Mindfulness is to Remember

My definition of mindfulness is remembering to know the present moment clearly. Some may wonder how does “remember” which is associated with memory, get linked to mindfulness.

Autopilot

Have you ever driven home, and found that you did not notice the journey itself? Is there an instance, where after eating a meal, you realised you have not noticed how the food tasted like? Or have you forgotten where you left your phone because you weren’t paying attention when you placed it down? These are instances of being in the autopilot mode, which is not being aware of what is happening within us or around us. In this mode, our physical bodies go through the motions while our minds could be elsewhere. Sometimes, it is due to our minds wandering off to thinking, regretting about our past or worrying about our future, making us unhappy. At other times, we could have spaced out or are heedless, and that affects the task at hand. Autopilot is our default mode. That is to say, we are in this mode more often than not.

The opposite of the autopilot mode is being mindful. If we choose to be mindful, then how often should we be mindful? The answer is every waking moment. Mindfulness is not to be practised sporadically. It is to be practised at all times. In other words, there can never be too much mindfulness. Each moment of mindfulness builds up the energy and concentration to see the present object more clearly.

Remember

So how can we get out of the autopilot mode and be in the present moment? The only way is to remember to do it. For instance, you need to go to the ATM to withdraw some cash, or you need to go online to complete a registration. These events require you to remember and act on it.

In practising mindfulness, when we find the mind has wandered off to thinking or is heedless, we remember our intention to be present and bring the mind back. Each time it happens, we remember and bring the mind back. Hence remembering our intention to be present is the impetus to direct our attention back to the present moment. We not only need to do this during formal practice like sitting meditation but also during our daily activities. One way is to constantly remind ourselves to ask whether we are aware of the present moment, by mentally saying “aware”. We can also set everyday activities as a reminder. Like noticing clearly your arm movement each time you push a door open. Be aware of your standing posture each time you wait at the traffic light. Or eat one mouthful of food mindfully during each meal

In conclusion, mindfulness practice is difficult because our habitual behaviour is the autopilot mode. We are working against the grain. So put in the effort to constantly remember to be in the present moment and you will be well rewarded.

Mindfulness: Know Clearly

Mindfulness is remembering to know the present moment clearly. The present moment refers to whatever object that is most prominent at the moment. The object could be a physical sensation like itchiness, pain, warmth, touching, seeing, hearing, tasting or smelling. It could also be an emotion or a thought. Here, we use the expression “know clearly”. Other expressions that mean the same thing are “see clearly”, “see precisely”, “be aware”, “observe”, “note clearly”, “notice clearly”, “comprehend” and “pay attention”.

Let’s examine the technique to “know clearly”.

  1. To know an object, bring awareness to the object and acknowledge it with curiosity and kindness. Without curiosity, interest will wane and the mind wanders off quickly. In addition, we can label each object silently as it happens, to perceive more clearly the qualities of the experience.
  2. See the object correctly. Don’t confuse with other things. The analogy is like seeing A but the hand reaches out to grab B instead. When you see the object correctly, there may be a shift. It could be the object disappear, or it changes to something else, or a sense of clarity arises, or a sense of release arises. You may need to try a few times. Firstly, shift slightly from where you perceive the object is located. Next change the way you look at the object by labelling it, instead of just noticing it. And even change the label itself, because maybe the previous label is incorrect.
    When the object is not seen correctly, the sense of cloudiness or confusion may continue. I recall many years ago during a retreat at Kota Tinggi, there was a sitting session, which for a long duration, I saw colourful patterns in my mind eye, evolving into different shapes, like a kaleidoscope. What is even more special is the usual numbness and leg pain when sitting cross-legged for a long period didn’t arise. I was ecstatic when reporting to the teacher about it. Only to have the teacher reminding me that the mind had played tricks on me. Meaning I had not seen the object correctly.
Eyes close. Clarity arises
  1. Acknowledge the object promptly. Otherwise, you end up acknowledging an object that has already passed away and no longer present.
  2. See the object in its entirety, and not partially. See beyond the physical aspect. Include the corresponding emotion or mental aspect as well. Know the characteristics and manifestations of the object. For example, when there is a pain, don’t just observe the soreness, but the accompanying aversion for the pain to go away.
  3. Pay attention with a balanced effort. Without enough effort, dullness may arise, the object is not clear, or you feel distanced from the object. At this point, you should change to notice the “dullness”, or “not clear”. When the effort is too much, agitation may arise. At that point, you should change to notice “agitation”. Be patient with whatever experience that arises. Have a sense of acceptance if the sensation is unpleasant. And have a sense of letting go if the sensation is pleasant; not holding on it.

