Uposatha Day Teaching for the Full Moon
Let’s look in on our master potter once again. There he is spinning a pot on the potters wheel, with his eyes fixed on his fingers, and his fingers carefully and slowly shaping the clay. We notice that he is not listening to music in his studio. His cell phone rings and he ignores it, in his mind just notes that it rang and lets it go. Suddenly there is a loud pop, the door of his kiln flies open and flames shoot out. He carefully removes his fingers from the clay without disturbing what he has acheived so far, carefully detaches the fire extinguisher from the wall and advances to the site of the new mishap.
Mindfulness is simply to remember what it is you are doing, it is staying on task or taking up a new task at the proper time. It is an extremely important skill , in fact it underlies almost any other skill. In Buddhist training we cultivate mindfulness as the basis of all of the other factors of the path. The opposite of mindfulness is distraction, so we can think of mindfulness as a kind of guard for the senses and for what arises in the mind. It is the nose in the little slot on the door of a speakeasy that demands a password. Many people think of mindfulness as awareness, but actually it is more a matter of choosing what to be aware of.
How do we train ourselves to be mindful? Seated meditation is the simplest way. In meditation you are given a task, most generally to focus the attention on some object. For instance, your task might be to focus on the breath. We quickly discover that this is difficult, because the mind wants to wander off to more interesting or pressing things. We forget, sometimes for minutes at a time, but when we remember we bring the mind back to the breath. We are practicing mindfulness, or failing to practice it as the case may be. The breath is the only thing that should know the password, but we get distracted. With practice we actually get very good at it; we still get distracted but only for seconds rather than minutes at a time, and less and less frequently.
The beginning meditator is surprised and delighted to discover that the ability to stay mindful carries over to other tasks off of the cushion, generally to simple clearly defined physical tasks which do not require much thought. In fact, a lot of the things a potter does. For instance, if you are cutting potatoes that can be a mindfulness opportunity. Keep you mind on the cutting and nothing else for the few minutes you are engaged in this task. In fact, make the task a little more challenging: try to cut the potatoes into pieces of equal size; if you drop your mindfulness the sizes will drop their uniformity.
Mindfulness becomes difficult when there is too much going on at once: when the kids are barking at you, the dog needs a ride to his piano lesson, the TV is trying to sell you something that is whiter than white, your cell phone is ringing and you don’t know how you are going to pay the mortgage. So, we cultivate simplicity wherever we can. This tends to reduce potential distractions. One way we can do this is by actually simplifying our lives: don’t make too many commitments, don’t live beyond our means (don’t have debt), don’t own a lot of things that just clutter up our living spaces, and require cleaning and maintenance. Another way is to make a habit of doing one thing at a time; yes you can give up your addiction to multitasking. If you are working in the kitchen, DON’T listen to the radio. DON’T leave the TV on all the time. DON’T talk on the phone while driving. The basis of Soto Zen meditation is shikan, “just.” Shikantaza, for instance is meditation, just sitting, and in fact in this technique we simply let go of everything that arises that is not sitting, even the breath. For many a daily task X we can practice shikan-X: just walking, just chopping potatoes, just brushing teeth, even just driving when you get good at mindfulness. This is great mindfulness practice.
Another way to create opportunities for mindfulness is to have something to be mindful of. Mindfulness is remembering what we are doing, so it is important to be able to define exactly what it is we are doing. We actually spend a lot of time not knowing what we are doing and hoping something important will come to snatch us away from it. Instead, ritualize your activities. Religious rituals are very good for mindfulness practice, that is probably their main function: in a religious ritual there is no doubt about what you should be doing when (unless you have not learned the ritual functions, in which case you are on the spot because you know others have no doubt about what you should be doing when). However everyday activities can be ritualized: Get up at the same time, do the morning things in exactly the same order every morning, etc. A blanket rule is often taught in Japanese Zen: Leave No Trace. This means, if you cook, then you have to clean up. If you sit down to write letters then you have to put your things away before you move on to the next things. This creates automatic clarity about what your task is, and how thoroughly you should perform that task: NO trace. Cleanliness is Next to Godliness, as many Christians are aware. Why? Because it gives a great opportunity to cultivate mindfulness. If you finish sleeping, it is time to make the bed. At the completion of every task, check to make sure it is really complete. This means that if you open a door, walk through it and close the door, you should make sure the door is really securely closed. You can use your own imagination to find ways to ritualize your day.
We live in a culture that actually discourages mindfulness. We love to multitask and think that life is boring if a lot of things are not going on at once. We get addicted to the dispersed mind. This is not a Buddhist way of being, which is to relish simplicity. We love to drink alcohol, which disperses the mind so much we forget our cares, often while fostering new ones. Most of what we call modern conveniences are actually just ways to avoid being mindful. For instance, we have different buzzers that go off to remind us of something we would otherwise have had to be mindful about, such as fastening a seat belt. We think ritual is boring in our culture. When we walk through a door our minds are already on the other side before we even touch the door. Where did our task go?
One of the most important of the Buddha’s teachings is the Foundations of Mindfulness Sutta, which is the basis of Insight Meditation or Vipassana. In this the Buddha recommends the cultivation of mindfulness in attending to specific objects of meditation that foster penetrating insight into the nature of reality, that is a direct experience of Right View. These include mindfulness of breath, mindfulness of elements, of skandhas, of states of consciousness, of phenomena and so on, particuarly with regard to arising and falling.