Taking the Stairs

James Titchener / @mistertitchener

Most try meditation because they feel bad. It took my parents passing unexpectedly to nudge me into trying mindfulness practices. Like many, I was born with a repulsion toward new age crystal worshiping mumbo jumbo, so it took a lot of pain to convince me to give mindfulness a shot.

There's a laundry list of remarkable benefits that seem to derive from consistent mindfulness practice:

I'm only a couple years into practicing mindfulness, and I can personally vouch for having touched all of these benefits at some time or another. But even having experienced these claims for myself, it's still puzzling to me how something as simple as paying mind to my breath can have such a positive impact.

In reality, there's more at play than meets the eye, and there's deeper reasons for continued practice than alleviating our pain points.

The most popular form of mindfulness today derives from insight meditation, vipassana, or from the Theravada Buddhist tradition. These practices along with Zen are what mindfulness teacher Loch Kelly calls deliberate mindfulness.

Deliberate mindfulness practices typically have you sit down for a period of time and pay close attention to the breath. With continued practice, you can learn to pay closer and closer attention to the physical sensations of the breath and body while training your mind to notice other sensations (thoughts, feelings, sounds, tastes) but quickly return your attention to the breath without judgement for having strayed attention from your object of focus.

I spent most of my first two silent meditation retreats practicing in this way, and after hours and days of doing nothing but paying mind to the breath and body, I found spaces of focus and calm like I'd never experienced. This practice can allow the thinking mind to take a break, and from that silence comes insights into the true nature of your reality that you miss when distracted by the thoughts and emotions that typically bombard your mind.

In my time practicing deliberate mindfulness, I've gotten answers to questions that I hadn't been asking. I opened the door to mindfulness because it advertised an end to suffering, and that's what I wanted. And at times, I tasted this freedom—but there's a big difference between silent retreats and the real world. After a few days of doing nothing but meditate, mindfulness becomes sort of effortless. There's a momentum that builds into a flow of ease that I had a hard time replicating with the constant interruptions, distractions and pings that permeate Western society today.

I'd set high bars for relaxation, focus and calm that I desperately wanted to return to. And I felt badly for not having learned enough to maintain the heights that I'd reached on retreat. My lingering neuroticism became a constant reminder of just how unenlightened I was.

This is not an uncommon experience, and I think this is a downside of deliberate mindfulness. The practice is inherently goal-oriented with many stages of enlightenment advertised along the path. With these goals comes the reminder that you should aspire to reach these heights, not expect them to arrive by x date after practicing y hours. But I'm not sure this message is well received by Westerners. We are collectively driven to do more, acquire more, succeed more, and to do it all as fast as we can. If you advertise the Buddha who is perfect and completely free of suffering, that's what we're going to want and we're going to want it now.

Part of reaching enlightenment as it's described in deliberate mindfulness practices is to recognize that the ego is not real. The ego is an mental illusion that we're reconstructing as we get lost in thought. It's the sense that there's a me somewhere, but with enough concentration and momentum, you can find that there's no place for a permanent self to reside. With a clear experiential understanding that thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, tastes and sounds all arise on their own and pass on their own, the ego dissolves into a sense of peace.

In deliberate mindfulness, reaching this space often requires intense levels of focused attention, and when the ego falls away, it does so haphazardly. Strong focus does not always bring the state you so desire, especially when you're meditating in order to get to this space.

And while some deliberate mindfulness teachers might classify this as a misapplication of the teaching, I've found in my own practice that I'd often create new instances of the ego in my efforts to be the meditator who is successfully paying mind to the breath or body. I'd imagine that I'm meditating. I'd bring my attention from the place behind my eyes I imagined myself to reside and bring my focus down to the sensations in my body.

I found this to be especially a problem for me when doing noting practice. I would sit and attempt to rest my mind on the sensations of my breath and create mental notes when sensations arose. Thinking. Breathing in. Breathing out. Sound. Sound of car. Sound of car honking their horn. Horn. Horn. More horn. And attached with each mental note was a subtle instance of the one who is experiencing the note. The one who is paying attention to the note. But if our end goal is to live from the recognition that there is no one there to experience the sensation, then isn't this practice reinforcing the mental habits that we wish to drop?

So while I'd recommend deliberate mindfulness to literally anyone over the age of five that doesn't have schizophrenia, there are some common obstacles along the path that may prove difficult to avoid even when given clear warnings of what could come. But there may be a better way.

In contrast with deliberate mindfulness, Loch Kelly uses the term effortless mindfulness to describe the practices commonly used in Tibetan Buddhist practices of Dzogchen, and Mahamudra, as well as the Indian Hindu Advaita Vedanta.

With deliberate mindfulness, you're typically instructed to intentionally pay mind to the breath or some object of focus, but with effortless mindfulness the intention is dropped. There's a shift in the premise. Rather than practicing deliberately to reach a place intense concentration where the ego dissolves, effortless mindfulness is the practice of recognizing that the ego was never there to begin with. It's paying attention to the context of awareness instead of the content of awareness. And rather than being a far off place that requires hours, days, and years of intensive practice, with effortless mindfulness the true nature of our mind is recognized to have been right on the surface of our everyday consciousness. You simply need to change the plane of focus.

This is what's on offer with effortless mindfulness—direct but momentary access to the dissolution of the ego, because it was never really there to begin with. The practice then shifts from working deliberately to get to the goal, to relaxing into the recognition that you've had the goal within you all along. And while this recognition may only last for moments at a time, as Loch Kelly would say, we can train to remain and learn to return.

There's a danger to the accessibility of effortless mindfulness, however. For me, I had tasted selflessness through psychedelics, deliberate mindfulness and the occasional flow state. Had I not understood that selflessness was something worth pursuing, and had I not sat on the cushion meditating for hours on end in an attempt to find relief from the ego again, I might not have appreciated selflessness at all, especially if I never had to work very hard to get there.

For this reason, it might be wise to start with deliberate mindfulness. Especially if dissolution of the ego and the self are not goals that resonate with you. The benefits of deliberate mindfulness are obvious. Who doesn't want to be more focused and have a better understanding and relationship with your thoughts and emotions? Maybe start there, and in time, if you develop a curiosity around the nature of mind, look to go deeper by exploring effortless mindfulness.

But I'd encourage you not to wait too long. In hindsight, I think my practice could have been made easier if I had been introduced to effortless mindfulness earlier on my path. I think I developed some false constructs around what meditation was, and habits once formed are hard to break.

Where deliberate mindfulness is making a step-by-step journey to reach the mountaintop of enlightenment, effortless mindfulness is taking a high speed elevator to the top of the mountain on day one. If you're like me, you'll say fuck the stairs and smash the up button on that elevator to enlightenment. The problem being, you might not appreciate the view at the top if you haven't worked to get there, and reaching the top is one thing—staying there is it's own adventure.

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I haven't spent any time here giving instruction in effortless mindfulness practices as they're so simple and counter-intuitive that I fear I won't do them justice. I also haven't given you cause to believe that recognizing our selfless nature is something worth pursuing. Again, I'm not sure I'm qualified for this complex task. That said, there's a number of resources and teachers that have helped me along these lines.

Resources for Getting Started with Effortless Mindfulness

Lock Kelly

Adyashanti

Mingyur Riponche

Sam Harris

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