One of the most difficult obstacles for those new to mindfulness meditation is to learn to relax the thinking muscle. By the time most of us come to a meditation class we are expert thinkers -especially those who are well educated. Our thinking is elaborate, central to awareness and often automatic. The very idea that we can relax thinking and cultivate a spacious form of awareness that includes thoughts and perceptions but is not strongly entangled with them sounds not only strange but impossible for many of us. When we sit quietly and try to watch the sensations of breathing, our habitual thought patterns keep butting in. And our response to these thoughts is to try to think our way to not-thinking.
As a meditation teacher it is very difficult to define the spacious awareness that we are cultivating in words that do not trigger the very thinking and critical thought patterns that we are trying to relax. So when Jon kabat zinn describes mindfulness as a ‘non-judgemental present moment awareness’ he is not presenting a belief - that we should all cease to exercise any moral or other form of judgement in our lives, but that we should learn to be aware of mind contents without compulsive attachment to them - and this compulsive attachment often shows as either trying to get rid of them or trying to hold onto them, or trying to think our way to solve all of our problems.
So when we are practicing mindfulness and reliving an event from earlier in the day, for example, when we were verbally abused and maybe have residual feelings of anger, we are not suggesting that one ignores the memory of the event and the associated emotion, or represses it, or believe that we have to be non-judgemental about what we recall as taking place, but that one cultivates the ability to notice these mental events in a spacious, compassionate and mindful way. This is awareness that does not assume that mental events are personal, can ever be entirely satisfactory or won’t change, or that we should have any particular response to them, but that can see these events clearly. This is the clear knowing in mindfulness practice that allows one to judge a good and creative response: A response that is appropriate to the context, minimises harm and maximises benefit.
Unfortunately, whatever description one uses to describe the characteristics of mindful spaciousness - the clear knowing that we are cultivating
- it always raises the possibility of misunderstanding because we are using language and language can trigger critical thinking reactions according to our particular conditioning and prejudices. So using terms like 'non judgemental', 'unattached', 'detached', or ‘disentangled’ can easily be turned into metaphysical beliefs that we try to follow or reject rather than as words used to point to the subjective feeling of spacious clear knowing.
Here is Ajahn Chah’s description of the mindful awareness we are cultivating:
‘It means making the mind bright and clear so that wisdom arises, so that there is knowledge of whatever is happening in all postures and situations. Whatever the posture, you know phenomena and states of mind for what they are, meaning that they are impermanent, unsatisfactory, and not your self. The mind remains established in this awareness at all times and in all postures. When the mind feels attraction, when it feels aversion, you don’t lose the path, but you know these conditions for what they are. Your awareness is steady and continuous, and you are letting go steadily and continuously. You are not fooled by good conditions. You aren’t fooled by bad conditions. You remain on the straight path. This can be called “making the postures even.” It refers to the internal, not the external; it is talking about mind.’