The Foundations of Mindfulness Sutra (Satipatthana Sutta) is the core Buddhist text that discusses meditation and the path to Insight. The word “mindfulness” isn’t so exciting sounding, is it? It’s the standard word we’ve inherited from the early British translators for a skill that the Buddha praises as the “direct path for the surmounting of sorrow… and the realization of Nirvana”. Mindfulness is something like “clear, kind awareness of exactly what’s happening now”, and so sometimes I like to use a juicier, non-Victorian word for it: intimacy.
It’s easy enough to say, “be intimate with this moment”, or “know what’s happening now”, but harder to sense how that often plain act is the doorway to a great freedom. Right now I’m aware of several sense-impressions: sounds from the street, hand and arm sensations, thoughts, visual images, other body sensations… the flow of them goes on endlessly. But intimacy isn’t about the content of the flow. It’s not that there’s something important in the bird song, car noise, neck ache, smoothness of brushed aluminum under wrists, though it’s all part of what’s real. The importance lies in the act of being present for them. When I’m sensing all these things, one after another, and not getting lost in thought about them, I’m living my life in a very specific way. I’m not wrapped up in past and future (because to think about them takes me away from present-moment sensation), I’m not caught in judgment and analysis (same reason), I’m just here. And being here is sometimes sweet, sometimes boring, and sometimes painful, but it’s different than being lost. And not being lost is to know where you are.
Intimacy happens when we’re completely connecting with something. We think of it in physical and emotional ways often: intimate with our lovers or friends, or with our inner world. The word itself means “inner, inmost, deepest, profound”, and the promise of profound realization (getting real) is at the heart of the Buddha’s instructions to be intimate. The Buddha’s path is not about attaining bliss, though pleasure is an important factor to develop, nor is it about transcendence, though many causes of suffering are naturally let go of during the process. The path is about getting real. And real means engaging with what’s exactly in front of you, taking off the rose-colored glasses, but also taking off the bitter, grey ones. Intimacy with a lover doesn’t just mean sex and pleasure, but relationship with the whole, complex human being in front of you. Likewise, intimate mindfulness receives the whole situation, moment by moment, warts and all. You become lovers with your life as it unfolds.
The “lovers” metaphor is a perfect description for mindfulness as a primary spiritual practice: it deepens immeasurably over time, is nourished by listening and non-judgmental presence, requires strength of will, patience, and heartfelt commitment, is wildly satisfying at moments and wrenchingly painful at others. Over time it will deeply wound your ego and heal your long bruised heart. It does all this through intimate attention. Why does attention work? Because the primary veil between us and happiness is our habit of constantly complaining. We want the good moments to last and the bad ones to not happen. Neither is possible, but we resist. And that resisting is a veil. If you don’t know what your lover is feeling, how will you know how to respond? First you have to ask. “What’s going on?” When you get the answer, then you can choose what to do.
The teaching that you can “create your own reality” is popular right now. It’s both true and misleading. Without getting into it here (maybe another month…), the true part is that we do have choice, and our actions do affect our experience. Mindfulness is the skill that precedes choice. If we’re caught in grasping and aversion, our choices are not choices, they’re reactions. And reactions tend to create unpleasant realities. Before you can create your reality, you have to know what you’re working with. Intimacy asks, “what’s here right now?”, notices when we get lost, and is willing to come back. On a beautiful spring day like this, it seems easy to come back to my senses. Past and future are seductive dreams, but intimacy is to get real. It’s sweet. And it’s the direct path.