Mindfulness is Full Engagement
Robert Rosenbaum & Arthur Bohart
© 2020, American Psychological Association. Paper accepted for publication in forthcoming issue of The Humanistic Psychologist. This paper is not the copy of record and may not exactly replicate the final, authoritative version of the article. Please do not copy or cite without authors' permission. The final article will be available, upon publication, via its DOI: 10.1037/hum0000166
Mindfulness is Full Engagement
As clinical and neuropsychologists and mindfulness and meditation teachers, we have had many conversations between ourselves and with colleagues, practitioners and lay people about various aspects of mindfulness. In this article we share some reflections on mindfulness that developed and evolved over many silent sittings, drinking of cups of tea (and wine), or just thinking out aloud to ourselves and to each other. These are divided into various themes in a form of “Questions and Answers” with added commentaries and discussion on the musings. For convenience and accessibility, we have identified the questions in bold italics. We hope our inquiry provides a source of reflection for others’ ongoing explorations.
What is Mindfulness?
I like the definition my friend Alan Senauke offers: “One takes the scattered pieces of actions or awareness and re-collects them in wholeness” (Senauke, 2016). My own definition of mindfulness is “complete engagement of body-and-mind.”
“I thought mindfulness was ‘paying attention, on purpose, nonjudgmentally, in the present moment.’” That definition was popularized by Jon Kabat-Zinn for his program of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) (Kabat-Zinn, 1994). He intentionally removed Buddhist terms and concepts from mindfulness as taught in MBSR, wanting to keep it secular so it would not alienate people who might be put off by any religious or spiritual roots. This removal has some advantages, but it also loses something in translation. The definition is provides a good working model for MBSR, but each element of the definition also has some limitations and problems.
Mindfulness, Attention and Awareness
“Surely mindfulness is about paying attention - though I notice neither of the definitions you suggested included attention.” The problem with saying mindfulness is about paying attention is that everyone assumes they know what “attention” is. As a neuropsychologist, if you ask me to assess a patient’s capacity for attention after, say, a head injury, I have many different tests I might use to assess vigilance, sustained attention, divided attention and so forth.
To use a metaphor: if you think of attention as a kind of beam of light we shine on objects, then the beam can be narrow or wide, bright or dim. The beam can be moving or remain on one area (Wachtel, 1967). So now we have 2 x 2 x 2 matrix for a minimum of eight dimensions of attention. Furthermore, visual attention functions differently from auditory attention, tactile attention, and so forth. Taking the five sense attributes multiplied by the eight dimensions, we now have forty kinds of attention. That is not even taking into account how attention varies continuously - the beam is not bright or dim, there are many gradations. In addition, it is rare to only use single sensory channels; for example, we usually rely on visual and auditory attention when we are listening to a speaker. So we have to take the permutations of combining five sense modalities into account. Nor does this reflect the fact that attention can be recursive: we can attend to how we attend. In fact, this latter kind of attention is crucial to traditional Buddhist mindfulness training.
This is not just theoretical. You might try looking at an object with a sharp, focused gaze, then soften your eyes so that your peripheral vision widens and you see more of the room. You will probably feel different with a sharp focus than with a relaxed one. There are significant consequences to the modalities of attention we engage in. For example, as we get older, our hearing gets worse, so we rely more on visual attention. So if you are sitting across from someone you might have no troubles taking in what they say, but if they are facing away from you or in another room, you have to struggle. It is common for an older person to worry their spouse is becoming demented because “they don’t remember what I tell them.” Often it is not dementia: the problem is the conversation is not taking place face to face, and so the information never got well encoded in the first place.
Think of what you need to do in order to drive “mindfully.” Yes, you want to focus on what is in front of you, but you also want to periodically scan a wider field to be aware of who is behind you and in the lanes on either side of you. To do that, you need to disengage attention from what is in front of you. It is also a good idea to be alert to any strange sounds the engine makes, and pull over if you hear any grinding noises. If you become sleepy you need to stop and take a rest, or ask someone else to drive, but to do that you need to be aware of how alert you are. Awareness is not the same as attention.
“What do you mean, awareness is not the same as attention?” There is a great deal of cognitive science which demonstrates we are affected by many things in our environment even when we are not paying attention to them. When we are in a warm environment, we rate our personal relationships as more intimate - “warmer” - than when we are in a cool room or if we are holding a cold drink (Zhong & Leonardelli, 2008; IJzerman & Semin, 2009). Behavioral economists (Kahneman, 2011) have shown that when there is a contributions jar behind the coffee pot in a break room, people will put more money into the jar if there is a picture behind it with a human face eyeing you - even though the coffee-drinkers, on questioning, cannot remember what the picture was (or even whether it was there).
