The Issue at Hand


Chapter 4: How Mindfulness Works When It Doesn’t Work

Like a fish out of water,
Thrown on high ground,
This mind thrashes about
Trying to escape Mara’s command. 

– Dhammapada 34


In practicing mindfulness, it can be helpful to remember that the practice works even when it doesn’t seem to 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 becomes a reference point that helps us notice the movement of the water.

Similarly, the practice of mindfulness is a reference point for noticing aspects of our lives that we may have missed. 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 what pulls you away from the breath, then the practice is also working.

Without the reference of mindfulness practice, it is quite easy to remain unaware of the preoccupations, tensions, and momentum operating in your 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 your attempt to be with the breath is the only way that you see the speed at 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 appearing and disappearing telephone poles next to the 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 rapid momentum of the mind. In fact, the faster our thinking 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, we can easily get discouraged. However, that difficulty is an opportunity to become more 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 seems not to be working, when 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 a reference point for the strong forces of distraction, but rather for subtler thoughts and feelings 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 we are settled on the breath, the heart becomes clear, peaceful, and still like a mountain pool. Then we can see all the way to the bottom.


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