Mindfulness and Awareness

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You’ve learned that the journey or the path — continuously trying to recognize that we can actually relax and be who we are — begins with simplifying everything in meditation. We sit on the cushion, follow our breath and watch our thoughts. Mindfulness/awareness meditation, sitting meditation, is the foundation of this particular journey. In this lesson you look more closely at the path of mindfulness and awareness.

For basic stability to be there when you sit down to meditate, you need consistency in bringing the mind back to the breath. How do you hold the mind to the breath? How do you train the wild horse of your mind? The tools you have for training the mind are mindfulness and awareness.

The power of mindfulness is that we can just bring our mind back to the breath

The power of awareness is that we know when to do it. Awareness knows when the horse has bolted, and tells mindfulness to bring it back.

Bringing our minds back to the breath is anything but easy. Our mindfulness is weak; we're so thoroughly trained in following our thoughts. Our awareness is weak as well; it's hard for us to see where we are and what we're doing.


It can help your development of mindfulness to understand three qualities of mindfulness: familiarity, remembering, and nondistraction. When these three aspects are present, we are truly mindful.


It seems that shamatha meditation should be so simple.

But when we begin to practice, we realize that we don't really know what the breath is. Where does it begin? Where does it end? Exactly what is it?

Do you find it hard to focus on the breath? Is it difficult to even find your breath?
If you can't remember, sit for a few minutes right now, then ask yourself these questions.

How can we stabilize our shamatha practice by unwavering mindfulness of the breath if we’re not familiar with it? At the beginning, when we’re not familiar with the breath or the present moment, we come back and we can't find it! We have a vague idea of where it is, but when we try to look for it, we get lost and distracted. So in shamatha, we try to make the mind and the breath very, very recognizable.

"How can I bring my mind back?" Well, the present moment and the breath have to be appealing, to have peace and harmony. With familiarity, meditation is actually enjoyable. It's like going to a place where we want to go. When we come back, it is just as if we were getting into a hot shower, or finding some nice place to lie on the grass.

We're becoming familiar with the stability of our mind and we enjoy it. It's relaxing and comfortable to rest there, like going to our room to be alone when the house is full of people.

If we don't become familiar with the inherent stability of the mind, there won't ever be anything interesting about coming back to the present moment. We'll just be holding on by our fingernails because we think we have to. We know that acknowledging, recognizing, and releasing thoughts reduces discursiveness, but we also need positive reasons for coming back to the breath.

Once we relax and get into the movement and rhythm of the breath, the present moment and the breath become very familiar. Our distractions and discursiveness are no longer quite so seductive. We'd rather return to the present moment than chase a thought.



Remembering means holding something in your mind, being able to bring it to mind. In shamatha practice we are saying: "Do you remember the present moment? Do you remember the breath?"

When you sit, do you forget what you're doing? Are you remembering what the practice is that you're doing or are you just sitting there?
As the once scattered mind stabilizes, its natural aspects arise. It has more energy to be where it is — which is mindfulness —and to know what it's doing — which is awareness.

Remembering has an unstudied quality. We're so steady in our mindfulness that we always know what we're doing in the present moment; we're always remembering to hold our mind to the breath. If we're caught up in thought, we're forgetting that we're meditating. When we're replaying last night's hockey game in our head, we've lost our mindfulness.

With regular practice we develop mindfulness, becoming familiar with the breath and remembering to return. We finally settle into a continuous state of not forgetting.


When you sit, are you easily distracted? Do you start remembering the instuctions, what you're doing, and then you're distracted by a thought, a sensation, a smell...?

Though it's hard to imagine when we first begin to meditate, if we stick with our practice, our mind's tendency to fly like a horse out of the gate will disappear. As we develop nondistraction, we place the mind on the breath and it stays! The minds natural stability and strength will shine through any potential distraction or discursiveness. The mind still sees, hears, smells, thinks, feels—but it no longer chases wildly after these perceptions.

True mindfulness

When we have developed the elements of familiarity, remembering, and nondistraction, we can say we are truly mindful. We're no longer so distracted that when we bring ourselves back to the breath, we have to hold on for dear life. We can see clearly what is. As the chatter begins to dissipate, clarity has an opportunity to arise, no longer hidden in the discursive activity of thoughts and emotions.

In Tibet people say that it's like taking a bath in milk.

This quality of the mind is straightforward and vibrant. There's not a lot of thinking going on, and we perceive very clearly what is happening in our body and in the environment. The mind feels light—and at the same time it is not disturbed, because it is stable. We can experience this same clarity of mind in mundane situations—when the sun comes out after a storm, when we roll in the snow after taking a sauna.

As an example of bringing the mind under our own power, let's say we take a peach. It is very ripe and we bite into it. If our mind is fully there as we bite into it, you can say that our mind has been brought under our own power. The peach is juicy and delicious and sweet, and our taste is right there. Our mind is there to experience it and taste it mindfully. It is totally a wonderful experience. We are fully under our own control, experiencing life, experiencing this very simple piece of fruit. However, if our mind is not brought under control, as soon as we bite the peach, we say, "It is too ripe... I want another one... This was too expensive... It is not as good as the last one," whatever it may be. The mind goes off and starts thinking about where we parked our car.