Granted, we can get into language problems and semantic arguments about whether people were “aware” of what was influencing them if they were not “conscious” of them. Certainly if no part of the organism were “aware” of the temperature or the picture, it could not influence them. The fact that we do respond to things we are not paying attention to says to me that awareness is not just a matter of conscious or not-conscious, as if awareness is an on-off binary phenomenon. I would say that there are certainly qualities to awareness; when you are pleasantly warm there is a pleasant “feel” you may not notice, but on some level are aware of.
This means awareness is not so much paying attention to something separate from you, or being cognizant of some object or idea; rather, awareness is a matter of how you harmonize with the reality of your immediate experience. This aspect of harmonizing with all being is crucial to Buddhist mindfulness, but is omitted from the popular definition.
Art wrote a poem to express this, and in our working on it together, our poem arrived as follows:
It’s not a matter of emptying or not emptying.
It’s not a matter of awake or asleep, alert or fuzzy.
It is a letting be, a letting in.
As if I am a room and I am contemplating what’s in it -
What passes through, the door opening,
breezes wafting, people passing in and out.
Deer come in, graze, startle, bolt:
storms come in to blow themselves out.
I’m not in the room….just that I am we are the room is.
A matter of thereness, a smidge of crossing-with
things being things being
Mindfulness and Psychotherapy
“Even so, intention is important, isn’t it? So paying attention on purpose must be an important part of mindfulness.” Yes and no. This gets us into two issues: goal-directedness and “who” is the agent in mindfulness.
Many psychologists these days have a positivist bias. They have learned that if you want to accomplish something, it helps to set clear goals. While this is true, it’s also limiting: you may get to your goal but discover it’s not what you thought it would be and does not wind up satisfying your needs - especially since your needs may have changed in the process of reaching your goal.
Being goal-directed has the virtue of narrowing your field of effort. That very narrowing, though, can get in the way of finding solutions. You can spin your wheels and dig yourself in deeper. We know from neuropsychological research (e.g. Goncalves et. al., 2018; Wrongska, Kolańczyk & Nijstad, 2018) that an excess of reliance on task-focused brain processes tends to be effective for accomplishing short-term, clear results but also leads to a diminution in creativity and the necessary byways of divergent thinking. You know this experience if you have ever been unable to remember something, and the harder you tried, the less you could retrieve it: you had to put it aside for a while, so it might come to you when you least expected it.
This is very important for psychotherapy. Of course when “therapeutic mindfulness” helps clients to stand back, suspend judgment, and become participant-observers with their experience it frees attention to roam beyond the highly narrowed attention which accompanies despair, threat, hopelessness, and a lack of a feeling of control over one's life. Here mindfulness is akin to what all therapies do. But in the current climate, where the focus tends to be on setting clear treatment goals and assessing how well they are achieved, such a focus turns mindfulness into a technique which limits its transformative potential. The emphasis shifts more to control than to discovery. Therapy then runs the risk of becoming a kind of treatment machine, and we run a risk the Taoist philosopher Chuang Tzu warned about two millennia ago (Chuang Tzu, c. c.319 BCE/1968): falling prey to machine worries can eventually lead to machine hearts. When our therapy becomes mechanical, it adopts a narrow beam of attention which does not allow room to roam, to scan or hover as needed until it stumbles upon the startlingly different or unexpected. To the extent therapy insists on having narrow goals, it constrains the possibility of stimulating a creative shift in perspective. For such shifts to occur, they do not need more time, more sessions; they need an expanded field of liberation.
This is why client-centered therapy in its pure form - as practiced especially in England, but also in Chicago - is almost a kind of co-sharing mindfulness. The therapist is not supposed to have any goals whatsoever for the client. In fact, one therapist-trainer makes her trainees sign a pledge not to have any goals for the client. The only "goal" is held by the therapist for themselves—to be present and try to empathically witness and listen. When someone reflects your own experience back to you, it strengthens both your own reflexivity and the sense of a wider intersubjective reality (Ikemi, 2017). So it is the pure experience of being-with, listening, and being there with the client that is the avenue for clients to realize themselves.
