When you hear the word mindfulness, what does it mean to you? What kind of feelings do you associate with it? Or, maybe more important: what kinds of feelings do you not associate with it?
In “The Eight Awakenings of Great Beings,” Dogen tells us the fifth awakening is “not to neglect mindfulness.” And he uses language that might fit with how many today imagine mindfulness to work. He says, for example, “It is like wearing armor and going into a battlefield, so there is nothing to be afraid of.” That's a powerful language—it speaks to something most of us probably want. But it’s dangerous for the same reason.
These days, mindfulness is often presented as a kind of coping tool. If you’re stressed, try breathing more mindfully, eating more mindfully, walking more mindfully, and eventually you’ll feel better. You’ll feel more like how you want to feel. This is sometimes marketed as a kind of tool for resilience, but in truth, it’s a distraction technique—you don’t want to feel how you feel, so you manufacture a new way of feeling. Many mindfulness exercises, if you want to use them that way, will do exactly that. They’ll help you calm down, or they’ll help you focus, or they’ll help you feel like the kind of person who does things mindfully—and who doesn’t want that?
That version of mindfulness doesn’t go very far; it also isn’t (I suspect) anywhere near what Dogen is talking about, even when he talks about armor. From a Buddhist perspective, our most basic response to almost anything is to either push or pull. If something feels good, we pull it closer; if it feels bad, we try to push it away. Buddhist responses to dukkha, to our basic human dissatisfaction, have always said there has to be another way. As a Buddhist practice, then, mindfulness can’t really be about trying to feel, or trying not to feel, a particular way. Rather, it’s about giving up that fight, that expenditure of energy, so that you can be here. Mindfulness is so you can feel bad without needing not to, so you can feel afraid without needing not to, so you can feel anxious without needing not to. It’s so you don’t need to get away from where you are, from how you are.
Mindfulness is the opposite of distraction. It’s an agreement to stay. Feeling the soles of your feet on the ground isn’t just to focus—it’s to say, I’m not going anywhere. I’m going to let this be, whatever it is, however painful it is. If I feel love and it’s too much, I’m not going to fight. If I want to cry, I’ll let that happen.
Mindfulness is also the opposite of armor. So when Dogen says mindfulness lets you step on to the battlefield with nothing to be afraid of, my understanding is that it isn’t because now you’re safe, or because you’ve put some protective layer between you and the thing you don’t want—it’s because you’ve let go of the idea that you’re separate from that. There is nothing to be afraid of, nothing to be protected from, because you’ve let go of the idea that this is something too big or too painful for you to hold.
Mindfulness can take lots of forms: paying attention to the breath, noticing sights and sounds and sensations, just slowing down. Because they involve a choice to see or hear or act a particular way, they can be mistaken for choices to make your experience smaller, safer, but in fact, they are the opposite—a decision to expand your experience until it has space for everything, including the parts you don’t want. They’re decisions not to run, not to shut down, not to put on armor. That’s the practice in difficult moments, but also in any moment—to choose, moment by moment, to be here and nowhere else, to accept what this is, inside and outside, without judgment, without pushing or pulling. It’s to say, this really is this. I don’t need to cover my eyes. I don’t need to protect my heart. I just need to stay.
Author: Koun Franz
Koun Franz is a Montana-born Soto Zen priest who trained, taught, and translated in traditional monasteries in Japan. He is the guiding teacher of Thousand Harbours Zen in Halifax, Nova Scotia (his talks can be found on the their podcast) and editor of Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Guide.