By Vanessa Zuisei Goddard
Mindfulness is an ubiquitous term these days, so its easy to forget that behind it is a long history dating back to the birth of Buddhism. Anapanasati, “mindfulness of breathing,” was the meditation practice of the Buddha, and as such it is at the heart of the Four Foundations of Mindfulness: mindfulness of the body (especially the breath), feelings, mind, and thoughts.
Traditionally, the term sati translates as the ability to remember or to keep an object in mind. More generally, it is the ability to see the object we are concentrating on during our meditation—the breath, a thought, a feeling, our pure awareness. In order to be mindful, we must also have alertness and resolve. These two in turn rest on appropriate attention—awareness that matches the object of our meditation. This is important because it’s possible to be concentrated yet mindless. It’s possible to be very focused and not see the object we’re focusing on at all.
Halfway through my first week-long silent meditation retreat I was assigned to work in the garden of the monastery where I was living. The gardener was an old British nun who walked me over to one of the raised garden beds and asked me to weed it. She didn’t check whether I’d ever tended a garden—I hadn’t. But how hard can it be? I thought, and plunged my hands into the dirt with relish.
I crouched next to the bed with my sleeves rolled up to my shoulders and began to pull weeds as fast as I could, determined to show the old nun that no one could work faster
than I could. I had been doing meditation for three days, so my mind felt relatively quiet. But I was also buzzing with energy. I worked quickly—feverishly, really—without giving much thought to what I was doing.
At one point, a voice in my head interrupted my trance. These weeds are growing awfully straight, I heard myself say. I felt a quick tightening of my stomach, a warning sign that I chose to ignore. I was doing too well to stop, I thought, so like an ox, I lowered my head and kept going.
At the end of an hour and a half, when the work period was over, I proudly called over the nun to show her my work. She took one look at the bed and quickly walked away, muttering to herself. Confused, I stood where I was and waited. On the other side of the garden now, the nun stood a couple of feet from the fence, her back to me. She looked up at the sky, then down at the stones under her feet. She shook her head, shrugged her shoulders, then came back to where I was standing.
“You pulled a whole bed of carrots,” she said. It was a long time before I was assigned to the garden again.
Unfortunately, this kind of mindlessness is common. In our attempt to concentrate, we stop thinking or discerning. This is not what the Buddha had in mind, of course, when he spoke of mindfulness. Pulling carrots for weeds is one thing. Yet every day there’s a thousand ways in which we miss what’s right before our eyes, and almost invariably, the result is conflict.
Think of a morning when you woke up with a vague feeling of discomfort. Maybe you had a bad dream, maybe you ate something that upset your stomach and now you’re feeling off. Maybe you’re processing an emotion you’re not even aware you’re having. Not being aware, you walk around feeling out of sorts. But you don’t like this, so you unconsciously look for release. Looking, you will find. The stack of bills your partner has left on the dining room table, your son’s muddy boots by the door, your roommates’ makeup on the dresser, are all perfect excuses to start a fight. So before you even know what’s happening you’re yelling, dredging up every instance of carelessness the other person has shown during the past ten years. If you’re lucky, they’ll know to walk away and not engage again until you’ve come to your senses. If you’re not, they’ll join the shouting match.
A consistent meditation practice can help us to quiet the noise of our minds through the development of concentration, while mindfulness helps us to pay attention to our experience in a very basic, unfiltered way. In the example above, mindfulness helps us to first realize that we’re feeling something. The next step is to discern what we’re feeling and how to respond to it skillfully instead of reactively.
Imagine a man, says the Buddha to his monks whom he’s teaching about mindfulness, who craves pleasure and avoids pain, who wants to live and does not want to die. Imagine this man has been charged with carrying on his head a bowl filled to the brim with oil that he must deliver to a beauty queen singing and dancing in front of a throng of adoring fans. Carefully the man must walk through the crowd without spilling a single
drop, for if he does, a swordsman walking behind him will chop off his head. “What do you think, friends?” says the Buddha, “Will this man let himself be distracted?” No, of course not, they say. “Well,” he says, “the bowl of oil is mindfulness. This is how you should train yourselves in mindfulness of the body. Give mindfulness the reins and take it as your ground; steady it, consolidate it, and undertake it well.”
Taking mindfulness as our ground means remembering to pay attention moment to moment. It means remaining alert and resolute in our desire to be awake and present to our lives. Why? Because as this unusual sutra points out, our lives actually do depend on it.
I once heard a teacher say that returning to our breath is nothing less than reclaiming our lives. I believe he was right. Every time we come back to the breath, we return to our bodies and to this present moment, where our lives are actually taking place.
Practicing mindfulness of the breath is to give mindfulness the reins. It is to take it as our ground, our anchor. I myself have often used this image when I’m feeling unfocused, tired, or agitated. On the inhale, I let my abdomen be suffused with breath. Then I picture the exhale as the anchor holding me steady in the roiling waters of my mind. Resting my awareness on the expansion and contraction of my abdomen, I let all thought, all feeling, all sensation, be held by this breath anchor.
Over the years I’ve seen there is no storm that my breath cannot weather. Sometimes the waters are calm and my boat steady. Sometimes I find myself in the middle of a hurricane in what feels like a flimsy wooden raft. Yet my experience tells me that I have
the ability to ride these waves no matter their size, and that the closer I get to my breath, the more strength and stability I have.
So, starting with mindfulness of the breath, we can let breath be our guide, whether we’re sitting quietly or going about our daily lives. No matter how familiar we think we are with our breath, there is always more we can learn from it. We could study it for the rest of our lives and never exhaust its teachings. It is that vast, that deep, that all-encompassing.