In an environment of hyper-promotion of the latest self-awareness fad, it is important and perhaps necessary to adopt a somewhat skeptical view, and to carefully reconsider what is meant by mindfulness in Zen.
I have heard it said, and am guilty of repeating, that if "being in the moment" were all there is to Zen, it wouldn't have lasted 2500 years. You may also have heard the phrase, "the Zen sickness of falling into the moment." Mindfulness, when interpreted as simply paying complete attention to whatever is happening at the present moment, can be a form of mindlessness. A blind faith in the latest mental trick, or spiritual secret, that has been discovered, revealed, and promoted, can simply lead to yet another obsessive blind alley.
Mindfulness as a practice and attitude taught in Buddhism may be characterized by one of the simplest teachings attributed to Buddha. He apparently taught his followers to pay attention to the breath, noting when they are inhaling, and when they are exhaling. Today we have added counting the breath in simple ways, as well as more detailed instruction on observing the full cycle, diaphragmatic breathing, et cetera. This basic practice is meant for beginners as well as long-time meditators, but is generally presented as a provisional practice and teaching — which, at one point, one assumes, would be transcended, if not altogether discarded.
I once had a visitor come into dokusan (one-on-one interview), who, after telling me his name and that his practice was counting the breath, made his bows and sat facing me as usual. I asked him just how long he had been counting his breath. He said, "About three years"! I suggested that he may want to stop counting his breath for a while.
The discipline, technique, or expedient means of counting the breath had, for this person, become a kind of obsession. Or, perhaps, a kind of avoidance technique — holding off a confrontation with what might transpire, had his attention not been so distracted by sustaining the counting. All meditations have this potential — to become extreme — and to end up becoming just another barrier we have placed in our own way.
In this definition of meditation, as conventionally understood, it is implicit that a subject (the person) is meditating upon an object (the breath). Other classic meditations would include paying continuous attention to one's feelings, one's actions, the actions of others, et cetera. Each involves the intentional direction of one's attention to a limited range of the spectrum of stimulus and reaction to which one is naturally subjected, on the cushion as well as in daily life. Zen meditation, however, becomes objectless, and thus subject-less, and so is not a meditation, as technically defined. The term most specifically pointing to this is shikantaza, or "just precisely sitting." In shikantaza, subject and object eventually merge, and go beyond meditation.
Mindfulness of What?
The idea of mindfulness can be — and I am afraid, is being — similarly misconstrued. In our rush to turn everything into an easily-assimilable (and marketable) bumper-sticker slogan, the finer points of meaning tend to be lost in the frenzy. When we ask the question, Mindfulness of What? — and the answer is simply a glib, Why, whatever is going on at the moment! — we have lost the thread (sutra) entirely.
It may be argued that mindfulness of the present moment, paying full attention to whatever one is doing, is a better approach than daydreaming (or texting) while driving. However, this does not begin to approach the meaning of mindfulness in Buddhism.
Buddha taught simple observation of the breath. Why? Why would such a stupid-simple teaching be deemed important, by such a person? Surely he could give his followers much better clues to deeper insight into the nature of the mind, than that.
One answer is, that we don't. Pay attention to the breath, that is. Under ordinary circumstances, the last thing that we are aware of is our breathing. Only when the straits are dire — we are in danger, or at peak exercise — do we become intensely aware that our heart is pounding, and we are short of breath, wheezing and gasping. Paying attention to the breath can be a wake-up call, forcing us to realize that we do not control the breath, that it is critical to living for the next five minutes. And that, like everything else, it is an impermanent phenomenon. It will stop someday.
But most of these meditative techniques are taught for the sake of discipline. Matsuoka Roshi would often say that "If you can put your whole self into this simple act of sitting (zazen), you will gain the power to put your whole self into everything that you do. You will become the strongest person in the world." Strong in the sense of spiritual confidence.
