Just imagine paddling for a wave. At that critical moment, when the board lifts as it begins to plane, there’s half a second before the wave sucks into a hollow face. If the take off isn’t set up with wave knowledge, effort and focus or there’s failure to fully commit you’ll get caught in the lip and go over the falls. If you hesitate for a moment you’ll be too late. You’ll wipe out as you drop. Without body weight centred over the back of the board, the rail won’t carve the line of the bottom turn.
If you get the take off right, get to your feet at that critical moment; back foot flat on the tailpad, back leg compressed, body upright as you drop in, the bottom turn just happens by itself. Everything is in flow.
People are distracted 47% of the time. There’s one exception to this overall trend and that’s when we’re having sex. We’re only distracted 5% of the time. Just imagine you’ve just stubbed your toe. There’s a split second when you are completely focused on the sensations of pain before you curse...
With the strong sensations of pain or an immediate threat to life or limb, or the pleasure and the connection that makes us feel loved and safe in an intimate embrace, we’re fully focused. Some other activities, like surfing, enable us to experience flow, fully absorbed in what we are doing. There’s a common theme to these activities; they capture our attention, have strong sensory inputs and power to engage.
Perhaps there’s another category of activities that can absorb that are less about sensory input or embodied activity. These could be intellectual pursuits of problem solving or a creative activity of some kind. These more intellectual activities are less focused on embodied awareness but still come with a strong sense of mastery and meaning.
So what happens when we are not involved in an activity that demands our attention? Perhaps we’re waiting for a bus or sitting in the departure lounge waiting to board a flight? Perhaps we’re sitting in the sun at the beginning of that holiday we’ve been looking forward to for months or perhaps we’re lying in bed trying to get to sleep after a busy day? The story starts! The mind finds something to think about: planning, daydreaming, worrying…
All kinds of meditation involve a conscious effort to focus attention on an object of concentration, be it a phrase repeated silently in the mind, a mantra chanted, a prayer spoken, a ritual performed, an object of sight like a candle or a visualization in the mind. Perhaps the simplest forms of meditation use just the sitting posture and the movements of the breath as objects of concentration.
It takes some effort to just sit upright, still, for more than a few seconds. Before long the mind wanders and as concentration lapses, the body begins to slump. The task is to notice the mind has wandered and bring it back to pay attention to sitting. Commonly, the sensations of breath, breathing in and breathing out, are used as the object of concentration. Sooner or later, usually sooner rather than later, the mind wanders and again, the exercise is to notice the distraction and bring the focus of attention back again to the sensations of breath.
With concentration practice the tendency for the mind to wander is interrupted and the capacity to concentrate is developed. Concentration involves directing attention at the object of concentration and monitoring the contents of attention. As we develop our capacity to concentrate, it gets easier because we are developing both these capacities, but this always takes some effort and some time.
When we use the body as the object of concentration, perhaps just breath and posture, we slowly develop greater sensitivity to awareness of sensations in the body. As we develop greater sensitivity to the field of sensations in the body it becomes easier to maintain concentration on the body, and easier to notice when the attention wanders off into some story or other.
In time it’s possible to relax the focus of attention and to rest the mind, absorbed in the field of awareness of sensations in the body. When thought forms arise in awareness it becomes possible to notice the movement of attention as they arise and then return attention to the field of sensations. With practice, awareness can become so absorbed in the body thoughtforms fade before they fully form.
Developing concentrative stabilization involves not just effort, but it’s only possible with a particular attitude. If, when the mind wanders we become frustrated, this just produces greater agitation and the effort we apply becomes a force of control. Concentration becomes a battle, where the unruly mind refuses to bend to the force of the will.
To allow the mind to settle we need to apply an attitude which releases self-critical patterns that are fed by control. Perhaps, counter-intuitively, effort can be applied without self-critical monitoring of failure or success to perform this unusual task.
This letting go of self-critical judgment and a controlling attitude is really an expression of patience and acceptance. These qualities are aspects of kindness and generosity - expressed with effort, consistency and focus to tame the untrained mind.
We can set this attitude up with the body. Upright and open chested, internal organs have space, massaged by the rhythm of the breath. Stress levels drop and testosterone increases as the body posture informs the physiology that we have self-respect and social status. We are safe, secure and awake.
It’s not that we can ever stop feelings of pleasantness or unpleasantness that come with sensations. We can just become more aware of the way we want pleasant feelings to continue or we want unpleasant feelings to go. We can learn to suspend a reaction to pain or pleasure, we can’t stop things feeling the way they feel.
And why do we do this? We do this because it helps us to make better decisions. It means we’re not being driven by our reactions. We can think things through. We can ask ourselves: “What will really help me to feel better?” This gives us the power to use our capacity for discrimination and choice wisely, enabling us to gain mastery over our lives.
Mindfulness is our capacity to monitor what we are focusing on and be aware of the tendency for attention to be drawn to movements of the mind that arise outside the focus of our attention. The more we practice monitoring attention, and develop sensitivity to sensations in the body using the breath and the body as objects, the easier this becomes.
During meditation it becomes possible to rest in the field of awareness of sensations in the body with little effort, and the focus of attention becomes broad. The mind remains settled,without attention being drawn into thinking, because it’s primarily absorbed in sensations in the body. The mind and body become more and more relaxed and movements in the field of awareness subside. The mind becomes absorbed in a formless field of sensations and the mental image of the body fades. Thought forms become unborn.
Does this formless field of sensations become pure awareness? Is there a point where changing thoughts, emotions and sensations cease to arise? Can the object of awareness become awareness itself without sensation?
This question is entirely hypothetical, at least for most of us. Up until this point (even if it is possible to experience pure awareness), there can be no such thing as awareness without being aware of something. There may be an attitude of acceptance and friendliness but there is always an object of awareness, be it pleasant or unpleasant, and there is always a need to make a judgment about what is the kindest or wisest thing to do.
Using the term, “non-judgmental awareness,” can suggest that awareness exists independently of experience, and with no content of awareness there must be no judgment of that content. Thinking that there is such a state of perfection can become the goal. This results in exactly the opposite of what is intended and mindfulness practice can easily become a trap rather than the means of letting go of destructive patterns of judgment and control, which sets up self-blame for failure to attain an idealised state.
Perhaps there isn’t such a thing as non-judgmental awareness but perhaps it’s a helpful pointer to something more complex? Perhaps this phrase helps people to suspend their reactions to feelings of discomfort and begin to explore them. If that is so it’s a useful term, but it conceals a danger. Sooner or later, things need to be explained just as they are.
- Mark Leonard