What are we training, when we practise mindfulness?
There are four main qualities of mind:
- and relaxation
- with an attitude of kindness¹
We could say P.A.R.K.
Presence is sometimes referred to as mindfulness, by itself. It means paying attention, on purpose, to moment-to-moment experience. It is our ability to focus on the breath, the sensations, the sounds- whatever the object of our practice is.
Biting into a juicy apple… feeling the gentle breeze on our skin… this quality of mindfulness can help us feel present and alive. With curiosity, we find our experience interesting, and this quality of attention can settle the mind and allow us to listen effectively and work skilfully and joyfully.
Awareness is our ability to watch over, to check. The mind does not just think, it is aware that it is thinking. This helps us notice when we are distracted and choose what to do next.
With awareness, we can notice what is going on around us, as well as what we are focusing on.
Awareness is clear and open, like the sky, and is unclouded by thoughts and emotions.
We are not our thoughts and emotions, we are the one who is aware of our thoughts and emotions.
Relaxation allows us ease of practice. To be, to rest and to let go. Our attention should not be highly-strung or over-absorbed, but a balance between alert and relaxed. Here we are referring to relaxation of our mind —but equally important too, in our body.
We can also practise with kindness towards ourselves, accepting whatever thoughts and emotions arise. Thoughts are emotions are a normal occurrence, not something to banish. Neither do we want to get lost in a spiral of worry. So we train to notice, gently accept and come back to our focus.
This allows us to open to our experience, whether pleasant or unpleasant.
Not judging our experience, not striving towards some special state of mind as a goal. Judging and striving can cause more, rather than less noise in the mind.
As we learn to accept whatever arises in our practice, we find ourselves becoming less critical and more loving.
Presence and awareness make up 50% of our practice. Kindness and relaxation make up the other half.
When these qualities are well-balanced, we feel balanced. And after we finish sitting, we can allow these qualities to come with us, into our everyday lives.
How to work with these four qualities?
We can check on our P.A.R.K. as we practise. If we find ourselves easily distracted, we can ‘tweak up’ our presence and awareness by becoming more curious, perhaps paying more attention on the in-breath or to our object.
If we find our mind busy or critical, we might like to try saying yes to our experience, and relaxing and releasing on the out-breath.
Working with the eye-gaze can also help. With eyes open, we can drop the gaze if we feel agitated, or lift the gaze if we feel drowsy.
“Don’t concentrate too much on the breath… the masters always advise not to fixate when practising the concentration of Calm Abiding. While you are supposed to be watching the breath, after only one or two minutes you can find yourself playing in a football game or starring in your own film. So another 25 percent should be devoted to a continuous and watchful awareness, one that oversees and checks whether or not you are mindful of the breath. The remaining 50 percent of your attention is left abiding, spaciously.” ²
How not to work with these four qualities?
Don’t let them become a distraction in themselves! It’s no good if these qualities stir up more thoughts in your mind, rather than allowing it settle.
We are defining an experience quite beyond words. So if you find yourself nit-picking over whether openness is actually a feature of relaxation or kindness… or wondering whether you are only 47% present and aware, forget about it!
These qualities are naturally present, when we are undistracted.
So it’s rather a letting go of what hinders us, not so much adding anything.
Simply notice the thoughts, notice the feelings, and return to the breath, the sounds, the sensations or simply being.
As mind settles, like a jar of muddy water, these qualities will arise naturally.
¹ Mind With Heart, mindwithheart.org
² Sogyal Rinpoche, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying