Here I present an alternative to mindfulness practice. I do this because I believe the concept of mindfulness – at least the way it is typically understood – may limit our spiritual development. It can become a dualistic trap that causes us to reject much of what we are as human beings.



Quicklinks to Transcript Content:
Teachings Are Fingers Pointing at the Moon, Not the Moon Itself
What Mindfulness Is
Potential Pitfalls When Trying to Practice Mindfulness
Confessions of a Buddhist with a Very Busy Mind
Another Approach: The Radical Practice of Undivided Presence
Aiming for a Buddha’s Way of Being (And What That’s Like)
The Practice of Undivided Presence in This Moment
Trusting Ourselves Without Getting Caught in Arrogance or Complacency
How Do You Know You’re Doing It Right?
Some Closing Words from the Zen Tradition

Teachings Are Fingers Pointing at the Moon, Not the Moon Itself

Before I describe the potential pitfalls of mindfulness practice and offer a different approach that has worked for me, I want to discuss the metaphor of fingers pointing at the moon. “The moon” stands for the truth, Dharma, Reality, or the essence of the matter. Teachings and practices are fingers pointing to the moon, and are therefore valuable only inasmuch as they manage to help sentient beings spot the moon. They are not the point in and of themselves.

Inherent in this metaphor is the suggestion that sometimes we can become too obsessed with a finger and forget about what it’s pointing to. It also invites us to consider that there are many different ways to point to the same moon. One finger may work for us, while someone in different position needs a finger that may appear, from our view, to be pointing in a completely different direction!

I think the teaching and practice of mindfulness is a finger pointing at the moon and not the moon itself – but first, a little more about the teaching and practice of mindfulness.

What Mindfulness Is

Mindfulness was taught and strongly emphasized by Shakyamuni Buddha himself, over 2500 years ago. The ancient Pali word translated as “mindfulness” is sati, and it can also be translated as “remembering” or “presence of mind.” We are practicing mindfulness when we remember to pay attention to our present experience and try to keep ourselves from forgetting again.

Mindfulness has also been described as our “non-discursive faculty of awareness” or as “bare attention.” Jon Kabat-Zinn, who over the last few decades has popularized the use of mindfulness techniques in secular settings, defines mindfulness as “continuous non-judgmental awareness.” More specifically, he explains, “Mindfulness is awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgementally… It’s about knowing what is on your mind.”[i]

For most Buddhist practitioners, our initial efforts at mindfulness are challenging but also powerfully transformative. We become more and more aware of what’s happening in our minds. We notice our reactions. It can feel like someone has suddenly shined a light on our lives and there’s all kinds of things we can see for the first time. This allows us to make many changes, and facilitates greater understanding of how we function as human beings.

Potential Pitfalls When Trying to Practice Mindfulness

Isn’t the whole point of Buddhist practice just to be mindful – that is, “present in our lives?” How is mindfulness just a finger pointing at the moon?

Before I explain, I want to state that I think it is essential that we start our practice with mindfulness. We also benefit from returning to that practice again and again over the course of our days and lives. What I’m going to talk about here is how we move beyond mindfulness and avoid (or drag ourselves out of) the potential pitfalls of the practice. I discovered these pitfalls by falling into them, so, in part, this is a confession of my own struggles with mindfulness.

The first pitfall is that we conceive of pure mindfulness as a state without thoughts. When we’re “mindful” we’re just peeling the orange, just tasting the coffee, just walking. Rather than wandering off into the dream-world of thoughts, we are present for “reality” – which means only what is happening in this moment, in our immediate vicinity, perceptible through the five senses of sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch.

We encounter the second pitfall when we try to sustain a state of mindfulness through the inevitable thoughts, feelings, and impulses that arise in the course of our lives. We admit to ourselves that our state of mindfulness is rarely pure – that is, free of thoughts – but we work hard to maintain a second-best state of mindfulness by staying identified with an internal “observer” who is aware of, but not involved with, the thoughts, feelings, and impulses. We think we need to maintain a detached self-consciousness at all times, allowing us to make internal comments like, “Oh, look, I am experiencing some sensations of anger.”

