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Mindfulness as Larger Mind

Words limit us. But they are nearly all we have for attempting to tell each other what’s in our minds. Often, they are nearly all we have for attempting to make sense ourselves out of what’s in our minds.

Take a phrase such as "altered state of consciousness." To someone who is not aware of having had the experience, the phrase means almost nothing—although it may be associated with people, places or events that do have some kind of significance. For example, one might have an acquaintance who professes to have experienced an altered state of consciousness under the influence of some chemical. How one relates to that acquaintance, intellectually or emotionally, will likely contribute to one’s conception of the phrase itself. If the acquaintance is considered "weird," then the state is likely to be thought of as "weird," not something especially desirable. To a mystic, that same phrase might be simply an inadequate description of a powerful experience.

Experiences of external objects or events are easier to communicate. I see a baseball, and call your attention to the stitches that surround it. You also see the ball, and it isn’t difficult to grasp that the little things that go all the way around it are called "stitches," even if you have never encountered the word before. Translations from one language to another are relatively simple when physical objects are referred to.

Shared experiences, while not as easy to communicate as objects, can be described with much less chance of misunderstanding. We might go to Starbucks and both have a double espresso. When I mention the "rush" of feeling from the caffeine, you won’t have much of a problem understanding the word.

Since adolescence, I have had occasional episodes of a peculiar state of consciousness in which recent dreams seem to leak out of their usual place and interfere with my "real life." I’ve tried to communicate that state to many people over the years, with little understanding by them. Not that I understand it myself, really, but other people can’t seem to even grasp what I’m describing.

All this is by way of introducing the real subject of this essay: that our minds are not limited to sensing, feeling and thinking, even though most of us spend most of our time in those activities. I used to think of illusions, delusions and hallucinations as the results of having a screwed-up mind. Schizophrenics and other crazy people experience things most of us don’t and I, at least, never wanted to. My personal "episodes" were quite enough, thank you. (And yes, there were times when I wondered if my episodes were aspects of mental illness.)

An example of an experience we all have from time to time, that is clearly outside the limits of reason, emotion or physical sensation, is intuition. I may have a "feeling" (another inadequate word for the experience) that a particular family member is about to call me. The call may or may not occur; either way, what I call the feeling is or was "real." I did experience it; no question about it. What it was exactly that I experienced, I don’t have a way to describe. Except that you, beyond a doubt, have had a similar experience, even though you cannot describe it exactly, either. It seems a kind of knowing. We can agree to call the experience "intuition" without either of us knowing quite what it was. Ken Wilber, who has written extensively about such things, says that the intuitive experience is but a glimpse, a moment of larger awareness that we can experience at will, given some amount of practice and training.

One might respond by saying that if the experience isn’t always "correct," then why would I want to learn how to do it more? But that’s like saying that because my deductive power—the power of reason—is sometimes faulty, I should avoid reasoning. The truth is, sharpening our reasoning skills can help us do the things we want to do in this world. This intuitive power that almost all of us have can improve our lives, increase happiness, reduce suffering, and generally make life more worth living. Because it is another way of "knowing" things doesn’t mean that it ought to replace reasoning in our lives. Our ability to reason doesn’t make sensations or emotions obsolete, but it helps to keep them in perspective. If my eyes well up and my throat tightens as I watch a sad movie, I can stay aware—at the same time—that I am merely watching a make-believe story. I don’t have to criticize myself for the feelings. They are perfectly natural, and it’s a good thing that I’m capable of feeling them, for in many circumstances in my life they would be totally appropriate.

The same holds true for this larger kind of knowing, the glimpses of which we call intuition. A skilled artist might look at her work and know that it "needs" some kind of modification, even if she cannot find the words for it until she performs the change, responding with only her hands. The skill she possesses is in large part the result of practice, of allowing her hands to express what language cannot.

What we call wisdom could be seen as that same kind of "super-knowing." It’s likely that if we live a long life we will eventually come to have certain insights, to know relationships among our experiences that youth can only take on faith or from conditioning. Just because we know these things doesn’t mean that we can communicate them readily to those who don’t. Sometimes one can only suggest certain experiences through which another person might arrive at the same knowledge.

With proper practice, one can learn for oneself how to become mindful. The following is from the Buddhist teacher S. N. Goenka:

This is what the Buddha taught, an art of living. He never established or taught any religion, any 'ism'. He never instructed his followers to practice any rites or rituals, any blind or empty formalities. Instead, he taught just to observe nature as it is, by observing reality inside. Out of ignorance, one keeps reacting in a way which is harmful to oneself and to others. But when wisdom arises—the wisdom of observing the reality as it is—one comes out of this habit of reaction. When one ceases to react blindly, then one is capable of real action—action proceeding from a balanced mind, a mind which sees and understands the truth. Such action can only be positive, creative, helpful to oneself and to others.

What is necessary, then, is to 'know thyself'—advice which every wise person has given. One must know oneself not just at the intellectual level, the level of ideas and theories. Nor does this mean to know just at the emotional or devotional level, simply accepting blindly what one has heard or read. Such knowledge is not enough. Rather one must know realty at the actual level. One must experience directly the reality of this mental-physical phenomenon. This alone is what will help us to come out of defilements, out of suffering.

This direct experience of one's own reality, this techniques of self-observation, is what is called 'Vipassana' meditation. In the language of India in the time of the Buddha, passana meant seeing with open eyes, in the ordinary way; but Vipassana is observing things as they really are, not just as they seem to be. Apparent truth has to be penetrated, until one reaches the ultimate truth of the entire mental and physical structure. When one experiences this truth, then one learns to stop reacting blindly, to stop creating defilements—and naturally the old defilements gradually are eradicated. One comes out of all the misery and experiences happiness.

Other teachers in the West have translated Vipassana as either "insight" or "mindfulness." In practice, it doesn’t matter what term one uses, for presumably when one has arrived at an understanding of the phenomenon it is the phenomenon itself that is seen, not the label. It might be important, however, to one first encountering the teaching. Vipassana, unfamiliar to most Westerners, could be perceived as some kind of mysterious thing, even "foreign," and therefore might arouse skepticism. "Insight" is much more acceptable, but perhaps could be perceived as out of reach to the ordinary person. "Mindfulness" seems much more accessible, and might therefore encourage one to investigate.

And investigation is the main thing. Mindfulness, by any name, cannot be taught but only learned for oneself. There are helpful techniques, to be sure, and many books and programs to guide one. Most important, according to those who have devoted themselves to studying the phenomenon, is to find at some point a teacher who can speak of the inexpressible in one’s own personal language—for each of us has a unique set of metaphors for reality. If I say to you, "moon," you must know that the word itself is but a pointer to the moon, not the moon.

Do you understand what I’m saying? Of course not. I haven’t met my teacher yet, either.

 

This thing we call "insight" isn't limited, of course, to objects in our mind, other than in the obvious sense that everything we sense, everything we think, everything we feel, are still only in our mind (the tree that falls in the forest kind of thing). "Perspective" offers a slightly larger context. There's another essay on this site that relates to that. Click here to read more.

June 4, 2003

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