People generally come to the practice of meditation looking for freedom – freedom from suffering, from things like stress, anxiety, incessant thoughts, difficult emotions – maybe even ultimately freedom from birth and death. This Mahasati practice, which emphasizes observing the activity of the mind without suppressing it, can be a hard sell sometimes. When people are looking to be free from the interminable activity of the mind, it is hard for them to understand the value of observing it more closely. Which is what we ask them to do in Mahasati insight meditation practice.
With this practice, we are placing only light awareness on our anchor, which is the body movement, so we can nonjudgmentally observe the present moment activity of the mind. While observing the mind, from moment to moment, we try not to lose track of the feeling of the body moving. This helps us keep our awareness in the present moment. If we were to try to observe the mind without our anchor, we would probably be immediately swept up into the content of the mind’s stories, rather than watching its present moment activity. On the other hand, if we were to concentrate too directly on the hand movement, we would artificially suppress thought and create a pleasant, but temporary, sense of calmness, perhaps becoming attached to that experience. With this type of insight practice, we are setting up awareness to be able to observe the mind’s activity without suppressing it, and without losing itself in it. When this is done correctly, we become intimately familiar with the continuous flux of activity that is the mind. The mind is never still. In each moment, there are perceptions, thoughts, and feelings continually arising and passing away. It is definitely not a relaxing sight to behold, and this can be a real obstacle for some people, particularly if they’ve previously tasted the temporary peace that other meditative practices offer.
Meditative practices that emphasize one-pointed concentration, or just staying with the breath for example, offer a temporary balm to quiet and soothe the mind. It feels good to put our thoughts aside and just be with the breath for a while. It is much more relaxing than trying to stay with the constant activity of an unsuppressed mind. Actually, in Mahasati practice, mental activity is calmed to an extent in that we are not going into the story of thoughts, so they are not proliferating and gaining momentum in the same way. Still, the incessant busyness of the mind is being underscored in this practice, and persistent effort is necessary to stay in the present moment while observing it. Even though the practice itself does not necessarily feel relaxing, one’s state of mind often shifts during the course of a sitting. When we emerge from a period of formal practice, although the mind was never stilled, we may find that we are not being sucked into the content as indiscriminately as we were at the outset. This fact is the beginning of true freedom.
True freedom is freedom that is not dependent on silencing the mind. True freedom is the ability to have a sense of inner happiness in the face of whatever the mind may be doing. One practitioner recently put it this way, “with this practice, I am finding that I no longer take the thoughts the mind is creating so seriously.” This is the beginning of freedom – when we are no longer identified with conceptual thought. We can use thought when appropriate, and ignore it when it isn’t. This freedom is a big part of the definition of mental health – being able to experience one’s mental life, without suppressing it, and without feeling that one is at its mercy. This is the first layer of bondage we need to break through in our practice – the bondage of conceptual thought. We can then work towards freedom from the more subtle shackles that underlie conceptual thought, like the defilements themselves – clinging, aversion, and the experience of self that arises from moment to moment. The practice is the same for these deeper layers – observing the mind’s activity in the present moment without suppressing or indulging it. Just as one learns to not identify with thought, recognizing that it is simply something that is happening in the present moment, similarly, we see that the defilements are not who we are and are also just phenomena that come and go. When awareness is brought to them in this way, they gradually lose their power. Mindfulness is the master key that opens all of the shackles.