The Limits of Mindfulness, and the Limitless - Christopher Titmuss
Saranath, India, 2009
In the teachings of the Buddha, the Buddha endeavored quite a radical shift, in the priorities of human beings, and he took some new threads and themes, and one of them is mindfulness, and I'd like to address it, the benefits and the limits of it, and speak about that which is not of that.
Traditionally, and also in contemporary religion as well, we might say, perhaps the very key concept in religion has to be faith, it's unmistakable characteristic of religion. Faith being a belief in, essentially, that I cannot know or directly confirm for myself. So as a Christian, as an example, I may have faith in the virgin birth, and may have faith in the resurrection of Christ, may have faith in the belief in the after life. I may be Jewish, I may have faith that the Torah is the word of God, I may have faith in the various rules that have been laid down there, are important to observe and maintain as much as possible, my faith tells me that. I may have faith in the East in rebirth, that if I perform good deeds, if I engage in mediterius action, the outcome of that will be reborn in a better opportunity for awakening, for liberation, or I will be born as a monk in a particular environment which is supportive, this is all the act of faith, the act of faith, in the individual, the act of faith the prophet, the masda, the incarnation, the avatar, the book, the tradition, all acts of faith.
The Buddha weaved away from that, he actually doesn't use the word "faith" in the text, and he took a different exploration, and the primary shift was to have the willingness to let go of all of that, and put the emphasis on the value of what we are conscious of, and the investigation, the meditation, the inquiry into that, and therefore keeping as much as possible true to our experience. And to be extremely vigilant when, appropriately or not, we might move away from our experience, from what we see and know for ourselves, and to watch the view which arises, which may express the act of faith. That key concept is called Mindfulness, Sati. When it's accompanied with some clarity in life, we call it Satisampajanna, a mindfulness with a clear comprehension of what is being reviled, what is the experience is in the moment.
Currently, there is in the West in certain circles such as psychology and psychotherapy, a tremendous interest and mild exploration, we might say, of the potency and the power of mindfulness. The various program of MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction) Program. And this program gives a variety of invaluable and important exercises offer people to engage in, under the guidance of the psychologist or the psychotherapist, and has proved extraordinarily effective, sometimes in dealing with very severe chronic pain, sometimes dealing with migraine, sometimes dealing with very uncertain future, such as life threatening illnesses, dealing with variety of psychological problems, such as depression, anxieties, and providing people with the sources and the tools very effectively these programs to help people so to speak get back on their feet.
Those programs are being held and used in variety of hospitals, in a variety of workshops, and various MBSR teachers are using that. One could say in regard to this, (and this is one limit I want to touch upon today), that it is selecting of one feature of a major Buddhist practice, particularly in the Theravadan Buddhist tradition, to its credit, which emphasizes the great importance of mindfulness.
I remember when I was in the monastery, our day would start at four o'clock in the morning, and we had a very large gong there, and this gong in fact fell out of a B-52 Bomber airplan, which was ???? ….
in Northern Thailand, and they had forgotten to close the door, the hatch, and the bomb rolled out, but didn't explode, this was in the American war against the people of Vietnam, and when the bomb landed there, some of the devotees of my teacher, asked: Ajan, we'll empty out the bomb, and we'll put the empty bomb on a track and it will make a great gong for your monastery.
I feel there was a certain ironic justice, from being used as a bomb, it's now being used to wake up the nuns and the monks in the monastery.
With the gong, the day would start, and it was quite clear, (for the first couple of years I was the only Westerner in the monastery, and one Indian monk was my kind interpreter), how much love and appreciation and presence and value was given to being mindful. Some of the monks and the nuns, their deportment, their way of being, reflected and revealed such beautiful presence and mindfulness, the way they walked, the way they ate the food, the way the day went by.
And one finds – II found in myself – a deference to such moment to moment mindfulness, from the wake up to the end of the day, till nine thirty or ten o'clock in the evening.
