Mindfulness as Stability and Investigation

Margaret LiederImage by speakingoffaith via Flickr
Mindfulness has sometimes been said to be a function of RAIN: Recognition, Acceptance, Investigation, and Nonidentification (Kornfield, 2008). Each of these four processes make its own contribution to the quality of mindful awareness, and I'd like to explore them today with an emphasis on "investigation."

Sometimes it's not clear that mindfulness is more than relaxation. It's true, mindfulness can often be relaxing, because we get less caught up in the thought patterns that agitate us. This stabilization of attention is referred to in the traditional meditation texts as samatha, and it is a feature of all mindfulness processes. If we think of mindfulness as constructed of RAIN, we can see that Acceptance and Nonidentification are largely samatha processes. Acceptance eliminates the nearly constant tension that we generate by judging and attempting to control our experiences. "I don't like this, this is bad, I want to change this, what can I do to eliminate this experience, what if that doesn't work..." is a familiar train of thought that can be pretty agitating. With Acceptance, we no longer get involved in that source of stress. Acceptance is a process that encourages samatha, or stabilization.

Similarly, Nonidentification also brings stability. If we refrain from identifying with an experience, we don't get so worked up about it. It's not so personal, and therefore not so important that we change it or control it. In Nonidentification, we learn to take our experience as it is, and our reaction to it is gentler and more flexible because we are not so driven by our narcissistic strivings. So Acceptance and Nonidentification both function to increase our stability, and they help mindfulness practices feel relaxing to us.

But mindfulness goes beyond relaxation and arrives at vipassana, or insight. Once we have established some stability and nonreactivity, mindfulness can help us to see our experience for what it is (Recognition) and to explore our lives more deeply (Investigation). Mindfulness can be thought of as asking the gentle question "What is it?" in a way that is continually supported by our breathing and our willingness to be present.

A Zen Buddhist story tells us that a monk was going on a pilgrimage, and another asked him, "Where are you going on your pilgrimage?" The monk replied, "I don’t know." The other monk commented, "Not knowing is most intimate."

Actually, intimacy depends on our ability to have an ongoing conversation with what is present. In intimacy, there is acceptance, of course, but also openness to what’s next, to what we don’t know. When we think we know something, we stop investigating it. There is a saying, “In the beginner’s mind, there are many possibilities; in the expert mind, there are few.”

What kind of investigation is mindfulness? Here’s a part of what TS Eliot said about it:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, remembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river,
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half heard, in the stillness
Between the two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now. Always
A condition of complete simplicity
Costing not less than everything

We are talking about a kind of investigation into what’s been there all along, but we have been unable to appreciate. An investigation into the source of the longest river of the endless present moment. We hear the waterfall of thought as it is, and recognizing it for what it is allows us to see through it, to hear the children in the apple tree.

Mindfulness tries to approach all moments and events with Beginner’s Mind - we are calm enough that we can be open to not knowing what it is, or what happens next, or how things are supposed to be. We approach each experience as if it were the only time we encountered this thing. Because it is! We might even say that the essential feature of mindfulness is the understanding that we are missing something: mindfulness starts with the premise that there is always more to discover. Because mindfulness is a process of ongoing exploration, it brings a richness to our lives that would otherwise be lost in our shopworn ideas and mental habits.

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Chris said...

Love the blog!

"Chris is Starving!"

Anonymous said...

This is so profound in my life. Practice of separating life's challenges from emotional reaction offers clarity in turn offering an objective view and clears a path to cope in a healthier and constructive manner...kudos to Stephen Hayes etc...