In the third pitfall, we divide our lives into two parts: one, where we are consciously aware of what’s going on in the present moment and are therefore “awake” and present for our lives, and two, the rest of the time when we’re caught up in the dream of thought and missing our lives as surely as if we were sleeping through them.

In the fourth pitfall, because the dreamy/sleepy/caught-up-in-thoughts parts of lives comprise over 90% of the time for most of us, we become burdened with a sense of sadness and inadequacy. We try harder but wonder why we still keep forgetting to be present. We suspect we misunderstand the teachings and practices. We figure we must be doing something wrong, because mindfulness teachers tell us that eventually we’re going to get better at this! And while it’s true that we got better at first, we’ve hit a plateau in our development of mindfulness that seems endless. Most of us resign ourselves to being half-assed practitioners in some respect and just lament how much of our lives we aren’t “present for.”

Confessions of a Buddhist with a Very Busy Mind

Okay, I confess: I’ve been meditating and practicing mindfulness for over 20 years and throughout most of my day I’m not “mindful” – at least not in the sense I’ve been discussing. Maybe – on a good day – I manage to be mindful 20% of my waking hours instead of the essentially 0% before I started practice, but it still feels like most of the time I’m mindful for a moment – “Oh, here I am! I’m being mindful!” – and then off I go again. The second I think of something, plan something, engage in a conversation or a project, or get absorbed in work, reading, music, beauty, or entertainment, the apparently fragile state of mindfulness is lost.

Fortunately, mindfulness is a finger pointing at the moon, not the moon itself. Please note: If you “find the moon” through mindfulness, super! If mindfulness has relieved suffering for you, if it’s a profound practice you rely on every day, keep practicing mindfulness and let what I’m going to say go in one ear and out the other. Try not to let it bother you at all.

Another Approach: The Radical Practice of Undivided Presence

What I’m offering is a different way of pointing at the moon, one that may help you like it’s helped me. I call it, at least at this point in time, the “Radical Practice of Undivided Presence.” I call this practice “radical” not because it is revolutionary, but because it is (or can be) complete in and of itself and gets straight to the heart of the matter. Of course, it may very well be I have misunderstood “mindfulness” and what I describe here is exactly what the Buddha meant by “mindfulness.” If that’s the case, then it just proves my point: Both the Buddha and I are looking for the moon, and different words and practices are simply different ways of pointing at it. But let me tell you, encountering the right kind of pointing (for you) makes all the difference in the world.

Ironically, the Radical Practice of Undivided Presence begins with a moment of mindfulness.

I don’t have any problem with that first instant of mindfulness, which is basically when we wake up from the dream of thought and notice what’s going on. That’s the aspect of mindfulness reflected in the translation of sati, the Pali term for mindfulness, as “remembering.” That moment of remembering is so sweet! It is so precious! It’s what makes practice possible!

It’s also not something you can will yourself to do. It just happens. You are asleep one moment and then you wake up.

That’s not to say you can’t do anything to make it more likely you’ll wake up more often. That’s why we meditate and study. That’s why we cultivate aspiration and intention.

To make sure we wake up more often, we also need to treasure and celebrate the moments we wake up. Instead of beating ourselves up for all our previous forgetfulness the instant we become mindful, instead of seizing the moment of mindfulness with the determination to make it last, we can greet a moment of wakefulness with pure gratitude. This will help it last a little longer, and it will make mindfulness pleasant instead of associating it with striving and frustration.

Then we come to the next moment, when we seek to sustain – what? Mindfulness? Remembering to be present itself isn’t hard – it’s sustaining a state of mindfulness for more than a moment that’s hard, especially if you’ve fallen into one of the pitfalls I described earlier.