When sometimes the Westerners would come in, it was 17 hours on the train from Bangkok to Natkorn-shree-dhamarat, which literally means "the city of the king of Dharma". Sometimes the Westerners would come in, sometime the missionaries would come in and try to save me, form myself I presume, so the teacher would send them over, the teacher had no concept of god, it was just not in the language, so the missionaries would come, speaking very good Thai, of course, would say to the teacher: We hear there's an Englishman in the monastery, can we go and talk to him? And then they would say to me, There's only one way to have contact with god, and Jesus was like the telephone operator, and the only way to reach god is by going through the telephone operator, who would ring god, and there's no other way to get to god other than through the operator.
I would speak to them and they would say to me, What are you doing dressed up like that? Shaved head, the robes etc. Why are you doing these Buddhist practices? I had a really lovely immediate response, I would simply respond: Jesus sent me. And then they didn't know what to do with it…
The tradition has great love and great respect for mindfulness, and as I said, it's exploration, In the west, in these programs and in some similar programs. The limit of it, is that it's taken a limb – to use a Buddha word – and easily can neglect or forget all the other limbs of the Dharma. So there may not be any reference to the profound and deep importance of ethics, there may not be any reference to looking into lifestyle, and taking care of what we use, there may not be any references to letting go, there may not be any references to service and to the acts of compassion, there may not be any references to the depth of meditation, to liberation, the total transformation of the life.
Yet, having said that, to a number of people, to their credit, sometimes the practice mindfulness itself is, and has become, a stepping stone to explore further. And I feel that anything which is a stepping stone to a greater vision has to count.
In looking at mindfulness, the four primary areas of it, and anyone who has any exposure, past or present, to the so-called Vipassana tradition, which there are many schools and avenues of it, if with mindfulness it has an object, and the mindfulness meets the object, and the mindfulness meeting the object is in order to be able to see the object more clearly, to see, observe, to use the power of attention, to power of mindfulness, to use the power of attention, to see an object in an undistorted way, this is a key feature.
Often, and sometimes I and others will use, but it's not quite precise, we often use the phrase: to see things as they are. There's nowhere in the Dharma of the Buddha that this is stated, it's a contemporary view. And the actual statement of the Buddha, the precise statement of the Buddha, is to see that which is becoming. In other words, whatever attention, mindfulness, you and I bring, whether in the formal meditation, sitting, walking, standing or reclining in the formal, whether it's in communication with another, whether it's looking at sights and sounds in a conscious and mindful way, whether s this "see things as they are" viewpoint, because life is so dynamic, because it's refuses to stand still, because it doesn't allow us to grab hold of a moment and keep it, because no moment is static, therefore, rather than the view of "seeing things as they are", which is a claim we sometimes make, because of the vibrant unfolding becoming process of nature that is going on, it's an enormous challenge to be in tune with the unfolding process.
If I think for one moment I can see someone as they are, I'm really deluding myself, and deluding others. Because no human being, who every we are, can actually stand still for a moment, there are too many dynamics, too many forces, too many events, changing us, and it's a huge challenge for mindfulness, to be able to really conscious not to things as they are, but to what's unfolding, what's becoming. That's equally apply to ourselves, obviously, and that's why the exploratory nature of Dharma practice has no finiteness to it: there's always much as a human being, because I'm not a static, fixed, creature, because as a human being I'm influence by what's going on around me, I'm influenced by what's in me, I'm influenced by the consciousness and the mindfulness, all this is going on I don't stay the same, they can't stay the same, and therefore the capacity to be with what's unfolding, with what 's becoming is a huge undertaking.
I might be seeing myself or someone else or the situation rather clearly – yesterday. But it may not be a bit of iota of support for today. Is there any wonder in our relationship in life, how the image and the picture and the story we carry of each other, may be quite unrelated to what's happening, to where we are today. And where we are today maybe quite unrelated to where we are tomorrow. If you don't believe me, just wait till you get back to the West, you look at yourself, you see some changes that are going on, and you go back to the west and the image of you is your old miserable self, or it may not be like that, or sometimes one goes back and one actually wishes to share the value of one's experiences, to perhaps share with others, friends or family, but often those people's life are so busy, so full on, that they don't have time to ask you! And you come home, been to India, and you feel enthusiastic, you've got some insight and some understandings coming, you don't want to return home as a missionary, but you'd like to share, nobody is interested!
