With our Mahasati practice, we are training the mind to know itself in the present moment. We are training our awareness to be in the here and now, while letting go of any reactivity. Our awareness has been overly conditioned to always be somewhere else – immersed in thoughts, worries, regrets, longings, and anticipations about the past or future. We are also habitually grasping or pushing away experience based on whether or not it pleases us in the moment. So, our practice is to train the mind to gradually overcome this conditioning. Probably most people can intellectually appreciate the value of this. Most people recognize the suffering that proliferating thought and reactivity brings to their lives.
Though this is something that most understand, it is difficult to actually change this dynamic in one’s life. To be aware in the here and now, without reactivity, goes against lifetimes of conditioning. Whether or not you believe in reincarnation, we know that these problematic habits of mind have been reinforced in our species across countless generations. It is unreasonable to expect them to easily surrender to our desire for something different. These habits of reactivity, and of going off somewhere else, don’t want to just quit.
This becomes obvious in our meditation practice. We sit down full of good intentions toward our practice, but the mind goes off again and again. This can easily lead to discouragement. We need to keep our practice in perspective to avoid making false judgments and becoming demoralized. It is helpful to bear in mind the amount of conditioning that we are up against, and have some self-compassion and understanding when our mind follows its old ways. We can also remind ourselves that our Mahasati practice is aimed at getting to the root of the mental habits we are trying to overcome. It is not about suppressing them. We want to actually see the habit clearly so that we fully understand it and what is sustaining it. So, paradoxically we want the mind to be able to go off when we meditate. The running off of the mind is actually our teacher.
Our practice is to cultivate the ability to notice that the mind has run off, and observe the dropping away of that running off, that then follows the noticing. When we notice we’re off in thought, our awareness comes back to the present, at least for a moment. Instead of becoming frustrated and bemoaning the wandering mind, please see the wandering as your teacher. Notice how it drops away in the presence of the noticing awareness. Seeing conceptual thought drop away in the presence of awareness, over and over again, is at the heart of Mahasati practice. It leads to one recognizing the emptiness of the wandering, and eventually seeing the underlying cause of the wandering.
So, we are practicing with the wandering, not suppressing it. Of course, we are not indulging the wandering either. When we notice that the mind is in thought, we use the body to come back to the present moment, but we emphasize the practice of being aware of the dropping away of thought. The more this happens, the better. During a period of meditation, it is better to come out of thought a hundred times and to know the dropping away of thought, than to sit without any thought. When we repeatedly witness thought’s arising and dropping away its emptiness becomes apparent. When we are clear about its emptiness, we no longer subjugate ourselves to it.