I want to talk about one aspect of mindfulness that often escapes Western meditative practice – the ability to watch yourself all the time. We live in a world where we often divide our lives into discrete activities. We eat meals, we go for a run, we work, we go out for a drink… and meditation becomes one of those separate activities, independent of the rest of our lives.
However, if meditation is treated only as a separate activity, then we are severely limiting its use and potential, and therefore our own use and potential. Keeping a constant watch on ourselves may sound too much like self-surveillance; but by watching what you do constantly, you can dramatically accelerate the learning that comes from meditation.
MINDFULNESS OF PATIENCE
For example, let’s suppose you have spent part of your morning meditating on patience. If you stop meditating at the end of the meditation, and simply get on with everything else in your life, then the learning you have achieved in your meditation practice will dissipate, and not find its way into your general conduct. However, if you manage to remain mindful of patience through the rest of your day, you greatly multiply your opportunities for learning, and for self-improvement.
MINDFULNESS OF EMPTINESS
In the same way, if you have bothered to do a meditation on emptiness, and have achieved a state where you are able to contemplate the fact that your ultimate nature is empty of all the preconceptions you impose on it… then what a shame if you cannot continue this into your day. If you manage to continue to contemplate emptiness through your day, then you have a chance of learning far more about being clear of prejudice.
WATCHING YOURSELF IS A SKILL
In my counselling training, we were encouraged, by a process of constant supervision by a more expert counsellor, to observe ourselves in action through the counselling we gave, and to reflect on it afterwards. The aim of this was to enhance our ‘internal supervisor’, and therefore to multiply our opportunities for learning. It also helped us keep ourselves and our clients safe, by teaching us always to be mindful, and never to let go of our sense of responsibility to care for the safety of those in the room.
Over time, we developed the ability to remain self-aware during all our actions. This dramatically multiplied our learning opportunities, because the ‘watcher’ in ourselves could learn all the time through a critical analysis of our own behaviour, its aims, and its ultimate consequences.
Likewise, in adulthood, we all benefit from a constant self-watching, so that we can learn from the constant story that is our own behaviour and lives. If we lose ourselves and our self-awareness, then it is as though we are dreaming without memory of our dreams. If we manage to remain self-aware, then it is as though we can harness both the dream world and the waking world, and make them work together.
THE MEANING OF MINDFULNESS
There is an aspect of the term mindfulness that is often forgotten. One meaning is that we are to REMEMBER what we have learned, while we are in the process of living our normal lives. The hope is that, by remembering what we have learned, we start a process of integrating our learning into our daily conduct.
Of course, mindfulness also has implications of remaining in the present moment, and living it to the full, but this does not exclude remembering the wisdom of the past, and applying it to the present.
Mindfulness, arguably, is not simply being mindlessly present; it is managing the flow of past, present and future with a sense of balance, so that we can maximise our learning. If we are lucky, and wisdom becomes second nature, then it will look very like being mindlessly present… but with the subtle difference that we are matching our behaviour to the occasion. Often you cannot tell the difference between a mindless and a mindful person, unless and until something happens to provoke them. After that, the difference can become very obvious.
A SUGGESTED EXERCISE
To teach you to remain mindful, in the sense of remembering, then why not try the following:
Identify something you need to work on. (Maybe patience, compassion, forgiveness, staying calm, anger management… you choose.)
Write down, on a piece of paper, a short piece of wisdom, perhaps a quote you respect.
Put the piece of paper into your pocket in the morning.
Whenever you can, take it out and read it to yourself, just as a reminder.
Try to link the wisdom to your actions during the day.
Also, for any aspects of wisdom you feel you need to work on more constantly, perhaps invent yourself a t-shirt, a mug, a badge, or a screensaver which reminds you throughout the day.
A PRECAUTIONARY NOTE
The aim is not to spoil your fun, but to help you with self-control. Many people fear it is boring and inhibiting to watch yourself all the time. It’s true that some psychological illnesses feed from hyper-attention to one’s own conduct. If you feel this may be happening, then of course moderation is helpful. But most healthy wisdom has its foundation in what is helpful, and remembering it, and applying it well, can have a positive effect well beyond the original learning.
We often separate our lives into discrete activities. However, with meditative practices, it is often good to let them ‘leak’ into your whole day. Watching yourself, self-supervision, is a skill that can help both you and others.
One of the meanings of mindfulness is remembering what you have learned, and applying it. As an exercise, therefore, try writing down a piece of wisdom, and then applying it throughout your day, reflecting constantly on whether you are managing to apply it.