What does it mean to be mindful? Being mindful means that we are alert to what is happening within us and around us as it is occurring. It means that our mind is clear and our senses open, that we are responding effectively and creatively to what is at hand, without thinking about it. It is an immediacy of experience, a direct connection with the freshness of each new moment. We feel each breath as it enters us, and we feel each breath as it leaves us. We are conscious of each bite and chew of our food. We are as sensitive to the nuances of life around us as we are to the arising thoughts and feelings within us. This is being mindful.
Being mindful and attentive to what is occurring now is extremely useful for dealing effectively with our daily lives. It is also a good practice for spiritual development. Mindfulness produces the feeling of being centered and balanced.
To practice mindfulness, we focus and concentrate the mind on a single point. Concentration on a single point helps us to free ourselves from the mind’s eccentricities.
But mindfulness is still self-centered. The feeling of being centered and balanced belongs to us. It is another state, localized in space and time. It helps us, but it is not who we are. In order to be truly free, mindfulness must grow into awareness.
Mindfulness means to be alert to the here and now of this physical environment. It is the quality of mind in its pristine state. This mind is cultivated through attention and dis-identification with thought. This mind sees things as they are, without embellishment or added significance.
Awareness, however, is more encompassing than mindfulness. Awareness is the subtle consciousness that is the animating force of the mind. It is not related to the past or the future. It is not related to the present. It is beyond all three.
Awareness does not belong to us, as does mindfulness. Awareness is beyond a practicer. Awareness is like a gust of insight whose source is beyond knowing. Awareness is not a state of mind; it is a quality of being. This beingness is beyond conditions. In this awareness, one does not have to worry about being centered in the present.
As mindfulness matures into awareness, our sense of being a separate self dissolves. This dissolution allows awareness to emerge within us. As this awareness emerges from the shadows cast by our own separateness, the effort and striving to be present also dissolve.
When the separate self merges back into awareness, everything is seen as an expression of life, of consciousness, of the Self. Here, in the sacred hub, differences of name and form and experience lose their distinctive edge. Around the now-soft edges is the shimmering light of consciousness itself. We do not need caution or alertness, because in this ocean of consciousness everything is wet. But we must experience this, we must know this, we must make this real. We cannot sit on the shore and think we know what it’s like to be in the ocean.