Spiritual Sobriety

P1020780Excerpt from Mindfulness and Madness: Money, Food, Sex and the Sacred, by Ira Rechtshaffer Ph.D.

We’re larger than our experience of suffering at any moment. We tend to experience so much unhappiness because we completely identify with our subconscious gossip and negative self-talk. We feel enclosed within their limited boundaries. Buddhism suggests that we are the space of awareness within which suffering is occurring and
that our true dimensions extend beyond it. The practice of ‘being’ is a very rare activity. Very few human beings in our postmodern world understand or appreciate the value of sitting attentively in silence and stillness.

Mindfulness meditation is like sitting by the bank of a great stream. The stream’s strong currents carry our many memories, our rich tapestry of experiences, both painful and pleasurable, as well as our anticipation of what is yet to come. Our job as meditators is to remain on the bank of the stream and simply observe, without becoming overly fascinated with our psychic jetsam and flotsam. If our attention gets hooked by a provocative thought or image, we immediately fall into this mind stream and get swept away by its swirling current. The essence of mindfulness practice is recognizing that you have fallen into the stream. That very noticing immediately brings you back to your position on the bank as an observer.

Don’t be discouraged if you find that you spend more time in the stream than on its peaceful shore. Your attention will alternate between witnessing and falling into the stream. That’s what Buddhists call the path. When you see that you’ve fallen into the stream, that is, that you’ve become distracted or preoccupied, you’re already back on the bank of the stream as an observer. You’ve come back into presence. One of the powers of mindfulness practice is that it brings our mind and body together in the same place so that they’re synchronized. Basic trust grows from ‘staying’ and ‘not going’ because our mind finally catches up with our body. There is a kind of magic in declaring a spot on earth and fully sitting there.

In the usual state of mindlessness, we fully identify with our own rambling, free associative thoughts. They continually trigger a chain reaction of further thoughts, images and feelings and these make up our personal narratives. This is how we manufacture psychological realms of all sorts, which we then inhabit. It is these psychological realms that create samsara or collective neurosis. In some sense, everyone is living in their own world.

One aspect of mindfulness meditation is the practice of extending unconditional friendliness or loving kindness towards ourselves. This is what restores a sense of basic trust in ourselves again. By sitting in silence and stillness we intentionally invite openness in the midst of the frenetic speed of everyday life. In practicing mindfulness of body we establish a foundation, a home ground. With that comes a sense of being settled. We start by assuming a good upright posture, either on a meditation cushion or in a supportive chair. We anchor our attention in our body, so that little by little, we come down from the cloud realm of discursive thinking and land in our body. We feel our body and the movement of breath. There is an unmistakable sense of simple presence. “I am here, now”. Our breath moves in and out like the rhythmic tides of the ocean. Our heart beats and circulates blood, while the miracles of sight, sound, smell, taste and feeling all take place effortlessly. No matter what thought, image or memory arises in the space of mind, we do not identify with it. We simply sit, breathe and are present.

Mindfulness is a sudden flash of recognition, a complete reversal of direction bringing us instantly back to the breath. By interrupting our storylines, our compelling narratives of love and desire, hope and fear, success and the anguish of failure, we are brought back to the immediacy of this present moment. Only one thing is happening at a time. The practice of mindfulness is to be there with that precise, abrupt perception of nowness from which there is no escape. That dimensionless point of awareness is the key to our true identity.

As our mindfulness meditation evolves we experience a kind of radiation that is felt as an energetic presence. That energetic presence feels fundamentally healthy, intelligent and friendly. It is a sense of open heartedness and basic dignity. When this basic energetic presence meets with our wounds, healing happens. Meditation is a radically open and tender state of mind. Whatever needs our attention can arise in a space of acceptance and loving kindness, so that even our wounds may express themselves without re-traumatizing us. We touch them with awareness and let them go. The open hearted tenderness of mindfulness is the one thing that actually does heal.