Thursday, February 05, 2004


[Another email to Chad. Not meant to be scholarly at all, so no snickering from actual scholars. Consider this more... "pastoral" in intent, as Christians would say. Chad’s question to me was: “What is mindfulness? And I don't want to hear any shit about heartfulness.” My reply--]

What is mindfulness?

Isn't it Louis Armstrong who, when asked what jazz is, said, "If you gotta ask, you'll never know."?

A Zen master would smile at that.

But we're academics, you and I, and our sworn duty is to ruin a perfectly good world by drawing arbitrary schematics all over it. So in that vein, I provide the following answer.

Mindfulness is key in Buddhism, whether we're talking Zen or any other form. What "the mind" is varies depending on the literature you're reading. Indian lit from the first few centuries of Buddhism will reveal an already highly-developed philosophy of mind/consciousness, in part because Hindu thought on the subject had already explored much of this territory. Indian thought has been (ironically, perhaps) downright Aristotelian in its ability to parse and schematize reality. The mind has more functions and states and levels than you've ever dreamed. Bernard Lonergan is a pissant compared to some Hindu and Buddhist thinkers.

I'm going to toss India aside in favor of East Asia, though, because the "mindfulness" I speak of is sourced in East Asian thinking. It's fairly simple, but the problem, as in explaining Zen, is that my words point to an elusive referent. Please keep that in mind as you experience deep dissatisfaction with this email.

Zen mind can be thought of as "beginner's mind" (cf. Shunryu Suzuki's book, Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind). Because Zen is so heavily Taoist in orientation, it is important to recognize the Taoist appreciation for "the potential of emptiness." A bottle isn't useful to me if it's already filled with something (unless it's Everclear). A window is no good to me if it's sealed shut. A mind full of preconceptions (which develops fairly naturally as we get older, gain experience, catalog those experiences and use them to handle reality) is also useless when it comes to mindfulness. Such a mind lives in the world of dualism-- of category, discrimination, division, analysis, etc. This is our world, for most of us: a world of distinctions.

The Tao Te Ching says, "The five colors blind the eye; the five tones deafen the ear." What this means is that the moment we overlay our mental map onto reality (i.e., arranging the colors into five principal colors, as the ancient Chinese did, or creating a pentatonic scale), we blind/deafen ourselves to those phenomena which straddle the borders we've created. Robert Pirsig calls this the "platypus" phenomenon. Define "mammal"; define "reptile"; then along comes an egg-laying, lactating, duck-billed, beaver-bodied platypus. So much for categories. They can only take us so far, and if we're trying to get in touch with the Absolute, than partial credit's as bad as no credit.

But the Absolute is ordinary. We need to be beginners again to see it truly. Beginner's mind, like a child's mind, has no truck with dualism. To experience things with beginner's mind is no longer really to experience, because that verb implies a separation of subject and object-- the experiencer and the thing experienced.

Think about those times you got engrossed in a good book. One of the first things people note when they put the book down is how much time has passed. It wasn't simply a matter of being "engaged." In a real sense, you lost track of time because there was no "you" and there was no "time." Deep engagement in any activity brings this on.

That's mindfulness as I meant it.

There's no good way to put this in words. Absorption in the activity? Not exactly. That's still dualistic: there's the absorber and the thing absorbed. The language still implies "selves" or "entities" at work, and the actual experience contradicts that terminology. "Experience," as noted above, isn't really right, either. No language quite fits.

Of course, this is true of everyday reality, which is where Zen locates itself. No language can properly describe the taste of a watermelon (as Seung Sahn, a Korean master, notes). You have to reach out & cut off a hunk of watermelon to "attain" watermelon. Same for apple juice (thank you, Thich Nhat Hanh). Or chocolate (my own example, arrived at before I ever read Nhat Hanh or Seung Sahn! dat's right! dat's right!). Pedestrian reality is just as unavailable through language as absolute reality, and since a Taoist (and therefore a Zennist) would see the ordinary as absolute, one's "Zenning" occurs whether doing something "deep" like meditation or "prosaic" like gobbling bread with Nutella.

