After more than thirty years of focusing on concentration in my meditation practice, I've become a believer of broadening into mindfulness.
That is, being aware of whatever is there -- the point of my previous post about my can't-miss meditation approach.
Repeating a mantra is a common concentrative technique. So is following the sensation of one's breathing. Nothing wrong with this. Concentration is good. It's how I'm able to focus on writing this blog post on my laptop while distracting sights and sounds abound in our kitchen as my wife putters around.
But here's the thing: I know what I need to do with my laptop. I have a clear goal, and a clear means of attaining it. Thinking thoughts, then typing them out on a keyboard while viewing a computer screen.
As noted in my whatever... post, looking for the big picture truth about ultimate reality, or even regular reality, is a very different proposition. If we're honest, we have to admit that we don't know what we're looking for. Nor what we might find.
Theories abound concerning the nature of god, highest truth, the foundation of existence, buddha nature, divinity, or whatever other name we might give to what, if anything, lies beyond everyday awareness.
Nobody knows for sure, though, which of these hypotheses are correct. Or if any are. Religious believers typically assume that some dogma is The Final Truth, then follow whatever practice their chosen religion enjoins. However, they can't be sure they're on the correct road to ultimate reality.
In their meditation they might keep their eye out for Jesus accompanied by a host of angels. Or for a turbaned guru sparkling with mystical beams of light. Meanwhile, who knows what they might be missing? Such as, reality.
In "Mindfulness in Plain English," Bhante Henepola Gunaratana explains why Buddhism considers broad-minded openness to be better than narrowly focused concentration.
Meditating your way through the ups and downs of daily life is the whole point of vipassana. This kind of practice is extremely rigorous and demanding, but it engenders a state of mental flexibility that is beyond comparison.
A meditator keeps his mind open every second. He is constantly investigating life, inspecting his own experience, viewing experience in a detached and inquisitive way. Thus, he is constantly open to truth in any form, from any source, and at any time. This is the state of mind you need for liberation.
...Mindfulness is a broader and larger function than concentration. It is an all-encompassing function. Concentration is exclusive. It settles down on one item and ignores everything else. Mindfulness is inclusive. It stands back from the focus of attention and watches with a broad focus, quick to notice any change that occurs.
...Mindfulness is more difficult to cultivate than concentration because it is a deeper-reaching function. Concentration is merely focusing the mind, rather like a laser beam. It has the power to burn its way deep into the mind and illuminate what is there. But it does not understand what it sees... Mindfulness can make you free.
This fits with what neuroscientists have learned about the right and left hemispheres of the brain.
The right hemisphere looks broadly at the world, aware of what is actually there. The left hemisphere takes that right hemisphere awareness and zeroes in on specifics, analyzing, breaking into parts, focusing on certain things while ignoring other things.
Both mindfulness (right brain) and concentration (left brain) go hand-in-hand in everyday life. For animals as well as humans.
For example, a bird searching for seeds on the ground keeps one eye broadly mindful of approaching predators, who could come from any direction (hawk from on high; cat from behind a bush), while the other eye focuses on food right beneath its beak.
When it comes to a sought-for ultimate reality, though, we really don't know what we're looking for. So mindfulness of whatever is a better approach than prematurely assuming that we can be sure in what direction we need to look, and what we'll find there.
For me -- and, yeah, I readily admit that this may sound weird -- there's a certain delicious sense of eroticism to this whole mindfulness thing. Being much more of a sensual feeling than a logical thought, it's hard for me to describe what I mean.
A metaphorical image comes to mind... feel free to substitute your own object of desire for my female example.
She's there. Somewhere. At least, I'm pretty sure she is. Can't know for certain. It's just a hunch. Supported by some free-floating evidence.
Tales abound of a beauty who frequents these woods. Nobody has seen her up close. Nobody has captured her with a photograph, much less taken her by the hand and brought her into town for all to see.
Yet the stories are alluring, albeit with few commonalities. There's no agreement on what she looks like, where she lives, how old she is, how she moves through the forest without being seen.
But she is said to be more beautiful, more desirable, more ravishing than any other woman. One touch from her, one embrace, and you will never be satisfied with anyone else. One night with her... ecstacy beyond imagining.
So she's worth the search. A lifetime of searching.
Problem is, the search is complicated by additional tales that have the ring of truth, given her elusiveness -- even after so many have sought her in so many ways during so many years.
She can be... whatever, whoever, wherever, whenever, however she wants to be. If you look for her as "this," it's said that you can walk right by her, because her guise at the moment is actually "that."
Further, even if you catch a glimpse of this captivating creature, she can alter her appearance in an instant. She can tease with a distant vision of an unclothed curvaceous female beauty, then become a dry leaf beneath your feet.
Or, not. It's up to her.
Or possibly to you, though nobody knows for sure what draws her to become the lover of someone who pursues her. Assuming this has ever happened. Again, we're talking about tales, not truth.
There's no right or wrong way of searching for such a beauty who has never been found.
(Rather, we should say, "proven to be found," because what happens in that boundless forest stays in that boundless forest, which is why the tales of her incomparable eroticism are both so tantalizingly believable and so ridiculously unbelievable.)
Seekers of her argue interminably about her nature. Forays into the wilderness where she is said to roam are never-ending. Everyone has their own favored paths, viewing platforms, blinds from where she might be seen.
Me, I have my own way. I wander through the forest, enjoying myself, looking around just as I would if I were on a casual stroll. Yes, I have her in mind, but mostly out of mind. If she appears, I'll be joyful. If not, I'll still be happy.
It isn't in my hands to lay hold of someone so difficult to embrace. Likely, if I'm ever to become her lover, it will be on her terms, not mine. All I can do is show her that I'm in the forest, pleased to make her acquaintance if she chooses to befriend me.
Assuming she exists. I'm not sure of that. It simply pleases me to think that maybe, just maybe, she is aware of me seeking to be aware of her. If that's as far as our relationship ever will progress, well, that's good enough for me.
Because I enjoy wandering aimlessly in the forest more than sitting purposefully at home. The searching is the thing, not the finding.