“Ordinary experience plus mindfulness plus equanimity yields insight and purification”
Mindfulness purifies whatever it touches. Gil Fronsdal talks of mindfulness practice as soap and water gently washing through the mind, and in this article from The Humanistic Psychologist, Shinzen Young describes how mindfulness has the capacity to purify:
Whenever one brings mindfulness and equanimity to ordinary experience, an evolutionary process takes place, consisting of two aspects. One aspect is insight and the other is purification.
We all have within us sources of unhappiness. You notice that very quickly when you sit down to meditate. You’ll feel just fine and then there will be something that will make your world less than perfect. You get sleepy, or your mind wanders, or this or that emotion comes up, negative tapes start to come up, traumatic memories appear, you feel angry, you want to jump out of your skin, you’re running all sorts of fantasies, doing things to divert yourself, you’re aware of inner conflicts. We are chock full of sources of unhappiness which are completely foreign to our being. It is not in the nature of consciousness to suffer. However, we have acquired certain limiting forces: cravings and aversions, painful memories, inappropriate yet habitual behavior patterns, and so forth.When we sit down and do this practice that’s all going to come up. So you don’t always feel good while doing Vipassana meditation. In fact you might feel lousy. I know, having heard that, some of you may want to leave right now. You say, “I thought meditation is supposed to make a person feel great.” Yes, in the long run, but an important aspect of meditation is to sit down and start working through the sources of not feeling great, whatever they may be. You literally eat your way through them, one after another, after another, after another.
How? By just being mindful and having equanimity, that’s all. Whatever comes up, you’ll observe it and you’ll do nothing. You’ll be very aware and that’s all.Now that may seem trivial at best, stupid at worst. But it is actually quite powerful. Let’s say that one of these blockages to happiness comes up as we meditate—a negative tape, a craving, an aversion, an inner conflict, a congealing. If we reject it and say “I don’t want you,” we’re pushing it away. But in order to reject it we have to “touch” it, by pushing on it. If on the other hand we identify with it, buy into it and let it pull us away, then again we’ve “touched” it. As soon as one touches it, one recharges the energy supply of that negativity. If you try to push it away or you let it pull you, you are identifying with it, touching it. Any touch whatsoever means that this particular negativity is able to ‘recharge its individual battery’ as it were, from your general pool of your energy. But if we don’t touch it then it has to play itself out on its own power source which is quite finite and if we continue to be alert and simply observe, eventually the intrinsic energy source of that negativity dissipates and it goes away forever. It gets worked through.
This process of “watching negativity to death” is called purification. As we work through the blockages to happiness, our intrinsic happiness—the nature of our consciousness which is effortless effulgent joy—becomes evident. If the dirt is cleaned away from the window, the sun that was always there is able to shine through. The spiritual reality which is the nature of ordinary experience is able to shine forth.He describes the essence of the process:
So the essence of this practice can be stated as a simple formula:
- ordinary experience plus mindfulness plus equanimity yields insight and purification.
In this formula, each term is defined very precisely. Ordinary experience is defined as hearing, seeing, smelling, tasting, the feeling body and the thinking mind. Mindfulness is defined as specificity in awareness, clarity in awareness, continuity in awareness, richness in awareness, precision in awareness. Equanimity is defined as not interfering with the flow of the senses at any level, including the level of pre-conscious processing.
The seventh of the Eightfold Path is right mindfulness. Mindfulness practice is about:
- First, being aware of our experience without judgement
- Second, being compassionate towards whatever we experience
The Buddha has an excellent sermon, on the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, which describes “the direct path for the purification of beings, for the overcoming of sorrow & lamentation, for the disappearance of pain & distress, for the attainment of the right method, & for the realization of Unbinding…” He speaks of mindfulness as “the direct path!” One incredible thing about mindfulness is that being mindful of states of suffering tends to have the effect of decreasing fear based states, while being mindful of states of joy and happiness and peace tend to increase such states!
Thich Nhat Hanh speaks of holding one’s anger like a mother holds a baby. If we can do this, over time, we will slowly weaken the seed of anger within us. We have stories that we are not okay, but we can look deeply, and recognise it as a story. And we can have compassion for this story. As Thich Nhat Hanh might say, “Hello, story. I know you, my friend.” What is this story, really? It is something that’s happening in the present moment. It’s composed of thoughts and emotions and sensations. When we bring such awareness to it, it no longer has such power over us.