In my time, I was away a little bit above average, ten years and ten days, and when I got home I said to my dear parents, Whatever you do, please do not come to the airport. Knowing my lovely parents, I didn't want a tidal wave of tears flooding the airport in either direction, so I'm walking home, ten years and ten days away, still got the same backpack, still the same flea-ridden sleeping bag, it's ten or eleven o'clock on a Sunday morning, and in a typically English style there's somebody out there doing their gardening, and he looks up at me walking towards home, and he says, Being on a holiday?... I said, Yeah…
And when I got home, not having seen my mother and father for this period, I looked at the front door and my mother gives me a bear hug, and my beloved father, who'd never lived more than 6 miles from the house he was born in, apart from when he had to go and fight the Germans, not once did he ask one single question about the ten years and ten days away. Not once! It was too painful.
Sometime we see in the changing of the mindfulness the opportunities to share experiences, the opportunities to talk with others. We've got to listen carefully, to be mindful of the other person's responses, is the other person essentially interested, and they may not be! And it's fair enough, why should they be interested in what we've been doing and where we've been, etc.
Another feature of the mindfulness is that mindfulness works in the field of the defined and limited. Therefore the mindfulness has the object, and going to the four primal objects, four mindfulness to give attention to, one certainly is the body, and never could that be more important than the times and the days we are living in, because of the fetish, the obsessionality around the body in the culture we live in. and something has gone completely askew in this relationship, and often we're not actually in touch with the body as organic and a mental process of diverse sensations, what we're seeing is the picture story, the image, the archetype, the form, and drawing on that, and with that we are classifying ourselves, because of the obsession with the body, with youth, which will bring the disappointment of getting older if we're attached to youth.
Another is beauty, and all the discriminatory forces and the games, and quite often having talked to beautiful women and men, over the years, quite often for beautiful people it's extremely difficult to be beautiful, and part of the reason for that is that some women, some men, do not know if there's a deep interest in their inner life, or if the attraction is towards the beauty. And this often leads to, and having talked to models etc, often leads to insecurity and uncertainty in oneself, because there's more attraction to the outer, the physical, and not enough deep connection with the person's inner, which generates great deal of vulnerability. It also transfers easily upon ourselves and if there's an identification with the body, with youth, with beauty, with energy, those three areas, if we' not clear about change, as the passage of the years go by, the level of anxiety and fear and worry will just increase. We've got to be in tune, and the mindfulness helps with this aging process, in order that, in the passage of the years, we can deal with one of the most common change which increases, as one gets older, though there's love and appreciation of the hurt that one has - sickness and pain may not be far away, and one of the characteristic of growing older, and the necessity to be extremely clear about this process, if one is not, one has less resources to deal with sickness and pain, and harsh truth is in the area of sickness and pain, if we don't deal with them well they become problem in the mind, and the Buddha says, the suffering of the body is then doubled because of the suffering of the mind, so you've got two lots to deal with. And the aging process, (and the young ones have all this to look forward to), the healing process just seems to take longer. The resources of the body, it just takes longer, so when one's throwing up, one's throwing up a little bit more when one get older, and when it's all coming out the other end, there's seems to be more coming out and it seems to last even longer! And when the coughing starts it doesn't last a minute or two, it goes on and on and on, Wow, look at these sensations which are going on lower end, upper end, in the middle, the whole catastrophe there, and then one the tragic error in judgment, first thing in the morning is too look in the mirror – it's positively the absolute worst time of the day to have to face one's face, and one sees, My God, and if anyone says, You look well, the whole day I feel great, I didn't realize you're 65, I thought you were 63! Never mind the fact someone thinks I'm two years younger, than I'm actually am.
