For our final print issue, Inquiring Mind invited Gil Fronsdal to write a short essay to jump-start discussions on practice and awakening, and to follow that with conversations with two young teachers he mentors, Nikki Mirghafori and Max Erdstein.
Surprisingly, the day came when I had to give up mindfulness. While this giving up was temporary, it proved to be a necessary step in my path toward liberation. To show how this was the case, I will explain a bit of my history with Buddhist practice.
Before practicing mindfulness in Theravada Buddhism, I spent years practicing Zen. I remain very grateful for my early years of Zen training. It was a remarkable training in being present for life. First, I learned a lot about how I was not present. As I learned to be more attentive to my present-moment experience, I then learned a lot about how I reacted for and against this experience. Slowly I learned to be present without any observable reactivity. I understood this nonreactivity as a practice of unconditional acceptance in which experiences were allowed to exist in an open awareness.
In the course of this Zen training I had a range of meaningful experiences. I not only came to understand something of the interconnected aspect of our life and world, I also had insights where this was seen in vivid and awe-inspiring clarity. Other times my experience could not be described in the usual subject-object perspective; refreshingly, I was not aware of any sense of self in the very intimate flow of experience.
I came to value the Zen approach that everything was practice, i.e., that everything that was happening was something to offer my full presence to.
But I noticed some of my fellow Zen practitioners’ ideas about Zen practice were different from mine. In particular, some students believed that there was one thing we were not supposed to be present for, either because it did not exist or because it was second best or somehow wrong to experience. Unacceptable was any experience or transformation that could be labeled “enlightenment.” Some Zen friends had the attitude that the only thing to do with a so-called enlightenment experience was to let it go and preferably forget all about it as we moved into the next moment with full awareness. Others believed there was no such thing as enlightenment as a clear and dramatic transformative experience. Or if there was enlightenment, it was not the radical, life-altering experience some people reported. Rather it was any moment in the course of ordinary life when there was no subject-object distinction or there was some meaningful level of acceptance and peace.
While I did not know what enlightenment might be, I was confused by ideas that seemed to belittle or dismiss it. I was even more confused knowing how important enlightenment was for the Buddha and for much of Buddhism.
After my Zen training, I engaged in intensive vipassana training in Burma. The mindfulness practice I was taught helped me to see that the acceptance I had experienced through Zen was not as thorough an acceptance as I had believed. Through careful and sustained mindfulness I saw an array of subtle—almost underground—thoughts and intentions that were not accepting. For example, I was sometimes able to sit with open acceptance of my anger. However, when I looked carefully I saw that the anger itself was a symptom of some non-acceptance. Or I saw in the gaps of my thinking that there were underlying, hidden feelings of fear, striving or self-referencing. My mind had to be very still to see the subtle operation of greed, hate and delusion as well as to sense the agitation and constriction they caused.
As my mind became more still and quiet, I became aware that it seemed to have a natural inclination to let go of the increasingly subtle agitation that remained. From the perspective of a relaxed mind in ordinary life, the mind was very serene. Even so, similar to the way a very still lake highlights the slightest ripple, so deep meditation revealed the slightest movements of mind.
And similar to the way water will flow downhill if unimpeded, so I found an almost inherent momentum for the mind to move toward stillness, to let go of even the smallest agitation. As I allowed for this slide into greater stillness, I discovered that many of my cherished ideas and meditation experiences involved movements of the mind. Feelings of oneness, interconnectedness, compassion, bliss and no-self all involved very subtle movements of mind that interfered with greater stillness.
I also learned that, at times, any effort to practice was more mental movement. I was fine with letting go of effort—I had come to value effortlessness in my Zen practice. But I was not prepared to let go of mindfulness. Mindfulness seemed like the core of the practice. But when I understood that mindfulness was itself an activity of the mind, I could feel a desire to allow this activity to also become still. Because I trusted the movement toward greater and greater peace, while in deepening states of very satisfying stillness I would let go of mindfulness; that is, the knowing functioning of the mind. Sometimes all that seemed to remain was awareness aware of itself.
Classic Buddhist teachings describe what I am calling “movements of mind” as mental activities or mental constructions. As I continued my practice, I heeded an intuition to let go of mental activities. At some point, when the mind was very quiet, I was surprised to “see” that everything that I could identify as a mental activity or mental construction ceased completely. Of course there was no seeing, as all inner and outer perception ceased as well. Even awareness disappeared. While this might seem to be a kind of death or a “nothing” that has no value, I found the experience to be life changing. It was more beautiful and satisfying than anything I had ever experienced before. More important, I felt changed.
Now I have a connection to a dimension of mind or of awareness that is unconstructed, with no movement or agitation in it. It is somewhat like remaining aware of a peaceful silence while simultaneously hearing the ring of a bell. The sense of the unconstructed became very important because it highlighted how everything else is constructed. Any understanding or sense of self is a construction of the mind—it has its role in life but it has no inherent existence. Any understanding of the world or even of Buddhist practice is a construct of the mind. Paradoxically, for practitioners, Buddhist teachings are constructs of mind that point beyond themselves.
While I do not know whether any of my deep meditation experiences qualify as enlightenment, they have inspired me to appreciate and respect the possibility of enlightenment as a radical and thoroughgoing freedom. I now know that the Buddha’s teaching that “Nothing whatsoever is worth clinging to” doesn’t entail a loss or a diminishing of anything other than greed, hate and delusion. “Nothing whatsoever is worth clinging to” points to the radiance of liberation, far beyond the practice of mindfulness.