I was introduced to the practice of mindfulness by S. N. Goenka in 1974, a few weeks after being ordained as a novice monk. Together with a group of young Tibetan monks and Western students of Buddhism, I attended a silent ten-day Vipassanā retreat in Dharamsala, India.
During the first three days we cultivated mindfulness of breathing by focusing on the sensation of the breath as it passes over the upper lip. After a while the fugitive passage of inhalations and exhalations consolidated into a stable point of sensation at the center of the lip. This point then became the exclusive focus of the meditation.
In becoming more concentrated, I started seeing flashes of colored lights and patterns in my mind. They did not last long, and we were advised to pay them no attention. By the end of the three days, I had settled into an unprecedented state of focused attention, which I could sustain for several minutes at a time without distraction.
On day four, we moved our focus from the upper lip to a point at the top of the head. From there we carefully expanded our attention to the rest of the scalp, the face, the ears, the neck, until we reached the torso. Then we slowly continued through the rest of the body, along each arm and leg in turn, until we reached the tips of our toes. Once this downward scan was complete, we repeated the procedure in reverse until we returned to the top of the head. We spent each meditation session “sweeping” the body from head to foot and back again.
At first, my experience was patchy. Some parts of the body buzzed, tingled, vibrated, and pulsed, while other parts felt almost completely insensate. As I persisted with the exercise—it was all we did for several hours each day—the dead zones began to come alive until I felt my entire body as one single mass of quivering sensations.
In a deep, reassuring voice, Mr. Goenka instructed us to pay attention to the range of pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral feelings associated with these sensations. A pain in the knee breaks down into physical reactions triggered by the stress on the joint due to sitting cross-legged for long periods and a subjective feeling of that condition as unpleasant. In refining mindfulness, one learns to differentiate between physical sensations or sounds and how one feels about them, thereby enabling one to dwell in a keenly responsive but less reactive state of mind.
Mr. Goenka told us to notice how even the most stubborn sensations and feelings came and went. I found that if I probed deeply into a piercing pain in the knee, at a certain point it would “switch” from being something solid and unpleasant into a rapidly vibrating pattern of sensations that no longer hurt as much. I realized that what I experienced at any given moment was co-created by the physical processes of my body and the way I was conditioned to interpret and react to them.
I remember a time when I was seated cross-legged outside on the grass between meditation sessions in an ecstatic, silent, openhearted awareness while the gusts of wind rising from the plains of the Punjab below Dharamsala seemed to blow through me. The sense of a separate world “out there” being observed by a detached subject “in here” began to break down.
All this took place more than 40 years ago, but its impact remains with me today. It was my initiation into mindfulness, which has been the basis of my contemplative life ever since. Far more than just a technique, mindfulness offered me a new sensibility on life as a whole, an entirely other perspective on how to be a practicing human in the world.
My Tibetan Buddhist education and training during the two years before the retreat had been an ideal preparation for this practice. I was used to spending much of each day cross-legged on the floor, so long hours of sitting meditation did not trouble me. My daily reflections and studies—on the preciousness of human life, the imminence of death, renunciation, existential commitment, an altruistic resolve, and emptiness—provided a fertile soil of value and meaning for mindful awareness to take root in.
I had thought deeply about impermanence and selflessness. Now I was experiencing them viscerally. I found myself part of the living fabric of human experience into which I was inseparably woven yet was at the same time free to examine and explore. Mindfulness, I discovered, was not an aloof, detached regard. Its practice served to sculpt and shape the inner contours of my solitude.
Nor was the idea of mindfulness new to me. For many months I had been studying Shantideva’s A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life. The entire fifth chapter of this 8th-century Indian Buddhist text is devoted to the practice of mindful awareness.
Mr. Goenka provided the tools to turn Shantideva’s teachings on mindfulness into a felt reality, while Shantideva’s reflections provided an ethical dimension for Mr. Goenka’s contemplative practice. “If the elephant of my mind,” wrote Shantideva, “is firmly bound on all sides by the rope of mindfulness, all fears will cease to exist and all virtues will come into my hand.”
The purpose of mindfulness is not just to be more aware of the breath, bodily sensations, and feelings. For Shantideva it means to be constantly mindful of one’s ethical aspirations. Mindfulness is compared to the gatekeeper at the doorway of the mind and senses, alert to any impulse that threatens to divert you from your goals and undermine you.
“The thieves of unawareness,” he remarks, “follow upon the decline of mindfulness and rob you of your goodness.” They circle around “waiting for an opportunity” to break in and take possession of you. Mindfulness is a heightened attention that notices the very first stirring of reactive impulses and neurotic habits before they have a chance to take hold. “When, on the verge of acting, I see my mind is tainted,” Shantideva tells himself, “I should remain immobile, like a piece of wood.”
The piece of wood is a metaphor for equanimity, not indifference. Mindfulness is a balanced, reflective stance in which one notices the meanness or sarcasm that rises up in the mind while neither identifying with it nor rejecting it. One observes with interest what is happening without succumbing to either the urge to act on it or the guilty desire to ignore or suppress it. This entails a radical acceptance of who and what you are, where nothing is unworthy of being the object of such attention. You say “yes” to your life as it manifests, warts and all, with an ironic, compassionate regard. Through sustaining this nonreactive stance over time, mindful awareness becomes the basis for one’s ethical life.
This perspective is spelled out in the 14th-century Tibetan lama Thogmé Zangpo’s commentary to Shantideva’s text. For Thogmé Zangpo, mindfulness is “the recollection of all one aspires to let go of and realize,” while awareness is “knowing how to do that letting go and realizing.” Mindful awareness thus encompasses the entire project of human flourishing. To be mindful means to remember to let go of compulsive reactivity and realize a nonreactive way of life, while to be aware means to know how to refine the psychological, contemplative, philosophical, and ethical skills needed to achieve these goals.
