I first began meditating at the age of 17, at a time when mindfulness was not mainstream and meditation was not touted as the burgeoning business opportunity or “wellness” trend that it is today. I remember being relieved and energized by my first experiences of intentional mindful attention. I say “intentional” because, of course, every human being has the potential to be mindful and there is an important difference between randomly being mindful and training to develop this capacity.
Before my first introduction to practice, I had lived much of my life on autopilot—and numbing out in various unskillful ways—so my first tastes of pure presence captured my attention and heart completely.
But I also remember, fairly early on in my meditation journey, the questions arising, “Is this it? Is mindfulness enough? What happens next?”
At that time, I had just the right combination of desperation and bravado in me to “dive off the deep end” into the insight meditation training offered in the United States at that time. Long residential retreats (lots of them), followed by periods of muddling through how to bring the depth of mindful awareness into an often messy and complicated daily life.
What I discovered through my stumbling during those years, is that mindfulness is not the end of the road. Rather, it’s the beginning. Or, we could say, it is a companion that can accompany you throughout an entire lifetime. And, indeed, mindfulness does mature over time.
How does mindfulness mature? Of course, there are many answers to this question. But, over the years, I’ve found that a simple map of practice can explain it best.
Mindfulness, as Ajahn Sucitto puts it, “connects present moment experience to a frame of reference,” which are the body, feeling tones, mind states, and the points of reference that we dance with when relating to life.
Mindfulness becomes Great Mindfulness when the underlying perspectives of how we relate to reality become wiser. Our connection with presence develops continuity so that our habitual grip on controlling inputs at the six sense doors begins to relax.
Mindfulness-Wisdom is in harmony with changing conditions. It knows the pain of holding on and it remembers that the whole show of human emotions, thoughts, and experiences are not a personal problem or failing, but rather universal patterns of shared experience.
Wisdom Leading to Release intuitively understands and opens to the mysterious process of letting go on all levels. We see, release, and integrate “the absence” of the prior conditioning until it penetrates all areas of our lives.
The map appears linear, but it is probably more accurate to say it is thematic. It’s like a vast wide open territory for exploration, and the principles of exploration are “easy does it,” “less is more,” and accessing the deep well of available wisdom from “small moments, many times,” until it leads to a point at which there is no turning back.
As mindfulness matures—and deepened by the facets of the map reflecting back into each other—it becomes the lens through which we perceive our experience. The quality of presence itself becomes our ally. When the difficult aspects of life are brought to this awareness, they are known for what they are. They don’t have the power to pierce our hearts in the same reactive ways as before. Rather than becoming a buffer or barrier to life, awareness is a bridge back to wholeness. In a world that regularly serves us up flagrant injustice, inequality, and expectations that defy logic, the ability to respond from a wise, non-reactive heart and mind is something of incalculable value.
How do we do this? How do we meet more moments with stability, perspective, and a lighter heart? Small moments, many times.
Heather Sundberg has taught insight meditation since 1999. She has completed the Spirit Rock/IMS Senior Teacher Training under Jack Kornfield and Joseph Goldstein. She is co-teaching an upcoming retreat at the Garrison Institute, “The Outer Reaches of Insight,” with Josh Korda on July 11-16, 2017.