The Mindfulness Journey (for “Thinkers”)

The journey into mindfulness, for a person who has identified as  “intellectual,” can be described in terms of one’s relationship with one’s mind. In my experience the journey has looked something like this:

  1. Pre-mindfulness. Identification with almost all thoughts appearing in consciousness. The perspective and content of an arising thought, which is automatically believed, largely determines the quality and feel of the moment. Thoughts may be criticized, but they are criticized by other thoughts, while identification with thought persists.
  2. Beginning mindfulness. Consciousness has a first awakening and creates a “gap” between itself and thoughts, or a “space” around thoughts. Identification with thought is still strong, creating a sort of oscillation between identification with mind (thought) and identification with silent consciousness / awareness. For the intellectual in particular, the subconscious belief “I am the thinker” persists. This belief creates the pattern of “figuring out,” which is now applied to matters of mindfulness and spirituality…. At this stage life can be perceived as more complex, because the intellectual frameworks that the mind perceives through can co-opt the insights of awareness, to become more complex. These added levels of complexity can be a hindrance to mindfulness practice, as the mind becomes less silent.
  3. Deeper mindfulness. The gap or space between mind and consciousness increases, which allows consciousness to realize more. It is realized more deeply that the mind perceives its own “virtual reality” of  a world of separate objects, linear time, and “imaginary causes.” The subconscious belief “I am the thinker” wanes in influence over consciousness, which allows the intellectual “grip” on life to loosen…. At this stage the ‘wisdom of simplicity’ returns to consciousness. It is seen that the mind’s attempts to understand often lead either to ‘running in circles’ or perceiving life as bland, boring, and stale. Being present in the moment allows the bright, fresh, and alive nature of life to be experienced and embraced.

This road-map is meant to be held loosely, since there’s no definitive markers between stages; one floats between the phenomena of these stages repeatedly. Like all conceptual maps, it provides a way for the mind to make sense of (“to see”) what is happening in actual life experience.

I would expect that, as in so many cases, people who identify as intellectuals go through the same kind of experiences in mindfulness, which is why this may be useful. We habitually assume that our private experiences belong to us alone, not realizing how many other people are experiencing the same kind, the same patterns, of problems and challenges as we are. Our experiences are universal.

One of the dominant patterns, here, will be clinging to the mind’s Reason–the mind clinging to its own habits–followed by the rationalization that “this figuring out I’m doing is helping the journey along, really!” Confusion may arise because the mind is looking for orientation, and the conceptual understandings do provide useful orientations, but not Presence or any kind of liberation. If the journey stays primarily ‘in the head,’ then it can’t come to fruition. Clinging to the mind, even in its useful manifestations, creates suffering.

It has been helpful for me, when I have enough mindfulness to see thoughts without identifying, to allow a train of thought to trail off without finishing it. It took some time to see, but now it’s apparent that the mind grasps conclusions. When a train of thought is taken to its conclusion, the mind grasps the answer as if holding something in a fist. There’s an energetic feel to this phenomenon. But it can be side-stepped by remembering that it’s not necessary to follow the thoughts to their conclusion, and they can just fall away. It is the egoic mind grasping for a conclusion. It is awareness that knows it doesn’t need one.

In reaching stage three, the subconscious belief “I am the thinker” wanes, not just on the intellectual level but on the experiential level, and we begin to ‘come back from the dead.’ (In the Toltec tradition they say that those who have not come out of the egoic mind are dead; they haven’t lived yet.) At this stage, we realize that we are not intellectuals, however much we clung to that identity in the past. Living behind a veil of concepts “killed” life; it imprisoned us by putting all our perceptions through a filter. Building a ‘fortress of knowledge’ in the mind provided a certain amount of security, but now our desire to have such great contact with reality is overwhelming, and we welcome insecurity to feel life deeply.

And this is what awaits the “intellectual” who makes the mindfulness journey: to feel so wonderfully alive again. Surrendering the control tower of the head allows us to merge with the flow of life and receive the gift of each moment with an open heart.