Beware the Witness Trap: Excerpt from Beyond Mindfulness

For many years I practiced mindfulness meditation as a Buddhist monk. For hours each day I paid careful attention to the coming and going of my breath and to the sensations of my body as I sat. I became adept at noticing thoughts and feelings as they occurred and found myself feeling calmer, more spacious, and more disengaged from the drama that had seemed to be my life. In time my customary anxiety diminished, and a sense of ease and contentment enveloped me. My relationships improved, my mind settled down, and my concentration deepened. Instead of worrying about the future or obsessing about the past, I lived increasingly in the moment, focused on doing the next task as carefully and mindfully as possible. From a nervous intellectual, I transformed into a paragon of patience, groundedness, and equanimity. I was a completely different person.

Drawing on my enthusiasm for the practice, my years of experience, and the expert guidance I had received, I led meditation workshops and retreats for others and wrote a popular guidebook, Meditation for Dummies, which extols the benefits and teaches the particulars of mindfulness meditation. More recently, I authored and narrated two mindfulness-based digital programs, Mindfulness Meditation and Freedom from Stress, which make mindfulness accessible to a much wider audience.

But in the context in which I learned and practiced it, mindfulness was always a stepping-stone, not an end in itself, a skillful method for going beyond mindfulness to recognize the foundation out of which mindfulness arises. According to this tradition, the act of being mindful is a portal to a deeper, enduring awareness that can’t be manufactured or practiced. This deeper awareness is always functioning, whether we know it or not. Indeed, it is our natural state of spontaneous presence, without which there would be no experience at all. Instead of cultivating it like a talent or strengthening it like a muscle, we just need to recognize and return to it.

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Mindfulness and Depression

Even though the event that triggered this post (which originally appeared on my Facebook page) occurred several months ago, the message is timeless:

Many people have written about Robin Williams’s propensity for depression. I would only recommend that we be cautious and compassionate in our pronouncements. No one, not even those closest to him, can really know what was going through his mind when he chose to end his own life. Clearly, he must have been haunted by some extremely negative, hopeless, despairing thoughts that he didn’t know how to handle. Perhaps a particular incident put him over the edge. Or possibly the accumulation of numerous difficulties and disappointments—his open-heart surgery, the canceling of his TV show, his struggle with addiction—finally took their toll. (As we know now, he had recently been diagnosed with Parkinson’s.)

Most perplexing is the question of how–in the Bay Area, birthplace of cutting-edge psychotherapies; in Marin County, home to two world-renowned meditation centers; with good friends like Zen priest Peter Coyote—Robin could have failed to avail himself of the resources at his fingertips. Yes, we need to lift the stigma that still hovers around depression. Maybe we could begin by finding a softer, more embracing term than “mental illness,” which still reeks of the loony bin.

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Steeping in Silence

I just finished teaching a three-day retreat in Tucson with about 20 participants. Each retreat is different, there’s no prescribed format or plan, just a natural alternation of teaching, dialogue, silent sitting, and guided inquiry that arises in response to the needs of the moment. I’m always struck by the sincerity and dedication of the folks who join, by the love and empathy that spontaneously emerge, and by how quickly and organically we deepen into a collective appreciation of the truth of our being, silent, nondual presence—what I call in Beyond Mindfulness “awakened awareness.” There’s something about steeping together in silent presence that is powerfully awakening, beyond what any of us might say or do.

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Mindfulness is your natural state

After years of being largely restricted to yoga studios and meditation halls, mindfulness meditation has entered the mainstream, and corporations and universities are rushing to include it in their curriculum or their offerings to employees. Neuroscientists first became fascinated with mindfulness over a decade ago after brain-scan results from Tibetan Buddhist monks showed previously unimaginable levels of compassion and equanimity. Now dozens of studies are published each year in magazines, newspapers, and academic journals showing the benefits of mindfulness for everything from stress-reduction and pain management to enhanced empathy and increased focus and effectiveness at work and school. Mindfulness even infiltrated a recent annual meeting of the influential World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, where a presentation touted its value for the corporate bottom line.

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Defining mindfulness

If you practice mindfulness—either as a relative beginner or as a seasoned veteran— you might be interested to learn that the practice taught in adult education centers, corporate conference rooms, and Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) trainings is somewhat different from the approach used in the monasteries of South Asia, where it originated. Indeed, the approach you’re likely to encounter is a streamlined version that monks in some traditions might not even recognize. In the West, mindfulness is generally defined as bare, nonjudgmental attention to present-moment experience. But in Asia it’s part of a set of related practices that are together intended to lead the practitioner to spiritual awakening and the “sure heart’s release” from suffering.

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