Why is this state of mindfulness so difficult to attain and to maintain? Mindfulness normally has two stages of development. The first is to learn to be aware of the your inner and outer worlds without shifting from the experience of something to thinking in some way about that thing or some other thing. For example, imagine you are eating an apple. Without thinking in words, what is the color and shape of an apple? How does it feel in your hand? How does it feel in your mouth while you are eating it? What does it smell like? What does it taste like? Try this with a real apple. At this first stage of mindfulness, where we learn to bring our awareness into the present moment, there is the sense of you eating the apple.
With practice and close observation one arrives at the second stage of mindfulness, the collapse of subject/object awareness. This is what Buddhist’s refer to as non-dual awareness and what they are referring to by the phrase “just this”.
At this second stage, the sense of separateness between you and what you are aware of evaporates. Awareness and what we are aware of is seen to be a single thing. In the case of the apple, when thinking is suspended it is observed that the “you” part of the experience simply is not to be found. There is actually only the experience of apple.
The birds have vanished down the sky.
Now the last cloud drains away.
We sit together, the mountain and me,
until only the mountain remains.
Li Po (701-762)
Why is this state of mindfulness so difficult to attain and to maintain? Practice prolongs our ability but initially we can maintain it only briefly and usually within moments find ourselves thinking again. Why is it so difficult to stop thinking?
Secondly, why is non-attachment, the ability to transcend our basic urges of desire and aversion so difficult? Buddhist practitioners aspire to be mindful of all things, including the feelings of desire or aversion we feel in response to much of what we experience. Neutral experiences are not so difficult to be mindful of, to simply note without engagement, but experiences that cause feelings of desire or aversion are in another league. Why are they so much more difficult?
Carl Sagan’s excellent book on the evolution of the human brain, The Dragons Of Eden, provides the answer to both these questions.
The brain is evolved from a simple binary system for identifying molecules which are present in potential sources of food or toxicity. The olfactory system (sense of smell) consists of two systems – one to analyze molecules related to food and one to analyze molecules related to mate selection via DNA analysis. We will concern ourselves here mainly with the former. The olfactory gland sits right between your eyes and is part of and connected directly to the oldest parts of the brain.
In invertebrates (worms), the olfactory system is used to identify if a substance is toxic or nutritious. This is still its function in both vertebrates (like us) and invertebrates. However it is this simple, binary (good/bad) system that eventually also evolved into the brain, developing over time increasingly subtle and nuanced abilities to differentiate good/bad, cultivated by evolution towards constantly improving our chances of survival as a species.
In the most highly evolved part of the brain resides the most advanced of those subtle and nuanced abilities: thinking. Thinking provides another survival advantage; imagining the future and considering different scenarios. Even when we think about the past, it is with an eye to its meaning with regards to the future.
In a simplistic view of the human brain we could say the hardware is entirely based on desire/aversion and software is entirely based on thinking. No wonder non-attachment and mindfulness are difficult.
Why should we Buddhists wish to override this marvelous system of desire and aversion and its children of thought and language that has benefited humanity so greatly? Because it has come with a price.
Experience known only through the lens of thought and language is one where reality is a cardboard-cutout version of itself. It is a perspective where we are separate from the rest of life and from this view arises a legion of delusions, fears and suffering. It is the propensity of thought to create boundaries where none exist which has created both time and death. The practice of Buddhist mindfulness training is intended to return the tool of thought to its rightful place in the order of things, not as master, but servant.
As psychologist Abraham Maslow put it, he that is good with a hammer sees everything as a nail. As we are learning however, not all problems, personal or global, can be resolved through thinking. As individuals and as a species, we would be wise to remember that there is another way of being. A way that existed long before the guards took over the castle.
If you read the Bible carefully, you will discover that there were two trees in Eden. One was The Tree Of the Knowledge Of Good And Evil, of which we ate. But there was another, The Tree Of Life, which yet awaits us. Though it be on the wings of dragons, it is time to return to Eden.