So learn to be with the aging process. Because as many of us report, the body is aging, One starts off with dark hair and then nature comes along and gives me a whole new hair look! I never asked for it to be bleached. It just bleached it, and then it gets thinner! Don't have a light above your head because then you see how much – what's going on with this body, and it's falling of the top of my head, and it's growing out of my ears! And then it's growing out of my nose! It wasn't doing that 30 or 40 years ago!
And then in the genital area as well, I remember the first gray hair in the genital area, I thought, What does that hair knows that the rest don't? it's amazing phenomena. We got this body and this process of change and we just being mindful of it, learning to live with it and be with it and treat it with some lightness and some humor, because nothing is static, it can't be a static event, and we've got to be with that process and be unusually clear about it, so when the sicknesses come, and the pain comes, and sometimes we need the good resources of the contemporary medication and we need the good resources of meditation as well so that which is going on with the body is going on with the body and the mind is clear. This is the event, there's no doubling of the suffering because of the anxieties and the fears in the mind, and we need every drop of mindfulness practice, we need every drop of meditation to be clear, because no matter what our scientists tell us, Oh, we'll have a cure for cancer, we'll have a cure for dementia, we'll have a cure for heart disease. All these promises. Even if it was found, it will still mean that the body will die from something else, it will go.
Therefore, the process, the dynamic being mindful of what is becoming, day by day, as the Buddha's teachings, therefore there's no resting on the laurels of "I had seen things as they are". The very statement "I have seen things as they are" is a statement of being out of touch. What's going on with the day…??? 31:23
Rather similarly, in the whole area and field of feelings, I may be wrong, but I don't know of any teachings on this earth, which have so comprehensively, encouraged and nourished and referred to and spoke about the great importance of feelings in humans' life.
Whether it's the Dukkha, painful, difficult feelings of body, heart, mind, whether it's the Sukkha, and the tremendous levels and depth of pleasure, at the most superficial, to deep happiness which doesn't seem to have any cause or condition. The exploration of feeling, the Buddha said, this is truly worth exploring, and to see what the feelings are, and he refers to both the outer feeling and the inner deeper feeling, and a strong encouragement to look at the deeper inner feeling.
So sometimes, we're in a communication, and we're chatting, and it can be just about everything, past and present, and I was going here and I was going there, and I'm doing this and she's doing that, the chat, the gossip, the frivolous speech, etc.
And pleasant and unpleasant feelings are weaving through every single word that's going on. And suddenly we just stop for a moment, so there is the display, humanly enough, of the range our outer feelings that are going on, and we just stop for a moment, and in the stopping for a moment we just get in touch with a deeper inner feeling, and we just listen to that, and immediately has a kind of moderating, softening, steadying response on this diarrhea of words rushing out of our mouth, and the corresponding one rushing into our ears, and we just touch base in the moment, and the Buddha teachings he says," See the feeling in the feeling", Am I as a human being getting kind of lost if my outer feelings?
And all the projections, and the duplications, and the infatuations which go on, he said,
These are the outer feeling, the externalized feelings that go on. And can I, in the recognition of that, look deeper, catch myself, am I getting caught up in such a way that I'm loosing anther feeling which has a depth to it, and this deep feeling I want to be interested in: What is this deep feeling, this deep sense.
There's tremendous generosity and fluidity in the body of the teachings, and the Buddha uses…One develops… Very beautiful line, I remember as a monk being told this and then reading it in the text and it was enormously comforting, He says, One develops mindfulness to the extent necessary in order to abide independently and freely in this world.
And the reason it gave me a great relief is because I'm not the most mindful of creatures, and sometimes some people have exaggerated the place of mindfulness to such a degree of some identifications and attachments to being mindful all the time, trying to be mindful in every moment, and this ideal of trying to be mindful in every moment, is an unlivable?? situation. The mind and life will not correspond, we need to be mindful just to the extent necessary in order to abide independently and feely in the world.
