“Mindfulness is the miracle by which we master and restore ourselves… it is the miracle which can call back in a flash our dispersed mind and restore it to wholeness.” – Thich Nhat Hanh
Let me offer you a koan, one of those mess-with-your-mind word puzzles of Zen. “Here we are.” In the spirit of koan, if you penetrate deeply into the meaning of these words enlightenment awaits you. Rational mind can get you to a surface understanding, but the full miracle, the miracle by which we master and restore ourselves, lies beyond the capacity of the rational mind. That’s where a koan is supposed to take you, to the magical realm of intuitive insight.
The rational mind hears these words and says, “OK,” we are here, where else could we be? Well, of course where we are is where our mind is, and much of the time, our mind is not “here.” It is in there and then, or when or what-if. We are not fully here. We are here sufficiently to get by, to not trip over our feet, to hold a conversation, to fulfill a basic task, but we are not here in a way that the word “master” used by Thich Nhat Hanh could apply. We are not completely here, wholeheartedly here, in a manner that could be transformative, that could restore us to wholeness. All of nature has no problem being completely “here,” but for humans in contemporary culture, this can be a very great challenge.
If we are not here, where are we? Of course, we are here physically, but who we are is certainly not our physical body. I don’t think many would argue that a severely psychotic person, or a person in a coma is not truly here. Given sufficient consideration, I think most would probably agree that who we are is a matter of consciousness. Even a person who is severely distracted is often queried, “Where were you just now?” They may be admonished to get their “head into the game,” the “game” being the matter at hand, here.
Even as we go about our lives assuming that we are “here,” it is worthwhile to ask, just where, actually, is a very significant part of us? Wouldn’t we have to admit we are very much in our head in the where, when, what-if, world of mind-spin? Are we not dispersed and unfocused in very profound ways? We live in a time when inability to hold focus and attend with stability has been given a diagnostic label – attention-deficit disorder – and while most people do not fit the criteria for the disorder, few would say they are free of the symptoms. So, most of us most of the time are only here, really here, in a rather superficial sense.
So, we might say to ourselves, like a tyrannical grade school teacher conjured in a bad dream, “Concentrate! Really focus into being here!” Should you do this, you might notice that you become rather tense. Yes, concentration is an important element of being here, but concentration alone doesn’t seem to have this miraculous quality that Thich Nhat Hanh is calling us to with “mindfulness.” And while the ability to concentrate has benefits, it hardly would rise to something we could call a miracle.
What then is this mindfulness that Thich Nhat Hanh attributes with miraculous power? Let us come back to his use of the world wholeness. Even in a state of intense concentration, when we are focusing into some element of the present moment, the descriptors natural and whole, and the word restore don’t seem applicable. We are tense and there is a strong feeling of being separate from what we are concentrating on. There is the “I” concentrating and there is the object of the concentration. There is a clear division.
You might try an experiment to understand the difference between concentration and mindfulness. Go outside and look at a tree. Concentrate on the tree. Really, eye squinting, concentrate on the tree. Truly, you are present, yet nothing “miraculous” is happening. Now, while concentrating on the tree, also notice your breathing, and notice the tension in your face and your body, and as you breathe, soften the tension, and with each exhalation, relax a little bit more – while still holding a very alert attention on the tree. Awareness of your breathing is very important for this exercise. Let the breathing be natural, not forced or regulated. Still looking at the tree, notice ever more deeply the sensations of your breathing and your body.
After a little while, with this relaxing conscious breathing, we are still looking at the tree, but not concentrating now in the tensely focused manner. Everything is softer. Perhaps you may begin to notice small detail and texture to the branches, leaves, shape, and trunk of the tree. You may begin to see the tree in more nuanced relationship to the other trees and landscape around it. Instead of a very narrow focus, your focus may begin to expand, still with the tree at the center of the field of focus, but more and more of the context in which the tree appears becomes apparent whereas in the state of intense concentration, the tree alone was your field of focus. You could not, in a sense, see the branches or the forest for the tree.
You may begin to be aware of the space in which the tree appears and in which everything around the tree appears, and as you continue with this softened directed awareness of the tree and its surroundings, it may occur to you that you are also in this environment that centers on the tree. Instead of experiencing the tree as “over there” and you being “here” looking at and concentrating on the tree, you may begin to experience that “here” is the tree and you and the bird flying overhead and the cloud in the sky and the grass beneath your feet, all held in a relaxed state of vibrant presence. In a flash of a moment, a feeling of wholeness, connectedness, restoration of a sense of place and belonging in this world may come over you.
You might feel real love for this tree that was just another tree only a few moments ago and with it a deepened sense of love for life, all of life. If someone came along with a chainsaw and said they were there to cut down this tree, you might find this to be quite upsetting, for you have felt connection with this tree, and with the environment of the tree. If the person with the chainsaw said the tree was badly diseased and had to be cut down, you would be sad but understand. If the chainsaw person said they just hated raking leaves so they were cutting down the tree, you might have a deep sense of how wrong it is for people to have such a callous and destructive attitude toward nature and its beauty.
The full beauty and vulnerability of life may arise as a deep knowing in you. That life is this beauty, and that this beauty and life are transitory and therefore all the more worthy of your full presence and appreciation may arise within you, and the wrong that is the mindless trampling of this beauty by those who cannot see it, but can only see the mind-spin of their shallow likes and dislikes may become very clear to you. That we ARE this life in kinship with the tree and the birds and the lakes and the rivers and the air that we breathe and all the animals and people of this world may arise within you. And in this knowing and experiencing we may feel a kind of wholeness that reconnects us to a feeling we last had as a small child, and perhaps we feel restored and as master of our life and not mindlessly lost in the busyness and striving we had come to accept as normal, but always with great unease.
This is mindfulness. This is the miracle of mindfulness.
“This moment, what is lacking?” is a classic koan. Allowing that the moment is, in fact, the totality of all experience, the answer is, “nothing is lacking.” The moment contains everything. To borrow a phrase from Ram Dass, the moment is “thick.” It contains not only what is occurring in the present, but also past and future. It contains happiness. It contains sadness. It contains good. It contains evil. It contains satisfaction. It contains want. It contains love. It contains hatred. It contains the physical. It contains the mental. It contains the spiritual. It contains you and me and everyone and all life. When does the moment begin; when does it end? Where is it not the moment? It is as immediate as the blink of your eye and as vast as the Universe.
We might find ourselves realizing that everything occurring everywhere and all that has ever occurred or will ever occur exists only in the vast moment that is the Universe, and that all that exists does so because of what precedes in the flow of the great Universal moment and all that will be is the result of seeds planted in this moment, and so their fruition is connected with this moment. We might realize that “here we are” is all and everything, when a moment ago, in that universe in our minds where we and the tree were very separate entities in a universe of nothing but separate entities, there was just a tree we were squinting at while we tried to wrestle all the there and then and what-if in our mind into some semblance of quietude. And we might have the insight that all the where and when and what-if swirling in our minds and all our likes and dislikes are pretty petty in the great Everything that is Now, and we may begin to let go of some of that mind-spin to find we are capable of living from a much quieter, peaceful and compassionate place. I ask you, wouldn’t you call that a miracle?