Mindfulness is about witnessing life, moment by moment, rather than thinking our way through. This witnessing “presence” reveals a depth of awareness that is usually hidden. Once the door to this presence opens, we find a new way of experiencing life. Rather than thinking differently or believing differently, mindfulness is a journey towards “Being” differently.
My objective in this series is to present a retrospective understanding of that journey. Admittedly, it’s an effort fraught with difficulty because I attempt to explain things that defy description. Still, I am hopeful the series will shine a light in a helpful direction.
I have read many definitions of mindfulness. None of them reveal its true nature. Mindfulness definitions are an explanation of color to the sightless. Still, we have to start somewhere.
Over many years of practice, my foundational discovery was this: How we experience life is driven more by awareness than circumstance.
That may sound strange. After all, awareness is innate. We are already experiencing the experience that brought our hardship! How can increasing that awareness possibly help?
Just as cells are constructed of molecules, life is a construction of experiences. Herein lies the critical point. Experiences are never neutral, but instead occur within a context. We don’t experience life as it is, but rather as we are. Our context for experience is determined by the quality and nature of our awareness.
Perhaps an example will help clarify this point.
Before moving to Minnesota, I had never gone fishing. My Dad was more of a naturalist than sportsman so our time in nature involved hiking and observing rather than fishing or hunting.
Upon moving to Minnesota, I discovered that my new friends were fishermen. They taught me about spinning reels, trolling, leaders and jigging. Soon, I was catching fish.
A big part of fishing is knowing where to fish. A novice stares out at a big lake and assumes one spot is as good as the next, which of course, is totally wrong. Different species of fish tend to congregate in specific locations of the lake. Pan-fish, namely bluegill or “sunnies,” are one of the best fish for a novice to pursue. They are easy to catch and clean, and very tasty. The best place to catch them is on “sunfish beds” in the late spring or early summer.
Twenty-one years after moving to Minnesota, we purchased a cabin on a lake in NW Wisconsin. We spend a lot of time there. Turns out there are “sunfish” beds right off our dock, or “pier,” as they call them in Wisconsin. Our cabin gave me the opportunity to observe the construction of these sunfish beds firsthand.
Early in the spring, male sunfish find a location in shallow water and begin to prepare a nest. They do this by circularly fanning their tales to clear away mud and debris from the lake’s bottom. When finished, one can see a perfect circle measuring about eighteen inches in diameter. These circular nests tend to be spaced closely together. We have about twenty-five of them off our dock in two to three feet of water. The brightly colored male sunfish attract females by swimming in circles around the nest. When successful, the female spawns, and the males stay with the hatch to aggressively protect it from predators. This is when they are easiest to catch because a hook thrown into the middle of a circular nest will immediately be attacked.
So here is the thing, watching the preparation and dance of the sunfish off our dock, I developed a “new awareness.” I have nothing against fishing and still love to fish, but I don’t pursue “Sunfish beds” anymore. Something about watching the natural spectacle of nest construction and protection ushered in a different awareness that changed my fishing behavior.
Increasing our awareness of life changes our participation in life. Sunfish aren’t the only example. Whenever we slow down and take the time to witness the spectacle of life around us, our own situation and outlook change. Mindfulness practices bring us to this kind of “presence.”
“Presence” reveals deeper awareness by removing the “filters” we place in front of experience. It’s one thing to “know” that sunfish are easiest to catch on sunfish beds, it’s another thing to be “present” to the cycle of life in nature.
The sunfish example only takes us so far. True mindful “presence” is experience freed from thought. What I learned through practice is that this type of awareness is a cultivatable skill. Like in the sunfish example, the more we cultivate awareness, the more we find our life changes. When awareness expands, previously hidden relationships are revealed, bringing new richness and meaning to life.
Hopefully, this helps explain my claim: How we experience life is driven more by awareness than circumstance.
As our awareness of relationships in life expands, our world and our place in it expands!
If we look up the word relationship in the dictionary, we find it’s a noun; examples include friend, spouse, and co-worker. That’s not the way relationships feel. Relationships are experienced as an action, a verb. The same thing is true for joy, another noun. Awareness determines our experience and therefore defines our relationships. This includes how we experience the pain of undesirable circumstances.
The cultivation of expanded awareness is transformational to the experience of life.
If we step back and examine pain in an analytical fashion, we find pain always refers back to “Self.” As our awareness expands, we increasingly experience that the world is bigger than “Self.” Once again, we “know” this of course, but experiencing it is fundamentally different. As awareness expands, our experience of hardships soften.
This insight was not gained from reading a book; it is an understanding that came through many years of practicing “presence.” My hope is that you will be motivated to pursue a practice that expands your joy.
My plan is to unpack learning from my journey in five sections.
The first, “Mindfulness: The Doorway To Presence,” will present the role mindfulness plays in introducing us to experience absent of thought.
The second installment goes deeper into awareness. Consciousness and awareness are not the same things. One must be conscious to be aware but need not be aware to be conscious. “Presence: The Doorway to Awareness” will unpack this important learning.
The third installment, “New Relationships, New Life,” unpacks the miracle of relationships revealed through expanded awareness.
The fourth installment, “Energy, Connection, and Being,” focuses on the energy implicit in relationships. For those familiar with the philosopher Martin Bubar’s work, “I and Thou,” connective energy is the essence of what he describes in the I-Thou relationship. More simply, it’s the energy we feel in a friendship.
The fifth installment pulls the themes of presence, awareness, relationships, and energy together, presenting “An Anatomy of Peace.”
As a closing note, I am going to take my time writing the posts in this series. Therefore, the five installments will be interspersed with the shorter weekly posts you are already familiar with. The longer articles will be archived here https://tim-coats.com/digging-deeper/
I hope this attempt to document my experience will help your journey towards living joyfully through personal hardship.
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