Ever since the Vipassanā retreat with Mr. Goenka and the study of Shantideva’s A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life, the contemplative and ethical dimensions of mindfulness have been inseparable for me. Mindful awareness both embeds my attention in the raw immediacy of experience and serves as the moral compass that guides my response to that experience.
“What is the power of mindfulness?” asked Gotama more than a thousand years before Shantideva. “The noble practitioner is mindful: she is equipped with the keenest mindfulness and awareness; she remembers well and keeps in mind what has been said and done long ago.”
I do not regard myself as a particularly accomplished meditator. I know others who appear far more dedicated to meditation than I am. Had I been more serious, surely I would have committed far more time to the jhānas than two weeklong retreats. Yet despite my interest in this practice, I have little inclination to spend weeks or months further refining or deepening it. One reason for this lack of interest is that I still notice, many months later, how the effects of these jhāna retreats continue to influence my attention and awareness not only in formal meditation but in everyday life.
Collectedness (samādhi) has now become more integral to my daily practice. My meditation has become more embodied and I give greater value to contentment, rapture, and well-being as part of the process.
Jhāna practice has helped me understand that the traditional Buddhist distinction between “stillness” (samatha) and “insight” (vipassanā) can be misleading. While it might be necessary to present them as distinct practices at the outset, as one’s meditation matures they become increasingly inseparable. In theory I knew this from my Buddhist studies. Yet it was only through doing these jhāna retreats that I understood what it meant in my own embodied experience.
Over the years I must have spent many thousands of hours seated on a meditation cushion, but I still get distracted, listless, and bored. On a typical retreat, I will have good days and bad days. I can sometimes be overwhelmed by an obsessive worry that plagues me for hours. My mood can swing between elation and despondency from one moment to the next. There can be long periods when I do not meditate formally at all. Often I feel like a dilettante.
So why do I persist in an activity that in many respects seems to have made little difference to what goes on in my own mind? I have learned that the value of meditation is not that it changes the content of your experience. It changes your relationship to that content. All the worries, egotistic fantasies, lusts, and pettiness that surge into consciousness are simply the result of previous conditions over which I have little control. They are naturalistic processes that happen independent of my volition. I do not choose to feel them. All I can do is be mindful of them as they arise, recognize them for what they are, and not let myself be too influenced or swept away by them.
In trying over the years to lead a mindful and ethical life, I may have reduced the conditions that provoke the most egregious forms of reactivity. By not acting on those reactions, I may not reinforce them as much now as I did in the past, thus lessening the frequency of their occurrence. Yet how can I know that such benefits are not simply the result of maturity or other factors that have nothing to do with formal meditation practice? Can I be sure that I wouldn’t be experiencing the same thing now even if I had never sat a single hour cross-legged on a cushion?
Scientific studies into the effects of meditation are seeking to answer these questions. While some of the findings suggest that meditation may indeed be a key factor in producing such changes, it would be premature at this point to draw sweeping conclusions about its effectiveness.
As the person in whom the effects of meditation unfold, I am probably in the worst position to judge them. I am too close to the process to be able to see with any clarity the consequences of a practice that I have been doing for so long. Rather than ask me, you should ask my wife, my brother, my old friends. I doubt their answers would be unambiguous.To integrate contemplative practice into life requires more than becoming proficient in techniques of meditation.
In the end, the only thing that really matters for me as a meditator is how well or badly I respond to the challenges and opportunities presented by the situation at hand. If my contemplative practice fails to contribute to my flourishing as a person in my relationships with others, then I have to question the purpose of spending months and years practicing it. Every moment in life offers the chance to start afresh.
I can embrace what is before me, let go of what holds me back, then speak or act in a way that is not determined by my fears, attachments, or egotistic conceits. Although I frequently fail in my attempts to live in this way, I am convinced that mindfulness, collectedness, and questioning are crucial to my ability to do so.
I likewise do not doubt that by training oneself in contemplative disciplines one can achieve nonordinary states of mind that might sound incredible for those unfamiliar with these things. When Leigh describes dwelling for long periods of time in the jhāna and immaterial absorptions, I have no reason to disbelieve him. fMRI scans of Leigh’s brain in meditation have shown different areas lighting up as he enters different jhānic states. Yet I suspect that the ability to access such altered forms of consciousness is due to a range of factors other than formal training. Not only are some people more highly motivated to achieve such states, they may be more temperamentally and perhaps neurobiologically suited than others to enter them.
“We had the experience,” wrote T. S. Eliot in “The Dry Salvages,” “but missed the meaning.” The meaning of contemplation must not be confused with the experience of contemplation. To be able to dwell in a deeply focused, ecstatic, and clear state of mind is in itself meaningless. You can train and develop your spiritual muscles to an exceptional degree without necessarily flourishing much as a person. Your meditation is meaningful to the extent that it contributes to your becoming the kind of person you aspire to be. And since an ethical vision is integral to your life as a whole, it will inform, suffuse, and transform your contemplative practice.
To integrate contemplative practice into life requires more than becoming proficient in techniques of meditation. It entails the cultivation and refinement of a sensibility about the totality of your existence—from intimate moments of personal anguish to the endless suffering of the world. This sensibility encompasses a range of skills: mindfulness, curiosity, understanding, collectedness, compassion, equanimity, care.
Each of these can be cultivated and refined in solitude but has little value if it cannot survive the fraught encounter with others. Never be complacent about contemplative practice; it is always a work in progress. The world is here to surprise us. My most lasting insights have occurred off the cushion, not on it.
Excerpted from The Art of Solitude by Stephen Batchelor, ©2020. Run with permission from Yale University Press.