“In the meditative domain, the best way to achieve your own goals is to back off from striving for results and instead to start focusing carefully on seeing and accepting things as they are, moment by moment,” Jon Kabat-Zinn wrote while reflecting on seven foundations of meditation that we can use to access the wisdom of our body and mind. “With patience and regular practice, movement toward your goals will take place by itself.”
While navigating the narrow and, for the most part, unknown lanes of meditation we constantly strive to unravel that locus of sensations we call our soul. During the subtle minutes that pass as we try to follow our breath, we feel like a dream among dreams of a different sort in the transitory traffic of our thoughts.
As we continue on, our bodies are lost in the intricate labyrinth of sensations trying to cope with the notion of unreality and feigned existence, of occupying this tiny space of the vast universe, this point of contact with objective reality of the here and now.
This subtle struggle of our spirit to remain undetached and completely unified with the present moment is what Gil Fronsdal explores with grounded simplicity and much-needed relatedness in his book The Issue at Hand: Essays on Buddhist Mindfulness Practice. He writes:
Mindfulness entails knowing what is happening in the present moment while it is happening. It is a training in how not to be lost in thoughts, opinions, and reactivity. … Mindfulness strengthens our ability to avoid harmful impulses and to act beneficially. … Training in mindfulness is thus a training in finding the point of contact. Another way of saying this is that it involves the search for “the issue at hand.” I like this expression because the image of a hand suggests what can be touched, what can be directly seen and felt.
As we start our solitary peregrination of finding a delicate anchor to the realm of felt experience we may become disillusioned with our child-like impatience as vast silence, impassive to slight sounds, assaults and overwhelms us. But this should not discourage us, Gil Fronsdal notes with deep wisdom drawn from his journey on a Buddhist path, for even a mere fact of being aware of moments of defeatism and weakness is the first step in the right direction.
Consider a mountain stream where the water is quite clear, and seems placid and still. But if you place a stick into the water, a small wake around the stick shows that in fact the water is flowing. … Similarly, the practice of mindfulness is a reference point for noticing aspects of our lives that we may have missed.
This is especially true in regards to the mindfulness of breathing, a simple technique accessible to everyone who wishes to master the art of mindful living. Attending to our breath may bring up concerns and the momentum of the mind that disperse our attention and weaken our resolve. If we remain with the breath, then the practice is working. If we fail to do it, then the practice is also working. Gil Fronsdal writes:
Sometimes your attempt to be with the breath is the only way that you see the speed at which the mind is racing. Riding on a train, if you focus on the mountains in the distance, you might not notice the speed of the train. However, if you bring your attention closer, the rapidly appearing and disappearing telephone poles next to the tracks reveal the train’s speed. … Remember, if we learn from what is going on, regardless of what is happening, the practice is working, even when it seems not be working, when we aren’t able to stay with the breath.
For more on mindfulness meditation, complement this particular lesson from The Issue at Hand with meditation teacher John Kabat-Zinn’s advice on seven foundations of meditation that we need to know and practice every day.