Saturday, March 6, 2010

The Container of Mindfulness

When we pay attention to a present-moment sensory experience, such as the feeling of the breath, the mind naturally and spontaneously begins to settle more fully in present-moment awareness as well. When this happens, I like to say that we have created a "container of mindfulness." 

Actually, there is a discernible sensation of being contained and present. The Buddha called this the state of "access concentration," meaning that we are able to sustain our awareness on one object long enough to gain insight from the experience. We are said to be mindful and concentrated at the same time. Within this container, we can then turn our attention toward any arising experience or event; a sound, a sensation, a feeling, a thought, or anything that can be known through the senses.

As long as the container of mindfulness remains intact, we can also turn our attention toward the thoughts we are having about the experience or event and, in a moment of contemplation, see clearly the habits of the mind in that situation. This is how we get insight from the practice of vipassana meditation. Without the container, however, these insights would not be as available to us.

When I am teaching this concept, I often evoke the image of a potter creating a clay pot as a metaphor to illustrate this container of mindfulness. Our container, however, is much more fragile than the potter's. It is more like a soap bubble that can be popped and vanish in an instant due to the workings of the contantly wandering mind. When this happens, and we become aware of it, we can always return the attention back to the feeling of the breath to cultivate a new container.


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