This is where I recommend a different approach. Instead of trying to sustain a state of mind in which you are consciously aware, and either thoughtless or taking the role of detached observer, you unify yourself. You take the opportunity to show up wholeheartedly for your life. You settle into your body and your direct experience, and refuse to be tricked into looking anywhere else (as if you could). You stop the internal struggles and own your body, mind, and heart.

Aiming for a Buddha’s Way of Being (And What That’s Like)

This is all just more finger pointing, but this approach to practice may become clearer if I try to describe the moon itself. One way of seeing and understanding the ultimate point of Buddhism is as a Way of Being. It’s a liberated, authentic, joyful, centered, beneficial way of being a being. It’s not a point of view, a kind of understanding, a transcendent experience, or a code of ethics. It’s something you experience with your whole body, mind, and heart. It’s how you are as you meditate, speak, drive, eat, brush your teeth, and watch movies. It’s not limited to being thoughtless or self-consciously aware of being mindful. This Way of Being is how Buddhas are.

To further illustrate what this Way of Being is like, I’m going to ask you to imagine your whole body-mind-heart experience of a bunch of different scenarios. Each scenario is mean to evoke something in you – some aspect of a Buddhas’ Way of Being. A Buddha’s Way of Being isn’t limited to any one of these aspects, and it’s not dependent on external circumstances. However, because it’s so difficult for us to conceive of a Buddhas’ Way of Being, it helps to imagine situations we can conceive of.

Imagine you are in the embrace of your mother and she is offering you unlimited, unconditional love. (If your mother didn’t or doesn’t actually offer that, imagine a mother who could.) As you rest in her arms, probably sobbing gently as her love helps heal your inevitable wounds, you feel more confidence that you are acceptable just the way you are. With all your warts, foibles, tantrums, and limitations, someone sees you as precious, loveable, and worthy. Someone sees you as special without having to compare you with anyone else in the world. That ease, acceptance, and inner healing you feel? That’s part of a Buddha’s Way of Being.

Imagine you are facing incredible difficult and painful circumstances, but you are determined not to run away from them because you need to protect and take care of that which is most important to you – your children, loved ones, or deeply held values. Nothing has even been clearer to you than what you need to do right now. You feel no doubt whatsoever, but not because you’re right in some absolute sense. Right and wrong have nothing to do with it. The clarity, settledness, strength, determination, and willingness you feel? Part of a Buddha’s Way of Being.

Imagine someone has you taste a new kind of food and then asks how you like it. You describe your experience and feelings – whether you liked the food and how much, whether you found it salty or sweet, crunchy or creamy. The person really wants to know what you think, so you speak freely. As you describe your experience, no part of you wonders if what you’re saying is true in some absolute sense, or whether you are really in touch with your “real” experience or not. That centeredness in your own direct experience, without it even being a big deal to be centered in your own direct experience? Part of a Buddha’s Way of Being.

Imagine you have reached the end of your life, and you lay there on your deathbed surrounded by loved ones. You know this is it. The story of your life is complete. No more can be done. You’re not without some sadness and regret, but you’re reconciled to things being as they are, and for the most part you’re happy and grateful. The long to-do list can be torn up and thrown away. The sense of peace and completeness you feel? Part of a Buddha’s Way of Being.

The Practice of Undivided Presence in This Moment

Fortunately, the practice of Undivided Presence does not involve imagining all of those scenarios and trying to create a certain kind of feeling or mind-state. It is more direct than that.

When you have a moment of wakefulness, come home to yourself. Notice the many ways you are resisting the way things are and let go of the resistance. Notice the ways you are rejecting certain things about yourself (such as your lack of mindfulness!) and hold yourself in that mother’s embrace of unconditional acceptance. Show up for your direct experience without questioning its validity in any way. Let go of the agenda of both the ego and the super-ego and ask yourself what you really want. Cast aside all effort to be anyone other than who you are, when you are, where you are, because your life needs you and you can’t actually be anyone other than who you are, when you are, where you are.