Buddhist practice also aims at this kind of liberation, and so its practice of mindfulness is about one's whole being, not just a skill to control one's anxiety or depression. It is related to living a "good" life, so to speak, or a "rightful" life, much more than about a skill to manage one's emotions. This differs from the current "therapeutic" use of mindfulness, but it would be a tragedy if therapists lose sight of how acting ethically, caring for other beings, etc. is itself a way of being therapeutic for oneself along with others. For this reason Buddhism advises against meditating purely from a self-centered standpoint, as a way to achieve your personal desires (Magid & Poirer, 2016). It’s not that Buddhism regards personal desires as bad: rather, Buddhism views personal desire as creating suffering because in its isolating individuality, it is inherently delusive.
Psychologists know that our desires are allied with preconceptions which prejudice our perceptions and influence our behaviors - often outside of our awareness. Many of us who are Buddhist practitioners as well as psychotherapists are concerned that by presenting meditation as an instrumental technique for self-improvement, mindfulness becomes a skill to acquire.
I (Rosenbaum)) have a much treasured photo of my daughter at approximately six months. She
has no words yet, but in the photo, her eyes are open. Is she mindful? If we think of mindfulness as a skill, it might not make sense to say that my daughter is mindful. I would argue, though, that it is rare to find any adult as mindful as an infant: they drink in the world with full awareness, with a minimum of adding or subtracting to the impressions they register. I’ve recently witnessed the birth of a healthy granddaughter, and I have been impressed, marveling at her development during the first few months, how she is constantly “waking up.” You can see little dawnings of awareness in her eyes, in her musculature, in her responsivity as body sensations and her reactions to them begin to register.
The problem with much that is written about mindfulness is that it takes too much for granted. This is ironical, given how mindfulness involves, amongst other practices, the cultivation of radical innocence, bare awareness and the humility of not-knowing. I suggest we do not know what we mean either by the word “mind” or the word “fullness” - leaving “mindfulness” as virgin territory to explore. Perhaps mindfulness is that quality which, no matter how much it is practiced, remains unmarked; for all the intercourse we have with mindfulness, moment by moment, it is always virginal even while being infinitely wise. It is like the sky: clouds do not hinder the sky. Neither do thoughts, feelings, sensations, urges or material substances impede mindfulness.
If we treat mindfulness as a technique, as a skill which can be acquired, mastered and enlisted in the service of personal accomplishment, it devalues meditation as an activity in itself, without needing any end to justify it. It also risks making meditation a self-centered activity, a competitive sport to see who can be the “most mindful” and win a gold star, or the oft-asked question, “Am I there yet?” This will ultimately be self-defeating. It reminds me of how on treks in Nepal I often hear tired hikers ask their Sherpa guides “how much further?” The Sherpas always smile and respond “not far now” – whether it will be another five minutes or five hours to the next stopping point. The Sherpa is really saying “enjoy yourself with each step!”
Mindfulness From a Buddhist Perspective
So, what is mindfulness from a Buddhist perspective? In traditional Buddhist practice, mindfulness is a natural human faculty common to everyone (Fronsdal & Erdstein, 2016), but it tends to become obscured by our self-centered preoccupations. It is natural to want something out of meditation practice but the solution, in Buddhism, is to practice not for one’s self, but for the benefit of all beings. That includes you but is not limited to you. Hence, the traditional way of cultivating mindfulness does not rely just on meditation, but on living a life in accord with ethical precepts. If you live by right action, right livelihood, right speech, and the rest of the Eightfold Path, cultivating kindness and compassion, mindfulness emerges naturally.
Buddhist practice is largely a matter of gradually realizing that you are not separate from everyone and everything. This includes the practice itself, which is not an exercise in individual effort, but an activity observed within a community - what Buddhists refer to as the sangha. This is consistent with modern public health research, which consistently reminds us that personal health is dependent on the health of the community as a whole. While MBSR certainly can be very helpful for individual practitioners, if you live in a place with bad air and bad water, where many other people are ill and, unvaccinated, and can become vectors of disease, sitting on your cushion will not stop you from getting sick.
More fundamentally, the very act of meditation is not purely a matter of individual talent or effort. If you approach meditation this way you’ll strain and get frustrated. Meditation requires us to let go and open up, to become receptive to mindfulness and become a vessel for mindfulness - not its master. My teacher Sojun Mel Weitsman (Weitsman, personal communication) liked to quote his own teacher, Shunryu Suzuki saying “to think you are the one who is meditating - this is a big mistake.”
There are many meditation practices which help us tune into this. It is good be aware of the breath, to be able to notice thoughts are just thoughts, sensations are just sensations. Labelling them as such is helpful - it makes us less likely to feel compelled by our thoughts and feelings. But the purpose of the meditation is not just to make us more capable of recognizing thoughts, and to recognize “I am not my thoughts.” The Abhidhamma breaks experience down into its “bits and pieces” so that we can stop identifying with any of them. Meditation fundamentall aims even further, asking “who are you really? Who is it who is thinking, feeling, sensing? Who is it who is aware?” Gradually or suddenly, we come to realize there is no unchangeable essence to this self. This is the truth of interbeing.
