Once upon a time, long ago, people walked about barefoot. One day, the queen, walking across a rock field, cut her foot on a sharp stone. Annoyed, she called together her ministers and ordered the Queendom carpeted with leather. One wise minister stepped forward and suggested an easier way.”Rather than covering the entire realm, let’s cover the soles of everyone’s feet.” The Queen agreed and that was the origin of shoes.
It seems silly to cover a kingdom with leather to protect our feet. In the same way, some of our strategies for living are attempts to cover over our world. A much more effective way of living is to learn to take care of our point of direct contact with the world.In the teachings of the Buddha, mindfulness is what brings us to the point of contact. Mindfulness entails knowing what is happening in the present moment while it is happening. It is a training in how not to be lost in thoughts, opinions, and reactivity. It is also a training in how to see things as they really are, as opposed to seeing them through the often distorted lens of pre-conceived ideas and interpretation.
Like shoes, mindfulness protects us. But shoes can only protect us from our outer world, i.e., the ground. Mindfulness protects us from both our outer and inner worlds. We are protected from the outer world because we can see it more clearly. We are protected from both the outer and the inner worlds by being mindful and discerning in how we react. Mindfulness strengthens our ability to avoid harmful impulses and to act beneficially. Training in mindfulness is thus a training in finding the point of contact. Another way of saying this is that it involves the search for “the issue at hand.” I like this expression because the image of a hand suggests what can be touched, what can be directly seen and felt.
If we spend a lot of time anticipating the future, the issue at hand is not the future event, but rather what is tangible in the present – the immediate physical and mental experiences of worry or excitement. If we spend a lot of time in fantasy, the issue at hand might be the physical sensations of the boredom fueling the story making. If we are in an angry conversation, we won’t find the issue at hand in rehashing past events or in dwelling on our judgments of the other person. Instead, we find it by grounding the conversation in what each person is feeling during the conversation. This does not mean we can’t review the past, but it does mean we don’t lose contact with ourselves and the other person.
The search for the issue at hand is the search for what is closest at hand, for what is directly seen, heard, smelt, tasted, felt, and cognized in the present. Sometimes what is closest at hand is how we are holding our direct experience. When I teach mindfulness to children, I hold a small bell in my hand. First I grasp it tightly and show them that when I hit the bell with the striker, it makes a dull thud. Then I balance the bell on my open hand, not grasping it at all. When I strike it this time, it rings beautifully.
When grasping is seen as being what is closest at hand, mindfulness attends carefully to the grasping. In doing so, one of the basic tasks of mindfulness is to help us to release our grasping. It is indeed possible to have our direct contact with ourselves and the world around us be characterized by the absence of grasping. The closed hand, the grasping hand, the resisting hand can all be relaxed. We can perhaps touch this earth of ours with the same gentleness and tenderness with which the Buddha reached down to touch the earth on the night of his enlightenment.
The book you are now holding in your hands is a compilation of essays and edited talks on the Buddhist practice of mindfulness. Many of these chapters started out as talks given to the Monday evening or Sunday morning sitting groups of our Insight Meditation Center of the Mid-Peninsula. A few of the chapters were written specifically for publication in Buddhist journals, magazines, or newsletters.This book is an offering of the Dharma. Just as the point of going to a restaurant is not to read the menu, but rather to eat, so the point of a Dharma book is not found in just reading it or even in understanding it. My hope is that the teachings herein are an encouragement to study the issue at hand.