Inspired by my recent binge-reading over at David Cain's superb blog, Raptitude, I've been practicing mindfulness as a new companion to my regular meditation practice. Quite soon into the practice, I had some subtly shocking revelations that I thought I would share.
Mindfulness interests me on a few different levels, perhaps the main one being how astoundingly bad I am at it. Like one of those functional puzzles (the horseshoes and ring for example), once exposed to the challenge I just can't shy away from it until I've gained some level of proficiency, if not mastery. The wandering, distracted mind is perhaps the true archetype behind all these contraptions, the Gordian Knot in your head.
And "astoundingly bad at it" is probably being generous. The levels of fractal depth I can reach, analyzing my mindfulness or realized lack of it, can lead one into some deep rabbit holes. It's as if you've discovered some mental M. C. Escher perceptual loophole that the mind then eagerly exploits.
There is a strong tendency in meditation practices as well as mindfulness practices to "achieve something" — even if this is just a momentary illumination, a small confirmation of effectiveness, or a subtle satori. But I'm starting to wonder if instead these practices are designed not to achieve something and instead help us to stop doing something.
I was in the shower one day about a week or so into the decision to practice mindfulness regularly. It was one of those rare days when I was actually quite proficient at staying with my sense perceptions. Of course, I was still in that "expecting something" mental mode, assuming that some eureka moment would pop up and validate my experiences and persistence.
While in the shower, I had the sudden realization that I'd been off "in my mind" and "lost in thoughts" for quite some time prior to noticing. However, coupled with the ongoing attention I'd been paying to my experience of the world when not off in thoughts (mindful awareness), the contrast between the two states of experience was shocking.
It is difficult to get across the impact this had on me, which of course is why one has to actually practice mindfulness to understand it. I realize that it wasn't so much the experience during mindfulness that was important as it was the resulting contrast it gave one upon the "typical" mindset and experience of being off in one's thoughts. It gives one a semi-objective vantage point to be able to really see what being inside that torrent of thought is like.
Taking a cue from the film "The Matrix", it struck me as to how detached I truly was from not only the world around me, but to my actual sensory experience of the present moment. I was off in this phantasmagoria of judgment, regret, revising of past actions, rehearsal, planning, the formulation of verbal defenses for anticipated criticisms, self-criticism, the assignation of self-critical thoughts to others, and then the defense of those imagined critiques — all of this happening at insanity-inducing levels of rapid-fire speed and context-switching.
Because I'd never consciously stepped out of this inner Noise Superhighway (a most decided opposite to the Information Superhighway), I'd never really perceived it for the cacophony it is. As I said, I was shocked.
I was living in this barrage of nonsense, junk thoughts — and a massive percentage of them upon even casual inspection were outright unhealthy. Those who've studied these topics in far more depth than I (psychotherapists and the Buddha) tell us that the mind (that stream of thought) is a form of self-defense radar, evolved by the brain and body for millennia before the prefrontal cortex (the "gray matter" of the human brain that allows language and self-referential thought).
The mind's role is to sort out incoming perceptions, determine if they are a threat now or in the future, then react accordingly. It also has a bias towards the negative ("better safe than sorry").
At any rate, until you experience this contrast subjectively, from the objective perspective that mindfulness brings, it's difficult to really grasp the enormity of this distracting inner illusion we so often find ourselves immersed within.
It's easy to assume — as I used to — that the aim of mindfulness is to appreciate the beauty in he mundane, or to realize how amazing even the most everyday experiences truly are. Perhaps at some point this is true. But I'm starting to think of mindfulness not as a state to be attained, but rather a way to un-attain the state we've inadvertently buried ourselves within.
In other words, mindfulness is designed to make us aware of what mindfulness is not.
From there, the techniques are also a way to condition the mind to default to these mindful states, in opposition to the defaulting to the "paranoid radar" state we seem to have unwittingly accepted as "normal". Like practicing the guitar, your aim is not to write songs or even play anything song-like — your practice is aimed at conditioning the brain and body to move and act without thought to achieve a desired action.
Mindfulness practices too are like the practicing of guitar scales — the desired result is not in the immediate effects of the practice, but in the accumulated experience and behavioral modifications that again result in your defaulting to alternative desired actions without conscious thought.
The Matrix does indeed exist, but it is constructed within, and there is thankfully a Red Pill. But you can't get out until you first experience for yourself that this Mental Matrix exists. Mindfulness seems to be the path which provides the proper contrasting experience to do just that.