Essentially, this Radical Practice of Undivided Presence is bringing all of parts of yourself together. Your aspiration and your selfishness, your love and your lust, your inner lazy glutton and your inner ascetic. Your body, your thoughts, your hopes, fears, passions, and shame. Your projects, habits, opinions, perceptions, blood, bones, and mucus.

This is what it means to be wholehearted. To be half-hearted means to hold something back, or to do something without enthusiasm because you don’t really want to do it. In order to be half-hearted you have to be divided – part of you wants one thing, while part wants another. Of course, this kind of inner division is part of being human, and the Radical Practice of Undivided Presence is not about picking a winning side or pretending no inner conflict exists. Instead, to be wholehearted, we choose how to be in this very moment. We may be in the midst of huge inner turmoil or a prolonged decision-making process, but in this very moment we can be wholehearted with exactly that. No apologies.

In the Radical Practice of Undivided Presence we just say internally, “Now is the time.” Now is the time to show up completely. Now is the time to enjoy yourself. Now is the time to appreciate things fully. Now is the time to give yourself a break. Now is the time to say what you mean. Now is the time to open your heart. Now is the time to embrace your life wholeheartedly. We stop waiting to become someone else. We stop waiting to become enlightened, or to perfect mindfulness, or to finally gain access to the secret of complete happiness.

The most important aspect of my “Radical Practice of Undivided Self” is that I’ve found it much easier to sustain than “mindfulness,” at least in the sense mindfulness is a consciously aware state that’s either free from thought or involves taking the role of detached observer. Instead of trying concentrate on “only what is here and now” and avoid getting sucked back into the dream of thought, I try to inhabit this moment more wholeheartedly. After all, it’s just the bullshit in my mind about how “I’m not enough” and “this isn’t enough” that keeps me separated from my life instead of letting me be intimate with it. Basically, instead of making a practice of thinking about what I shouldn’t do (get lost in the dream of thought), I channel my passion into being as fully alive as possible.

Trusting Ourselves Without Getting Caught in Arrogance or Complacency

At this point it’s very important to point out that the Radical Practice of Undivided Presence is not the Radical Practice of Deciding I’m Super Cool and Can Do Anything I Want. The latter practice involves stories about yourself. It’s like getting egotistical because your mother thinks you’re great, or imagining yourself as a self-righteous martyr because you’re enduring some difficulty while simply doing your duty. It’s like describing what you think of a particular food and presenting it as Truth-with-a-capital-T because your sense of taste is so superior to that of others, or reaching the end of your life and congratulating yourself that so many people love you. The Radical Practice of Deciding I’m Super Cool and Can Do Anything I Want is getting a taste of a Buddha’s Way of Being and then trying to bottle and sell it.

The moment you start drawing conclusions and telling stories, you’re no longer mindful (to use the term we’re all more familiar with). Your self is no longer unified, because no matter what the part of you that thinks “I’m great and can do no wrong” is saying, part of you knows you are terribly limited and intransigently self-interested. The Radical Practice of Undivided Self, on the other hand, denies nothing and assumes nothing. It happens in this very moment.

When, in the practice of Undivided Self, you ask yourself what you really want, you’ll find that you basically want happiness and not suffering. You’ll notice that how other people feel affects you, so you’ll know their fate is not independent of yours. You’ll find you want to be awake for your life. You want to be authentic and loved. Basically, you’ll find out you’re a good person who can trust yourself.

Sure, sometimes our habit energy makes us want to flirt with someone who’s not our partner, or to elbow in front of someone in line, or to eat too much chocolate cake. But if you do the practice of Undivided Presence you’re much more likely to connect with the part of you who treasures your intimate partnership, values the opportunity to be generous, and enjoys feeling healthy. As part of the process of unification, you make your self-righteous super-ego and your mischievous id sit down together like two petulant, squabbling kids required to put aside their argument in order for the family to have a peaceful dinner. There’s a chance the adult in the house will be able to make a wise and compassionate decision in the meantime.

