How Mindfulness Works When Not Working

adapted from a talk by Gil Fronsdal January 1st, 2001

In practicing mindfulness, it can be helpful to remember that the practice can work even when it doesn’t work. Perhaps this is explained best through an analogy.

Consider a mountain stream where the water is quite clear, and seems placid and still. But if you place a stick into the water, a small wake around the stick shows that in fact the water is flowing. The stick is the reference point needed to notice the movement of the water.

Similarly, the practice of mindfulness is a reference point for noticing aspects of our lives which we may not have noticed. This is especially true for mindfulness of breathing. In trying to stay present for the breath, you may become aware of the concerns and the momentum of the mind that pull the attention away from the breath. If you can remain with the breath, then obviously mindfulness of breathing is working. However, if your attempt to stay with the breath results in increased awareness of whatever is pulling you away from the breath, then the practice is also working.

Without the reference of mindfulness practice, it is quite easy for to remain unaware of the preoccupations, tensions, and momentum operating in one’s life. For example, if you are busily doing many things, the concern for getting things done can blind you to the tension building in the body and mind. Only by stopping to be mindful may you become aware of the tensions and feelings that are present.

Sometimes it is only through your attempts to be with the breath that you see the speed with which the mind is racing. Riding on a train, if you focus on the mountains in the distance, you might not notice the speed of the train. However, if you bring your attention closer, the rapidly disappearing telephone poles next to the train tracks reveal the train’s speed. Even when you have trouble staying with the breath, your continued effort to come back to the breath can highlight what might otherwise be unnoticed, i.e., the speedy momentum of the mind. In fact, the faster the mind and the greater the preoccupation, the greater the need for something close by like the breath to help bring an awareness of what is going on. That awareness, in turn, often brings some freedom from the preoccupation.

When staying with the breath during meditation is difficult, it is easy to be discouraged. However, that difficulty is an opportunity to become better aware of the forces of mind and the feelings causing the distractions. Remember, if we learn from what is going on, regardless of what is happening, the practice is working, even when it may not appear to be working because we aren’t able to stay with the breath.

Even when it is relatively easy to stay with the breath, mindfulness of the breathing can still function as an important reference point. In this case it may not be for the strong forces of distraction, but rather for subtler thoughts and feeling that may lie close to the root of our concerns and motivations. Don’t pursue those thoughts or feelings. Simply be aware of their presence while continuing to develop the meditation on the breath, so that the breath can become an even more refined reference point. When settled on the breath, the heart becomes clear, peaceful, and still. Then, like a mountain pool, the heart begins to reflect all that is around it.