Mindfulness is a skill. Skill needs to practise. Put these techniques into practice during breath meditation, and other mindfulness practices to experience the result.

Mindfulness: What is being in the present moment?

In my interaction with people, the general understanding of mindfulness practice is about being in the present moment. Even though when they may not have in-depth knowledge nor practise it.

On the surface, some may interpret being in the present moment to mean be aware of what is in front of you, not doing anything or not thinking about anything else.

The mechanics of being in the present moment is much more rigorous. For some people, it may not be apparent where they should pay their attention. And when it feels like many things are happening concurrently, which particular thing should they pay attention to. Let’s take the case of myself sitting here, typing this article. When I am typing, my attention is on the typing itself. Halfway through, an itch arises on my face. I know it and I reach out to scratch the itch. I continue to think about what I want to write next and I purse my lips. Those are the things that I pay attention to. I am also aware that I have crossed my feet. Then I notice the intention in the mind before the actions are carried out.

Most prominent sensation

So if we want to practise “being in the present moment”, what should we pay attention to? A rule of thumb is to pay attention to whichever sensation that is the most prominent. This prominent sensation becomes the object of attention. The object could be bodily sensations like itchiness, a pain, warmth, release, hearing, tasting, smelling and seeing. It could be emotion like anger, joy, frustration, sadness, anxiety, dullness, love, calm, fear and disgust. It could also be a thought like still images, moving images, regrets, planning thought, rumination and worrying thought. Investigate this object with curiosity and kindness. If the object is a pain, then how does it feel like? Is there pulsing? Does it come and go or is it constant? Is it associated with an emotion, like irritation, or aversion? When the irritation that arises due to the pain becomes prominent, the attention should switch to the irritation.

For the case when the object is a thought, know whether it lingers on or disappears after you become aware of it. When you don’t know where to put your attention on, then you should notice that ‘doubt’ has arisen – that is the present object. If you feel bored reading all these, your attention should be on the ‘boredom’ that is present. You may switch attention to accompanying thought, like the wish to stop and walk away. Noticing each sensation may sound very mechanically. It feels like you are doing a drill, but practising this way will sharpen the mindfulness skill.

In conclusion, ‘being in the present moment’ is to be aware of the most prominent sensation at each moment, be it a physical sensation, an emotion or a thought.

Build the muscle of mindfulness through mindfulness

Through the course of my mindfulness practice, despite the effort to maintain awareness of each moment, I will quickly find myself wandering off to thinking. This set me off to find out how to be more mindful. How to build more of that moment to moment awareness. Is there some book that I need to read. Or some ritual that I should follow. Maybe I have missed out some important instruction.

One day, I was able to post this question to Bhante G, author of one of the best selling and most influential books on mindfulness, “Mindfulness in Plain English” (free). Bhante G, whenever he came to Singapore, would give talks at a centre that I used to visit every Sunday. He and the founder of that centre are good friends.

I asked Bhante G how can I build up my mindfulness, such that I stay aware of the present moment, as much as possible. He replied that one moment of mindfulness leads to the next. The only way is to remember to be mindful at all times. There isn’t any other way.

I will summarise the steps to build up mindfulness as follows:

Step 1 – check whether I know the present moment clearly.

Step 2 – after a few moments, go back to step 1.

In conclusion, the muscle of mindfulness can only be built through mindfulness. Being aware now makes one more likely to be aware at the next moment.