“OK, so ‘attention’ and ‘purpose’ have some problems. You probably would agree that being ‘nonjudgmental’ is an important part of mindfulness?” I think “ajudgmental” might be a better word. The problem with being “nonjudgmental” is that it carries a whiff of the very moralistic fervor it tries to eschew - as if it’s referring to a dimension of right/wrong, good/bad. Besides which, if you are attached to being nonjudgmental, you can be very disapproving of people who you see as being judgmental!
In Buddhism, we do not renounce good judgment; in fact, we cultivate discernment. Traditionally, insight meditation helps practitioners develop the ability to become not only aware of our experience, but also to recall it in the light of the precepts and the contexts of “right action,” “right concentration,” as set forth in the Eightfold Path. But this is not “right” as opposed to “wrong.” Rather it is “right” in the sense of “just right:” what fits the situation, what promotes wholeness? Mindfulness helps us be aware whether our thoughts, actions, and speech are in keeping with what Taoist philosophers referred to as “the Way.” Many people refer to the Tao, the Way, but have overlooked that Lao Tsu’s verses are titled the Tao Te Ching. While there are many translations of “te” I prefer to translate it as “rightness” – the concordance between the Way and its expression in everyday activity (Rosenbaum, 2013). So “right” does not require us to be detached from what is happening: rather, “right” behooves us to cultivate a sense of inner navigation, of recognizing whenever we stray off the path so we can realign ourselves to be in harmony with whatever response a situation calls for.
It helps, when meditating, to let go of judgments of good and bad. But this does not go far enough. Consider Dogen’s (1233/2010) instructions for meditation: after saying “Do not think good or bad,” he adds, “Do not judge true or false. Give up the operations of mind, intellect, consciousness; stop measuring with thoughts, ideas, and views. Think not-thinking….beyond thinking” (pp. 907-908).
We want to cultivate a mind that is not composed of thoughts, feelings, impulses, and perceptions but rather the “Big Mind” which is the container for thoughts, feelings, impulses and perception. Sometimes we call this the “mind of clover.” This Big Mind does not discriminate, so sometimes it is called “mirror mind:” whatever appears is reflected. It’s important to recognize reflections are just reflections, not reality; it’s also important to become intimate with the mirror itself. Becoming more aware of our egotistic prejudices, our cognitive biases and predilections based on likes and dislikes, we polish away at the blockages and blind spots, smoothing out warps in the mirror which distort the bare “suchness” of whatever arises. We begin to realize how much we think of as “me” is merely bumps and scrapes on the mirror; conversely, we begin to let go of the images of ourselves which cloud the mirror.
Of course, we’re human. To the extent we represent the world “in” our minds, we will always misrepresent it. But cognitive science and philosophy are helping us learn that perception is not necessarily a matter of representation: there is also a direct “resonance” which responds to and embodies all we experience (Lakoff & Johnson, 1999; Locatelli & Wilson, 2017). Mindfulness moves us away from knee-jerk reactivity - where our awareness arises from an experience - to an observational mode, so we can be aware of an experience. But it does not stop there; mindfulness deepens until we begin to lose our hold on self and object and instead enjoy what Buddhists call “dependent co-arising:” our awareness arises with an experience.
To say this another way: we start with being unaware, taking for granted our perceptions are real, thinking our feelings are who we are, and feeling we are who we think we are. Mindfulness helps us get a little distance from the thoughts and feelings and perceptions; it’s not just a matter of becoming aware of the body and breath, but of providing a little space around them: we cultivate an attitude where we - to use U Jotika’s and U Dhamminda’s (1986) mindfulness instructions in the Satipatthana Sutta - “dwell perceiving again and again the body/breath as just the body/breath, not mine, not I, not self, but just a phenomenon.” Then, as we turn awareness on itself, we dwell in body and mind, thought and feeling, as not mine, not I, not self and also not other than mine, not other than I, not other than self. We and the world arise together, linked by need and love.
Returning to the simile of the original mirror, drawing on the Shobogenzo essay “Old Mirror” (Dogen 1241/2010; Rosenbaum, 2003) we can ask: “what happens when a clear mirror faces a clear mirror?” The response is: “smashed into thousands of pieces!” (p. 209). We’re back to the multitude of beings we encounter at each moment, millions upon millions. This is why mind is beyond measure - and mindfulness is beyond measure.
