Meditation teacher Jack Kornfield explains why and how to develop wise mindfulness or an open mind.
Meditation comes to life through a growing capacity to release our usual entanglement in the stories and plans, conflicts, and worries that make up our little sense of self, and to rest in consciousness. In meditation we do this simply by acknowledging the changing conditions moment by moment: pleasure and pain, praise and guilt, the litany of ideas and expectations that arise. Without identifying with them, we can rest in our own consciousness, beyond the conditions, and experience what my teacher Ajahn Chah called his pongsai, our natural lightness of heart. Developing this ability to rest in nourishing consciousness samadhi (concentration), which stabilizes and enlightens the mind, and prajna (wisdom), who sees things as they are.
We can use this wise awareness or attention from the very beginning. When we first sit down to meditate, the best strategy is to simply notice any state of our body and mind. To lay the groundwork for mindfulness, the Buddha instructs his followers “to observe whether the body and mind are distracted or stable, angry or peaceful, excited or worried, contracted or released, bound or free.” Observing what this is like, we can take a few deep breaths and relax, making room for any situation we encounter.
We feel that we are born and die with every breath, every experience.
From this field of acceptance we can learn to use the transforming power of attention in a flexible and malleable way. Wise attention, full attention, can work like a zoom lens. It is often helpful to keep our practice close in mind. In this we bring careful attention and a very close approach to our breathing or sensation, or to the precise movement of a feeling or thought. Over time we can end up absorbing ourselves so much that the subject and the object disappear. We become breathless, we become tickling our feet, we become sadness or joy. In this we feel that we are born and die with every breath, every experience. The entanglement in our usual sense of self dissolves; our problems and fears disappear. All our world experience is impermanent, unlearnable, and selfless. Wisdom is born.
But sometimes, in meditation, such a close approach to mindfulness can create an unnecessary sense of tension and struggle. Therefore, we need to find a more open way of paying attention. Or maybe when we walk down the street carefully we realize that it is not helpful to focus only on the breath or the feet. We will miss the traffic lights, the morning light and the faces of passers-by. So we open the lens of consciousness to a medium range. When we do this while sitting, instead of focusing only on breathing, we can feel the energy of our entire body. As we walk we can feel the rhythm of our whole movement and the circumstances under which we move. From this perspective, it is almost as if the conscience “sits on our shoulders” and respectfully recognizes a breath, a pain in the legs, a thought about dinner, a feeling of sadness, a window in front. Here wise attention has a kind of kind witness, recognizing every event, whether boredom or jealousy, plans or excitement, gain or loss, pleasure or pain, with a slight bow. From moment to moment we release the illusion of arriving “somewhere” and rest in the timeless present, witnessing with easy consciousness everything that happens. When we let go, our innate freedom and wisdom are manifested. Nothing to have, nothing to be. Ajahn Chah called this “resting on what he knows.”
However, sometimes this average level of attention does not work better in our practice. We may find ourselves trapped in some repetitive thought pattern or painful situation, or lost in great physical or emotional distress. Maybe there is chaos and noise around us. We sit down and our hearts are tight, our bodies and minds are neither relaxed nor kind, and even the witness can seem tedious, forced, effortless.
It develops a mind that is as vast as space, where both pleasant and unpleasant experiences can appear and disappear without conflict, struggle, or harm. Rest in a mind like an immense sky.
In this circumstance we can open the lens of attention to its widest angle and let our consciousness become like space or heaven. As the Buddha instructs Majjhima Nikaya, “He develops a mind that is as vast as space, where both pleasant and unpleasant experiences can appear and disappear without conflict, struggle, or harm. He rests in a mind like an immense heaven.”
From this broad perspective, when we sit or walk in meditation, we open our attention as a space, letting experiences arise without limits, without inside or outside. Instead of the ordinary orientation where we feel that our mind is inside our head, we can let go and experience the consciousness of the mind as open, unlimited and vast. We allow consciousness to experience a consciousness that is not entangled in the particular conditions of vision, sound, and feelings, but consciousness that is independent of changing conditions: the unconditioned. Ajahn Jumnien, an elder in the Thai forest, speaks of this form of practice as Maha Vipassana, resting on his own pure, timeless, unborn consciousness. For the meditator, this is not an ideal or distant experience. It is always immediate, always present, liberating; it becomes the resting place of the wise heart.
