Back in my true-believing religious days, when I embraced an Eastern form of mysticism that espoused several hours of daily eyes-closed meditation, I thought that the ultimate aim of life was to experience higher realms of reality beyond the physical.
Of course, I had a job to go to, a wife and daughter, worldly activities I enjoyed. But I viewed these as mostly distinct from my spiritual goal of god-realization -- those things were part of my karma; important, yet not what my life's highest purpose was all about.
I'm grateful that my eyes have been opened to the flaws in this point of view.
Since there is no demonstrable proof that God or other supernatural entities exist, and clearly this world does exist, it makes sense to focus first and foremost on what is right before us rather than on some imagined immaterial domain.
This is why, even though I'm by no means a practicing Buddhist, I find a lot to like in Buddhist philosophy that's been stripped of supernaturalism. Mindfulness has become my current preferred form of meditation.
Of course, mindfulness doesn't have any inherent connection with Buddhism, a point Jon Kabat-Zinn makes in his engaging book, "Mindfulness for Beginners: Reclaiming the Present Moment -- And Your Life."
In essence, mindfulness is universal because it is all about attention and awareness, and attention and awareness are human capacities that are innate in all of us. Still, it is fair to say that, historically speaking, the most refined and developed articulations of mindfulness and how to cultivate it stem from the Buddhist tradition, and Buddhist texts and teachings constitute an invaluable resource for deepening our understanding and appreciation of mindfulness and the subtleties of its cultivation.
On page 1, Kabat-Zinn describes what mindfulness is.
Mindfulness is awareness, cultivated by paying attention in a sustained and particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.
It is one of many forms of meditation, if you think of meditation as any way in which we engage in (1) systematically regulating our attention and energy (2) thereby influencing and possibly transforming the quality of our experience (3) in the service of realizing the full range of our humanity and of (4) our relationships to others and the world.
Today, in the late afternoon on a sunny June day here in rural south Salem, Oregon, I had just set out on a walk through some paths on our ten acre property that lead to a community lake not far away.
I was idly thinking about what I was going to write about in a blog post when I got home. Which, as you might suspect, meant my mind was filled with thoughts about mindfulness.
I wasn't being mindful. I was planning what to say about mindfulness, a whole other thing. But a flash of white caught my attention off to my left. Suddenly I had jumped into being aware of the present moment, not a future blogging moment.
Either I had missed the daisies on previous walks, or now simply was the time for the daisies to blossom forth. Regardless, I was pleased to be jolted out of my mental machinations into an appreciation of beauty in the world outside my cranium.
A bit further along, the setting sun illuminated the fronds of ferns that grow copiously here in Oregon.
I always enjoy this part of the path that leads to the lake, because it disappears around a bend. Like life itself, the path only shows what is close at hand, not what is around the corner.
Ah, the shape of trees, backlit by the setting sun. I've seen this sight so many times in the 28 years we've lived where we are now. But that word, now, means that never before had I seen this sight, in this way, on this day.
Which made it magical. In a supremely ordinary fashion. Such is the power of mindfulness, which really is nothing more than what Kabat-Zinn speaks about in his first mini-essay, Beginner's Mind.
Suzuki Roshi, the Japanese Zen Master who founded the San Francisco Zen Center and touched the hearts of so many, is famous for having said, "In the beginner's mind, there are many possibilities, but in the expert's there are few."
Beginners come to new experiences not knowing so much and therefore open. This openness is very creative. It is an innate characteristic of the mind. The trick is never to lose it.
That would require that you stay in the ever-emerging wonder of the present moment, which is always fresh. Of course, you will lose beginner's mind in one way, when you cease to be a beginner.
But if you can remember from time to time that each moment is fresh and new, maybe, just maybe, what you know will not get in the way of being open to what you don't know, which is always a larger field. Then a beginner's mind will be available at any moment you are open to it.