How Do You Know You’re Doing It Right?

When you’re practicing Undivided Self, you aren’t necessarily consciously aware of practicing Undivided Self. Sometimes you will be more aware of it than other times. It’s possible to be wholeheartedly engaged in something and have it take up all of your mental and emotional bandwidth so there’s nothing left for observing yourself being wholehearted.

So how do you know if you’re practicing Undivided Presence if you won’t necessarily be consciously aware of doing so? Upon reflection, you’ll know. Recollect a period time spent absorbed in thought or in some activity, and notice whether you were divided during that time. Chances are, you were, even if subtly. You were having dinner with friends but looking forward to it being over because you found it kind of boring, and then you felt a little guilty for being bored. You were wrapped up in project you love but periodically found yourself getting irritable when things didn’t work the way you wanted them to, revealing how part of you was more interested in the outcome of the project than in wholeheartedly doing it.

By the way, when you realize you haven’t been Undivided for a time, forget about it and simply Unify yourself right away! If you beat yourself up for not being unified, you may end up undermining the effectiveness of the practice to get you to the moon, a.k.a. a Buddha’s Way of Being, by making the whole process stressful and unpleasant.

When you’re doing the Radical Practice of Undivided Self, there is a certain kind of awareness present that otherwise isn’t. However, it’s kind of subtle, and it’s incredibly difficult to describe without inviting our minds to separate out “me” from “my awareness” from “what is going on,” and this Buddha-awareness is not divided. The words that most accurately evoke this awareness for me are “aliveness,” “sentience,” “wholehearted being,” or Uchiyama Roshi’s “the self doing self.”[ii] The awareness that is part of a Buddha’s Way of Being is basic, natural, and ordinary. It isn’t removed, thoughtless, rarefied, or limited to things in your immediate surroundings that you perceive through the five senses. In some situations it coolly observes, while in others it participates in leaping, laughing, crying, analyzing, and creating. This awareness will be present, but it won’t constrain activity.

Some Closing Words from the Zen Tradition

I beg Shakyamuni Buddha’s forgiveness, and the patience of all the great Buddhist teachers of subsequent generations, for my arrogance in implying I have found something new, or managed to improve on their teaching techniques. Still, I love my spiritual tradition for the fact that it invites all of us to point at the moon in our own way, using our own words, images, and approaches. When I turn to the ancestors to corroborate what I have discovered in the course of my own practice, I am pleased to read the words of Zen master Lin-Chi:

“Followers of the Way, the outstanding teachers from times past have all had ways of drawing people out. What I myself want to impress on you is that you mustn’t be led astray by others. If you want to use this thing, then use it and have no doubts or hesitations!

“When students today fail to make progress, where’s the fault? The fault lies in the fact that they don’t have faith in themselves! If you don’t have faith in yourself, then you’ll be forever in a hurry trying to keep up with everything around you, you’ll be twisted and turned by whatever environment you’re in and you can never move freely. But if you can just stop this mind that goes rushing around moment by moment looking for something, then you’ll be no different from the patriarchs and buddhas. Do you want to get to know the patriarchs and buddhas? They’re none other than you, the people standing in front of me listening to this lecture on the Dharma!”[iii]

When Lin-Chi talks about the “mind that goes rushing around moment by moment looking for something,” I don’t think he’s not talking about our tendency to think about stuff. That’s how I used to understand his words, but thinking is just part of being human (and frankly, it’s a great part of being human). I think Lin-Chi is referring to something deeper and subtler: the part of us that is looking for something else, to be someone else, to exist in a different world than we live in right now. That part drives the mind to go rushing about – sometimes even in the pursuit of some state called mindfulness. Can you go ahead and think, speak, and act without rushing about?

[ii] Opening the Hand of Thought by Kosho Uchiyama. Wisdom Publications, 2004.
[iii] The Zen Teachings of Zen Master Lin-Chi, translated by Burton Watson. Columbia University Press, 1993.



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