Near a frontier village, there lived a father and a son. One of the father’s horses accidentally went missing, and all the villagers consoled him. He replied, “I am not sure but that this could be a good thing.” After several months, the horse came back, along with the finest horse he had ever seen; all the villagers congratulated him. The father said, “Well, this could actually be bad for me.” Of his father’s many horses, the son liked riding the beautiful horse that came to them best. But he fell off this horse, and broke his leg. When the villagers consoled him, the father said, “This looks very bad, but I think it could be a fortunate event.” One year later, barbarians invaded the frontier, and all able-bodied men took up arms and went to war. Of the men from this frontier village, nine out of ten were killed. Owing to his broken leg, the son did not have to go to war, and survived.
This is one of my favorite old stories (Liu An, 139 BCE). It provides a flexible interpretation of events in life, suggesting how to be hopeful in the midst of human suffering and how to be positive about life in the face of harsh realities. I think that the father in this story was practicing mindfulness, and refreshing himself with it so that he might maintain his strength and energy. Although I am a mathematics teacher, I have been given the opportunity to teach mindfulness for many years now. Reviewing my experiences, I am able to see evidence of the benefits of practicing mindfulness. It is my wish that more people will become motivated to practice mindfulness meditation, and to gain a better understanding of what it is.
The quintessential component of mindfulness meditation is to do nothing except observe either your mind or the process of breathing in and out, especially without making any judgments. So there is nothing novel or spectacular about mindfulness meditation. One may wonder, how can good things possibly result from just sitting still and observing one’s mind or one’s breathing? But by this simple process, we can have a handle to slow our fast changing mind and can observe our mind more clearly.
In modern-day society, our mind is busy with both essential and accidental things. We seldom have quiet time in order to be able to see ourselves. When we meditate, our mind moves into an idle state, where we may either catch ahold of fleeting thoughts, or let them pass away. Depending on who we are and what we are experiencing, though they may look chaotic and random, our thoughts can be categorized loosely into future, present, or past things; ideas about how to make a living; individual and private matters; societal and political issues; cultural matters; and, of course, reflections on the meaning of life. The contents of our thoughts are inexhaustible, and most of them eventually require our judgment. But if we do not allow ourselves to judge these thoughts while meditating, we may have a better chance of avoiding the trap of a “narrow view,” which is probably the most common human weakness.
We make judgments almost constantly, without volition or the awareness that in doing so we are criticizing others. Maintaining a nonjudgmental attitude toward our own thoughts during meditation, we can attain an open mind, and bring insights to all the events and things around us. The underlying philosophy of mindfulness meditation is that every human being has the potential to find reasonable answers to the questions of life, if that person’s ethics and morals are not formed within an unhealthy belief system.
When one actually starts meditating, the most likely thing that will happen in one’s mind is that nothing will happen, unless one is in an emotionally extreme state or in an intensive problem-solving mode. To describe this state of mind in words is absurd, since this “blank mind” does not precipitate anything describable. Simply put, there is nothing there to see or observe. Some people can deal well with this state of mind, but others have trouble dealing with it. Fortunately, there are three ways in which one can meditate and maintain focus without being troubled by the notion of “blank mind”: by observing one’s breathing, by observing one’s bodily sensations, or by observing sounds as they occur.
Our emotions and thoughts are usually so mixed together that disentangling them is very difficult. An efficient way to disentangle one’s emotions from one’s thoughts is to calm down until one’s mind settles and becomes clear. Observing one’s mind allows one to separate one’s feelings into distinguishable threads, so that one may have a better understanding of how one’s emotions are tied either to current events or to one’s memories. Humans integrate their personalities through feelings of shame and honor, and see themselves as members of society through feelings of belonging. But one has to realize that our feelings cannot be used reliably as justifications for our actions, since feelings can be often erroneous or just inappropriate. The following joke tells about a mother with a double standard toward her own children. This woman says how nice it is of her son-in-law to give her daughter a luxury car, jewelry, fine clothes, and two maids, allowing the daughter to do no work at home. And then she says how miserable her son is, because her daughter-in-law has two maids and does nothing except shop every day. Most of the time, we can detect how our feelings are leading us astray if we maintain a less self-centered view and treat ourselves and others equally and objectively.
Meditating regularly, one can increase the odds of making reasonable and healthy judgments, rather than careless, automatic, unhealthy judgments. If someone is seriously interested in developing a more open and understanding mind, practicing mindfulness meditation will be one of the best paths to do so. The saying of Confucius (Dawson 2008) about meditation and learning is worthy of remembering for every person who considers oneself as a learner. “If one studies but does not think, one loses it all. If one just thinks and does not study, one is in peril.” Mindfulness meditation is a lifelong journey, like learning, toward acquiring an understanding of the self, of society, and of our environment. The most beneficial aspect of mindfulness meditation is to be freed from confused thoughts and to become refreshed and energized, in order to live a productive and meaningful life.
Dawson, Raymond (2008). Confucius: The Analects. Oxford University Press, book 2, chapter 15.