Lighting the Lamp of Awareness

Image by Harut Movsisyan from Pixabay

Lighting the Lamp of Awareness

Discussion date: Thu, Jul 22, 2021 at our weekly Thursday evening practice
July 22, 2021, 7:00 to 8:45 pm
Silver Spring, Maryland, community online on Thursday evening
July 23, 2021, 7:00 to 8:45 pm
Open to all online on Friday evening

Dear Still Water Friends,

There are some who come to mindfulness practice with the idea that all one needs to know can be learned quickly — roughly equivalent to learning a new way to manage email. However, that has not been my experience. For me, it is like learning to play a musical instrument or developing mastery of Tai-Chi. It takes time, lots of practice, good teachers, and some understanding of the history and meaning of the of the words we use.

This Thursday and Friday evenings we will explore together what it means to be mindful in meditation and in daily life. We will begin with Thay’s (Thich Nhat Hanh’s) elaboration of the most important words in the Buddhist tradition — smrti in Sanskriti, sati in Pali — which are usually translated in English as mindfulness. Thay writes in The Sun My Heart:

Awareness (sati in Pali, smrti in Sanskrit) simply means ” being conscious of,” “remembering,” or ” becoming acquainted with.” But we must use it in the sense of ” being in the process of being conscious of,” or ” being in the process of remembering.” We have learned the word awareness in the sense of recognition, or bare attention, but the meaning doesn’t stop there. In awareness, there are also the elements concentration (samadhi) and understanding (prajña). Concentration and understanding together are both the intensity of awareness and the fruit of awareness. Every time the lamp of awareness is lit, concentration (one-pointedness) and understanding (clear-seeing) are naturally present. The words concentration and understanding are often used as terms of consequence or effect. In terms of antecedent or cause, we may use the words “stopping” and “looking.” If we can stop and look attentively, we succeed in seeing clearly. But what has to stop? Forgetfulness, dispersion, and confusion—the state of lost awareness, the absence of consciousness must stop. Stopping does not mean suppression. There is only the transformation of forgetfulness into remembrance, the absence of awareness into the presence of awareness.

This excerpt from Thay underlines that when translating between languages, especially between Asian and European languages, there is often no word-for-word equivalence. Smirti and sati point to a way of life that is unfamiliar for Westerners. For me, the words “mindful” and” mindfulness” helpfully emphasize “careful attention”. However, mindful and mindfulness  also connotes effort or correctness, as in the  phrase often directed at children. “Please be mindful of your manners.” Awareness is, for me, a gentler word.

But how does Thay want us to be mindful or aware? For a while I puzzled with the sentence: “But we must use it in the sense of ” being in the process of being conscious of,” or “being in the process of remembering.” Then I remembered there is a difference between the “present moment awareness” of experiencing a roller coaster ride, or being absorbed in a movie, and the more reflective experiences of meditation and mindfulness in daily life. As Thay explains in The Art of Power:

“Drinking my tea, I know that I am drinking tea.” This is already awakening.

Later in the paragraph Thay embeds his elaboration of smriti and sati in the all-encompassing frame of “interbeing” or “interdependent co-arising.” When mindfulness is truly present, it co-occurs with the antecedents of stopping and looking and the consequences of concentration (one-pointedness) and understanding (clear-seeing).

The paragraph concludes with what is for me another reminder to be gentle with myself:

Stopping does not mean suppression. There is only the transformation of forgetfulness into remembrance, the absence of awareness into the presence of awareness.

When I was learning to meditate I often attended multi-day silent retreats. I repeatedly had days during which I felt quietly joyful during the daytime meditation sessions and at night I experienced intense nightmares. Eventually, several teachers helped me see that my desire for a concentrated and quiet mind was leading me to dismiss or suppress my feelings and emotions. They explained that a more expansive approach might allow me to recognize and embrace the feelings and emotions. Then, they might settle or float away on their own, or perhaps teach me something about my life and relationships.

This Thursday and Friday evenings, after our meditation period, we will share our reflection on Thay’s paragraph about smriti and sati. We will begin with these questions:

  • In what ways does the paragraph help you understand how you experience meditation and mindfulness in daily life?
  • In what ways do your own experiences of meditation and mindfulness in daily life help you gain a deeper understanding of  the paragraph?
  • What new questions or concerns does the paragraph raise for you?

You are invited to join us.

Looking forward to being with you.

Many blessings,

Mitchell Ratner

in: Dharma Topics
Discussion Date: Thu, Jul 22, 2021


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