Think of Mindfulness as the habit of seeing things in an uncomplicated way. We generally don’t. Based on our individual histories, our memories, and our fears, we often make up our reality out of a projected worry and frighten or discourage ourselves. I once had a series of back and forth phone calls with Robert, the retreat master at the San Francisco Zen Center, because I wanted to register for a retreat there. We kept missing each other. When I said to the person who answered the phone, on my third or fourth attempt to talk to Robert, “Perhaps this means that I am not meant to participate in this retreat,” he said, “Probably it just means that Robert isn’t here.”
That verbal exchange, now more than thirty years old, is an example of why I feel I need to pay attention. Mindfulness is seeing things as they actually are not as we imagine them to be. Practicing mindfulness does not require that a person become a Buddhist. The hope of practitioners is that they might become like a Buddha relating to their experiences with clarity and responding with kindness and compassion.
The Buddha’s core teaching addressed, “the cause and the end of suffering.” He explained how the mind becomes confused and fatigued yearning for pleasant experiences and despising unpleasant experiences. Pleasant and unpleasant experiences, the Buddha explained, the joys and pains of everyday life, are not the problem. The yearning and despising—the imperative in the mind that things be different—the extra tension in the mind that disappears when things are seen clearly and understood fully, is what the Buddha called suffering. Mindfulness—the relaxed, non-clinging, non-aversive awareness of present experience—is a skill that, like any other skill, requires developing. I tell people that practicing that skill is something I try to do all the time, in all the experiences of my life. I also tell them that, like everyone else’s life, my life is very complex. I try to set aside a bit of time every day and a whole day of time at regular intervals—Sabbaths in the course of my life—contexts of simplicity that will support my intention to reestablish clear and balanced understanding.