Mindfulness, Lynne Bousfield

This is an abridged and edited version of a talk given by Lynne Bousfield at a 2006 Vipassana retreat she taught with Steven Smith at the Blue Mountains Insight Meditation Centre.

Tonight I’d like to talk about mindfulness. I’ve previously mentioned that mindfulness has a quality of remembering—the remembering to be in the present moment – and that mindfulness has various components or companions that arise with it. One of those companions is energy or effort, the effort or energy required to remember to bring attention into the present moment and observe what’s being experienced. It’s important to remember that mindfulness doesn’t just happen. It’s not there in every moment of experience. We actually have to arouse mindfulness, to make an effort, but we also have to learn that it is a relaxed effort. It’s not something that we force.

Another companion is focus. Remembering to make the effort to focus attention involves a collectedness or cohesiveness of mind, which are characteristics of concentration. The capacity to hold steady, still, or be in focus.  In our practice we develop momentary concentration. We are focusing attention on whatever arises moment to moment.

The ability to directly experience a moment will allow us to see that each moment is actually quite vivid. But if we lose mindfulness, get lost in thought and just start thinking about what we are experiencing, we lose our chance to directly experience – we miss the moment. Because we have a tendency to self-reference everything or to want to identify with everything, to make it about “me”, it can be hard to just simply know the experience as it is, to just simply “see” or “hear” - to simply be present, not miss.

When we miss being mindful, our thinking can easily reflect our conditioning and quickly bring in judgment. As soon as we are judging we lose mindfulness because mindfulness has a non-judgmental quality. When mindfulness is present it allows us to see experience from all perspectives and keep us in a balanced place. This is one reason it is a vivid experience. We understand that one perspective is not any ‘better’ than another – we can have a balanced, thorough view. Commonly in meditation practice, when things are difficult or unpleasant, we begin to judge and forget to be mindful. We lose our balance. We don’t understand that it’s just one perspective. Usually when things are difficult we just want to be rid of them. While it can take a considerable amount of courage to mindfully meet certain feelings, there are times in our practice, as there are in our lives, when we have to feel the intensity, feel the heat. There is an expression ‘to burn in the crucible of strong passion’. At those times it’s not that our practice is bad, it’s just that strong unpleasant feeling is what is arising in practice. Mindfulness helps us to recognise that the effort that we make in that moment is the effort to see clearly, the effort to focus on the behaviour of the phenomenon we are observing. The effort is not to judge or to get rid of something.

Mindfulness is not passive. This is a misconception we can have about meditation practice generally. It might look like we are all sitting here very passively, but mindfulness is a very active and engaged state of mind. It directly steps up and comes face to face with whatever it is that we are experiencing. Not getting attached to it, not getting tangled up in it, not identifying with it—just stepping up close. Mindfulness gets up close – but it doesn’t gloss over the surface of things. Mindfulness penetrates into what is observed, deeply seeing its characteristics, so as to understand how things behave and fundamentally to understand that things change and are empty of any “me”.

Ordinary observation is not like this because it is driven by our judgments. The way we ordinarily observe is through our constructions or interpretations, through the thoughts that we have about what we’re experiencing rather than paying direct attention to the experience. We need to be able to get up close to phenomena in order to really see them, see their real nature, because that gives us a clearer awareness of what’s going on. We need that clarity of awareness about anything that we are experiencing, but in terms of our suffering we really need to know what disturbs us before we are in any position at all to try to do anything about it.  There is no phenomenon unworthy of mindfulness. It’s a phrase that’s always stuck in my mind. It is helpful to remember that when times are tough – that when we are having difficulty in our practice, well, that is also the time and place to be mindful.

As we begin to develop mindfulness, what we can begin to see is the process and not just the content of experience.  One of the main reasons it is important to be mindful of the moment is that without mindfulness we just get locked into those habitual ways of thinking and automatic ways of responding. But the more we see process rather than content (because those habitual ways of responding often relate to content), the more we see that we have choice. The experience of choice, or knowing that we have choice in the moment, is fundamental to reducing our suffering.

Normally we just act automatically and reactively in our daily life, we do not exercise choice. A simple example is that we don’t often notice each time we move, that we are moving to alleviate suffering, that there is a process going on here. When we come on retreats and we are sitting still and not moving we come more face to face with these experiences and rather than automatically react we are able to see this cycle—this process of conditioning leading to reactivity – as well as see that there is also a process of interdependence that supports something different to living on automatic.

Process is not linear – it is about interconnectedness, interdependence.  When we truly know this, experientially through practise not intellectually through thought, this understanding sets us free.

Lynne Bousfield has been studying and practising Insight meditation for almost 40 years having commenced in Bodh Gaya, India in 1975. Since 1980 she has returned to Burma regularly to undertake intensive practice and develop her understanding of meditation and Buddhist psychology. She helped establish Vipassana Meditation in Australia and was the co-founder of the Blue Mountains Insight Meditation Centre (BMIMC) near Sydney. She teaches meditation retreats and courses regularly in Australia and overseas.

Lynne began working as a clinical psychologist in Sydney in 1992 and has developed a unique combination of skills from her meditation and clinical training to assist clients to apply mindfulness to loosen the grip of distressing emotions and transform daily suffering into a happier, engaged life.