And the third area, remember: body – to be clear about. The feeling life – to be clear about. The movements of the states of mind, is the third one. And it also applies inwardly and outwardly, to others as well, because you and I, we are in constant contact with each other, and sometimes we really need to be as clear with the outer, and the language of the Buddha has this inner and outer in both ways, which means with ourselves and outer, simply because, to be clear, other people's states of mind are as unreliable as our own.
In the group today we were speaking of exploring of romantic love and relationship. It might be deep friendship, it might be the relationship of sexual intimacy, or whatever, and I mentioned in there that I have kind of small guide line which I endeavor to remember, endeavor to be mindful of, and sometimes a few words inside which have gone deep, which been reflected on the importance of it and the simple truth, I found for myself really helps in areas which are important in relationship. One of the small factors I found which helps me to be mindful of, is when someone who may be doing Dharma service, or it might be a partner, or my daughter or some friend, makes some reference to the future which is not as I would think, in other words, sometime one of my Dharma friends would say, Oh, Christopher, next summer I'd love to organize this for you, would love to help coordinate this event. And of course I'm delighted this person is offering a service. And maybe a few months later, not unusual, the person says, I'm not sure I've got the time, I just started a new relationship. (Why relationship has got be so totally consuming, but sometimes…) I've got a new job, I'm immigrating, or whatever it might be, and the small mindful reminder for myself is: this is what this person is saying in this moment. That's all. This is the communication is this moment. Otherwise I can kind of reactive: you said this, you promised, you agreed to, and now you changed your mind, and now you're letting me down, blah, blah, blah.
Rather than getting into all this agitation and loosing one's center of gravity, it's: this is what this person is saying in this moment. And the less pressure we put on people, the less we try to control their lives, something lovely and beautiful has more chance to emerge.
So the acts of mindfulness: bodily life. Be very clear about it. The feeling life – be very clear about the feeling life. As the Buddha says, Life comes together, life meets in feelings. Our thoughts, our states of minds, our activities, what we do, what we say, the way we act, a primary condition for every thing that we are engaged in, whether we realize it or not, is the influence of feeling. Feelings is indispensable, even if the person is the most theoretical, the most abstract, she or he the most lost in their head, the most professorial, scientific, philosophizing, listen a little bit more – the feeling life is in it. Always it's in there, somewhere.
In regard to the states of mind. Can we learn with each other, as our practice of mindfulness, to hear a state of mind as a state of mind? No matter what is said, no matter how it is said to us, no matter what the tone, the attitude, the statement, the support, the accusation, the kindness, the blame, the personal attacks or whatever, can we be so clear – it's a huge challenge for us – that no matter what we listen to and what we hear, it's about a state of mind. It always was, and always will be.
Sometimes with that, we think, other people should be much more developed and advanced than we are, and we sometimes have the expectations which we have built up around the mindfulness on someone else being more clear than we are. And we say, Why don't you… you should… and the notorious one liner: you know me well enough, you should intuitively know that something is going wrong with me. Why should one? Why do you expect everybody or the closed ones to really know intuitively what's going on with us, we use this a lot.
By now, the very memory may be weighing on the present, which the whole problem is one thinks one has known somebody for a long time, once you start thinking, I know somebody – it's the end, it's the death of the relationship, we are too unpredictable, there are too many difference emerging and unfolding. Once we think we know somebody, then memory is replacing the immediacy.
The forth one, is the Dharma itself. The Dharma Lokkah, into our world bringing Dharma teachings and Dharma practices, and bringing the diversity of it.
Having said all of that, there's some dedicated practitioners who need to, either temporarily or for a long time, let go and renounce the idea of practice and being a practitioner.
If you have a view, and you notice it in your thought, in what you write, and in what you share, and it goes around me and my practice, me and my working on myself, me and my looking into my life, all of that of course requires mindfulness and awareness, body feeling states of mind, relationship to the world, relationship to the Dharma, all of it is required, but please, at some point – let it go!
