Why mindfulness is difficult

Is this a button you would wear?

The "declaration of mindfulness," from mindfulness.org

The “declaration of mindfulness,” from mindfulness.org

Mindfulness is a bit of a paradox.  Trying to become more aware and more present can mostly feel like an awareness of not being present at all.

But why should this be?

In Buddhism, it’s said that the nature of the mind is to either move toward or away from things it perceives. Some Buddhists I know use that principle to divide the world up into two kinds of people: desire types and aversion types. (Here’s the instant test: how did you react to the “I’m mindful” button above? Did you want to put it on, or did you want to criticize the way it was worded?)

But whether we find ourselves trying to get things or get rid of things, the underlying impulse is the same. We want things to be different than they are as we find them. So we struggle and get stressed trying to change them. Yet trying to effect these changes only makes things worse, because the more problems we try to solve, the more problems we start to find.

The “pop-spiritual” method for escaping this cycle of chronic dissatisfaction is acceptance: that is, reconciling ourselves with the way things are, and the way we are or may feel at this particular moment.

I think that’s ok, but more and more I see a more subtle level of cutting off the whole cycle at its root. As Ramana Maharshi said:

Consciousness is the screen on which all the pictures come and go. The screen is real, the pictures are mere shadows on it.

If we stay at the level of acceptance, we are still looking at the pictures instead of the screen. We are watching a movie we believe to be our life rather than seeing it as playing the role of a character.

And I think this accounts for the difficulty of being mindful at a broader level. When we start to look closely, we see that the illusion is actually not very good! The film is grainy, the screen is dirty and torn in places. But we are so caught up with the story we’ve been following that we don’t want to give it up. If we acknowledged that the minor triumphs and tragedies in the film were purely fictional, and that our identity as a character is too, then we would have to face the inevitable question:

Who am I really?

Yet this is precisely the method of inquiry that Ramana Maharshi advocated as the “short-cut” route to true awakening. He said:

For all thoughts the source is the ‘I’ thought.

The mind will merge only by Self-enquiry ‘Who am I?’ The thought ‘Who am l?’ will destroy all other thoughts and finally kill itself also. If other thoughts arise, without trying to complete them, one must enquire to whom did this thought arise. What does it matter how many thoughts arise? As each thought arises one must be watchful and ask to whom is this thought occurring. The answer will be ‘to me’. If you enquire ‘Who am I?’ the mind will return to its source (or where it issued from). The thought which arose will also submerge. As you practise like this more and more, the power of the mind to remain as its source is increased.

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