telling the driver every few seconds "Go slower… Go faster… Turn left here… Now go into third gear… Look in your mirror… Keep to the left…" Before you completed a few hundred yards of your journey, the taxi driver would rebel, get angry and throw you out of the taxi. No wonder then, when meditators keep giving instructions to their gatekeeper every few seconds, their minds rebel and refuse to co-operate.

So just let the mind get on with the job of being in the present moment. Do not keep interfering with it. Give the mind clear instructions and then let go and watch. If you establish mindfulness in this way, with these clear instructions, you will find that your mind is like everyone else's mind. That is, once it's given clear instructions, it'll tend to do what it's told. It will obviously make mistakes now and again. It will sometimes not go straight to the present moment immediately. Or sometimes it will go to the present moment and then wander off again. However, the instruction which you've given it will mean that as soon as it starts to wander off into the past or the future there is something which remembers. Mindfulness remembers the instructions, and mindfulness puts the attention back into the present moment. For you, the onlooker, it's something that is automatic. You don't need to choose to do it. It happens automatically, because mindfulness has been instructed in the same way that a gatekeeper, once instructed, does all the work. You don't have to give any more instructions. You can just watch the gatekeeper do the work. This means trusting the mind, knowing the mind, knowing its nature and working with its nature.

I encourage you to play around with the mind and know its capabilities. One of the first things that I was told on my first meditation retreat as a student was that there is no need to set the alarm for getting up in the morning. (Actually I think we were getting up at five o'clock in the morning at that retreat. It was a "soft retreat".) The Teacher said, to just determine your waking time, and to tell yourself before going to bed at night, "I'm going to get up at five to five." (That was just five minutes before someone was going to ring the bell.) "Don't set your alarms." That was the first time I ever tried that. It worked every morning. I told myself very clearly and carefully as I went to sleep, "I will get up at five to five." I didn't need to look at my clock or ask, "Is it five to five yet?" I could actually trust the mind, and when I woke up and opened my eyes and looked at my clock, it was five minutes to five-give or take two minutes. It's incredible how the mind works. I don't know how it did it, how it remembered, but it did. It works in exactly the same way if you give clear instructions, if you programme your mind: "Now is the time to watch the present moment. Be in the present moment. That's all you need to do. Then you can let the mind do the work.”

It's also important when you're instructing the gatekeeper to know not just what you're supposed to be doing but also what you're not supposed to be doing -- in other words to know the dangers on the path. It's important to know the dangers as well as the goal because this enables the gatekeeper to know who is allowed in and also who is not allowed in. They need to be very clear about both types of people. It's not enough to just have a list of who's allowed in. If the gatekeeper hasn't got a list of who's not allowed in, then they could easily make mistakes.

Ajahn Brahmavamso is currently the Abbot of the Bodhignana Monastery near Perth, Western Australia.

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