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Can you have too much mindfulness?
There is one curious yet interesting question among aspired meditation practitioners particularly the ones who are practicing with the mindfulness meditation technique. Is there such a thing as too much mindfulness? Is there a limit for how far you can go? Or, is there a line that if you cross it, mindfulness may start to bring undesirable or even harmful effects?
Some studies showed that mindfulness could make you selfish and that too much mindfulness could spike anxiety.
Let’s dig a little deeper to put things into perspective.
Meditation is a practice that has its origin in Eastern tradition. Only recently it was brought to the West because of its profound benefits. Among the benefits of meditation are calming the mind, reducing stress, strengthening focus, optimizing mental performance, increasing productivity, and things like that. Those are the benefits that people in the West value most.
In the process, maybe for practicality reasons, meditation was stripped down from its original holistic package into its smaller and limited components.
Nowadays, many centers or institutions are offering “mindfulness training.” It’s understandable if you and many others would think that that mindfulness training is meditation.
You might hear techniques such as focusing on the breath and body scanning being practiced in that so-called mindfulness training.
I read about those studies and talked to some fellows who have experience with that kind of mindfulness training.
There seemed to be quite a big difference in the understanding of what mindfulness is.
If you practice by focusing on your breath or by doing body scanning, what you’re developing is concentration or focus, or in a more technical term, one-pointedness, a mental faculty needed to hold an object. It is indeed a part of meditation because concentration brings stability of mind or calmness which is needed for the next steps of meditation practice. But, that’s not mindfulness, not yet!
What is an object in meditation practice? A meditation object is what you focus on, pay attention to, or are aware of, depending on the meditation techniques being used. It can be physical or mental. In the above example, breath and body sensations are the meditation objects.
If you keep practicing that way, then you’re on your way to concentration training. In concentration training, the kind of objects being focused on will have significant effects on the outcomes.
If the objects being used are neutral in nature such as breath or body sensations, then you’re developing your mental focus. Next, how you would use that stronger mental focus is totally up to you.
What I mean by neutral objects are things that don’t usually trigger any intense emotional reactions.
If the objects are wholesome in nature such as compassion or loving-kindness, then the outcomes of the practice will also be wholesome. You’re more likely to become more empathetic towards others. You’ll be more unlikely to do things that may harm others. You will have more tendency to do the right things and avoid wrongs.
If the objects are of unwholesome nature such as greed, hatred, anger, or resentment, then the outcomes will reflect that too. It would be no surprise if some training participants show an increase in selfishness and or insensitivity.
Bear in mind that concentration power is like a knife. How you use it is up to you. You can use it to cut vegetables, bread, to make meals, or you can use it to cut yourself or harm others.
Given the mind with delusion is easily slip into defilements, it’s easy to use concentration power for unwholesome purposes without us being aware. That is not mindfulness!
That is the main reason I’m not a fan of that kind of training.
The other thing to be aware of is that calmness or serenity as a result of the focus training is addictive. Without awareness, practitioners will grow fond of it because it feels really good. Then, every time they achieve that state of mind, they would think that they’re practicing meditation when in fact they’re just doing relaxation.
Next, because of the good feeling tranquillity brings, unaware, every time they start practicing, their mind is conditioned to seek that state again. Because it’s only natural that the mind would want to repeat a good experience.
When calmness is not achieved, the mind gets stressed even more. Or, when calmness is disturbed, things feel exaggerated.
It’s no wonder that there are cases where training participants experience anxiety spikes.
That is not mindfulness!
Mindfulness is a totally different thing.
Let me try to define mindfulness as simply as I can.
Mindfulness is simply being aware of what is happening right now in the body and mind.
Now, let me try to put it into the perspective of mindfulness meditation.
Mindfulness is simply being aware continuously of what is happening and what has stopped happening in the six sense doors with the right attitude.
The emphasis is not on the focus or concentration but the continuity of awareness.
The six sense doors are the sense door of the eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind.
The right attitude means we practice seeing mental and physical experiences as natural processes, not as me or mine. Therefore, we neither cling to them nor reject them. We just observe them as they are. We don’t force things.
If we try to make something happens, be aware that it might be greed in action. On the other hand, if we try to prevent something from happening, be aware that it might be hatred in action.
So, if awareness and the right attitude are present in the mind, the mind will be able to see mental and physical phenomena come and go. Because that is the way they are. Because that is the nature of all objects either mental or physical.
In a state of pure mindfulness, there is no “you.” So, there is no self to be selfish. What is there is pure noticing without preference. Mindfulness is the seed of natural acceptance.
A good friend of mine once gave me a very simple and enlightening analogy of mindfulness.
Mindfulness is like walking with a pot of hot oil on your head. You’ll have to be aware of your surroundings as you walk, of the obstacles you may face in your path, of the balance of your body as you move, while keeping the oil from spilling.
So, mindfulness is about awareness, carefulness, and balance.
I once read an explanation of mindfulness in a Buddhist text.
The Buddha once gave the analogy of a gatekeeper. A good gatekeeper keeps an eye on everyone who passes through the gate, in and out. He or she knows and recognizes everyone who walks through the gate. No one can go in or go out through the gate unnoticed.
So, mindfulness is also about thoroughness.
Mindfulness is not about the strength of your focus or concentration. Mindfulness is about the continuity of your awareness, of your carefulness, of your thoroughness, of your balance.
While you can develop concentration by force and sheer willpower, the same approach will not work on mindfulness. Mindfulness is a delicate mental function that needs a gentle approach.
For mindfulness, the more proper verb to use would be to cultivate.