Mindfulness—“The Nuts and Bolts”
“That all sounds kind of mystical. Can’t we get back to the concrete nuts and bolts of mindfulness?” There’s nothing more mystical than concrete nuts and bolts. Here’s what Dogen (1243/1997, 1249/2004a, 1249/2004b) has to say about the mind:
Mountains, rivers, earth, the sun, the moon, and stars are mind.
At just this moment, what is it that appears directly in front of you?
There is a knowing apart from passionate thought and discrimination……. It makes one raise one's eyebrows and blink. It makes one walk, stand, sit, and lie down, be confused, get into trouble, die here and be born there, eat when hungry and sleep when tired….
Blues, yellows, reds, and whites are the mind. The long, the short, the square, and the round are the mind.
It [the mind] has thinking, sensing, mindfulness, and realization
and it is free of thinking, sensing, mindfulness, and realization;
it is fences, walls, tiles, and pebbles
and it is mountains, rivers, and the Earth….
“Is that concrete enough for you?”
“You’re giving me a headache. I just want to live life fully. That’s why I like to practice mindfulness, it helps me not think too much, and just be in the present moment.” Being sincerely whole-hearted is good. Not thinking too much is good. Understanding is also good, but it should not get in the way of acknowledging the reality of what Buddhists call tathata, “suchness.” Although the suchness of being “in the present moment,” is vital, it is not at all what most people think it is. And mindfulness is nothing if it is not going beyond what people think things are, to the reality of what Suzuki (1967) called “things as It is.”
Mindfulness and Temporality
I first became interested in meditation when, in college, I heard Ram Dass (Richard Alpert) lecture and then read his book Be Here Now (1971). I had not received much instruction in meditation at that point, so I just sat down, followed my breath and said to myself, “OK, here! Now!” And as soon as I said that, I realized I was a little late, a little after-the-fact, separate from the immediate moment. So I kept trying and trying to get the delay between perception and awareness, experience and labeling, down to where there was not a gap. I failed repeatedly, but kept trying until I realized it is not possible. Time is not something separate from us. We think of time as if it is a thing, occupying space with a certain length or width; we say that a future event is “approaching” or “coming up” and a past event is “far behind us.” But where is this “moment” we’re trying to be “in?”
Many modern physicists advocate doing away with the notion of time entirely; in equations which attempt to reconcile quantum mechanics with general relativity, the “time” terms cancel each other out and vanish. Einstein famously commented (quoted in Dyson, 1979, p. 193) that time is an illusion, but a very stubborn one. Even those physicists who advocate retaining time in their mathematics do not talk about is as its own entity, but as “space-time,” and agree it may be a field but is not a tangible unvarying “thing” - clocks “tell” time differently if they are sea level versus the top of Mt Everest, and run faster or slower according to the speed at which they move. Of course, subjectively, we all have had the experience of the variability of subjective time - a boring meeting which seems to go on forever, a lovers’ tryst which ends all too soon - and these subjective “measurements” of time are just as valid as our unreliable clock conventions because time is ungraspable. The Diamond sutra long ago noted that it’s impossible to clasp hold of past mind: the past is gone. It’s impossible to seize hold of future mind: the future is not here yet. What most people forget is that it is also impossible to clutch hold of present mind: the present cannot be grasped.
“In which case, what time do we practice mindfulness in?” In his essay The Time Being, Dogen (1240/2010) observed that “the mind arises in a moment; a moment arises in the mind.” His conclusion? “The self is time.”
I like to re-phrase it: you are the time of your life.”
You cannot have the time of your life, but you constantly, continually are the time of your life. Mindfulness brings this home to us. Since we are not separate from time, every moment is all there is, and every moment is us - together with all beings.
“I don’t like this. There’s nothing to hold on to.” This is mindfulness: the living realization there is nothing to hold on to, and our responsiveness to the dynamic, ever-changing experience of living-and-dying, self-and-other. It’s a dance which is quite beyond our liking or not liking.
Liberation arises from mindfulness not because when we become more aware of what is going on we gain more control (though often we do discover a wider field of options) or seize more power (whose temptations are risky). Mindfulness is not a method, but an invitation. It is healing precisely because it cannot be grasped:
Living-and-dying and coming-and-going are the mind. Years, months, days, and hours are the mind. Dreams and fantasies, and flowers in space, are the mind.
The spray of water, foam, and flame are the mind. Spring flowers and the autumn moon are the mind.
Each moment is the mind.
And yet it can never be broken.
(Dogen 1243/1997, p. 40-41)
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