Mindfulness: Taming a Wild Horse
by John S. Shealy, PhD
Mindfulness is being present with whatever is occurring to us or within us at any given moment. It is being present with what is in the now, not our perceptions, our judgments nor our comments about what's happening. It is experiencing bare reality with no elaboration. Quite simple really. But let's not confuse simple with easy. It usually takes only a few minutes of silent, motionless sitting to see clearly the untamed wildness of our mind. It can take many years to bring our mind, or more precisely, our relationship with our mind under control. The mind is a wild horse which has been encouraged to run freely. It loves to run fast, wildly chasing after first this thought, then that sensation, then on to the next bit of stimulation and on into the sunset it runs. Our focused observation brings it from the dark forests and grassy plains into a small pasture with no place to hide.
Brief moments of mindfulness are common in our everyday experience. For example, when we step on a sharp shell on the beach, in that brief moment before the mind can chime in with its perceptions, evaluations and comments, we're mindful. Nothing else exists in our experience other than the strong sensation rising from our foot. But within an instant, the being is lost and the thinking has taken over. Untrained mindfulness is fleeting while the reactivity of the mind seems cast in stone.
Reacting endlessly to the pleasant or unpleasant feelings associated with what is occurring in the moment, the mind grows more unmanageable and controlling of our attention, our inner experience (the only experience we have). When we understand that the mind can only have one object of attention at a time, we begin to see the importance of bringing our scattered attention under control. Otherwise, the now will pass by unnoticed! And given that now is the only time we ever really have, being aware of it is important. If we are experiencing the mind's reactivity to a moment that has already passed, we are missing the present moment's reality that is unfolding around and within us. We are missing our very life and we don't even know it! Unless we tame this wild horse, it will run freely and unbridled. Our life will be over and we will have missed it!
The good news is we can systematically tame the mind and as we do, free ourselves from its chaotic, distractive tendencies. We can move into a seat of quiet, mindful observation in the center of the storm of the mind. We can then capture more moments as they unfold, spend less time in the illusion of past and future, become less reactive and more responsive in everything we do. Taming the mind and establishing this seat of moment-to-moment observation is a primary fruit of the practice of mindfulness.
Mindfulness is a primary element of all forms of Buddhist meditation and a skill we can practice during formal meditation periods or when going about our usual daily routine. Great effort is required to become mindful of the true nature of our experience, to let go of the mind's tendency to label, to judge and to comment on everything - to simply be with what is. We must cultivate a strong intention if we are to make mindfulness our natural, habitual way of being. Like breaking a spirited animal to tasks without breaking the spirit of the animal, the practice requires strong determination and a balance of strict discipline and a gentle loving kindness toward ourselves.
Formal meditation practice (e.g. sitting, standing, walking or eating meditation) is a powerful tool for the development of mindfulness. During a formal sitting meditation period for example, we first make a commitment not to move, then we begin to settle the mind using an exclusive concentration exercise, focusing on one object and excluding all others. The touch sensation of the breath as it passes in and out of the nostrils is a good choice for this focus. The breath and this associated touch sensation are always in the present moment and with us wherever we go. Becoming more subtle as the mind becomes more concentrated, the breath requires ever increasing levels of effort to observe. We must become guardians of our attention or it will slip away. We notice when the attention is with the breath and when it is not. When it drifts away, we pull it back to the touch sensation of the breath over and over again, without judgment or self blame.
The horse becomes calm and we move it from pasture to corral to stall. Ease on the saddle and bridle and it's time to take a ride. But remember! This horse will run away with us if we let it.
With sustained effort, the mind becomes responsive to our direction. We can let it run a little, but still have it under our control. Now a shift from the exclusive concentration practice to an inclusive one allows whatever captures the attention to become the object of our meditation. We watch it all, our total experience, rise and fall in the mind then we return to the breath. We've shifted to insight meditation and have begun to observe more closely the true nature of our reality. As we continue to guide the mind through meditation, we observe how the defilements of greed, hatred and delusion separate us from the present moment, separate us from the true experience of our life. We witness directly the consequences of our words, thoughts and deeds, seeing that wise actions lead to greater clarity, peace and freedom, unwise actions lead to less. Healthy and wise lifestyle choices become second nature as being mindful, that is, being in the now becomes our normal experience, one far too precious to lose through careless inattention.