Mindfulness is everywhere nowadays. From the farm to the table, the classroom to the boardroom, the therapist’s office to the yoga studio, we’re told there is no activity that we cannot engage with mindfulness—that is, with awareness and acceptance. And although there’s no question that mindfulness is a powerful tool whose benefits are now well known and documented, what is less known is that this teaching, which is taken directly from the core practices of Buddhism, is only one tiny part of the vast treasure trove that this ancient tradition has given us. To put it in secular terms, it is only one aspect of the revolutionary mind science that the Buddha developed 2,500 years ago.
If we consider meditation alone, there are dozens and dozens of ways to speak of the power of the mind to perceive, process, and react to the stimuli we are constantly exposed to during the course of our days. But for the sake of simplicity, let’s just focus on two aspects of awareness that work hand in hand with mindfulness to help us make sense of our experience.
The Three Factors of Awareness
There are three main factors of awareness: concentration, mindfulness, and equanimity. Concentration is the sharpening factor. It is single-minded, alert focus, and it includes the ability to bring our mind back from distraction. Mindfulness is the seeing factor. It is the capacity to be aware of the object we’re focusing on, and to know the difference between it and a thought, a feeling, or a sensation. Equanimity is the balancing factor. It stabilizes our minds so we can perceive clearly, without being thrown about by our confusion or by strong emotions.
Think of the mind as a lake. When the water is still, we’re able to see all the way to the bottom. In the same way, when our minds are still and stable, we can see and accurately interpret our experience. But for many of us, our minds are like a lake that’s being constantly pelted with rocks. We relive the past in an effort to improve it. We anticipate the future in order to feel secure. We distract ourselves from the present by holding on to pleasant thoughts or sensations. We feed strong feelings that, left alone, would quickly subside. We throw rock after rock after rock into the lake, making its waters murky and unsettled.
The good news is that our minds are naturally inclined to quiet down if we just let them do what they’re meant to do. The question is how.
The Mind As a Still, Clear Lake
Imagine that you’re standing on the bank of that lake, watching your own mind. By slowing down the thinking process, meditation allows you to see yourself picking up a rock from your well-worn collection and getting ready to throw it in the lake. Feeling stressed, maybe you turn toward food, or sex, or television. You throw your arm back and release the rock, which causes ripples on the lake’s surface. Feeling uncomfortable in your body, maybe you lose yourself in work or reach for a drink to buffer you from your discomfort. Another rock, and then another. Or maybe you just feed a painful but familiar loop of self-hating thoughts that at the very least keep you connected to yourself but absolve you from the need to do anything about how awful you feel. There goes a whole series of rocks, and now the water is roiling.
All of this is normal and all of us have done it at some point or another. But the fact is, we don’t have to. Meditation shows us that we have a choice to pick up that rock or leave it alone. Concentration, mindfulness, and equanimity help us to distinguish the difference between a thought, sensation, or feeling we can let go of and one we need to address. Contrary to what many people believe, the purpose of meditation is not to stop thinking—and it’s certainly not to stop feeling. It is to see clearly what is going on in our bodies and minds.
By gradually working to stay focused and present, by learning to see without judgment or avoidance what we’re thinking and feeling, and by increasing our capacity to deal with strong or difficult thoughts and emotions, we learn to be accepting of ourselves and our lives just as they are.
So next time you find yourself feeling stressed, confused, or overwhelmed, pause for a moment. Come into your body, feel your breath, and then look at what’s really happening. What are the thoughts running through your mind? Can you see them without pushing them away? What feelings or sensations are stored in your body? How are you responding to these, and is your response helping or hurting you? Now imagine your mind as that clear, still, lake, and give it permission to settle. Give it permission to rest.
Science is just catching up to the truth that Buddhism has known for more than two thousand years: there is no tool more powerful—nor more natural—than a focused, clear, and stable mind.