Mindfulness… there is a lot of talk about mindfulness these days.

When I hear someone use the word mindfulness, the Zen teacher (the one who asks enigmatic questions) often leans in and asks something like: “In mindfulness, which mind is it that is full?” Is it the “me”, the relative mind that is full? Or is it the absolute, the mind where there is no “me”, no self, that is full? Which mind is it? I pause and wait quietly for a response. If they respond, then there is usually a follow up question like: “And what exactly is mindfulness full of?” Is it full of sensations? feelings? thoughts? Is it full of good things? Bad things? It is always very interesting to watch someone looking for the answer to these questions.

So, what is mindfulness anyway?

It is the Buddhist term sati that has been translated from Pali into English as “mindfulness”. The term mindfulness is often being used to describe a form of meditation where the attention is willfully held on an object like the breath. When the mind drifts away from its chosen task of staying present with the breath, we eventually notice and remember the task: to be present with the breath. Then we return to the present moment where the act of breathing is actually taking place. This is a wonderful meditative technique of holding attention on a single point in the present moment, in the “now”. It is a very effective technique to use when beginning to practice meditation. It is of course much more difficult than we first expect.

This is actually one form of a very old formula for meditation that originated in India many thousands of years ago. In Sanskrit the formula is Dharana, Dhyana, Samadhi. I translate this formula as concentration, pure awareness and unreasonable joy. Focus awareness, holding it still on a single point: the breath, a word, an image, counting the breath or a koan. This is concentration practice – Dharana. After years of practice when you have trained your promiscuous mind to stay still, you are able to hold the mind still on a single point, undisturbed by any sensations, feelings, thoughts, or stories. After you are able to hold awareness on a single point, the “you” suddenly and unexpectedly falls away revealing the deepest truth of who we are vast, empty, silent, pure awareness – Dhyana. The very next thing that happens is unreasonable joy – Samadhi. This is not a joy that comes or goes. Samadhi is the realization of a joy that is always present. It is present here, now. It is experienced when you touch the deepest truth of who you, of who we really are. This whole process can be a most disturbing or a most exhilarating experience. If this is a new experience, new territory for you it is most helpful to have a teacher who can guide you through the more subtle aspects of the experience.

In Zen, this experience is referred to as kensho, a temporary experience of awakened mind, of naked, ordinary mind. Here is my attempt to articulate what cannot really be articulated with words:

After focusing the mind on a single point, suddenly the mind falls through the single pointedness into vast emptiness. Here, there is absolutely nothing here – vast, empty silence. As the Heart Sutra proclaims:

“Hence, in this emptiness, there is no form, no feeling, no thought, no volition and no consciousness. There are no eyes, no ears, no nose, no tongue, no body and no mind. There is no seeing, no hearing, no smelling, no tasting, no touching and no thinking. There is no world of sight, no world of consciousness. There is no ignorance and no end to ignorance. There is no aging leading to old age and death and no end to aging leading to old age and death.”

Nothing here, and yet there is awareness that nothing is here. What I say is this, “Here there is absolutely nothing, only vast empty silence. And yet there are two things, which aren’t things at all that are here. First there is awareness. No thing to be aware of, just pure awareness itself – just Dhyana, this pure awareness of awareness. And the second thing that is not a thing is pure potentiality. There is absolutely nothing here and yet there is a feeling of fullness. This emptiness is pregnant with the potentiality of all things. It is absolutely empty and yet there is a feeling of fullness of pure potentiality eternally here in this vast, empty silence.”

For me, this is what a true experience of mindfulness actually is. It seems ironic that this mindfulness arises in an empty mind. Most often it is a mind that has been emptied by a rigorous meditative practice.

I once heard Rami Shapiro, a delightful Jewish Rabbi with considerable Zen training poke fun at himself along with other Jews, Christians and Buddhists. After making a joke about the Jews being the chosen ones, he turned to the Christians and with a smile talked about the Christians who could not save them selves, because they believed they needed to be saved. Then it was the Buddhist’s turn. He said if I hear one more Buddhist tell me what a wonderful meditation they had, I am going to throw up. That is not meditation. Meditation is not about feeling good. It is only meditation when “you” are not here.

So how about you? Is your experience of mindfulness empty or full? What is here right now? Is your cup half empty or full?

Copyright © 2003 by Collaborative Zen, Inc.