To cultivate mindfulness, you need to use “effortless” effort. That means you need to do it in a relaxed way. Because you need to maintain your effort as continuously as you can for the duration of your practice.
If you find yourself straining, you need to acknowledge it and make necessary adjustments.
In all of the meditation retreats I’ve attended, the teacher always reminded us to periodically check the mind and body by mentally asking the question of what is happening right now. That asking-question technique is very effective in stopping wandering minds thus triggering awareness.
You cannot cultivate mindfulness by struggle. You can only cultivate mindfulness by maintaining its continuity through regular and consistent practice.
Concentration provides the power to hold an object but mindfulness is the one that picks the object and directs that power to examine it. Concentration is the muscle, mindfulness is the manager, the boss.
Concentration cannot correct itself when it is drifting because it doesn’t know. Mindfulness can prevent concentration from drifting and return it to the formal object of attention. Mindfulness is even capable of being aware of itself.
Concentration can hold an object but cannot understand it. Only mindfulness can look through an object and gain understanding.
Start to see the difference?
So, if a meditator cramps his or her leg muscle while practicing in a sitting posture for too long without being aware of it, is that mindfulness?
It happened. In retreats, I saw a couple of times with my own eyes, a participant that needed help to stand from a sitting position.
Does it make sense that we should be aware when cramps are starting to build and correct our posture accordingly?
In the same manner, should we be aware when we notice an increase in selfishness and check if our concentration has taken an object of unwholesome nature?
And, should we be aware when we start to grow an attachment to calmness, and as a result, we get angry and more stressed when that calmness is disturbed?
Now, back to the question.
Is there such a thing as too much carefulness?
As far as I know, we are either careful enough or not careful enough.
Is there such a thing as too much thoroughness?
Again, we are either thorough enough or not thorough enough.
Is there such a thing as too much balance?
In my experience, we are either in balance or out of balance.
Is there such a thing as too much awareness?
We are either aware or unaware.
So, is there such a thing as too much mindfulness?
As far as I understand, mindfulness is not a level of strength. It’s more like a skill or mastery. It’s more like how skillful we are at maintaining that awareness, that carefulness, that thoroughness, that balance.
In that sense, can we get too skillful?
We should be mindful of that too.
Now, a parting gift.
Although mindfulness is the foundation and the center of meditation, and a significant part of it, it is not the whole of meditation.
On its own, mindfulness is not enough.
Besides the right attitude, there is another important component in mindfulness meditation that cannot be left behind.
The investigative mind.
In another word, interest or curiosity.
The interest or curiosity needs to be present in the mind to give mindfulness something to work with.
It helps mindfulness to maintain itself and “penetrate” the objects to gain insights.
When mindfulness has grown mature enough, it can see the arising and passing of objects, see through them, and understand their mechanics, with clarity.
For example, mindfulness can see through your own selfish behavior, its origin, and the suffering it brings. It’s like peeling off the layers of lies and illusions that cover the truth.
But, a big reminder here, we need to remind ourselves to avoid drawing any conclusions. Wanting to draw any conclusions is greed and delusion at work.
Insights or understanding will only come when all the necessary conditions are met. It is a process of nature, not something that can be forced.
That is how wisdom arises.
But that is a topic for another article.
In mindfulness meditation, we cultivate mindfulness and concentration together, in balance.
Concentration or one-pointedness brings calmness and stability of mind which is a needed mental state for meditation.
Concentration is the power to hold a meditation object. Mindfulness selects the object and directs that power to observe the object. Concentration is the muscle. Mindfulness is the manager, the boss.
Concentration just holds the object. It doesn’t understand the nature of the object being held. That makes it vulnerable to taking any unwholesome mental phenomena such as greed, hatred, selfishness, jealousy, remorse, resentment as its focus of attention.
Moreover, when the calmness of concentration is disturbed, more stress and anxiety usually follow.
That’s the main reason I don’t recommend the practice of developing concentration separately.
Now, let me share a secret.
There is a preferred and safer way to gain stability of mind without the above drawbacks.
Calmness can also be achieved by maintaining awareness. The continuity will result in stability.
You can start by paying attention to the breath or doing body scanning, or any neutral objects. But, as soon as you gain enough stability, immediately switchgear to mindfulness by simply being aware in a relaxed way.
You know you have gained enough stability when you’re no longer overly agitated; when you feel in balance. You know when you’re calm, right?
You don’t need super deep concentration in mindfulness meditation. You just need to be calm enough for mindfulness to do its work.
Mindfulness is not a level of strength. Mindfulness is a delicate mental function that can only be cultivated by a gentle effort. It’s more like a skill at maintaining awareness, thoroughness, carefulness, and balance.
In that sense, there’s no such thing as being too skillful.
Though meditation is not the easiest thing to do on earth, it’s not rocket science either.
The question is, can you practice meditation on your own?
Yes, you can.
Please, feel free to download my free guide here.
Having said that, practicing meditation on your own can be challenging. It will certainly involve some trial and error to some extent. You may experience things you don’t understand. For that reason, you will have a lot of questions and you’d want someone of authority to answer them.
Besides, there are many options of meditation techniques out there. How do you know which one will suit you the best?
So, in case you’re dead serious and want to skip the hurdles of wasting your precious time on blind experimentation, consider taking a meditation course.
Check out my recommended meditation course.
The teacher is an accomplished meditation master with years of extensive experience under his belt that WILL answer your questions.
The course covers many meditation techniques with in-depth step-by-step guides and the teacher can help you find the right one for you.
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