So these provisional teachings, in which the self is divided up into the breath, which we follow and count; and the posture, which we continually correct; and most directly, the attention and thought stream, which we come to observe as dispassionately as we do the posture and breath; are understood to lead to something else, i.e. insight into the true conditions of existence.
On the model of the Eightfold Path, the practice of Right Discipline (effort, mindfulness and meditation) helps to reinforce and modify Right Conduct (speech, action and livelihood); both of which contribute to Right Understanding (view and thought).
Thus it is clear that right mindfulness is not an end in itself. And it should be clear that the kind of mindfulness being touted in the media is not Buddhist mindfulness. It may be considered an initial and preliminary form of training the attention, but that is as far as it goes. The only point of being more attentive to the present moment is that we are usually not. Our "getting it" about mindfulness in this context does not magically transform our consciousness into insight. It is better than nothing, but just barely. And, like counting the breath, it can actually be a hindrance.
To glim an answer to the legitimate question this misconception raises, Mindfulness of what? — we can point to the Four Noble Truths. Buddha's first teaching outlines truths of which he became painfully mindful, during his night of meditation and awakening. These are the original inconvenient truths that we would all rather ignore, happily content within blissful ignorance.
That there is the existence of suffering (dukkha), the first of the four, seems overly pessimistic to dwell upon, to spend an undue amount of time paying too much attention to it, is morbid. Yet Buddhism teaches that we are to fully understand it. That existence itself is of the nature of suffering (impermanence, imperfection and insubstantiality) is no comfort, though rather lofty, philosophically. Further, that there can be no existence without suffering (change, attrition) is disturbing to those who long for eternity in heaven.
That there is a cause, or origin, of this suffering existence, opens the possibility of doing something about it. But when we learn that it is craving, or thirst — primarily our own — that causes our suffering, it is like a bitter pill. This is not something we want to hear, let alone accept or believe. Then we have to do something about it. We are to fully abandon it.
That there can be an end to suffering, or cessation, is good news. However, that what we have to go through to get there is depressingly difficult; and that we have to do it ourselves, is not. We have to fully realize it. And in this lifetime, if possible. There is a sense of urgency in breathing,
That there is a way to actualize the practice in daily life, so that it becomes a 24-7 exercise, is a bit of both — good and bad news — in that we may actually have to practice patience over time. But if we do, it may work. It is not a simple matter of implanting the latest buzzword or idea into our consciousness. Change Your Mind Day is another example. We can't simply change our minds. We have to fully follow the nonexistent Path.
These truths are like a bucket of cold water on our heated predilection for instant gratification, and our tendency to avoid pain and hassle at all costs. Our comfort level is reassured by the implied guarantee of "mindfulness." If we just learn what this new-fangled mindfulness thing is, we will live happily ever after!
In Zen, the application of Buddhist teachings begins in meditation, not in daily life. There is no gap between meditation and daily life, except those which we insist on putting between them. Of course, the popular programs would lose audience share quickly if they practiced meditation on screen. Talk about a snoozer. So it is necessary that they skip over that part, and go directly to the application — of any new variation on the health and happiness theme — to daily life. If we just practice mindfulness, all of our problems will disappear, without the bother and boredom of all that hard work. Happiness is, after all, a state of mind. No need to involve the body.
So part of this rant is obviously, and gratuitously, directed to the sorry state of public awareness and understanding of what we in Zen feel is so crucial to true happiness for all beings — the buddhadharma. But it is mainly directed to the choir, those of you who have some experience, and a serious approach to your own practice. Your practice-experience does not necessarily guarantee that you will not fall into this kind of vapid and vacuous view of a fundamental principle of Zen Buddhism. Please practice mindfulness of mindlessness, if nothing else.
On the cushion, true mindfulness will unfold in your consciousness. It is not simply an idea, a mental trick, or handy technique, to be applied in Zen. It is a truth with which your mind will become fully identified, and when you experience it you will have no doubt about it.