A version of this article appeared in the April issue of Namaskar.
In the eight-limbed path of Ashtanga yoga, it is said that the first four limbs are techniques we can practice, whereas the second four limbs arise after sustained effort and discipline, and with a little sprinkling of grace. This may lead to some confusion, as in most Buddhist traditions, these limbs that address various states of meditation are taught as specific practices in and of themselves. So what does it mean to develop mindfulness and awareness, the final limbs of pratyahara, dharana, dhyana and samadhi?
Yoga asana practice– with mindful breathing– is a wonderful tool to tame the mind. You will probably notice that as you try to follow the breath, the mind wanders. Mind has a tendency to get distracted. If you allow your mind to play itself out long enough, loudly enough, and keep coming back to the breath, eventually it will wear itself out, somewhat like an unruly beast, or a hyperactive child. Keep showing the mind who is responsible by returning again and again to the breath. Not in an overly authoritarian way, but in a kind, knowing way. A wise way. Tell your mind, “I know all your tricks that you will use to try to dissuade me from paying proper attention to the breath. You are very clever. But I am wiser than you.”
Observing is the hardest task of all, and the most important. It gets even harder when sitting still for meditation. But the more you practice, the more subtle detail you will observe. It is excruciatingly slow and tedious work at times. The mind is elusive. Tame it once, and it is easier to tame again, but it is never a done deal. There is always a discipline, a precision required to bring the mind back to rest. Calm abiding requires a gentle touch, and dedication is essential. This is how to develop mindfulness, the discipline of staying on task with full presence. It is a noble accomplishment and a useful for all sorts of activities, like performing yoga asana or attending to loved ones.
But according to some traditions, this won’t alleviate emotional suffering, except temporarily.
For that we need awareness, which arises through insight. Awareness is something that happens naturally when you are fully engaged. Say you are in conversation with your beloved, and he or she is telling you all the reasons you are so wonderful. Chances are you are so riveted by these words that you are not in the slightest way distracted by the child screaming in the restaurant, or the clatter of plates as the waiters rush about, or by the sound of traffic outside. Mindfulness is what keeps your ears tuned in to the words; awareness is your total focus on the present situation. Essentially, there is no effort involved in awareness–the effort to stay focused is mindfulness.
Do not underestimate the power of awareness. When you start to discover the bliss of settling the breath into the body, and the awareness into the breath, it is such a joy to experience that distraction becomes less interesting. So eventually awareness is not about disciplining ourselves to stay undistracted, as much as it is about settling so completely in the experience of the practice—in the present moment– that everything else seems less interesting.
Awareness is observing, without agenda. If something is lovely or horrible, awareness stays present. Judgment is a sure sign that awareness is lacking. Judging is a refusal to engage directly and personally; it is a refusal to take responsibility for one’s own experience. Practice sets the parameters—creating a container in which awareness germinates. But without disciplined attention, awareness will elude us.
In practice, we learn our own individual tendencies, which are different from everyone else’s. Then, once we know a bit more about our patterns, we can apply the antidotes necessary to bring us back into balance. If I am too strong, then softening will balance the equation. If I am too soft, I can learn to be strong. The antidotes are not the medicine; they are journey we take to awareness. Without our imbalances, there would be no journey to take. So we should also bow to our weaknesses, in gratitude.
Through practice, we put ourselves under the microscope, and then use the data for further inquiry. You have options here: you can run away and criticize the practice, in essence killing the messenger. Or you can muster your courage, face your demons and try to learn something from them.
It is said that the human body is a microcosm to the larger macrocosm of the universe. Each reflects the other perfectly and down to the smallest detail. Begin by switching your allegiance from looking outside to inside. By understanding your internal world in depth, you have access to the secrets of the universe. Becoming aware of your own particulars allows you the freedom to choose consciously to engage in behaviors and patterns, rather than being dragged along by a lifetime’s worth of momentum. So when full awareness finally awakens, we can rest undisturbed and joyful no matter what the moment brings.