Fully absorbed, kindly witnessed or open and spacious: which of these lenses is the best way to practice awareness? Is there an optimal way to pay attention? The answer is “all of the above.” Consciousness is infinitely malleable, and it is important not to focus better on any form. Wrongly, some traditions teach that losing the self and dissolving in a breath or absorbing an experience is the optimal form of attention. Other traditions mistakenly believe that resting in the broadest angle, the open consciousness of space, is the highest teaching. Still others say that the middle ground — a normal, free, and relaxed consciousness of what arises here and now, “nothing special” —is the highest achievement. However, in its true nature, consciousness cannot be limited. Consciousness itself is as big as it is small, particular and universal. At different times, our practice will require that we accept all of these perspectives.
Every form of genuine consciousness is liberating. Every moment we release entanglement and identification is selfless and free. But also remember that every practice of consciousness can create a shadow when we cling to it by mistake. Misuse of space can easily lead to being spaced out and out of focus. Misuse of absorption can lead to denial, ignorance of other experiences, and misuse of ordinary conscience can create a false sense of “I” as a witness. These shadows are subtle veils of meditative clinging. Look at them as they are and let them go. And learn to work with all the lenses of consciousness to serve your wise attention.
The more you experience the power of wise mindfulness, the more your confidence in the very realm of consciousness will grow. You will learn to relax and let go. At any moment of being trapped, consciousness will intervene, a presence without judging or resisting. Near or far, near or far, consciousness illuminates the unattainable nature of the universe. It returns the heart and mind to its birthright, naturally bright and free.
To amplify and deepen your understanding of how to practice with consciousness as a space, the following instructions may be helpful. One of the most accessible ways to open up to a broad consciousness is through the door of the ear, listening to the sounds of the universe around us. Because the river of sound comes and goes so naturally, and is so obviously out of our control, listening brings the mind to a state of naturally balanced openness and attention. I learned this particular practice of sound as a gateway to the space of my colleague Joseph Goldstein over 25 years ago and have used it ever since. Sound awareness in space can be a great way to start practicing because it starts the sitting period with a taste of ease waking up and letting go of spaciousness. Or it can be used after a period of concentrated attention.
Whenever you start, sit comfortably and comfortably. Let your body rest and your breathing natural. Close your eyes. Take several full breaths and let each one release gently. Allow yourself to be still.
Now shift your breath awareness. Start listening to the play of sounds around you. Look at the ones that are strong and soft, far and near. Just listen. Notice how all the sounds come and go, leaving no trace. Listen for a while in a relaxed, open manner.
As you listen, let yourself feel or imagine that your mind is not limited to your head. Feel that your mind is expanding to be like the sky: open, clear, vast as space. There is no inside or outside. Let the consciousness of your mind spread in all directions like heaven.
Now the sounds you hear will come and go in the open space of your own mind. Relax in this opening and just listen. Let the sounds that come and go, whether far or near, be like clouds in the great sky of your own consciousness. The play of sounds moves across the sky, appearing and disappearing without resistance.
Problems, possibilities, joys and sorrows come and go like clouds in the clear sky of the mind.
As you rest in this open consciousness, observe how thoughts and images also arise and disappear as sounds. Let thoughts and images come and go without struggle or resistance. Pleasant and unpleasant thoughts, images, words and feelings move unrestricted in the space of the mind. Problems, possibilities, joys and sorrows come and go like clouds in the clear sky of the mind.
After a while, let this spacious consciousness notice the body. Become aware of how the sensations of breathing and body float and change in the same open sky of consciousness. Breathing breathes by itself, it moves like a breeze. The body is not solid. It feels like areas of hardness and softness, pressure and tingling, feeling warm and fresh, all floating in the space of mind consciousness.
Let the breath move like a breeze. Rest in this opening. Let the sensations float and change. It allows all thoughts and images, feelings and sounds to come out and come out like clouds in the clear, open space of consciousness.
Finally, pay attention to your own conscience. Notice how the open space of consciousness is naturally clear, transparent, timeless, and conflict-free, allowing for all things, but not limited by them.
The Buddha said, “Oh, noble born, remember the pure open sky of your own true nature. Come back to it. Trust it. It is at home.”
May the blessings of these practices awaken your own inner wisdom and inspire your compassion. And through the blessing of your heart may the world find peace.
This meditation is one of the various practices offered in “The Art of Forgiveness, Loving Kindness, and Peace (Bantam Books)” by Jack Kornfield.
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