And if you've got all that Dharma practice, and then you've got a whole load of therapy, (apologies to the therapists here), piled up on a whole lot of practice, it's very hard to get out of that construct. It's very hard to liberate oneself from the view: I've got so much to work on in myself. And there are limits to mindfulness. It's a frame, it's a model, it's a methodology, it’s a priority, it's a particularization: body, feelings, states of mind, Dharma, objects. Mindfulness addresses all of that appropriately, in the general language: I'm working on myself. And if you keep to that language, if you keep to the idea of practice, that which intended to liberate you – becomes your prison.
You'll be imprisoned by your story, you'll be imprisoned by your view of your self, you'll be imprisoned by the very practice which is supposed to liberate you from practice. And that’s a deadly end. It's a killer. The whole purpose of the path is to get off it! Is to be done with it!
And some practitioners are so holding to the path, which is only a metaphor, there's not a scrap of evidence to show it anywhere, so holding to the path, are hesitating to take the risk of engaging with life, for period – shorter or longer – let the whole construct of path and mindfulness and meditation, and all the benefits and the limits, because it's a limited consciousness – need to put all of it aside, to drop it, to let it go, to abandon it, to give it up, (there probably will be no-one in the meditation hall tomorrow, but please keep listening), I have to take the risk here…
In order that if we sit, if we walk, if we stand, if we recline, there is the no interest whatsoever in any idea, deep or shallow, of working on oneself. There's no interest in any personal benefit whatsoever. This idea, which is called, which runs as the thread through the path, is really given up, let go of, abandoned, so that since mindfulness is defined by its object – breath, body, states of mind, teachings, practices, Dharma, or whatever – since mindfulness is defined by the object – it's got to be limited.
It's defined by something which is limited, subject to change, subject to movement. If I let go of that, if the of working on myself is let go of, I'm not interested in working on myself, I've been doing it for days, weeks, months, years, every conceivable method that's available and I don't even live in California! And in that loss if interest in working on oneself, taking the risk – what's then? Is there a potential of a sense of that which is limitless?
So if I say, "I see the benefits and limits of mindfulness, I see the benefits and limits of awareness, I see the benefits and limits of working on myself" – the whole construct is dropped. Perhaps even at the risk of some confusion or uncertainty, or whatever it may be, perhaps the sense of that which is unconstructible, the Buddha words: That which cannot be put together, perhaps the sense of that begins to touch on consciousness.
So all the methods and the forms, the techniques, the sitting the walking, all the practices that we do – useful benefit, obviously I'm a keen proponent of that, but not forgetting for one moment: it's all constructing together. It's all formed together for the welfare of a human being, and for the rest of life, in fact, in a direct or indirect way. Yet, deep interest: what is that which is not constructible? Which my mind, with all its good intentions, cannot form together, which is liberating, which is freeing is some way or other. And that kind of knowing will put into correct perspective all that which we call limited, constructed, all of that which we call put together.
The Buddha teachings are consistent on wavering pointer to the unformed, the unconstructed, the unputable together, the limitless, which has not limit to it. And then sometime, the realization of that, when it gets beautifully, crystally clear, is a shift of consciousness. And the shift, sometime strongly apparent or sometimes just in a gradual, almost secret way in the consciousness, one realizes that the limited, the constructed, the formed together, is the confirmation of the unformed. They are not too different. It's the mirror of the other. It reveals, it confirms the other. And it's such a lovely, precious, sweet freedom. One is free, because liberation is unconstructible, I can't put together freedom, I can't make it come together, and that freedom is so precious and powerful in its movement – it allows us to engage totally in the constructed. It allows us to continue to participate in the forms, in the practices, in the methods. It allows the total unconditional letting go of it as well.
And this freedom is just precious, it's emancipating force of the human being.
Engage in the practice – and drop it.
May all beings see the formation and constructed in life,
May all beings appreciate the great value and limits of mindfulness,
May all beings know clearly the unputable together.