By Gerald “Strib” Stribling
I was told so many times as a child and young man to get my head out of my ass, that it became a kind of a mantra for me.
“He’s a good student,” many a 1950’s-era elementary school report card read in the comments section, “but he daydreams.” Well, let me tell you something. Today’s daydreamers are tomorrow’s grumpy old men who never want to leave the house.
Which brings us (well, me) to the topic of mindfulness, probably the most misunderstood and overused concept under the Buddho-dome.
Mindfulness. The marketing people at Simon and Schuster made me add a subtitle to the title of my book, which was a perfectly descriptive Buddhism for Dudes. But nooooo, it had to have the word “mindfulness” in it so the book would pop up more frequently during internet searches, so it ended up being Buddhism for Dudes: A Jarhead’s Field Guide to Mindfulness. I can’t tell you how much I hate that subtitle. But the big publishing houses, I found out, can be bullies.
There is no doubt that hyper-awareness of your circumstances (living in the present) is a big part of mindfulness. If you want to feel what hyper-awareness feels like naturally, get a conceal-carry permit and walk around with a gun in your pocket. It’s amazing how that lump in your pocket sharpens the senses.
If you want to understand the depth and breadth of the Buddhist concept of “mindfulness” you can refer to the Buddha’s own words on the subject, found in a document called the Satipatthana Sutta, a part of the Pali Canon—the “original” Buddhism.
Mindfulness is a heightened awareness of important stuff developed as a byproduct of concentrative meditation. But to be fully mindful, the Buddha suggested an awareness of just what we are supposed to be mindful of. These things can be thought through and even practiced during the act of meditation. There are four major “foundations” of Buddhist mindfulness.
I. Mindfulness of the Body: Your body is what you train yourself to concentrate on during meditation—primarily on the breath—but also your levels of comfort and discomfort. You see the body as a physical process, full of gurgles farts, and burps. You note what posture you’re in (appealing to your proprioceptive system) and your ability to know without looking where all your body parts are in space. Realizing the reality of your body that is made up of parts, like a car, only some of your parts are squishy and yucky. They include your limbs and organs, but also pee and snot and poop.
And if you think that’s gross, you come to fully realize the impermanence of the body (hence everything), by corpse-watching. You can still do that in Sri Lanka, in the mountain monasteries that frequently have a glass crypt with the unembalmed corpse of another monk rotting inside. Things rot quick in the jungle. Monks sit around the crypt and observe what happens to the body after death. The conclusion is that it’s garbage.
Well, we cannot in this modern age contemplate a rotting corpse. It’s bad enough when a possum dies under your porch. When the smell is at its peak, you’re out there with a claw hammer pulling up boards to find it, and when you do, it’s part mummified and part jellyfied, and so you offer a high school kid 25 dollars to scoop it out with a shovel and bury it in the back yard. Even so, the smell seems to linger for awhile (the most God-awful smell in the world). You’ll remember that dead possum. It is a reminder that you would smell the same way if your corpse was left out to rot.
Under Mindfulness of the Body there is a codicil called Clear Comprehension (sampajañña). I’m going to summarize Clear Comprehension as “knowing your ass from your hat,” an archaic phrase meaning you understand your situation. I’ll write more about sampajañña in a follow-up article to this one.
II. Contemplation of the Feelings: Like weather is to climate, so feelings are to emotions. Weather changes from day to day, but it’s just a part of what it’s like in the area year after year. Emotions are complex things and generally not a part of mindfulness other than to keep them in check. Feelings are what’s going on now, in the present, where you should dwell most of the time, since dwelling on the past leads to depression, and dwelling on the future is a symptom of anxiety.
Feelings come in three sizes: pleasant, neutral, and unpleasant. If you had sex last night, you probably feel pleasantly tired in the morning. Neutral is how you should feel when you meditate (this crap doesn’t work without meditation), and of course, unpleasant is a dead possum decomposing under your porch.
There are also worldly and unworldly pleasures. A worldly pleasure might be a cigarette or a snack after sex, like scrambled eggs and salami. An unworldy pleasure is tripping out during meditation, feeling the bliss that is possible to achieve, the first jhana. The closest thing I can compare it to is being stoned out of your gourd and having the giggles so bad you can’t stop, only better.
III. Contemplation of the Mind (State of Consciousness): This refers to the “background noise” of your mind, which can be clear or, like most people, cluttered with old habits, delusions you’ve savored over the years, and, worst of all, hopes and cravings. In Buddhism, consciousness is a sense, like seeing or hearing. A dead possum is unpleasant, or you can use a neutral approach to it—man up, and go bury the thing yourself.
Contemplating your “state of consciousness” is how you remain focused and free from distraction; these skills are developed through meditation, and often referred to as “being in the moment.” You’ve tamed your mind to be awake and aware of your present conditions, and the situations of those around you as well, if there is anyone around.
Bowling is a good analogy. Bowling alleys are noisy places, but when you step to the mark and hoist the ball under your chin, the din is there; but for a critical few seconds, it’s like it doesn’t exist.
There was a great commercial a couple of years ago. I can’t remember what the advertisement was for (that happens with all the great commercials), but it was a man and a woman in a dark restaurant—a husband and wife, maybe. They’re sitting opposite each other in a booth. She’s talking, and he is listening and looking intently into her eyes. Then, the most beautiful young woman in the world walks right by them, approaching from the man’s visual perspective. He never even blinks, much less look away from his female companion’s face.
Now, there’s a guy with his priorities straight. His karma, with regard to his relationship with the woman with whom he’s dining, is improved rather than damaged. Be focused, my friends.
The fourth Foundation, the contemplation of mind objects, will be examined in the article that follows up this one, “Old School Mindfulness, Part II.”
Editor: Dana Gornall