Mindful or Mindless?
Contrary to the popular perception, mindlessness is a step ahead of the mindfulness paradigm and lets you enter the world of pure consciousness, says Charles Shahar
Most people are aware of the French philosopher Descartes’ expression: “I think, therefore I am.” It is one of the cornerstones of Western philosophical thought. His basic premise is that if one has doubts about their existence, then they must obviously first exist — they exist enough to doubt.
Interestingly, from an Eastern philosophical perspective the opposite proposition is true, which can be summarised as: “I am, therefore I think.” Why is this distinction important? Because it goes to the heart of these basic questions: What is the nature of being? How do we define our existence? Is our mind and personality the true essence of who we are?
In Eastern philosophy, there is a basic premise that the ego-intellect-mind is simply a mechanism that has no awareness of its own and it is considered to be insentient. Behind this mechanism is pure consciousness. Without the animating principal of this consciousness the mind would not have the ability to cognise anything, would lose its cohesion, and actually not exist at all.
One can liken this relationship of pure consciousness and the mind to the light given off by the sun and moon. The sun is self-effulgent, whereas the moon shines with the sun’s reflected light. Without the borrowed light from the sun, the moon would remain cold and dark, and would certainly not be perceptible to our vision.
From an Eastern perspective, pure consciousness is akin to “being” or pure existence. It is the source of who we are. Ultimately, we are all manifestations of that same pure consciousness, and hence, in essence, there is no separation between any of us. In fact, according to the ancient Eastern sages, pure consciousness is the only reality that truly exists; or at least, the only truth that remains permanent and immutable.
We tend to think of the term “existence” as a reflection our life between the moment we are born and the instant we die. Its span can therefore be measured only as far as the dimensions of space and time are concerned, and it is obviously limited by how long our physical body is able to survive in this world.
However, the nature of the existence or being, ‘I am’ transcends the body and personality, and therefore space and time. Consider pure consciousness as the canvas upon which the forms and phenomena come and go. These fleeting forms never affect the canvas upon which this world is projected.
What does all this have to do with the distinction between mindful and mindless? The answer is… everything! But we first have to understand the meaning behind these terms.
The Mindfulness paradigm
The mindfulness approach has become increasingly popular in the mainstream as both a technique for meditation and an attitude toward living life in a fuller, more aware fashion. This approach has mostly a secular orientation and is lauded not necessarily for its spiritual value, but rather for its practical benefits in terms of promoting mental and physical well-being.
The approach itself involves focussing on the present moment and whatever is happening in both the inner and outer worlds. If thoughts or feelings arise, we are told to simply watch them, without judging or becoming identified with their content. Maintaining this attitude of watchfulness is not an easy task. It takes practice to cultivate sufficient detachment from our thoughts so as not to get lost in them.
The point is not only to try to keep your attention focused on the present moment, but also to let go of any effort or exertion of will and remain non-engaged; all the while remaining a witness to the goings-on of your mind. Rather than being swept away by worries or concerns, the practitioner lets them pass through their mind’s eye, without getting pulled into their vortex.
Mindfulness applies not only to the time we spend in quiet meditation, but to all our waking life. Teachers of mindfulness rightly point out that the mind spends most of its time living either in the past (rehashing or ruminating over its memories of experiences) or in the future (planning or worrying about future events). It very rarely truly experiences the present.
This understanding was brought home to me once when I interacted with my father just before he died. I had a few moments of utter clarity in which, for the first time, I saw just his being, and not my concept of him as a man or parent. I think it was the only time when I ever really “saw” my dad.
In that moment, I lived the present and was able to see beyond the veil of a superficial identity and personality, or my history with him. How many of us have experienced such moments of utter lucidity when the present moment is at the forefront of our attention? Mindfulness involves lifting the veil of our pre-conceptions.
The mindfulness approach is a laudable one. It has many similarities with Eastern approaches to meditation, and indeed to life. It can basically be summed up as follows: Mindfulness is akin to attentiveness. It involves focussing your attention and remaining vigilant and free of the vagaries of thoughts or events that can easily sweep us into their wake.
What is Mindfulness really?
We can now take the mindfulness paradigm a step further. The reason for this exposition is that contemporary approaches to mindfulness fail to answer two basic questions: Who is it exactly that is being mindful? What is it exactly that they are being mindful of? These questions harken back to the introductory part of this article.
The answers to these two questions are simple and can be summed up in one statement: Being is watching being. We can also say that awareness is focusing on itself, or that consciousness is appreciating its own reflection. What is important to understand is that it is not the mind that is being applied in the process of mindfulness, but rather awareness itself.
It is not the mind that is watching the thoughts while remaining uninvolved; it must be something that is beyond or behind the mind. What is there in the space between the thoughts? And what happens in those few perfectly lucid moments when thoughts dissolve and one is left simply experiencing the fullness of their existence?
I like to use the analogy of clouds passing through the sky. No matter how many clouds float by or how thick they are, the sky remains unaffected. The thoughts are like clouds that pass through the sky consciousness, but the latter is never touched by any of them and remains free and unmoved by their presence.
So, the mind is just an instrument of pure consciousness. You can have a focussed or attentive mind, and you can focus it on your thoughts and feelings. But it is only when you focus your consciousness on itself, that you will really come closer to knowing the essence of your being.
You can put all of this to practice by sitting and meditating on the space in front of your closed eyes. As you go deeper in meditation the gap between the thoughts will begin to widen. You can also watch where the thoughts come from and where they dissolve into. Eventually, the thoughts themselves will become indistinct and will disappear altogether. You will become mindless.
The Mindless state
When we say someone is “mindless” we generally mean it in a pejorative sense; as if they lack sufficient intellectual capacity, or they are spaced out or oblivious to what is going on around them.
But the mindless state I am referring to has a much deeper meaning. It relates to a state of pure awareness. As I mentioned before, you can experience this state in deep meditation, when the thoughts and stimuli of the world have receded and the fullness of existence becomes the foreground of your experience.
In the language of the mindfulness paradigm this state of pure awareness is about being truly in the present, but not in the sense of being in touch with your body or thoughts. What I am referring to is a state beyond space and time, beyond individual identity. We can call it “the eternal present,” meaning that it is always there. We just have to tune into it.
A state of mindlessness can be experienced in other situations, such as when admiring nature or a particularly impressive piece of museum art. You can describe this state as a complete openness of being. In a way, even though it is triggered by some outside event, it has many similarities to the state of mindlessness experienced in meditation.
In fact, this state of mindlessness is what we are constantly striving for. It is a state of perfect wholeness. We reach it momentarily when our needs or desires are met, and we experience a sense of peak satisfaction. But the problem is that new desires soon arise, and the mind again feels like it needs to fill an insufficiency.
The state of mindlessness reached in deep meditation transcends needs or desires. It also transcends any worries, preoccupations or doubts. There is no wavering mind to contend with. There are no ripples to be found in that state of pure awareness.
In truth, there is no incompatibility between the states of mindfulness and mindlessness. However, they are very different in that in the former, the person is watching the mind and body, while staying detached from their influence; whereas in the latter, the process is taken one step further. The person simply watches the space behind their thoughts, and eventually dissolves into it. There, no sense of individual identity remains, and thus, the practitioner becomes one with pure consciousness, pure existence.
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