So another way to look at mindfulness-- Zen mind-- is by characterizing it as "ordinary mind." Nothing special, as Zennists say. This is exactly opposite most people's notions of "holiness"-- the idea that the sacred is to be found in the unique, the separate, the numinous, the deserving-of-worship. Zen farts on that stuff. Loftiness and ethereality might characterize other kinds of mysticism, but not Zen.

Ordinary mind just does what it does. To explain it more deeply than that is to analyze it and kill it. But maybe I can say this (oh, how he hedges): it doesn't make waves; it doesn't stir the muddy water. Ordinary mind is settled, but this doesn't have to translate to physical settling. To play tennis purely, to be fully engaged in the game, can be ordinary mind. In this case, ordinary mind is tennis mind, if you will. So then you finish your tennis game, shower up, meet fiancee, and decide you want to bang her brains out that evening. Sex mind can be ordinary mind. When s(h)itting, just s(h)it. When scrogging your woman, just scrog. Be Here Now, as the book title goes.

Obviously, this ordinary mind wouldn't be preached if it were truly that ordinary. But this is what religious traditions tend to notice about our condition: the good life is such an obvious thing, but we constantly miss it. For better or worse, that's just the paradox of being us. Animals aren't burdened with ego, which is why we're often advised to consult them. "Go to the ant, thou sluggard! Consider her ways, and be wise!"

Finally, Zen mind is no mind. Here we can talk both in terms of Taoism and Buddhism.

For the Buddhist, there is no fundamental "you." "Chad" is a convenient designation for a set of processes whose collective momentum is coherent in a certain way right now, but this "Chad" contains no inherent self-existence (the technical term is "aseity," I think). "Chad" didn't exist one hundred years ago; "Chad" won't exist one hundred years from now (unless you cheat and go cryogenic). In the same way, "mind" is itself a set of processes having coherence and continuity for now, but no self-existence. The mind we think we have has never really been there. No "me," no "you," no "mind," no "exist," in the sense of Greek notions of substance, atom, or ideal Form.

For the Taoist, the Tao is flow. We arise from the Tao as distinct waves arise in the ocean; we are reabsorbed into the Tao; at no point do we leave the Tao, nor can our turbulence ever be contrary to the Tao. The waves themselves are Tao! What is mind, then? Flow. Constant flow. Good "shitting." Tao is ordinary. Ordinary mind is Tao.

Openness is important for mindful living. Buddhists speak of karma, the law of action, of cause and effect. I have to be constantly open and observant. If I turn on the stove, then forget it's on, then accidentally place my hand on the burner, I burn myself. Simple. Mindlessness has consequences. But mindfulness, if I can try to express this more fully than with the stove example, is deeply knowing (to the point where there's no more knower/known) that I am part of Tao. Not "deeply" in some pretentious cosmic sense, of course. Just knowing.

All of this simply talks around the subject, but what did you expect? If you can't read a book to find out what a watermelon tastes like, how can you read a meandering, prolix email to find out what mindfulness is?

Good luck, dude. This email was mostly a big, steaming lump of crap, but take out your mental chopsticks and poke through it to find those delicious, still-warm specks of corn and peanuts.

[NB, February 3, 2004: Having learned a bit of Chinese since I wrote this, I’d like to add that the Sino-Korean word for mindfulness, nyeom or yeom, is formed by two simple characters, one atop the other. The first is the character geum, meaning “now,” and the second is shim, which is “mind.” Mindfulness is now-mind.

Oh, yes—Chad’s crack about “heartfulness” comes from a spiel I did regarding the Chinese character hsin (shim in Sino-Korean, shin in Japanese), which can be translated as “heart” or “mind” because that’s its semantic field. In other words, in the East Asian reckoning, heart and mind are not-two. To be mindful, then, isn’t to display a cold intellectualism; quite the contrary, it’s to practice compassionate, open “heartfulness.”]


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